Sunday, September 28, 2003
Freedom from Tyranny
I was thinking more about Pynchon's new forward to 1984, and I wanted to expand on my disagreement with his assertion that 1984 is not only a warning against the dangers of communism but that it also equally applies to the current US administration. I granted the general point, but rejected the notion that we were actually headed in that direction (to be fair, Pynchon didn't come out and directly say we're headed towards totalitarianism, but you could certainly read him that way).
The point of a law is to discourage people from committing certain actions. Alas, this does not mean that people will automatically follow that law, which is why our system clearly specifies consequences for when a law is broken. Fines, jail time, whatever... the point is that just because we pass a law, that doesn't mean we assume everyone will follow that law. Indeed, we know they won't, which is why we set up various forms of punishment and rehabilitation.
On a more systemic level, our country operates with a set of limited governance. The power is split between the federal and state governments, with the federal government further divided into three branches including an independent judiciary. Going even further than that, this power is granted to the government by the people, and we submit to it voluntarily. We don't give away this power unconditionally though, and as such, we have clear ways with which to express our displeasure with the government's actions. Our Founding Fathers had a deep distrust of government; they believed that any excess power that a government has will eventually be abused, so they made it very clear in our Constitution what the government was permitted to do and what it was forbidden to do.
However, just because the government is forbidden to do something doesn't mean it won't do it, similar to how laws do not imply a complete cessation of the acts they forbid. Indeed, that our Founding Fathers clearly laid out methods to remove those in power implies that they knew that power would be abused. They divided the powers granted to our government because they knew that individuals in the government would attempt to abuse that power. They further provided the people with direct and indirect ways to correct any problems with the government.
This is an example of what is called fault tolerance. The idea is to make a system robust enough so that variations in use or a chance of component failure won't cause the overall system to crash. Generally this is achieved by introducing a certain amount of redundancy into the system or perhaps allowing a system to fail gracefully. In a system that is fault tolerant, when some component fails, a backup component kicks in and the system continues to operate at acceptable levels while the initial failure is corrected (obviously, its more complicated than that, but you get the point).
The American system of governance has shown a lot of resilience and flexibility in its history. Part of this is due to our inherent freedoms. Freedom of speech, for example, has the fortunate attribute of allowing dangerous people make fools of themselves. "No free speech produces Hitler. Free speech produces David Duke." (I don't remember who said that, but its a good line:) Our system is not devoid of abuses of power (component failures), but we have shown on many occasions that these abuses of power can be worked out within our system.
The 18th Amendment provides us with an excellent example:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.There is a lot to be said about this, but what it comes down to is this: The 18th Amendment was essentially infringing upon our natural rights (which are inherently protected by the 9th Amendment). It ultimately destroyed more liberty than it created, and it was completely incompatible with the basic concepts of our system. It is also the only Amendment that's ever been repealed (by the 21st Amendment). One of the things we found out during the course of Prohibition was that, on a practical level, the government was incapable of enforcing such a thing. Ratification of the 18th Amendment formally granted power to the government to implement Prohibition, but that didn't stop people from drinking (Rex Banner: "What kind of pet shop is filled with rambunctious yahoos and hot jazz music at 1:00 in the morning?" Moe: "Er, uh... the... best damn pet shop in town!" Crowd: "Yeah!" Heh).
Another example of the strength of our system is Congress' power to impeach and convict a President, removing him from office. The official criteria for an impeachment is "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," but in practice an impeachable offense is whatever Congress says it is. When it became clear that Richard Nixon had committed an egregious crime (obstruction of justice), he stepped down to avoid being prosecuted and there was a peaceful transfer of power as defined in our system.
The 18th Amendment and the Nixon scandal are examples of component failures, but also of systemic success. That they were able to wrong the nation does not imply that our nation as a whole has failed. Our system is explicitly designed to handle such failures and though it may not do so perfectly (or very quickly), it has done so adequately in the past and it appears to be in working order now. It also has mechanisms built into it that allow us to improve upon the system itself. Of course, I suppose it is possible to pervert those same mechanisms to degrade the system. The "War on Terror" is shaping up to be a long one, and while what we're seeing at the start is a lot of potential abuse, that doesn't mean we're headed towards a totalitarian state. Ironically, a sure sign that we are headed down that road would be if we could find no examples of abuse, as that would mean our government is acting perfectly. And we all know how likely that is.
Posted by Mark on September 28, 2003 at 05:31 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
I stopped by the bookstore tonight to pick up Quicksilver and while I was there, I happened upon the new edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This new edition contains a foreward by none other than Thomas Pynchon, vaunted author and recluse whose similarly prophetic novel, Gravity's Rainbow, has been giving me headaches for the past year or so... Pynchon was a good choice; he's able to place Orwell's novel, including its conception and composition, in its proper cultural and historical context while at the same time applying the humanistic themes of the novel to current times (without, I might add, succumbing to the tempation to list out what Orwell did or didn't "get right" - indeed, Pynchon even takes a humorous swipe at the tendency to do so - "Orwellian, dude!"). And to top that off, I'm a sucker for his style - whatever one he might be employing at the time (this time around it's his nonfiction style, with an alternating elegance and brazenness that works so well).
It's interesting reading, though I don't agree with everything he says. Towards the beginning of the forward, he mentions this bit:
Now, those of fascistic disposition - or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong - will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one's homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it's for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument - let alone a prophecy - in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill's war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity.Though he doesn't clearly come out and say it and he is careful even with his historical example, Pynchon clearly fears for America's future in the wake of the "war on terror" and sees Orwell's work not only as a commentary on the perils of communism, but as a warning to democracy. As a general point, I can see that, but you could read Pynchon as believing that Orwell's point equally applies to the policies of, say, the current administration, which I think is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, our system of limited governance already has mechanisms for self-examination and public debate, not to mention checks and balances between certain key elements of the government. For another, our primary enemies now are no longer the forces of progress.
As Pynchon himself notes, Orwell failed to see religious fundamentalism as a threat, and today this is the main enemy we face. It isn't the progress of science and technology that threatens us (at least not in the way expected), but rather a reversion to fundamentalist religion, and Pynchon is hesitant to see that. He tends to be obsessed with the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy when it comes to technology. This is exemplified by his attitude towards the internet:
...the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.As erich notes, perhaps someone should introduce Pynchon to the hacker subculture, where anarchists deface government and corporate websites, bored kids bring corporate websites to their knees with viruses or DDOS attacks, and bloggers aggregate and debate. Or perhaps our problem will be that with an increase in informational transparency, "Orwellian" scrutiny will to some extent become democratized; abuse of privacy will no longer limited to corporations and states. As William Gibson notes:
"1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.Stranger problems indeed. But Pynchon isn't all frowns, he actually ends on a note of hope regarding the appendix, which provides an explanation of Newspeak:
why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?Overall, Pynchon's essay is excellent and thought-provoking, if a little paranoid. He tackles more than I have commented on, and he does so in affable style. A commentor at erich's site concludes:
Orwell, to his everlasting credit, saw clearly the threat posed by communism, and spoke out forcefully against it. Unfortunately, as Pynchon's new introduction reminds us, the same cannot be said for far too many on the Left, who remain incapable of making rational distinctions between our constitutional republic and the slavery over which we won a great triumph in the last century.Indeed.
Update - Most of the text of Pynchon's essay can be found here.
Another Update - Rodney Welch notices a that Pynchon's theory regarding the appendix appears to have been lifted by Guardian columnist, Margaret Atwood. Dave Kipen comments that it's possible that both are paraphrasing an old idea, but he doubts it. Any Orwellians care to shed some light on the originality of the "happy ending" theory?
Another Update: More here.
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2003 at 12:40 AM .: link :.
Monday, September 22, 2003
Cheney's Evil LIES!
I had an interesting debate with a liberal friend of mine at the 4degreez.com politics board last week. I was being completely antagonistic and unfair; basically picking a fight, but it was fun, in a way, to see the reactions. It was an attempt to point out the irony that dominates the BUSH LIED! meme. I can't say as though I know how successful I was. It's a little long, but I think its interesting reading nonetheless (worthy of a skim at least)... My basic refrain ended up being some variation of this question:
Why is it acceptable for you to bend facts and selectively quote an interview to make your point?Heh. Thanks to Eugene Volokh's NRO article and Porphyrogenitus' comments on the BUSH LIED! meme, as they helped me flesh out some of the ideas and are worth of reads on their own...
The thread is reproduced here on my site with permission, as the 4degreez Politics board is not public and the site is no longer accepting new members. Some of the code that is used to format the indentation for the thread is ancient, so some browsers might have trouble displaying it. The thread, however, is linear enough that it doesn't really matter...
Posted by Mark on September 22, 2003 at 11:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Trying to measure the success or failure of the occupation is like the proverbial group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant: each person tends to see the war and its aftermath differently, through the prism of their own ideology and experience. Some people talk about the children who died as a result of the sanctions, some talk about the thousands of Iraqis murdered by Saddam.If only the media could get it right. Speaking of which, Glenn Reynolds has an interesting roundup of letters from non-journalists, which again paint a picture that is very different from the one we're getting from the media. On his blog, he even points out a valid criticism of his approach:
A more valid criticism of my posts would be that they're anecdotal, and don't show the big picture. That's true -- and as Daniel Drezner has noted, there may not be a coherent single narrative on Iraq right now.Anecdotal or not, you'd think we'd be hearing more about them from the media, instead of our buddies coming back and asking us what in the hell is going on with the news...
I meant to write more, but I'm out of time and I'll be sippin by the river this afternoon, so I probably won't be in any condition to revise this later on...
Update - Lex beat me to it...
Update 9.22.03 - I'm still recovering from the sippin by the river extravaganza, but Glenn Reynolds has a good follow up piece at MSNBC. Also of note is a recent Michael Barone article which laments:
Today's media have a zero-defect standard: the Bush administration should have anticipated every eventuality and made detailed plans for every contingency. This is silly. A good second-grade teacher arrives in class with a lesson plan but adapts and adjusts to pupils' responses and the classroom atmosphere. A good occupying power does the same thing.This isn't the first time that the media's "zero-defect standard" has come into play, even with respect to Iraq. Does anyone remember the third day of war? After two days of amazing success, we slowed down for a moment (ostensibly to let our troops rest, revise our plans, and allow air power to pave the way) and the media proclaimed that the war had suddenly gone wrong!
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2003 at 11:01 AM .: link :.
Sunday, September 14, 2003
Yesterday's War of Tomorrow, and more!
Just an overview of some books, movies, and music that I've experienced lately.I may end up fleshing some of these out with full reviews eventually...
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2003 at 11:30 PM .: link :.
Monday, September 08, 2003
My God! It's full of stars!
What Galileo Saw by Michael Benson : A great New Yorker article on the remarkable success of the Galileo probe. James Grimmelmann provides some fantastic commentary:
Launched fifteen years ago with technology that was a decade out of date at the time, Galileo discovered the first extraterrestrial ocean, holds the record for most flybys of planets and moons, pointed out a dual star system, and told us about nine more moons of Jupiter.And the brilliance doesn't end there:
As if that wasn't enough hacker brilliance, design changes in the wake of the Challenger explosion completely ruled out the original idea of just sending Galileo out to Mars and slingshotting towards Jupiter. Instead, two Ed Harris characters at NASA figured out a triple bank shot -- a Venus flyby, followed by two Earth flybys two years apart -- to get it out to Jupiter. NASA has come in for an awful lot of criticism lately, but there are still some things they do amazingly well.Score another one for NASA (while you're at it, give Grimmelmann a few points for the Ed Harris reference). Who says NASA can't do anything right anymore? Grimmelmann observes:
The Galileo story points out, I think, that the problem is not that NASA is messed-up, but that manned space flight is messed-up.Is manned space flight in danger of becoming extinct? Is it worth the insane amount of effort and resources we continually pour into the space program? These are not questions I'm really qualified to answer, but its interesting to ponder. On a personal level, its tempting to righteously proclaim that it is worth it; that doing things that are "difficult verging on insane" have inherent value, well beyond the simple science involved.
Such projects are not without their historical equivalents. There are all sorts of theories explaining why the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built, but none are as persuasive as the idea that they were built to unify Egypt's people and cultures. At the time, almost everything was being done on a local scale. With the possible exception of various irrigation efforts that linked together several small towns, there existed no project that would encompass the whole of Egypt. Yes, an insane amount of resources were expended, but the product was truly awe-inspiring, and still is today.
Those who built the pyramids were not slaves, as is commonly thought. They were mostly farmers from the tribes along the River Nile. They depended on the yearly cycle of flooding of the Nile to enrich their fields, and during the months that that their fields were flooded, they were employed to build pyramids and temples. Why would a common farmer give his time and labor to pyramid construction? There were religious reasons, of course, and patriotic reasons as well... but there was something more. Building the pyramids created a certain sense of pride and community that had not existed before. Markings on pyramid casing stones describe those who built the pyramids. Tally marks and names of "gangs" (groups of workers) indicate a sense of pride in their workmanship and respect between workers. The camaraderie that resulted from working together on such a monumental project united tribes that once fought each other. Furthermore, the building of such an immense structure implied an intense concentration of people in a single area. This drove a need for large-scale food-storage among other social constructs. The Egyptian society that emerged from the Pyramid Age was much different from the one that preceded it (some claim that this was the emergance of the state as we now know it.)
"What mattered was not the pyramid - it was the construction of the pyramid." If the pyramid was a machine for social progress, so too can the Space program be a catalyst for our own society.
Much like the pyramids, space travel is a testament to what the human race is capable of. Sure it allows us to do research we couldn't normally do, and we can launch satellites and space-based telescopes from the shuttle (much like pyramid workers were motivated by religion and a sense of duty to their Pharaoh), but the space program also serves to do much more. Look at the Columbia crew - men, women, white, black, Indian, Israeli - working together in a courageous endeavor, doing research for the benefit of mankind, traveling somewhere where few humans have been. It brings people together in a way few endeavors can, and it inspires the young and old alike. Human beings have always dared to "boldly go where no man has gone before." Where would we be without the courageous exploration of the past five hundred years? We should continue to celebrate this most noble of human spirits, should we not?
In the mean time, Galileo is nearing its end. On September 21st, around 3 p.m. EST, Galileo will be vaporized as it plummets toward Jupiter's atmosphere, sending back whatever data it still can. This planned destruction is exactly what has been planned for Galileo; the answer to an intriguing ethical dilemma.
In 1996, Galileo conducted the first of eight close flybys of Europa, producing breathtaking pictures of its surface, which suggested that the moon has an immense ocean hidden beneath its frozen crust. These images have led to vociferous scientific debate about the prospects for life there; as a result, NASA officials decided that it was necessary to avoid the possibility of seeding Europa with alien life-forms.I had never really given thought to the idea that one of our space probes could "infect" another planet with our "alien" life-forms, though it does make perfect sense. Reaction to the decision among those who worked on Galileo is mixed, most recognizing the rationale, but not wanting to let go anyway (understandable, I guess)...
For more on the pyramids, check out this paper by Marcell Graeff. The information he referenced that I used in this article came primarily from Kurt Mendelssohn's book The Riddle of the Pyramids.
Update 9.25.03 - Steven Den Beste has posted an excellent piece on the Galileo mission and more...
Posted by Mark on September 08, 2003 at 11:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 07, 2003
Keep It Together
I've been relying on my chain-smoking monkey servants a lot lately, but they do good work, even when they don't give me what I want. So here are some interesting links we've come across recently:
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2003 at 10:44 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, is due to be released later this month. It is both a sequel to his brilliant novel Cryptonomicon, and the first in a trilogy of novels known collectively as The Baroque Cycle (to be published at six month intervals).
On the front page of the Baroque Cycle website is a rather interesting cryptographic puzzle (not quite up to the level of some other promotional games or puzzles, but an interesting foray nonetheless) which appeared without fanfare or instructions (well, sort of). Todd Garrison solved the puzzle, and how he did so makes for fascinating reading. Countless setbacks and dead ends eventually led the patient Mr. Garrison to a "Philosophical Language" invented by John Wilkins and expressed in what was called "Real Character."
Also of note is a new Stephenson interview in Wired. Its short but its good:
During the information revolution, it became possible for those with an engineering mentality to control large amounts of capital. So people who, if they'd been born a generation or two earlier, would've ended up sitting in a little office at IBM pushing a T-square around ended up becoming captains of industry. From that point of view, it seems like there's been this revolutionary change that's occurred within our lifetimes, but there are precedents. The power of engineers and scientists waxes and wanes. In the '90s, we went through a period when that influence became very large, but those times may be over, at least for a little while.Good stuff.
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2003 at 07:27 PM .: link :.
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