Monday, August 31, 2015

August Reads – Part 2, Comfort Zone

Some recreation is pleasant. All three of these novels are as hard to put down as they are easy to pick up.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Perhaps you have seen the trailers for The Martian, a film due to be released in 2015. If you read the novel by Andy Weir, you’ll know why the studios bid for it. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must find a way to survive until the next Mars mission. He needs more skills than MacGyver to do it. Nor is this just about Watney. There are the people back on earth and the crew of the ship that left him behind. This is hard science fiction done right, and you don’t have to be an SF fan to like it.

Wool by Hugh Howey

Even though e-book sales are way up, total book sales – including e-books – have continued their long decline in the US; print sales have plummeted. Accordingly, it is harder than ever to catch the interest of a traditional publisher. Each of the major publishers typically receives 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts per month and rejects nearly all of them. More than ever they prefer to stick with established authors with guaranteed sales. For unknown authors the odds of a new title ever selling more than a few hundred copies are tiny.

So, it is always pleasant to see someone break out against the odds. Erika Leonard’s Fifty Shades trilogy originally was self-published as was (less dramatically but still successfully) David Wong’s John Dies at the End and, for that matter, Andy Weir's The Martian. All found traditional publishers after sales took off, of course. Hugh Howey has joined their company with the originally self-published Wool.

You might think you have had enough of post-apocalyptic novels, but Howey shows there is still life in the genre. Perhaps you have heard of decommissioned missile silos converted into underground condos for those expecting the end of civilization in their lifetimes – yes, they are a real thing. Wool is set inside a silo where survivors struggle to…well…survive until the world outside becomes less toxic. If that environment sounds claustrophobic, for many of the residents it is. The tale, focusing on a technician named Juliette who to her puzzlement is appointed sheriff, is surprisingly exciting. Politics below the surface remain as disruptive as they ever were above. By the end of the novel we learn a dark secret that sets us up for a sequel. I’m looking forward to it.

The Judgment of Paris by Gore Vidal

As of last month I had read 21 of Gore Vidal’s 26 novels and short story collections, including two of the five detective novels he wrote under a pseudonym, plus a large proportion of his essays, dramas, and screenplays. You might suspect I enjoy his work – and you’d be right.

Some teachers of creative writing are honest enough to say (despairingly) that they help only at the margins – a grammar correction here and some advice on plotting techniques there. Fundamentally, students who are good writers are good when they start the class and the rest don’t get appreciably better. Writers do evolve, but for the most part they do so on their own by writing and then judging their own work. (Some judge so harshly that they stop writing.) Hence the old saying “the first million words don’t count.” Gore Vidal was a good writer from the start, and his very first novel Williwaw, written in 1944 at age 19, is still considered one of the better war novels to come out of World War 2. Yet he himself said in later years that “I didn’t find my voice" until The Judgment of Paris, written in 1950 and published in 1952.

This was one of the Vidal novels I had missed, and it is out of print. So, when a third-party seller listed a first edition hardcover on Amazon for $7.00 a few weeks ago I clicked “Add to Cart.”

The Judgment of Paris is a literary novel of the sort rarer today than it once was. Philip, a young man of secure but not lavish means, spends a year in Europe and Egypt after the war. His goal is partly just to experience more of the world than his home on the Hudson in upstate New York, and partly to find his own direction and sense of self. Three women influence that direction by their arrival in his life and by their different philosophies: Regina Durham, Sophia Oliver, and Anna Morris. One doesn’t need to be much of a classical scholar to see the allusion and to guess where this is going. Philip must make a choice in the end, as we all must do – not of a partner, since it is unlikely he’ll see any of the three again after returning home, but of his own values.

This is an intellectual novel in the best sense, and it is beautifully written. The young Gore did indeed find his voice.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

August Reads – Part 1, Discomfort Zone

Not all recreation is pleasant. A work-out comes to mind. Yet, we like having done it if not actually doing it, so it still counts as “fun” in the longer view. The same is true of our reading choices, whether it’s, say, War and Peace or the complete works of Shakespeare – yes, I’ll admit to having found much of Will a slog. This August I haven’t been as ambitious as all that, but there were a couple of titles I wanted to have read, and so went ahead and read them. (Part 2, Comfort Zone to be posted later.)

The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley

There is a certain class of book in the humanities and social sciences that is written by academics for other academics, though it may be foisted on hapless students, particularly if it is written by the professor conducting the course. Within the class are deconstructions of literature, analyses of historical methodology, examinations of poetry in psychoanalytic terms, and so on. It is no wonder only a minority of adults ever read books again recreationally after graduating college. Of those graduates who not only read but write, all too many have been corrupted into writing this way themselves.

Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations threatened to be one of these books at the very outset: “This book is not a history. Rather it is an attempt to establish analytical tools that will assist the understanding of history.” Oh dear.

“Take a deep breath,” I encouraged myself. “You have a history degree and have plowed through this sort of stuff before. You still can do it. There might even be the odd nugget of wisdom in the gobbledygook if you don’t glaze over too much to see it.” I did and there was.

Grand theories of history have a long history of their own. Aristotle’s cycle still generates interest and still has some merit: monarchy degenerates (“perverts”) into tyranny, which is overthrown by an aristocracy; aristocracy then perverts into oligarchy, which is replaced by a constitutional republic (polity); a constitutional republic perverts into democracy; and back around again. “Perversion” consists of the ruling person, minority, or majority trampling the rest of the people primarily for its own factional benefit rather than governing for each and all. Since Aristotle there has been a steady parade of cyclical theorists, Spengler and Toynbee among them.

Quigley’s cyclical version is more complex than those of his predecessors but owes much to them. Like Toynbee, he formulates his theory at the level of civilizations, not nation states – e.g. Classical Civilization which is Greek, Roman, and more besides. Also like Toynbee, he counts only two dozen civilizations as having existed in the world in all of human history. Quigley’s stages of history, however, are his own:
  1. Mixture
  2. Gestation
  3. Expansion
  4. Age of Conflict
  5. Universal Empire (not necessarily a single political entity)
  6. Decay
  7. Invasion
He describes the characteristics of each in detail using ancient and modern examples. He knows his subject matter and his analysis is persuasive. To the extent this is actionable information, rather than just the analytical tool he describes in his opening sentences, however, it is because the seven-stage sequence by his own contention is not inevitable. Quigley, who was Bill Clinton’s favorite professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, describes how it has been and can be short-circuited either by intervention from without or by reformation within.

At what stage are we now? It’s always harder to tell from the inside. Did Romans under Marcus Aurelius hear the fat lady backstage warming up her voice? Arguments could be made for 4 and for 5. Nonetheless, I’ll offer another quote: “The Stage of Decay is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the varied vested interests, and growing illiteracy…Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues.”

Whether that sounds at all familiar, I leave to the reader to judge.

The Book of Lies by Aleister Crowley

There is a tendency for skeptics (such as myself) to conflate superstition with mysticism, but the two are not the same. Superstition and magical thinking are hardwired into the human brain, as they are in other animals. See Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner in which he documents ritualistic behaviors acquired by birds that are fed on a random schedule. Humans have enough reasoning ability to reject superstitious behaviors, but not the impulses: we can choose to walk under that ladder, but we might still feel funny doing it. Mysticism, on the other hand, is not a gut feeling; it is itself an intellectual exercise. It is a way of looking at the universe – of perceiving an order, meaning, and significance to things beneath the surface. It often presupposes unseen outer forces or internal powers that can be tapped if one knows how.

I’m not a mystic of any kind, whether in terms of mainstream religion or the occult. Skeptics are a minority in the world, however. They never can understand the bulk of their fellow humans properly if they don’t try to see things as they do – not agree, at the end of the day, but at least see. Every now and then I give it a whirl.

Aleister Crowley was a central figure in the pagan revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He sparred with W.B. Yeats for control of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Through the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orienti) and its stepchild Gardnerian Wicca, his philosophy of thelema has had a greater influence on the 20th and 21st centuries than is commonly acknowledged, particularly in the counterculture and its heirs:
1- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law;
2- Love is the law, Love under will;
3- Every man and every woman is a star.

Crowley was a multifaceted fellow: a bisexual mountain-climbing poet who worked with Ian Fleming, of all people, on wartime disinformation schemes. A contemporary of Freud, he spoke of the need to “cure the world from sexual repression.”

The Book of Lies consists of poetic aphorisms and paradoxes that relate to qabalah, tarot, gematria, and astrology. I’m told that more informed students of the occult than I will see much more in it. For outsiders, it is a window into his manner of thinking though it would not be the first book I’d recommend; the more straightforward The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: an Autohagiography might be a better place for a beginner to start.

While Aleister and his circle of friends seem to have been a fun crowd, I must admit all this still leaves me (if you’ll forgive the word) mystified. Also, Crowley was a prankster and I never quite know to what extent he is serious and to what extent he is a put on, as in aphorism 88, which is likely both:

Teach us Your secret, Master! yap my Yahoos.
Then for the hardness of their hearts, and for the
softness of their heads, I taught them Magick.
But... alas!
Teach us Your real secret, Master! how to become
invisible, how to acquire love, and oh! beyond all,
how to make gold.
But how much gold will you give me for the Secret
of Infinite Riches?
Then said the foremost and most foolish; Master, it
is nothing; but here is an hundred thousand
This did I deign to accept, and whispered in his ear
this secret:

Up Next

In Part 2 will be titles entirely within my comfort zone: the novels Wool, The Martian, and The Judgment of Paris.

Ozzy Osbourne - Mr. Crowley

Monday, August 24, 2015

Radioactive Dreams

1959 Civil Defense Publication

The news this week, like the news last week and the week before, is full of the slaughter of ordinary people at work, markets, and play. Sometimes the perpetrator is just a lone wacko and at other times he (it’s usually a he) voices some ideological justification. If I have to choose, I prefer the wackos. They openly enjoy killing for its own sake, which, while unacceptable, at least has a certain purity to it. Far worse are those who claim to be pursuing the greater good or to be avenging some wrong, whether real, imagined, or open to interpretation. It is always ideologues and moralists who commit mayhem on the largest scale, and who feel justified doing it.

It is well that the deadliest munitions are so hard to come by. There is little doubt there are individuals and groups who would use NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) weapons if they could. Here and there they already have, e.g. the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 and the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Fortunately, the N part of that triad remains the domain of states, at least for now. Yet, no individual or group can commit violence on the scale that a state can, and that brings us to the issue of Non-proliferation. This, too, is in the news lately thanks to a controversial agreement currently under debate. Whatever one’s opinion on it, underlying the debate is concern about an older agreement.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) went into effect in 1970 and originally was set to expire in 1995. It is, in essence, a bargain in which the signatory nuclear powers agree to share nonmilitary nuclear technology with states that agree to forgo the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons. It was reasonably successful during the next 25 years. The fear in 1970 was that there would be some 30 mutually hostile nuclear armed states by 1995 – a frightening scenario. In the event, only India, not a signatory to the treaty, officially acquired nuclear weapons in that time period. Unofficially, it is assumed two others, Israel and South Africa, developed nukes secretly before 1995, though South Africa dismantled its nuclear arsenal in 1989. One might think the upcoming expiration would have been a major news story in the early 1990s, but, as those old enough will recall, it wasn’t. Perhaps this was just as well, for the NPT in 1995 was extended indefinitely without any political brouhaha about it. In the US at least it was barely mentioned outside of the most wonkish publications and PBS talk shows.

I do remember Henry Kissinger on one of those shows discussing the matter with other guests (whose names I don’t remember) however. He confused at least one of those guests by talking almost exclusively about the global distribution of nuclear power reactors. When the person objected that the issue was weaponry, not electric power, he responded, “That’s what we’re really talking about, aren’t we?” and continued with what he was saying. This didn’t appear to clear up anything for his co-panelist, but, of course, he was right.

There is no big design secret to a fission bomb. The basics are widely known and plans have appeared on the internet. The obstacle to building one is the production of fissile material, either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239; the former needs to be at least 90% pure and the latter more than 93% pure to be weapons-grade. The path to U235 involves no esoteric technology. The US succeeded in the 1940s, but it was a huge and massively expensive industrial undertaking. It still is. Natural uranium is 99.28% U238, which is not bomb material; this is why it is perfectly legal for a private individual to own 15 pounds (7kg) of natural uranium. 0.71% of natural uranium is U235 and the rest consists of other isotopes. (U233 would work in a bomb too, but it is even rarer than 235.) U238 and U235 are so nearly identical that teasing out the latter, even with large multiple centrifuges, is a long, tedious, and repetitive process. This is the process presently used in Iran, supposedly for reactor fuel; reactor-grade uranium needs to be enriched only to 3% U235. The advantage to uranium over plutonium is that once you have enough weapons-grade uranium, the bomb design and manufacture are simple. Smack two subcritical pieces of U235 together quickly to create a single critical mass. That’s basically it. The first uranium atomic bomb ever built used a gun to shoot one piece into the other, and this design has been copied by others. Every single one has worked on the first try.

Few countries are able or willing to invest the time, resources, and fortune into refining weapons-grade uranium. There is, however, a shortcut to nuclear weapons if you have a reactor. A portion of the U238 in the fuel rods of reactors will convert to plutonium in the course of normal operation. Though extracting Pu239 from the rods is neither easy nor safe, it is well within the capability and financial resources of relatively modest industrial powers. It is why protocols for the disposition of spent fuel are a major component of the NPT, and it is why Kissinger was right. The drawback to plutonium is that it is impossible to eliminate all Pu240 contamination from the desired Pu239 end product. Pu240 is a highly unstable neutron emitter that makes a simple gun design for a bomb infeasible; the two pieces would start to interact at a distance before critical mass was achieved and the bomb would fizzle. For this reason, an implosion is used instead; a Pu sphere of subcritical mass is compressed to a critical density. The lenses and timing in this sort of device need to be flawless or the sphere will just deform rather than explode. Building a functioning weapon of this design is more of a challenge, but meeting it is still quicker than refining uranium.

Fusion weapons, which use fission devices as triggers, are much more complex than pure fission designs, of course. Nevertheless, each of the first five nuclear states succeeded in building fusion devices less than a decade after its first fission test. China took 32 months.

Since 1995, Pakistan and North Korea have tested and deployed nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of acknowledged or presumed nuclear armed states to 9. Besides these 9, there are 22 other countries that operate nuclear power reactors. All of those 22 countries have the industrial potential to extract plutonium from fuel rods. It is possible – even likely – that some of them already have in place the facilities for doing so, if only as a precaution. This is why a breakdown of the NPT could add a dozen or more nuclear weapons states to the current list in perhaps as little as a year or two. The risk is not negligible.

Unsurprisingly, it is not legal for private individuals to own plutonium. Oddly, there is an exception. The isotope Pu238 is not practical bomb material but it makes a marvelously long-lived power source for batteries. The Voyager space probes, now entering interstellar space, rely on Pu238 batteries. So do some 20 remaining people (out of several hundred) who in the 1960s and 1970s received Pu238 powered pacemakers, which last a lifetime. They’re allowed to keep them, though by law the plutonium from the pacemakers must be sent to Los Alamos when the users die.

It’s a shame you can’t trust people with any isotope of plutonium. Folks once dreamed of atom powered cars, planes, homes and, yes, spaceships that never needed refueling. All of them are entirely possible as a matter of engineering. It’s a nice dream. Regrettably, for human reasons rather than technical ones, a nightmare is more credible.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Double-headed Derby

The Morristown based NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) has had a winning season, but last night was up against the toughest opponent in years. The NJRD All Stars in the first home bout since April faced NYC’s Bad Apples. The Bad Apples have a depth of capable jammers and, more importantly, exceptionally effective blocking. Bad Apples’ blockers, individually and in coordination, were superb at holding back opposing jammers, breaking up opposing blockers, guiding their own jammers through the pack, and generally making the NJRD work hard for every point. The Bad Apples demonstrated their formidability in the first few jams as #13 Byers Remorse, #77 Brazilian Nut, and #215 ChopStick Murphy (despite a hard takedown by #21 Pixie Bust) all racked up points for a solid lead. Ten minutes into the bout the Bad Apples led 40-3. During the bout the NJRD had its moments, countering Bad Apples blocking while #12 Shannanigunz, #10 MissUSA-hole, Brindiesel, and others broke out and scored points. NJRD’s #44 Maulin Rouge picked up 15 points during one power jam. The NJRD repeatedly used a star pass, normally an uncommon maneuver, in order to bypass the Bad Apples blockers. The Bad Apples, however, countered with impressive jams of their own including a 29 point jam by #31 Hela Skelter. Final Score was 296-73 in favor off the Bad Apples. MVPs were Maulin Rouge (jammer) and Jackie Kenne-die (blocker) for NJRD, and Byers Remorse (jammer) and Swede Hurt (blocker) for the Bad Apples.

The next bout of the night was the local JBRD (Jersey Boys Roller Derby) vs. the Connecticut Death Quads. As there is no shortage of men’s contact sports, I don’t really follow men’s roller derby, but if I’m already rink-side for a women’s bout I’ll stay for it. The guys are fully aware this is a prevalent sentiment, to the point that #616 Emperor Miro of the JBRD twice thanked the audience for staying. I’m glad I did, as the two teams played a hard fought bout – so hard fought that a player from each team required ENT attention at separate moments. JBRD was first on the board with #9999 Robert Brawlson adding 9 points in the first jam. #26 for Connecticut scored 5 on the next. #735 Connecticut into a one-point lead but it would be that last time the Death Quads were out in front. The JBRD outskated its opponents by just enough to build up an insurmountable lead by the final quarter. The Final Score was 296-108 in favor of the home JBRD team.

 Guns N' Roses - Bad Apples

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Green Dreams

Ever since movies came along more than a century ago, a tween's first crush has been likely to be a celebrity he or she never met in person. Young Judy Garland expressed the experience as well as anyone in her first hit recording Dear Mr Gable (1938). There are, of course, a handful of people who have difficulties with reality, and who imagine a two-way relationship actually does or could exist with their celebrity crush. For these people, restraining orders are in their futures. For most folks, though, such crushes are perfectly harmless and normal elements of a stage of life. There even are distinct advantages over the guy/gal next door. The risk of rejection, always present from someone you know personally, is nonexistent from someone up on the screen; buy another ticket and the theater always will welcome you back in. The screen images of our youth, like the songs of our youth, help define who we are in more ways than we commonly imagine -- our romantic tastes among them.

Yvonne Craig was one of the images (and crushes) of my own youth. Yvonne’s beauty wasn’t the brassy kind that catches one's attention far down the street; it was the understated kind that is all the more effective for being so, especially when coupled with a role that was anything but understated. It took me a while to notice her, but well before her iconic portrayal of Batgirl in the Batman TV series I knew who she was. No wonder. Though never really a Hollywood A-lister, she was a hard-working actress who turned up everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s: Elvis movies, Perry Mason, Fantasy Island, Genesee Beer commercials, Star Trek, In Like Flint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. …everywhere. Sometimes, as in the legendarily awful Mars Needs Women, she was the only redeeming ingredient.

I’ve been acknowledging the passing of a lot of performers from my youth lately, as I suppose is natural given their time of life and – uncomfortable thought – mine. Yvonne Craig was 78 when she died earlier today. I met Yvonne in person only once and briefly, but am glad to have done so. As imaginary girlfriends go for a tween/teen, she was one of the best. I didn’t tell her that of course. It’s hard not to make that sound unsettling.  Nonetheless, thanks for everything.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Young Man's Lore

An age-old complaint is that old men start wars and young men die in them. Appropriately adjusted for modern gender grammar, the complaint persists. It surely prompted the title (and perhaps the idea) for Old Man’s War, John Scalzi’s thoroughly enjoyable space adventure series. In Scalzi’s future universe if you are a man or woman on earth, are over 75, and are reasonably mentally competent, you can sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces. The attraction: enlistees get a new genetically engineered young body, a second shot at youth. The downside: the Colonial Union, headquartered off-world, has not been honest with their fellow humans back on earth about how scary and violent the galaxy is; enlistees don’t know their life expectancy in the service is actually lower than if they stayed civilians and aged normally.

There is a great deal of experimental science fiction these days by authors such as William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and Charles Stross. You have your choice of future dystopias from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Collins. Scalzi himself offers some unusual fare such as the techno-mystery-medical novel Lock In or the tongue-in-cheek Redshirts. But sometimes a reader might be just in the mood for old-fashioned space adventure full of insectoid aliens, slashing particle beams, and fleets of space cruisers. Scalzi provides all of that in his Old Man’s War series, and provides it in well-written but unpretentious prose. I just finished a hardcover of the sixth and latest entry in the series, The End of All Things, which is really an assemblage of four novellas, each previously released electronically. It is as solid a read as the previous five books, but, as one might expect for #6 of anything, it is not the best place for a newcomer to start. Begin with Old Man’s War. I suspect anyone who does will seek out the sequels, #2 through #5 being The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe's Tale, and The Human Division.

While this is primarily an adventure series, it is not all derring-do. There are schemes within schemes, very human relationships, and issues of geopolitical (“galactopolitical”?) philosophy. Imagine a galaxy as teeming with alien civilizations as, say, the Star Trek universe, but a whole lot less friendly. The many species are mutually distrustful and hostile, more because of the strategic realities than because of natural inclination. After all, it takes only a few paranoid and aggressive species to induce the others with whom they are in contact to be equally paranoid and aggressive as a matter of self-preservation. This, in turn, justifies paranoia and aggression in the first bunch and then in still more species, and so on. What are the ethical considerations for any civilization in this situation? What are they for an individual who knows the government he or she serves is wicked, but who fears the consequences of it failing? If the responsible authorities for one species can preserve lives (at least on their own side) by betraying allies and otherwise behaving in duplicitous, dastardly, and bellicose ways, is it a failure of ethics to behave any other way? If taking the “high road” results in casualties among one’s own people – or even invites annihilation – how high a road is it?  Does Machiavelli always have the last laugh? These, of course, are questions we need not leave earth to ask.

Scalzi is one of the most readable SF authors working today, and is one of the hardest working, too. While the Old Man’s War series is not the deepest of fare, neither is it simpleminded – and it is definitely the most fun out of his body of work. Thumbs up for The End of All Things along with the five previous entries.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Day after Yesterday

It takes at least a century to get past a really big war. The US didn’t begin to get past the Civil War until the mid-1960s, and we’re still not done. World War 1 was raging 100 years ago, and we are far from past it. A completely avoidable conflict, WW1 was the pivotal catastrophe of the 20th century. Without it, there wouldn’t have been a World War 2, a Cold War, or the Balkan troubles of the ‘90s (not as they happened anyway), and the Middle East would be a vastly different place.

I recently picked up a few more titles to add to my shelfful on the subject, including Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East and Douglas Boyd’s The Other First World War: The Blood-soaked Russian Fronts 1914-1922. Both books have value both as history and as background for present-day geopolitical issues, but I’ll leave a discussion of these weighty matters to another time.  Perhaps in recoil to all the mayhem on the pages, a more frivolous thought kept grabbing my attention – frivolous because there is nothing to be done about it. Despite knowing how campaigns and events played out in the First World War, a part of me kept hoping as I turned the pages that this time the outcomes would be different. It was a silly thought, but completely unshakable. It is one I commonly have when re-reading fiction or watching movies too. Thus far those hopes have not been realized.

By chance, a movie I watched last night questioned causality, Bradley Cooper’s Time Lapse (2015). The plot is similar to an old Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera.” Low budget and perhaps a trifle too long for the subject matter, Time Lapse nonetheless isn’t bad – nothing great, but not bad. In the film three friends, one of them the superintendent for the apartment building in which they live, discover that a scientist who lives in one of the units has died but has left behind a camera that takes photos 24 hours into the future. The camera is attached to a large device bolted to the floor. They decide to make money by concealing the tenant’s death and taking pictures of themselves displaying dog race results to the camera. One of the friends is a painter with an artistic block, and photos of his canvas enable him to copy from his own future work. As you might expect, things go wrong when disturbing photos appear, the three begin to work at cross-purposes, and other people get involved. Can they change the present by sending a photographic warning to themselves yesterday? Is the future, or the past for that matter, fixed?

The real answer, not a cinematic one, with regard to the past appears to be yes it is fixed, though there are dissenters; the past is irreversible – the Arrow of Time, causality, entropy and all that. The future, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. The guesses have ranged from the contention that only one outcome is possible to the contention that near infinite (or actually infinite) outcomes are possible and that all of them happen simultaneously. I don’t pretend to know, but I prefer to assume the future is not fixed. The fantasy of seeing the future nonetheless is an old one. In Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas gets a glimpse of the future for Rome that the Fates have woven. (Whether the Fates have a choice in what they weave is not addressed.) In 1932 HG Wells published a short story The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper in which the protagonist receives a newspaper from 1971. In the 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow, reporter Dick Powell repeatedly receives tomorrow’s newspaper, which allows him to win at the track and scoop other reporters; he tries to change the future, however, when he reads his own obituary.

If we could reverse causality and, say, avert World War 1 with a minor intervention, it might not be a good idea. Even though it would save millions of lives in the subsequent four years, for all we know the new sequence of events might culminate in a thermonuclear war in the 1950s. Who can say? Besides, if one person runs around changing the past, everyone will get in on the act and make a complete hash of the timeline(s).

What if tomorrow morning I receive a newspaper dated the day after tomorrow? In books and film that always ends badly, so I’ll proceed cautiously. I won’t even check the racing results. I’ll check the stock market quotes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Baby Buster Generation

The annual rate of global population growth has slowed from its peak of 2.2% in 1962. It is currently 1.13%. Because the base was 3.1 billion in 1962 and is 7.3 billion now, however, we will add 82 million in 2015 as opposed to only 64 million in 1962. All of the new arrivals, to steal a slogan from a year when global population was a quarter of its current size, will want a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. That’s a lot of cars and chickens. Every contemporary environmental problem, from habitat loss to resource depletion, is at bottom a population problem. There is no prospect of it easing. The projection made by the UN in 2011 for 9 billion people by 2050 already looks like an underestimate. We should exceed 8 billion in 2024. Birth rates are not declining as much as projected – outside the First World, that is.

One never would know this from recent news articles in First World publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Economist. There the alarm is over just the opposite, for, while the earth as a whole continues to be fecund, in the highly developed countries there is a baby bust. The total fertility rate is the lifetime average number of children per woman based on the current annual number of births. In the US the rate is presently 1.8, half what it was in the 1950s and below the replacement level of 2.1; without immigration the population eventually would decline. Yet, the US is more fertile than the rest of the G8 and most other well-to-do areas. The rate in Russia is 1.61, Japan is 1.42, Lithuania 1.29, South Korea 1.25, and wealthy Singapore an astonishing 0.8. Several countries already are experiencing absolute population decline. To combat this, some governments have gone beyond tax breaks, which long have been in place in most countries, and are resorting to cash payments to boost birth rates. Singapore, for example, gives to parents $6000 for each of the first two children and $8000 for a third. These programs have not been successful at increasing the number of births, though they do seem to affect the timing; in other words, women don’t have more kids than they would anyway without the payments but they have them a year or so earlier. In Europe, countries that shift a larger proportion of the work, responsibility, and cost of raising kids away from parents and onto others (in effect, by taxing the childless) are apt to have slightly higher than average birth rates – e.g. Sweden at 1.8 – but only slightly and still below replacement level. It’s not even clear that there is a cause and effect to the correlation or, if so, in what direction; it might just be that where parents are more numerous anyway they can vote themselves more benefits.

Why the concern? So what if folks in flush countries choose to have fewer kids (or none at all) in favor of other lifestyle choices? What’s wrong with fewer people? The problem is that pension and other entitlement programs are paid out of current taxes despite any claims to the contrary. There may not be enough workers in the future to pay for all of them. Even where investment funds supposedly exist they almost always are smoke and mirrors. The Social Security fund in the US is typical. It is not real and never has been. Social Security tax receipts are invested in Treasury bonds; the Treasury then spends the money from the sale of those bonds as it always has. The bonds are just IOUs to the Social Security Administration: promises by the government to tax future taxpayers to pay them off. Future taxpayers might have other ideas, as they surely will if their tax burden per worker soars too high. Fewer kids mean fewer future taxpayers, the argument goes, and therefore insolvent entitlement programs.

The alarm seems misplaced to me. Keeping the discussion to purely economic matters, kids are not just future taxpayers, but current expenses. To take the single item of schooling, per pupil expenditures are triple in real terms what they were 40 or 50 years ago, so even with fewer kids we are spending far more. These costs properly should be subtracted from what we hope to tax away from present-day students down the road. Also, nearly every rich country is a magnet for immigration, which easily compensates for any shortfall in native births. Some countries are more overt than others about immigration policies that maximize tax revenues from new residents by favoring skilled workers. So, even without reining in entitlement demands, there just doesn’t seem to be a threat to the future workforce that cannot be countered readily and simply.

Besides, maybe we should consider the advantages of living in a less crowded land, even if it means a smaller future workforce and all that entails. Not every benefit is in the form of a pension check.

The Hollies - Too many people