June 2008

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58542-639-3.
The generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, sometimes dubbed “Generation Y” or the “Millennial Generation”, now entering the workforce, the public arena, and exerting an ever-increasing influence in electoral politics, is the first generation in human history to mature in an era of ubiquitous computing, mobile communications, boundless choice in entertainment delivered by cable and satellite, virtual environments in video games, and the global connectivity and instant access to the human patrimony of knowledge afforded by the Internet. In the United States, it is the largest generational cohort ever, outnumbering the Baby Boomers who are now beginning to scroll off the screen. Generation Y is the richest (in terms of disposable income), most ethnically diverse, best educated (measured by years of schooling), and the most comfortable with new technologies and the innovative forms of social interactions they facilitate. Books like Millennials Rising sing the praises of this emerging, plugged-in, globally wired generation, and Millennial Makeover (May 2008) eagerly anticipates the influence they will have on politics and the culture.

To those of us who interact with members of this generation regularly through E-mail, Web logs, comments on Web sites, and personal Web pages, there seems to be a dissonant chord in this symphony of technophilic optimism. To be blunt, the kids are clueless. They may be able to multi-task, juggling mobile phones, SMS text messages, instant Internet messages (E-mail is so Mom and Dad!), social networking sites, Twitter, search engines, peer-to-peer downloads, surfing six hundred cable channels with nothing on while listening to an iPod and playing a video game, but when you scratch beneath the monomolecular layer of frantic media consumption and social interaction with their peers, there's, as we say on the Web, no content—they appear to be almost entirely ignorant of history, culture, the fine arts, civics, politics, science, economics, mathematics, and all of the other difficult yet rewarding aspects of life which distinguish a productive and intellectually engaged adult from a superannuated child. But then one worries that one's just muttering the perennial complaints of curmudgeonly old fogies and that, after all, the kids are all right. There are, indeed, those who argue that Everything Bad Is Good for You: that video games and pop culture are refining the cognitive, decision-making, and moral skills of youth immersed in them to never before attained levels.

But why are they so clueless, then? Well, maybe they aren't really, and Burgess Shale relics like me have simply forgotten how little we knew about the real world at that age. Errr…actually, no—this book, written by a professor of English at Emory University and former director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, who experiences first-hand the cognitive capacities and intellectual endowment of those Millennials who arrive in his classroom every year, draws upon a wealth of recent research (the bibliography is 18 pages long) by government agencies, foundations, and market research organisations, all without any apparent agenda to promote, which documents the abysmal levels of knowledge and the ability to apply it among present-day teenagers and young adults in the U.S. If there is good news, it is that the new media technologies have not caused a precipitous collapse in objective measures of outcomes overall (although there are disturbing statistics in some regards, including book reading and attendance at performing arts events). But, on the other hand, the unprecedented explosion in technology and the maturing generation's affinity for it and facility in using it have produced absolutely no objective improvement in their intellectual performance on a wide spectrum of metrics. Further, absorption in these new technologies has further squeezed out time which youth of earlier generations spent in activities which furthered intellectual development such as reading for enjoyment, visiting museums and historical sites, attending and participating in the performing arts, and tinkering in the garage or basement. This was compounded by the dumbing down and evisceration of traditional content in the secondary school curriculum.

The sixties generation's leaders didn't anticipate how their claim of exceptionalism would affect the next generation, and the next, but the sequence was entirely logical. Informed rejection of the past became uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it. (p. 228)
And it is the latter which is particularly disturbing: as documented extensively, Generation Y knows they're clueless and they're cool with it! In fact, their expectations for success in their careers are entirely discordant with the qualifications they're packing as they venture out to slide down the razor blade of life (pp. 193–198). Or not: on pp. 169–173 we meet the “Twixters”, urban and suburban middle class college graduates between 22 and 30 years old who are still living with their parents and engaging in an essentially adolescent lifestyle: bouncing between service jobs with no career advancement path and settling into no long-term relationship. These sad specimens who refuse to grow up even have their own term of derision: “KIPPERS” Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings.

In evaluating the objective data and arguments presented here, it's important to keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. One cannot run controlled experiments on broad-based social trends: only try to infer from the evidence available what might be the cause of the objective outcomes one measures. Many of the characteristics of Generation Y described here might be explained in large part simply by the immersion and isolation of young people in the pernicious peer culture described by Robert Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), with digital technologies simply reinforcing a dynamic in effect well before their emergence, and visible to some extent in the Boomer and Generation X cohorts who matured earlier, without being plugged in 24/7. For another insightful view of Generation Y (by another professor at Emory!), see I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005).

If Millennial Makeover is correct, the culture and politics of the United States is soon to be redefined by the generation now coming of age. This book presents a disturbing picture of what that may entail: a generation with little or no knowledge of history or of the culture of the society they've inherited, and unconcerned with their ignorance, making decisions not in the context of tradition and their intellectual heritage, but of peer popular culture. Living in Europe, it is clear that things have not reached such a dire circumstance here, and in Asia the intergenerational intellectual continuity appears to remain strong. But then, the U.S. was the first adopter of the wired society, and hence may simply be the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. Observing what happens there in the near future may give the rest of the world a chance to change course before their own dumbest generations mature. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, the author notes that “Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.” (p. 186) In an age where a large fraction of all human knowledge is freely accessible to anybody in a fraction of a second, what a tragedy it would be if the “digital natives” ended up, like the pejoratively denigrated “natives” of the colonial era, surrounded by a wealth of culture but ignorant of and uninterested in it.

The final chapter is a delightful and stirring defence of culture wars and culture warriors, which argues that only those grounded in knowledge of their culture and equipped with the intellectual tools to challenge accepted norms and conventional wisdom can (for better or worse) change society. Those who lack the knowledge and reasoning skills to be engaged culture warriors are putty in the hands of marketeers and manipulative politicians, which is perhaps why so many of them are salivating over the impending Millennial majority.


Dewar, James A. To the End of the Solar System. 2nd. ed. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, [2004] 2007. ISBN 978-1-894959-68-1.
If you're seeking evidence that entrusting technology development programs such as space travel to politicians and taxpayer-funded bureaucrats is a really bad idea, this is the book to read. Shortly after controlled nuclear fission was achieved, scientists involved with the Manhattan Project and the postwar atomic energy program realised that a rocket engine using nuclear fission instead of chemical combustion to heat a working fluid of hydrogen would have performance far beyond anything achievable with chemical rockets and could be the key to opening up the solar system to exploration and eventual human settlement. (The key figure of merit for rocket propulsion is “specific impulse”, expressed in seconds, which [for rockets] is simply an odd way of expressing the exhaust velocity. The best chemical rockets have specific impulses of around 450 seconds, while early estimates for solid core nuclear thermal rockets were between 800 and 900 seconds. Note that this does not mean that nuclear rockets were “twice as good” as chemical: because the rocket equation gives the mass ratio [mass of fuelled rocket versus empty mass] as exponential in the specific impulse, doubling that quantity makes an enormous difference in the missions which can be accomplished and drastically reduces the mass which must be lifted from the Earth to mount them.)

Starting in 1955, a project began, initially within the U.S. Air Force and the two main weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Livermore, to explore near-term nuclear rocket propulsion, initially with the goal of an ICBM able to deliver the massive thermonuclear bombs of the epoch. The science was entirely straightforward: build a nuclear reactor able to operate at a high core temperature, pump liquid hydrogen through it at a large rate, expel the hot gaseous hydrogen through a nozzle, and there's your nuclear rocket. Figure out the temperature of exhaust and the weight of the entire nuclear engine, and you can work out the precise performance and mission capability of the system. The engineering was a another matter entirely. Consider: a modern civil nuclear reactor generates about a gigawatt, and is a massive structure enclosed in a huge containment building with thick radiation shielding. It operates at a temperature of around 300° C, heating pressurised water. The nuclear rocket engine, by comparison, might generate up to five gigawatts of thermal power, with a core operating around 2000° C (compared to the 1132° C melting point of its uranium fuel), in a volume comparable to a 55 gallon drum. In operation, massive quantities of liquid hydrogen (a substance whose bulk properties were little known at the time) would be pumped through the core by a turbopump, which would have to operate in an almost indescribable radiation environment which might flash the hydrogen into foam and would certainly reduce all known lubricants to sludge within seconds. And this was supposed to function for minutes, if not hours (later designs envisioned a 10 hour operating lifetime for the reactor, with 60 restarts after being refuelled for each mission).

But what if it worked? Well, that would throw open the door to the solar system. Instead of absurd, multi-hundred-billion dollar Mars programs that land a few civil servant spacemen for footprints, photos, and a few rocks returned, you'd end up, for an ongoing budget comparable to that of today's grotesque NASA jobs program, with colonies on the Moon and Mars working their way toward self-sufficiency, regular exploration of the outer planets and moons with mission durations of years, not decades, and the ability to permanently expand the human presence off this planet and simultaneously defend the planet and its biosphere against the kind of Really Bad Day that did in the dinosaurs (and a heck of a lot of other species nobody ever seems to mention).

Between 1955 and 1973, the United States funded a series of projects, usually designated as Rover and NERVA, with the potential of achieving all of this. This book is a thoroughly documented (65 pages of end notes) and comprehensive narrative of what went wrong. As is usually the case when government gets involved, almost none of the problems were technological. The battles, and the eventual defeat of the nuclear rocket were due to agencies fighting for turf, bureaucrats seeking to build their careers by backing or killing a project, politicians vying to bring home the bacon for their constituents or kill projects of their political opponents, and the struggle between the executive and legislative branches and the military for control over spending priorities.

What never happened among all of the struggles and ups and downs documented here is an actual public debate over the central rationale of the nuclear rocket: should there be, or should there not be, an expansive program (funded within available discretionary resources) to explore, exploit the resources, and settle the solar system? Because if no such program were contemplated, then a nuclear rocket would not be required and funds spent on it squandered. But if such a program were envisioned and deemed worthy of funding, a nuclear rocket, if feasible, would reduce the cost and increase the capability of the program to such an extent that the research and development cost of nuclear propulsion would be recouped shortly after the resulting technology were deployed.

But that debate was never held. Instead, the nuclear rocket program was a political football which bounced around for 18 years, consuming 1.4 billion (p. 207) then-year dollars (something like 5.3 billion in today's incredible shrinking greenbacks). Goals were redefined, milestones changed, management shaken up and reorganised, all at the behest of politicians, yet through it all virtually every single technical goal was achieved on time and often well ahead of schedule. Indeed, when the ball finally bounced out of bounds and the 8000 person staff was laid off, dispersing forever their knowledge of the “black art” of fuel element, thermal, and neutronic design constraints for such an extreme reactor, it was not because the project was judged infeasible, but the opposite. The green eyeshade brigade considered the project too likely to succeed, and feared the funding requests for the missions which this breakthrough technological capability would enable. And so ended the possibility of human migration into the solar system for my generation. So it goes. When the rock comes down, the few transient survivors off-planet will perhaps recall their names; they are documented here.

There are many things to criticise about this book. It is cheaply made: the text is set in painfully long lines in a small font with narrow margins, which require milliarcsecond-calibrated eye muscles to track from the end of a line to the start of the next. The printing lops off the descenders from the last line of many pages, leaving the reader to puzzle over words like “hvdrooen” and phrases such as “Whv not now?”. The cover seems to incorporate some proprietary substance made of kangaroo hair and discarded slinkies which makes it curl into a tube once you've opened it and read a few pages. Now, these are quibbles which do not detract from the content, but then this is a 300 page paperback without a single colour plate with a cover price of USD26.95. There are a number of factual errors in the text, but none which seriously distort the meaning for the knowledgeable reader; there are few, if any, typographical errors. The author is clearly an enthusiast for nuclear rocket technology, and this sometimes results in over-the-top hyperbole where a dispassionate recounting of the details should suffice. He is a big fan of New Mexico senator Clinton Anderson, a stalwart supporter of the nuclear rocket from its inception through its demise (which coincided with his retirement from the Senate due to health reasons), but only on p. 145 does the author address the detail that the programme was a multi-billion dollar (in an epoch when a billion dollars was real money) pork barrel project for Anderson's state.

Flawed—yes, but if you're interested in this little-known backstory of the space program of the last century, whose tawdry history and shameful demise largely explains the sorry state of the human presence in space today, this is the best source of which I'm aware to learn what happened and why. Given the cognitive collapse in the United States (Want to clear a room of Americans? Just say “nuclear!”), I can't share the author's technologically deterministic optimism, “The potential foretells a resurgence at Jackass Flats…” (p. 195), that the legacy of Rover/NERVA will be redeemed by the descendants of those who paid for it only to see it discarded. But those who use this largely forgotten and, in the demographically imploding West, forbidden knowledge to make the leap off our planet toward our destiny in the stars will find the experience summarised here, and the sources cited, an essential starting point for the technologies they'll require to get there.

 ‘Und I'm learning Chinese,’ says Wernher von Braun.


Raspail, Jean. Le Camp des Saints. Paris: Robert Laffont, [1973, 1978, 1985] 2006. ISBN 978-2-221-08840-1.
This is one of the most hauntingly prophetic works of fiction I have ever read. Although not a single word has been changed from its original publication in 1973 to the present edition, it is at times simply difficult to believe you're reading a book which was published thirty-five years ago. The novel is a metaphorical, often almost surreal exploration of the consequences of unrestricted immigration from the third world into the first world: Europe and France in particular, and how the instincts of openness, compassion, and generosity which characterise first world countries can sow the seeds of their destruction if they result in developed countries being submerged in waves of immigration of those who do not share their values, culture, and by their sheer numbers and rate of arrival, cannot be assimilated into the society which welcomes them.

The story is built around a spontaneous, almost supernatural, migration of almost a million desperate famine-struck residents from the Ganges on a fleet of decrepit ships, to the “promised land”, and the reaction of the developed countries along their path and in France as they approach and debark. Raspail has perfect pitch when it comes to the prattling of bien pensants, feckless politicians, international commissions chartered to talk about a crisis until it turns into catastrophe, humanitarians bent on demonstrating their good intentions whatever the cost to those they're supposed to be helping and those who fund their efforts, media and pundits bent on indoctrination instead of factual reporting, post-Christian clerics, and the rest of the intellectual scum which rises to the top and suffocates the rationality which has characterised Western civilisation for centuries and created the prosperity and liberty which makes it a magnet for people around the world aspiring to individual achievement.

Frankly addressing the roots of Western exceptionalism and the internal rot which imperils it, especially in the context of mass immigration, is a sure way to get yourself branded a racist, and that has, of course been the case with this book. There are, to be sure, many mentions of “whites” and “blacks”, but I perceive no evidence that the author imputes superiority to the first or inferiority to the second: they are simply labels for the cultures from which those actors in the story hail. One character, Hamadura, identified as a dark skinned “Français de Pondichéry” says (p. 357, my translation), “To be white, in my opinion, is not a colour of skin, but a state of mind”. Precisely—anybody, whatever their race or origin, can join the first world, but the first world has a limited capacity to assimilate new arrivals knowing nothing of its culture and history, and risks being submerged if too many arrive, particularly if well-intentioned cultural elites encourage them not to assimilate but instead work for political power and agendas hostile to the Enlightenment values of the West. As Jim Bennett observed, “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism. Pick any two.”

Now, this is a novel from 1973, not a treatise on immigration and multiculturalism in present-day Europe, and the voyage of the fleet of the Ganges is a metaphor for the influx of immigrants into Europe which has already provoked many of the cringing compromises of fundamental Western values prophesied, of which I'm sure most readers in the 1970s would have said, “It can't happen here”. Imagine an editor fearing for his life for having published a cartoon (p. 343), or Switzerland being forced to cede the values which have kept it peaceful and prosperous by the muscle of those who surround it and the intellectual corruption of its own elites. It's all here, and much more. There's even a Pope Benedict XVI (albeit very unlike the present occupant of the throne of St. Peter).

This is an ambitious literary work, and challenging for non mother tongue readers. The vocabulary is enormous, including a number of words you won't find even in the Micro Bob. Idioms, many quite obscure (for example “Les carottes sont cuites”—all is lost), abound, and references to them appear obliquely in the text. The apocalyptic tone of the book (whose title is taken from Rev. 20:9) is reinforced by many allusions to that Biblical prophecy. This is a difficult read, which careens among tragedy, satire, and farce, forcing the reader to look beyond political nostrums about the destiny of the West and seriously ask what the consequences of mass immigration without assimilation and the accommodation by the West of values inimical to its own are likely to be. And when you think that Jean Respail saw all of this coming more than three decades ago, it almost makes you shiver. I spent almost three weeks working my way through this book, but although it was difficult, I always looked forward to picking it up, so rewarding was it to grasp the genius of the narrative and the masterful use of the language.

An English translation is available. Given the language, idioms, wordplay, and literary allusions in the original French, this work would be challenging to faithfully render into another language. I have not read the translation and cannot comment upon how well it accomplished this formidable task.

For more information about the author and his works, visit his official Web site.


Biggs, Barton. Wealth, War, and Wisdom. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. ISBN 978-0-470-22307-9.
Many people, myself included, who have followed financial markets for an extended period of time, have come to believe what may seem, to those who have not, a very curious and even mystical thing: that markets, aggregating the individual knowledge and expectations of their multitude of participants, have an uncanny way of “knowing” what the future holds. In retrospect, one can often look at a chart of broad market indices and see that the market “called” grand turning points by putting in a long-term bottom or top, even when those turning points were perceived by few if any people at the time. One of the noisiest buzzwords of the “Web 2.0” hype machine is “crowdsourcing”, yet financial markets have been doing precisely that for centuries, and in an environment in which the individual participants are not just contributing to some ratty, ephemeral Web site, but rather putting their own net worth on the line.

In this book the author, who has spent his long career as a securities analyst and hedge fund manager, and was a pioneer of investing in emerging global markets, looks at the greatest global cataclysm of the twentieth century—World War II—and explores how well financial markets in the countries involved identified the key trends and turning points in the conflict. The results persuasively support the “wisdom of the market” viewpoint and are a convincing argument that “the market knows”, even when its individual participants, media and opinion leaders, and politicians do not. Consider: the British stock market put in an all-time historic bottom in June 1940, just as Hitler toured occupied Paris and, in retrospect, Nazi expansionism in the West reached its peak. Many Britons expected a German invasion in the near future, and the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were still in the future, and yet the market rallied throughout these dark days. Somehow the market seems to have known that with the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkerque and the fall of France, the situation, however dire, was as bad as it was going to get.

In the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined throughout 1941 as war clouds darkened, fell further after Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines, but put in an all-time bottom in 1942 coincident with the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway which, in retrospect, but not at the time, were seen as the key inflection point of the Pacific war. Note that at this time the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy but had not engaged either in a land battle, and yet somehow the market “knew” that, whatever the sacrifices to come, the darkest days were behind.

The wisdom of the markets was also apparent in the ultimate losers of the conflict, although government price-fixing and disruption of markets as things got worse obscured the message. The German CDAX index peaked precisely when the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union was turned back within sight of the spires of the Kremlin. At this point the German army was intact, the Soviet breadbasket was occupied, and the Red Army was in disarray, yet somehow the market knew that this was the high point. The great defeat at Stalingrad and the roll-back of the Nazi invaders were all in the future, but despite propaganda, censorship of letters from soldiers at the front, and all the control of information a totalitarian society can employ, once again the market called the turning point. In Italy, where rampant inflation obscured nominal price indices, the inflation-adjusted BCI index put in its high at precisely the moment Mussolini made his alliance with Hitler, and it was all downhill from there, both for Italy and its stock market, despite rampant euphoria at the time. In Japan, the market was heavily manipulated by the Ministry of Finance and tight control of war news denied investors information to independently assess the war situation, but by 1943 the market had peaked in real terms and declined into a collapse thereafter.

In occupied countries, where markets were allowed to function, they provided insight into the sympathies of their participants. The French market is particularly enlightening. Clearly, the investor class was completely on-board with the German occupation and Vichy. In real terms, the market soared after the capitulation of France and peaked with the defeat at Stalingrad, then declined consistently thereafter, with only a little blip with the liberation of Paris. But then the French stock market wouldn't be French if it weren't perverse, would it?

Throughout, the author discusses how individuals living in both the winners and losers of the war could have best preserved their wealth and selves, and this is instructive for folks interested in saving their asses and assets the next time the Four Horsemen sortie from Hell's own stable. Interestingly, according to Biggs's analysis, so-called “defensive” investments such as government and top-rated corporate bonds and short-term government paper (“Treasury Bills”) performed poorly as stores of wealth in the victor countries and disastrously in the vanquished. In those societies where equity markets survived the war (obviously, this excludes those countries in Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union), stocks were the best financial instrument in preserving value, although in many cases they did decline precipitously over the period of the war. How do you ride out a cataclysm like World War II? There are three key ways: diversification, diversification, and diversification. You need to diversify across financial and real assets, including (diversified) portfolios of stocks, bonds, and bills, as well as real assets such as farmland, real estate, and hard assets (gold, jewelry, etc.) for really hard times. You further need to diversify internationally: not just in the assets you own, but where you keep them. Exchange controls can come into existence with the stroke of a pen, and that offshore bank account you keep “just in case” may be all you have if the worst comes to pass. Thinking about it in that way, do you have enough there? Finally, you need to diversify your own options in the world and think about what you'd do if things really start to go South, and you need to think about it now, not then. As the author notes in the penultimate paragraph:

…the rich are almost always too complacent, because they cherish the illusion that when things start to go bad, they will have time to extricate themselves and their wealth. It never works that way. Events move much faster than anyone expects, and the barbarians are on top of you before you can escape. … It is expensive to move early, but it is far better to be early than to be late.
This is a quirky book, and not free of flaws. Biggs is a connoisseur of amusing historical anecdotes and sprinkles them throughout the text. I found them a welcome leavening of a narrative filled with human tragedy, folly, and destruction of wealth, but some may consider them a distraction and out of place. There are far more copy-editing errors in this book (including dismayingly many difficulties with the humble apostrophe) than I would expect in a Wiley main catalogue title. But that said, if you haven't discovered the wisdom of the markets for yourself, and are worried about riding out the uncertainties of what appears to be a bumpy patch ahead, this is an excellent place to start.