March 2007

Heinlein, Robert A. and Spider Robinson. Variable Star. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31312-X.
After the death of Virginia Heinlein in 2003, curators of the Heinlein papers she had deeded to the Heinlein Prize Trust discovered notes for a “juvenile” novel which Heinlein had plotted in 1955 but never got around to writing. Through a somewhat serendipitous process, Spider Robinson, who The New York Times Book Review called “the new Robert Heinlein” in 1982 (when the original Robert Heinlein was still very much on the scene—I met him in 1984, and his last novel was published in 1987, the year before his death), was tapped to “finish” the novel from the notes. To his horror (as described in the afterword in this volume), Robinson discovered the extant notes stopped in mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, with no clue as to the ending Heinlein intended. Taking some comments Heinlein made in a radio interview as the point of departure, Robinson rose to the challenge, cranking in a plot twist worthy of the Grandmaster.

Taking on a task like this is to expose oneself to carping and criticism from purists, but to this Heinlein fan who reads for the pleasure of it, Spider Robinson has acquitted himself superbly here. He deftly blends events in recent decades into the Future History timeline, and even hints at a plausible way current events could lead to the rise of the Prophet. It is a little disconcerting to encounter Simpsons allusions in a time line in which Leslie LeCroix of Harriman Enterprises was the first to land on the Moon, but recurring Heinlein themes are blended into the story line in such a way that you're tempted to think that this is the way Heinlein would have written such a book, were he still writing today. The language and situations are substantially more racy than the classic Heinlein juveniles, but not out of line with Heinlein's novels of the 1970s and 80s.

Sigh…aren't there any adults on the editorial staff at Tor? First they let three misspellings of Asimov's character Hari Seldon slip through in Orson Scott Card's Empire, and now the very first time the Prophet appears on p. 186, his first name is missing the final “h;”, and on p. 310 the title of Heinlein's first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo is given as “Rocketship Galileo”. Readers intrigued by the saxophone references in the novel may wish to check out The Devil's Horn, which discusses, among many other things, the possible connection between “circular breathing” and the mortality rate of saxophonists (and I always just thought it was that “cool kills”).

As you're reading this novel, you may find yourself somewhere around two hundred pages in, looking at the rapidly dwindling hundred-odd pages to go, and wondering is anything ever going to happen? Keep turning those pages—you will not be disappointed. Nor, I think, would Heinlein, wherever he is, regarding this realisation of his vision half a century after he consigned it to a file drawer.

 Permalink

Horowitz, David. Radical Son. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84005-7.
One the mysteries I have never been able to figure out—I remember discussing it with people before I left the U.S., so that makes it at least fifteen years of bewilderment on my part—is why so many obviously highly intelligent people, some of whom have demonstrated initiative and achieved substantial success in productive endeavours, are so frequently attracted to collectivist ideologies which deny individual excellence, suppress individualism, and seek to replace achievement with imposed equality in mediocrity. Even more baffling is why so many people remain attracted to these ideas which are as thoroughly discredited by the events of the twentieth century as any in the entire history of human intellectual endeavour, in a seeming willingness to ignore evidence, even when it takes the form of a death toll in the tens of millions of human beings.

This book does not supply a complete answer, but it provides several important pieces of the puzzle. It is the most enlightening work on this question I've read since Hayek's The Fatal Conceit (March 2005), and complements it superbly. While Hayek's work is one of philosophy and economics, Radical Son is a searching autobiography by a person who was one of the intellectual founders and leaders of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s. The author was part of the group which organised the first demonstration against the Vietnam war in Berkeley in 1962, published the standard New Left history of the Cold War, The Free World Colossus in 1965, and in 1968, the very apogee of the Sixties, joined Ramparts magazine, where he rapidly rose to a position of effective control, setting its tone through the entire period of radicalisation and revolutionary chaos which ensued. He raised the money for the Black Panther Party's “Learning Center” in Oakland California, and became an adviser and regular companion of Huey Newton. Throughout all of this his belief in the socialist vision of the future, the necessity of revolution even in a democratic society, and support for the “revolutionary vanguard”, however dubious some of their actions seemed, never wavered.

He came to these convictions almost in the cradle. Like many of the founders of the New Left (Tom Hayden was one of the rare exceptions), Horowitz was a “red diaper baby”. In his case both his mother and father were members of the Communist Party of the United States and met through political activity. Although the New Left rejected the Communist Party as a neo-Stalinist anachronism, so many of its founders had parents who were involved with it directly or knowingly in front organisations, they formed part of a network of acquaintances even before they met as radicals in their own right. It is somewhat ironic that these people who believed themselves to be and were portrayed in the press as rebels and revolutionaries were, perhaps more than their contemporaries, truly their parents' children, carrying on their radical utopian dream without ever questioning anything beyond the means to the end.

It was only in 1974, when Betty Van Patter, a former Ramparts colleague he had recommended for a job helping the Black Panthers sort out their accounts, was abducted and later found brutally murdered, obviously by the Panthers (who expressed no concern when she disappeared, and had complained of her inquisitiveness), that Horowitz was confronted with the true nature of those he had been supporting. Further, when he approached others who were, from the circumstances of their involvement, well aware of the criminality and gang nature of the Panthers well before he, they continued to either deny the obvious reality or, even worse, deliberately cover it up because they still believed in the Panther mission of revolution. (To this day, nobody has been charged with Van Patter's murder.)

The contemporary conquest of Vietnam and Cambodia and the brutal and bloody aftermath, the likelihood of which had also been denied by the New Left (as late as 1974, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda released a film titled Introduction to the Enemy which forecast a bright future of equality and justice when Saigon fell), reinforced the author's second thoughts, leading eventually to a complete break with the Left in the mid-1980s and his 1989 book with Peter Collier, Destructive Generation, the first sceptical look at the beliefs and consequences of Sixties radicalism by two of its key participants.

Radical Son mixes personal recollection, politics, philosophy, memoirs of encounters with characters ranging from Bertrand Russell to Abbie Hoffman, and a great deal of painful introspection to tell the story of how reality finally shattered second-generation utopian illusions. Even more valuable, the reader comes to understand the power those delusions have over those who share them, and why seemingly no amount of evidence suffices to induce doubt among those in their thrall, and why the reaction to any former believer who declares their “apostasy” is so immediate and vicious.

Horowitz is a serious person, and this is a serious, and often dismaying and tragic narrative. But one cannot help to be amused by the accounts of New Leftists trying to put their ideology into practice in running communal households, publishing enterprises, and political movements. Inevitably, before long everything blows up in the tediously familiar ways of such things, as imperfect human beings fail to meet the standards of a theory which requires them to deny their essential humanity. And yet they never learn; it's always put down to “errors”, blamed on deviant individuals, oppression, subversion, external circumstances, or some other cobbled up excuse. And still they want to try again, betting the entire society and human future on it.

 Permalink

Robinson, Andrew. The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York: Pi Press, 2006. ISBN 0-13-134304-1.
The seemingly inexorable process of specialisation in the sciences and other intellectual endeavours—the breaking down of knowledge into categories so narrow and yet so deep that their mastery at the professional level seems to demand forsaking anything beyond a layman's competence in other, even related fields, is discouraging to those who believe that some of the greatest insights come from the cross-pollination of concepts from subjects previously considered unrelated. The twentieth century was inhospitable to polymaths—even within a single field such as physics, ever narrower specialities proliferated, with researchers interacting little with those working in other areas. The divide between theorists and experimentalists has become almost impassable; it is difficult to think of a single individual who achieved greatness in both since Fermi, and he was born in 1901.

As more and more becomes known, it is inevitable that it is increasingly difficult to cram it all into one human skull, and the investment in time to master a variety of topics becomes disproportionate to the length of a human life, especially since breakthrough science is generally the province of the young. And yet, one wonders whether the conventional wisdom that hyper-specialisation is the only way to go and that anybody who aspires to broad and deep understanding of numerous subjects must necessarily be a dilettante worthy of dismissal, might underestimate the human potential and discourage those looking for insights available only by synthesising the knowledge of apparently unrelated disciplines. After all, mathematicians have repeatedly discovered deep connections between topics thought completely unrelated to one another; why shouldn't this be the case in the sciences, arts, and humanities as well?

The life of Thomas Young (1773–1829) is an inspiration to anybody who seeks to understand as much as possible about the world in which they live. The eldest of ten children of a middle class Quaker family in southwest England (his father was a cloth merchant and later a banker), from childhood he immersed himself in every book he could lay his hands upon, and in his seventeenth year alone, he read Newton's Principia and Opticks, Blackstone's Commentaries, Linnaeus, Euclid's Elements, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Cicero, Horace, and many other classics in the original Greek or Latin. At age 19 he presented a paper on the mechanism by which the human eye focuses on objects at different distances, and on its merit was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society a week after his 21st birthday.

Young decided upon a career in medicine and studied in Edinburgh, Göttingen, and Cambridge, continuing his voracious reading and wide-ranging experimentation in whatever caught his interest, then embarked upon a medical practice in London and the resort town of Worthing, while pursuing his scientific investigations and publications, and popularising science in public lectures at the newly founded Royal Institution.

The breadth of Young's interests and contributions have caused some biographers, both contemporary and especially more recent, to dismiss him as a dilettante and dabbler, but his achievements give lie to this. Had the Nobel Prize existed in his era, he would almost certainly have won two (Physics for the wave theory of light, explanation of the phenomena of diffraction and interference [including the double slit experiment], and birefringence and polarisation; plus Physiology or Medicine for the explanation of the focusing of the eye [based, in part, upon some cringe-inducing experiments he performed upon himself], the trireceptor theory of colour vision, and the discovery of astigmatism), and possibly three (Physics again, for the theory of elasticity of materials: “Young's modulus” is a standard part of the engineering curriculum to this day).

But he didn't leave it at that. He was fascinated by languages since childhood, and in addition to the customary Latin and Greek, by age thirteen had taught himself Hebrew and read thirty chapters of the Hebrew Bible all by himself. In adulthood he undertook an analysis of four hundred different languages (pp. 184–186) ranging from Chinese to Cherokee, with the goal of classifying them into distinct families. He coined the name “Indo-European” for the group to which most Western languages belong. He became fascinated with the enigma of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and his work on the Rosetta Stone provided the first breakthrough and the crucial insight that hieroglyphic writing was a phonetic alphabet, not a pictographic language like Chinese. Champollion built upon Young's work in his eventual deciphering of hieroglyphics. Young continued to work on the fiendishly difficult demotic script, and was the first person since the fall of the Roman Empire to be able to read some texts written in it.

He was appointed secretary of the Board of Longitude and superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, and was instrumental in the establishment of a Southern Hemisphere observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. He consulted with the admiralty on naval architecture, with the House of Commons on the design for a replacement to the original London Bridge, and served as chief actuary for a London life insurance company and did original research on mortality in different parts of Britain.

Stereotypical characters from fiction might cause you to expect that such an intellect might be a recluse, misanthrope, obsessive, or seeker of self-aggrandisement. But no…, “He was a lively, occasionally caustic letter writer, a fair conversationalist, a knowledgeable musician, a respectable dancer, a tolerable versifier, an accomplished horseman and gymnast, and throughout his life, a participant in the leading society of London and, later, Paris, the intellectual capitals of his day” (p. 12). Most of the numerous authoritative articles he contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, including “Bridge”, “Carpentry”, “Egypt”, “Languages”, “Tides”, and “Weights and measures”, as well as 23 biographies, were published anonymously. And he was happily married from age 31 until the end of his life.

Young was an extraordinary person, but he never seems to have thought of himself as exceptional in any way other than his desire to understand how things worked and his willingness to invest as much time and effort as it took at arrive at the goals he set for himself. Reading this book reminded me of a remark by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “The only way to make a difference in the world is to put ten times as much effort into everything as anyone else thinks is reasonable. It doesn't leave any time for golf or cocktails, but it gets things done.” Young's life is a testament to just how many things one person can get done in a lifetime, enjoying every minute of it and never losing balance, by judicious application of this principle.

 Permalink

Wells, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry. London: Penguin Books, 1991. ISBN 0-14-011813-6.
What a treat—two hundred and seventy-five diagram-rich pages covering hundreds of geometrical curiosities ranging from the problem of Apollonius to zonohedra. Items range from classical Euclidean geometry to modern topics such as higher dimensional space, non-Euclidean geometry, and topological transformations; and from classical times until the present—it's amazing how many fundamental properties of objects as simple as triangles were discovered only in the twentieth century!

There are so many wonders here I shall not attempt to list them but simply commend this book to your own exploration and enjoyment. But one example…it's obvious that a non-convex room with black walls cannot be illuminated by a single light placed within it. But what if all the walls are mirrors? It is possible to design a mirrored room such that a light within it will still leave some part dark (p. 263)? The illustration of the Voderberg tile on p. 268 is unfortunate; the width of the lines makes it appear not to be a proper tile, but rather two tiles joined at a point. This page shows a detailed construction which makes it clear that the tile is indeed well formed and rigid.

I will confess, as a number nerd more than a geometry geek, that this book comes in second in my estimation behind the author's Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Numbers, one single entry of which motivated me to consume three years of computer time in 1987–1990. But there are any number of wonders here, and the individual items are so short you can open the book at random and find something worth reading you can finish in a minute or so. Almost all items are given without proof, but there are citations to publications for many and you'll be able to find most of the rest on MathWorld.

 Permalink

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03486-X.
In 1969, the author published The Emerging Republican Majority, which Newsweek called “The political bible of the Nixon Era.” The book laid out the “Sun Belt” (a phrase he coined) strategy he developed as a senior strategist for Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign, and argued that demographic and economic trends would reinforce the political power of what he termed the “heartland” states, setting the stage for long-term Republican dominance of national politics, just as FDR's New Deal coalition had maintained Democratic power (especially in the Congress) for more than a generation.

In this book he argues that while his 1969 analysis was basically sound and would have played out much as he forecast, had the Republican steamroller not been derailed by Watergate and the consequent losses in the 1974 and 1976 elections, since the Reagan era, and especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, things have gone terribly wrong, and that the Republican party, if it remains in power, is likely to lead the United States in disastrous directions, resulting in the end of its de facto global hegemony.

Now, this is a view with which I am generally sympathetic, but if the author's reason for writing the present volume is to persuade people in that direction, I must judge the result ineffectual if not counterproductive. The book is ill-reasoned, weakly argued, poorly written, strongly biased, scantily documented, grounded in dubious historical analogies, and rhetorically structured in the form of “proof by assertion and endless repetition”.

To start with, the title is misleading if read without the subtitle, “The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century”, which appears in 8 point sans-serif type on the cover, below an illustration of a mega-church reinforcing the the words “American Theocracy” in 60 and 48 point roman bold. In fact, of 394 pages of main text, only 164—about 40%—are dedicated to the influence of religion on politics. (Yes, there are mentions of religion in the rest, but there is plenty of discussion of the other themes in the “Too Many Preachers” part as well; this book gives the distinct impression of having been shaken, not stirred.) And nothing in that part, or elsewhere in the book provides any evidence whatsoever, or even seriously advances a claim, that there is a genuine movement toward, threat of, or endorsement by the Republican party of theocracy, which Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines as:

  1. A form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God's or deity's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities.
  2. A system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.
  3. A commonwealth or state under such a form or system of government.

And since Phillips's argument is based upon the Republican party's support among religious groups as diverse as Southern Baptists, northern Midwest Lutherans, Pentecostals, Mormons, Hasidic Jews, and Eastern Rite and traditionalist Catholics, it is difficult to imagine how precisely how the feared theocracy would function, given how little these separate religious groups agree upon. It would have to be an “ecumenical theocracy”, a creature for which I can recall no historical precedent.

The greater part of the book discusses the threats to the U.S. posed by a global peak in petroleum production and temptation of resource wars (of which he claims the U.S. intervention in Iraq is an example), and the explosion of debt, public and private, in the U.S., the consequent housing bubble, and the structural trade deficits which are flooding the world with greenbacks. But these are topics which have been discussed more lucidly and in greater detail by authors who know far more about them than Phillips, who cites secondary and tertiary sources and draws no novel observations.

A theme throughout the work is comparison of the present situation of the U.S. with previous world powers which fell into decline: ancient Rome, Spain in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Britain in the first half of the twentieth. The parallels here, especially as regards fears of “theocracy” are strained to say the least. Constantine did not turn Rome toward Christianity until the fourth century A.D., by which time, even Gibbon concedes, the empire had been in decline for centuries. (Phillips seems to have realised this part of the way through the manuscript and ceases to draw analogies with Rome fairly early on.) Few, if any, historians would consider Spain, Holland, or Britain in the periods in question theocratic societies; each had a clear separation between civil authority and the church, and in the latter two cases there is plain evidence of a decline in the influence of organised religion on the population as the nation's power approached a peak and began to ebb. Can anybody seriously contend that the Anglican church was responsible for the demise of the British Empire? Hello—what about the two world wars, which were motivated by power politics, not religion?

Distilled to the essence (and I estimate a good editor could cut a third to half of this text just by flensing the mind-numbing repetition), Phillips has come to believe in the world view and policy prescriptions advocated by the left wing of the Democratic party. The Republican party does not agree with these things. Adherents of traditional religion share this disagreement, and consequently they predominately vote for Republican candidates. Therefore, evangelical and orthodox religious groups form a substantial part of the Republican electorate. But how does that imply any trend toward “theocracy”? People choose to join a particular church because they are comfortable with the beliefs it espouses, and they likewise vote for candidates who advocate policies they endorse. Just because there is a correlation between preferences does not imply, especially in the absence of any evidence, some kind of fundamentalist conspiracy to take over the government and impose a religious dictatorship. Consider another divisive issue which has nothing to do with religion: the right to keep and bear arms. People who consider the individual right to own and carry weapons for self-defence are highly probable to be Republican voters as well, because that party is more closely aligned with their views than the alternative. Correlation is not evidence of causality, not to speak of collusion.

Much of the writing is reminiscent of the lower tier of the UFO literature. There are dozens of statements like this one from p. 93 (my italics), “There are no records, but Cheney's reported early 2001 plotting may well have touched upon the related peril to the dollar.” May I deconstruct? So what's really being said here is, “Some conspiracy theorist, with no evidence to support his assertion, claims that Cheney was plotting to seize Iraqi oil fields, and it is possible that this speculated scheme might have been motivated by fears for the dollar.”

There are more than thirty pages of end notes set in small type, but there is less documentation here than strains the eye. Many citations are to news stories in collectivist legacy media and postings on leftist advocacy Web sites. Picking page 428 at random, we find 29 citations, only five of which are to a total of three books, one by the present author.

So blinded is the author by his own ideological bias that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that a right-wing stalwart could produce an almost completely parallel screed about the Democratic party being in thrall to a coalition of atheists, humanists, and secularists eager to use the power of the state to impose their own radical agenda. In fact, one already has. It is dubious that shrill polemics of this variety launched back and forth between the trenches of an increasingly polarised society promote the dialogue and substantive debate which is essential to confront the genuine and daunting challenges all its citizens ultimately share.

 Permalink