Thursday, November 20, 2014
THEME: TOTALITARIANISM AND THE FULLY POLITICIZED SOCIETY
As Jonathan pointed out here, one problem with the blog format is that worthwhile posts tend to fade into the background over time, even when they might be of continuing value. One approach I'd like to try is Theme roundups, in which I'll select a number of previous posts on a common topic or set of related topics, and link them with brief introductory sentences or paragraphs. At least initially, I'll focus on my own posts.
The posts in this first "theme" roundup focus on the nature of the politically-dominated society, ranging from the effects of extreme political correctness in America and Europe today to the nature of life under absolutist totalitarianism.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
LIFE IN THE FULLY POLITICIZED SOCIETY, CONTINUED
In his memoirs, Russian rocket developer Boris Chertok (previously excerpted in my post here) tells of his experiences while he was in Germany with Soviet occupation troops, right after the war. One of his friends was an officer, Oleg, who was also a talented poet. Irrespective of his military talents, Oleg's prospects for promotion were not viewed as favorable, because his poetry was "very unsettling to the political department."
And why was Oleg's poetry looked upon with disfavor? It was not because the Red Army had any dislike of poets. Nor was it even because his poetry contained criticisms of the regime--there were no such criticisms. No, the objection was because of what the poetry didn't contain. As another friend of Chertok's, Mira, explained the situation:
The political workers consider his poems to be demoralizing and decadent. Not once does he mention the Party or Stalin in them.
Of course, something like that could never happen in the US...we are not a society where someone could have their career opportunities gravely limited because of their failure to engage in expected political cheerleading. Right?
I was reminded of the above Chertok comments by Stuart Schneiderman's post here. Apparently, the book/movie "Gone Girl" (which I've neither seen nor read), has a female protagonist who is a rather nasty piece of work, attempting to get revenge against men in her life by making two false charges of rape and one false charge of murder. The film has been denounced by certain critics for portraying such a woman. For example, Rebecca Traister of the New Republic told Financial Times that the movie’s depiction of “our little sexual monsters” traded “on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.” Apparently, in Ms Traiser's view, there must not be even one character is one book or movie who departs from the image of womanhood that Traister and her like-thinkers believe should be standardized.
Remarkably enough, Maureen Dowd (yes, Maureen Dowd!) comes out in this case against the witch-hunters and in favor of artistic integrity:
Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.
The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”
After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks pushed Socialist Realism, creating the Proletkult to ensure that art served ideology. Must we now have a Gynokult to ensure Feminist Unrealism?
The politicization of American society has gone very far--see for example the comments from playwright David Mamet, cited in my earlier Life in the Fully Politicized Society post--and it is good to see even such a creature of the Left as Maureen Dowd starting to push back a little.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz
, where comments are open
Thursday, November 13, 2014
RETROTECH: USING NETWORK TECHNOLOGY FOR A STOCK TRADING EDGE
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: THE YEAR OF THE FRENCH
The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan
Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”
In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland. The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.
Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition. He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising. With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–”In Caslebar. They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.
Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia. Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,” jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,” Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.” ”A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”
Ferdy O’Donnell is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land. Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper ”a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”
Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘
Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen. This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic. His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.
John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land. He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster. ”One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”
Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.
Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses. His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishman…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”
Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces. A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution. He is a talented commander, but the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland. Seen through the eyes of a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it. ”The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”
This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships. Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
VETERANS DAY 2014
The War was in Color
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Saturday, November 08, 2014
MARKING THE END OF THE IRON CURTAIN
This would be an appropriate occasion to watch or re-watch the excellent film The Lives of Others, which is told from the standpoint of an agent in East Germany’s immense internal spying apparatus. I also recommend Anna Funder’s superb book Stasiland, in which she describes her 1994 trip to the former East Germany and reconstructs the way things were in the days of Communist rule. I reviewed it here.
Also, here’s an interesting story about Harald Jaeger, an East German border guard whose snap decision was the right one.
Friday, November 07, 2014
THE EFFECT OF INDUSTRY OF EMPLOYMENT ON POLITICAL VIEWS
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
THE AMERICAN MITTELSTAND
Two posts that sort of go together:
GE Capital cites some data from the National Center for the Middle Market on the importance of the “unsung heroes of the US economy”–the 200,000 businesses with annual revenues ranging from $10 million to $1 billion.
Amy Cortese writes about the potential re-emergence of local/regional stock markets, which could provide an avenue for companies in the middle market category to obtain financing and hence accelerate their growth.
Saturday, November 01, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: A TIME OF GIFTS
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
In late 1933, Patrick Fermor–then 18 years old–undertook to travel from the Holland to Istanbul, on foot. The story of his journey is told in three books, of which this is the first. This is not just travel writing, it is the record of what was still to a considerable extent the Old Europe–with horsedrawn wagons, woodcutters, barons and castles, Gypsies and Jews in considerable numbers–shortly before it was to largely disappear.
Paddy, as everyone called him, was the child of a British civil servant in India and his wife who remained in Britain. At school, Paddy was an avid student of history, literature, and languages; of math, not so much. He was often in trouble–his housemaster wrote that “he is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.” Paddy’s career at the school came to an end after he was caught holding hands with the beautiful 24-year-old daughter of a local grocer. He then knocked around London for a while with a rather Bohemian crowd…his comments on the role of Leftism in this subculture, written many years later, are interesting:
In this breezy, post Stracheyan climate, it was cheerfully and explicitly held that all English life, thought, and art were irredeemably provincial and a crashing bore…The Left Wing opinions that I occasionally heard were uttered in such a way that they seemed a part merely, and a minor part, of a more general emancipation. This was composed of eclectic passwords and symbols–a fluent awareness of modern painting, for instance, of a familiarity with new trends in music; neither more important nor less than acquaintance with nightlife in Paris and Berlin and a smattering of the languages spoken there.
At this stage in his life, Paddy was not very interested in political matters, and his interests when he set out on his walking tour centered on art, architecture, languages/dialects, and folk customs. He didn’t have much money for the trip, and planned on living pretty rough…in the event, his general likeability got him many free stays in homes and taverns, and in some cases introductions from one aristocrat to another. There was still plenty of roughing it, though…in Holland, he found that “humble travelers” were welcome to spend the night in a jail cell, and were even given coffee and bread in the morning…and he spent quite a few nights out-of-doors. (He notes that a night in a castle can be appreciated much more when the previous night has been spent in a hayloft.)
With his considerable knowledge of art, Paddy found Holland to be strangely familiar even though he had never been there before:
Ever since those first hours in Rotterdam a three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all round me and expanding into the distance in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence and in every detail complete. For, if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one…These confrontations and recognition-scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and details of the towns and villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell.
It did not take him long to cross Holland…”my heels might have been winged”…and soon he was in Germany, where the swastika flag had now been flying for ten months. In the town of Goch was a shop specializing in Nazi paraphernalia. People were gathered around photographs of the Nazi leaders. One woman commented that Hitler was very good-looking; her companion agreed with a sigh, adding that he had wonderful eyes.
For the most part, Paddy was treated in a very friendly way: ”There is an old tradition in Germany of benevolence to the wandering young: the very humility of my status acted as an Open Sesame to kindness and hospitality.” In a bookstore he met Hans, a Cologne University graduate with a strong interest in literature, who invited him to stay at his apartment. The landlady joined them for tea, and expressed quite different opinions from those Paddy had heard at the Nazi store in Goch. ”Such a mean face!” she observed about Hitler, “and that voice!” Hans and his bookseller friend were also anti-Nazi. Paddy observes that “it was a time when friendships and families were breaking up all over Germany” over the political question.
Hans arranged a ride for Paddy up-river with a barge tow, and he got off at Coblenz to continue on foot. Christmas Eve was spent at an inn in Bingen, where Paddy was the only customer. He was invited to help decorate the Christmas tree and to join them for church that evening. On the day before New Year’s, he stopped at a Heidelberg inn called the Red Ox, “an entrancing haven of oak beams and carving and alcoves and changing floor levels,” where an elderly woman greeted him with a smile and the question ”Who rides so late through night and wind?”, which Paddy did not then recognize as the first line of Goethe’s Erlkoening. She and her husband were the owners of the inn, and invited Paddy to stay for a while. Paddy became friendly with Fritz, the son of the owners, and pestered him with questions about student life at Heidelberg, especially the custom of dueling with sabres. ”Fritz, who was humane, thoughtful and civilized and a few years older than me, looked down on this antique custom and he answered my question with friendly pity. He knew all too well the dark glamour of the Mensur among foreigners.” (Many years later, Paddy wrote to discover what had become of this family, and discovered that Fritz had been killed in the fighting in Norway, where a battalion of his own regiment at the time had been engaged.)
When walking long distances, Paddy liked to either sing or recite poetry. Germans were very used to people singing as they walked, and such tunes as Shuffle off the Buffalo, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Shenandoah generally resulted in “tolerant smiles” from other wayfarers. Poetry, on the other hand, tended to cause “raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity”…even, sometimes, “stares of alarm.” One woman who was gathering sticks dropped them and took to her heels, evidently talking Paddy for a dangerous lunatic.
Paddy devotes several pages to the names of poems that he remembers reciting, ranging from the choruses of Henry V and long stretches of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Marlowe, Spencer, Browning; Kipling and Houseman…in French, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and large quantities of Villon. In Latin, there was Virgil, Catallus, and Horace; also some profane medieval Latin lyrics. And also a bit of Greek, including part of the Odyssey and two poems of Sappho. Amusingly, Paddy prefaces this section of the book with the statement “The range is fairly predictable and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiams and limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up,” and ends it with the rather apologetic “a give-away collection…a fair picture, in fact, of my intellectual state-of-play…”
At a cafe in Stuttgart, he fell into conversation with two cheerful girls, Annie and Lise, who had come in to buy groceries. They invited him to a “young people’s party” in celebration of the Feast of the Three Kings, and then insisted that he stay overnight. (Annie’s parents were out of town.) The next day was rainy; the girls insisted that he stay longer and go to another party with them, this being one they were not looking forward to but couldn’t get out of: it was being held by an unlikeable business associate of Annie’s father.
The was ”a blond, heavy man with bloodshot eyes and a scar across his forehead,” and “except for the panorama of Stuttgart through the plate glass, the house was hideous”…Paddy devotes quite a few words to critiquing its interior decoration. Particularly appalling was a cigarette case made from a seventeenth-century velllum-bound Dante, with the pages glued together and scooped hollow. The trio was very happy to finally escape and return to Annie’s residence. (After Paddy left to continue his journey, he wrote the girls and discovered that the wine bottles they had “recklessly drained” had been a rare and wonderful vintage that Annie’s father had been particularly looking forward to. ”Outrage had finally simmered down to the words: “Well, your thirsty friend must know a lot about wine.” (Totally untrue.) ”I hope he enjoyed it.” (Yes) It was years before the real enormity of our inroads dawned on me.”)
Friday, October 31, 2014
From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye
And the spirits that stand
By the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye!
That of your five sound sense
You never be forsaken
Nor wander from
Yourself with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon
The moon's my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow
The flaming drake
And the night-crow make
Me music to my sorrow
I know more than Apollo
For oft, when he lies sleeping
I see the stars
At mortal wars
And the rounded welkin weeping
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander
With a burning spear
And a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world's end
Methinks it is no journey
(Not specifically a Halloween poem, but it certainly sets the mood, doesn't it? This is Tom O'Bedlam's Song, dating from sometime around 1600. There are lots more verses, and many different versions.)
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
ELECTION DAY IS COMING UP FAST
Spare a thought for the stay at home voter
Empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio
–The Rolling Stones, 1968
I think quite a few people, including many conservatives/libertarians, are intending to sit this one out. It’s an understandable sentiment–the “strange beauty shows” have not gotten any more substantive since 1968, quite the contrary, and the “gray suited grafters” have as a class become even graft-ier. And there is plenty wrong with the institutional Republican Party…too much crony capitalism at the expense of the real free market, too much go-along-to-get-along behavior, too many lame candidates, too much incompetence in political marketing.
Nevertheless, I think it is of extreme importance for everyone who truly cares about the future of this country–and who understands the harm being done by Barack Obama and the “progressive” movement that he represents–to vote, and in almost all cases to vote for the Republican candidate.
Because what is facing us right now is not “a choice of cancer or polio.” It is a choice between a chronic disease which is unpleasant, but may eventually be curable, and an accute disease that will kill or permanently cripple the patient in short order.
Free speech is under severe attack by the American Left. There have been moves to have the FCC and/or the FEC regulate Internet expressions of opinion, further entrenching the monopolistic position of the establishment media…and even traditional media companies are finding considerable hostility from the Obama administration should they step the least little bit out of line. ”Political correctness” dominates many if not most university campuses. People in the private sector have been driven out of their jobs because of their personal political opinions. The administrative and police power of the State is being used against political opponent; see for example the IRS case andthe use of SWAT teams to invade the homes of Scott Walker supporters on highly questionable grounds–actions which, George Will argues convincingly, are politically motivated by a desire to intimidate Walker supporters and defeat him in the upcoming election. Direct violence or threats of violence by Leftists and their supporters, directed at purveyors of non-Left-approved opinions, also appears to be on the upswing; see for example the hundreds of death threats directed against a black Chicago pastor who had the audacity to endorse a Republican candidate for Illinois governor.
My point is that the window for deflecting the “progressive” takeover of American politics and institutions is rapidly closing. Intrusions on free expression, and enablement of voting corruption, are likely to make it increasingly almost impossible to change directions in the future. A Republican majority in the Senate, and a maintained or increased Republican majority in the House, together with a goodly number of Republican governorships, will not solve these problems, but will offer a far better chance of bringing them under control than will the alternative.
There are also very serious threats facing the United States and its allies on the international front: especially, the prospective Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. There is every reason to believe that Obama intends to reach a deal which lifts sanctions without seriously dismantling Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities. The likelihood of this happening is definitely increased or decreased by any increase or decrease in the political power of the Democratic Party.
I urge you most seriously to vote–to vote Republican (unless there is an alternative candidate who can really win, not just “make a statement”)–and to contribute money directly to your preferred candidates…you may not be able to match the very large contributions being made by Hollywood types and other wealthy Democrats and entities such as the teachers’ unions, but every bit helps. Voting and contributing now helps ensure that you will have a meaningful opportunity to vote, contribute, and engage in political discourse in future elections.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
WOMEN, ISLAM, AND THE WEST'S LOSS OF CULTURAL SELF-CONFIDENCE
Young European women, as well as young European men, are joining ISIS, in numbers which–while not huge–are still large enough to raise concern.
And in the United States, more Hispanics are turning towards Islam, and more than half of Miami’s 3,000 Hispanic Muslims are female. One converted-Muslim Latina, who holds a masters degree, explained the appeal of the religion partly as follows:
It defines their world on a clear grid of what’s permitted or ‘halal,’ and what’s prohibited which is ‘haram’. So they know exactly where they stand. So the Qur’an becomes this guidebook that tells you exactly what to wear, what to eat, how to wash, how to behave, when to pray.
From the above-linked article about European girls converting to Islam and joining ISIS:
The girls sought out IS fighters because the West seems weak and unmanly and they pine for real men who are willing to kill and die for what they believe in.
Why? Europe’s got great health care, welfare, and lots of attractive young men and attractive women who, unlike the vast majority of women in the Middle East outside of Israel, are sexually available. So, why given a choice between a comfortable, if somewhat boring, life as a pharmacist in Hamburg, or fighting and dying in the desert, are thousands of Western Muslims opting for the latter?
Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for. They are leaving for the same reason that Europe’s Jews are moving to Israel: Strength and a sense of purpose can be found elsewhere, whether it’s ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameni, or the IDF.
Karim Pakzad, of the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said some young women had “an almost romantic idea of war and warriors. I think this has been true in many if not most places throughout the world and many if not most times throughout history…but today’s West, in many if not most of its subcultures, does not honor its own warriors very much these days.
The motivations of the women referenced in these articles are similar though not identical to the motivations of Arthur Koestler’s protagonist Hydie Anderson, in the 1950 novel The Age of Longing. (My review of the book is here.) Hydie is a young American woman living in Paris, a former Catholic who has lost her faith. She is not attracted to any of the American or European men she knows, but falls hard for a committed Russian Communist. Koestler makes it clear that Fedya’s sexual appeal to Hydie is due in large part to his cultural self-confidence:
“Listen, please,” (Fedya) said. “We have talked about these matters often before. You don’t like that we make scientific studies of human nature like Professor Pavlov. You don’t like revolutionary vigilance and lists on the social reliability of people, and discipline and re-education camps. You think I am brutal and ridiculous and uncultured. Then why did you like making love with me? I will tell you why and you will understand…”
“I am not a tall and handsome man…There are no tall and handsome men who come from the Black Town in Baku, because there were few vitamins in the food around the oilfields. So it was not for this that you liked to make love with me…It was because I believe in the future and am not afraid of it, and because to know what he lives for makes a man strong…I am not handsome, but you have felt attracted to me because you know that we will win and that we are only at the beginning–and that you will lose because you are at the end…”
In my review, which was originally posted almost 5 years ago, I linked a British Muslim woman who said that ““Since 9/11, vast numbers of educated, privileged middle-class white women have converted to Islam”…she identified these converts as including women at “investment banks, TV stations, universities and in the NHS.” Her concern was not that they are converting to Islam…something I’d presume she would applaud…but that they were converting to “the most restricted forms” of the religion.
In the review, I said:
I don’t think Koestler’s protagonist would have been attracted to a fundamentalist Muslim in the way that she was drawn to the communist Fedya. The gap in values would have been far wider: while Communism is a bastard child of the Enlightenment, radical Islam is counter-Enlightenment, and does not make the kind of universalist, humanitarian, and secular promises that the Communists made–the cruelty is closer to the surface.But the loss of Western self-confidence has greatly accelerated since Koestler wrote, and today’s Hydies are unlikely to share the educational and religious depth of the woman Koestler imagined.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, October 19, 2014
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, AS VIEWED FROM A SOVIET LAUNCH FACILITY
This month marks the 52nd anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
A couple of years ago, I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I’m still hoping to get around to reviewing one of these days.
Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.
At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.
Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”
Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.
Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:
Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me—do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted ‘Fire!’ that was quite another matter.
There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch!’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.
At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.
I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.
Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.
It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.
Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:
Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
A COOL STARTUP STORY, REVISITED
In 2005, I posted about a company called Theranos, as part of the “cool startup story” series at Photon Courier. The company was founded by Elizabeth Holmes, who left Stanford at age 19 in order to pursue her idea for a quantum improvement in blood testing. The original focus was on the detection of adverse drug reactions and the analysis of drug effectiveness on a more-individualized basis.
My, how this little company has grown up. Theranos now has 500 employees and a valuation of about $9 billion. They can currently perform 200 of the most commonly-ordered blood diagnostic tests, and can do it without a syringe–only a few drops of blood are necessary, and these are obtained from a finger prick using “a patented method that minimizes even the minor discomfort involved with that procedure.” (The Fortune writer tried it, and said “to me, it felt more like a tap than a puncture.”) Theranos now has a deal with Walgreens, initially making its service available in stores in California and Arizona and with plans to roll the service out to all 8200 Walgreens stores nationwide.
There are a billion tests done every year in the United States, but too many of them are done in the emergency room. If you were able to do some of those tests before a person gets checked into the ER, you’d start to see problems earlier; you’d have time to intervene before a patient needed to go to the hospital. If you remove the biggest barriers to these tests, you’ll see them used in smarter ways.
Phlebotomy is such a huge inhibitor to people getting tested. Some studies say that a substantive percentage of patients who get a lab requisition don’t follow through, because they’re scared of needles or they’re afraid of worrying, waiting to hear that something is wrong. We wanted to make this service convenient, to bring it to places close to people’s homes, and to offer rapid results.
…in how many nations of the world could A TEENAGE GIRL get a serious audience, and then MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in VC funding, to develop her idea ?!?
There are many unpleasant consequences to American society being perpetually adolescent, a bit shallow and thrill-seeking, with an attention deficit and a naive optimism born of ignorance about the odds, but this type of thing is one of the UPSIDES of being that way.
In America, if you can do, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be allowed to do, regardless of your shortcomings and quirks. We’re flexible and goal-driven, not so much wedded to process.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
WHERE ARE THOSE SPACE ALIENS?....WITH QUESTIONS ON SOCIAL EVOLUTION
The universe is many billions of years old. Fermi calculated that an alien species smart enough to become spacefarers could reach any point in the galaxy in five million years. But we we have no scientific evidence that aliens beings have been here…So, Fermi asked, where is everybody?
Standard answers to the Paradox involve emphasizing the vast distances involved, and the fact that “as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center,” as Edward Teller put it. Another theory is that species which are sufficiently intelligent to achieve interstellar travel have a tendency to blow themselves up long before they reach anywhere in our vicinity. But another possible explanation is suggested by Geoffrey Miller:
I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.
Reading the above, I was reminded of an old science-fiction story…I couldn’t remember the name or the author, but, amazingly, I was able to locate it online. The story is called “Ambition,” and it was written by William Bade in 1952. The idea is that a scientist working on space travel finds that he has somehow been brought by time-travel to an era hundreds of years in the future. He is thrilled, because he assumes that the people of the future will have developed space travel to a high degree, and that he will actually be able to fulfill his dream of journeying to the planets. ”Somewhere, out there in the night, there must be men who had walked beside the Martian canals and pierced the shining cloud mantle of Venus…Surely, a civilization that had developed time travel could reach the stars!”
And he finds that the future civilization indeed has created vehicles that would easily be capable of such exploration…but they are used only as super-airliners. Nobody has any interest in traveling into space, indeed, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. A sympathetic woman explains to the protagonist that “this is the Age of Man. We are terribly interested in what can be done with people. Our scientists…are studying human rather than nuclear reactions.” There appears to be no thirst for adventure in a form likely to be recognized by a 20th-century man. (Indeed, it seems that the reason the future people chose the protagonist as a research subject is that they found his interest in going to the moon and beyond to be so bizarre as to be worthy of psychological investigation.) The story’s subtitle is:
To the men of the future, the scientific goals of today were as incomprehensible as the ancient quest for the Holy Grail!
So…when a society reaches a certain level of wealth and sophistication, does the desire for adventure tend to die out? I’m reminded of a passage from another SF story, this one by Heinlein, in which a Martian is asked why he and other members of his species just sit around all day, “growing together,” as they called it, never actually doing anything. The Martian’s reply is: ”My fathers have labored, and I am weary.”
Is there psychological truth in this remark? Are many modern-day Americans and Europeans “weary” because of the heavy lifting done by their forefathers in creating civilization? To what degree has the desire for adventure and achievement been replaced by first, low-risk fauxadventure (play a videogame rather than start a business, for example), and second, obsessively narcissistic self-focus?…and, to the extent this has actually happened, is it an inevitable consequence of a certain stage of social evolution?…or is it rather a consequence of certain currentreversible social factors? (For example, there are apparently a considerable number of young men focused on viewing porn and playing videogames rather than going out with actual women and pursuing real-world careers and/or advenures. To what extent does this phenomenon reflect a lack of courage and initiative versus to what degree does it reflect a social and economic environment that has damaged the relationship between the sexes and, in many cases, blocked the career ladder?)
In my 2005 post Skipping Science Class, I commented on the UK’s then-new GCSE science curriculum, to be studied by all pupils from 14 to 16, which was to no longer have much actual science in it…
Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.
They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)
Melanie Phillips said: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.” The assumption seems to be that no child would likely be interested in anything much beyond his day-to-day life.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:
Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”
One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.
I suspect that “educators” who think only in terms of narrow “relevance” are often projecting their own limited vision and interests onto the children for whom their programs are targeted.
But is there something much darker going on in our societies? Have we reached a level at which the desire for adventure, whether physical, financial, or intellectual, has necessarily become less common?
Have our fathers’ labors made us weary?
Saturday, October 11, 2014
ASPIRING AMERICAN ELITES VERSUS AMERICA
Here’s a video in which various Harvard students assert that the United States is a worse threat to world peace than is the terrorist organization ISIS.
This isn’t a statistically-valid survey, and we don’t really know from it what proportion of Harvard students share these views. But there are certainly a disturbing number of highly-educated (or at least highly-credentialed) Americans who feel this way about their country. I am reminded once againtof an essay that C S Lewis wrote in March 1940. At that time, there was evidently a movement among British youth to “repent” England’s sins (which evidently were thought to include the treaty of Versailles) and to “forgive” England’s enemies.
Young Christians especially..are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…Most of these young men were children…when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happen) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society…The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor…A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”
Lewis points out that when a man who was raised to be patriotic tries to repent the sins of England, he is attempting something that will be difficult for him.
But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen.
It’s hard to believe that this was written more than 50 years ago–it’s such a bulls-eye description of a broad swath of our current “progressives.” (The only difference being that many of them today are a lot older than “in their twenties.”)
But now Lewis comes to the real meat of his argument.