Nuclear war uses nuclear weapons. The U.S.A. stopped making nukes after the Cold War ended a quarter-century ago. The last time we tested a nuke — to make sure that, you know, it, like, worked — was in fact just 25 years ago this coming September.
That brought in a very interesting email from a knowledgeable listener. Slightly edited:
There is a surprisingly candid statement about the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration to certify the reliability and safety of the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons (about 1,550) in the Nuclear Matters Handbook.
Nuclear weapons such as the W87, W88, B-61 (various versions) and B-83 were designed to be absolutely state of the art in terms of yield-weight ratio, using the technology of the 1970s and 1980s. The expected service life of those nuclear weapons was about 20 years, after which they'd be retired and replaced with more modern ones.
Well, that isn't happening and no one really understands how keeping these weapons past their expected service lives is affecting their reliability — the high explosive surrounding the plutonium pits keep absorbing radiation.
It can be removed and replaced but the high explosive is literally glued to the pit and sometimes cracks when it's taken off.
There's also the question of exposing personnel to additional radiation as a result of americium-241 ingrowth in the plutonium core.
And, of course, none of this can be tested. The Nuclear Matters Handbook also mentions some known safety upgrades that cannot be installed, because no one knows how they might affect reliability.
As a minor aside, it has been well over twenty-five years, since the U.S. tested a weapon with a yield in excess of 150 kilotons, so the secondary designs of existing weapons may well be from the 1960s …
… Add to this the fact that there is presently no U.S. capability to remanufacture plutonium pits since the closure of the Rocky Flats plant around 1990. And the tritium component of the gas-boost mechanism of nuclear weapons will eventually have to be replenished with new tritium (tritium has a relatively short radioactive half-life of about 12 years), and the U.S. has no present capability to produce new tritium, since the closure of the Savannah River Plant …
The DoE website implies — though not very clearly — that tritium was still being produced at the Savannah River facility in 2011.
… I assume that other nations with nuclear weapons have a similar problem (except North Korea, which tests), but I don't know how public they are about it. It's remotely possible that someone developed an exceptionally long-lived weapon before the cessation of testing, but I'm inclined to doubt anyone thought that far ahead …
Government program … think far ahead … right.
… Another interesting question is whether nations that are increasingly racially/ethnically diverse and unstable should have access to nuclear weapons.
That's a very interesting question.
So far as the question I opened with is concerned — "If we tried to use our nukes, would they work?" — I'm guessing the answer is "probably not."
Isn't that kind of … important? More important than, for example, what James Comey says someone said to him about something Donald Trump said?
My eye happened to fall on an editorial from last December in the Toronto Globe and Mail, an early occurrence — perhaps the first? — of a theme that has since become common on both sides of the 49th parallel:
America's next President is a grown man who reacts to perceived slights with the sophistication of a seven-year-old boy who loses a game of Go Fish! with his mother and runs around the room knocking stuff off tables.
What did that bring to mind? [Google google google …] Oh right.
Teedie never lost his love of play, and could be seen at any time cavorting with his children and nephews around the grounds of Sagamore Hill or the White House. One time some dignitaries came upon him engaged in some sort of child play with a bunch of kids. Teedie's sister explained, "You must remember, the President is only six years old."
"Teedie" was of course Theodore Roosevelt.
The Phone Booth Principle. The white-advocacy group American Renaissance, to whose annual conference I shall be speaking in July, had the idea to invite journalists from the other side as guests to the conference — writers for CultMarx outfits like Slate.com.
One of the names they wanted to invite had made some particularly coarse and stupid remarks about a talk I gave at CPAC in 2012, to which remarks I had responded appropriately. With the fine courtesy that is characteristic of AmRen, the organizers sent me an email to ask whether, as a listed speaker, I would have any objection to that person's presence.
I didn't mind his presence; I told them so; they invited the guy; he declined the invitation. (Very politely, I was told. Perhaps good manners really are infectious, just as our mothers told us.)
I didn't just not mind; I heartily approve of this kind of initiative. There's a lot to be said for getting together with people whose opinions you strongly dislike, and experiencing them as people.
My guiding rule here is what I call the Phone Booth Principle, from a lesson I learned way back in my student days in London.
I was living in a rented room — a bedsitter — with no access to the house's one telephone. My girlfriend lived in my home town seventy miles away. Once a week I would call her from a public telephone booth — one of the old-style facilities: a regular little kiosk with glass-paneled sides and door, painted red.
So one winter's evening I hiked a couple of blocks to the nearest phone booth to make the call. There was a middle-aged woman in the booth, talking on the phone. And talking, and talking …
I stood there impatiently in the cold. She could see me, of course, but was too intent on her conversation to make any acknowledgement of the fact. She talked and talked; I stood and stood, impatience rising.
It was getting dark. There was a chilly wind. A fine, light English drizzle started up. She talked on into the phone. I began to seethe. I moved myself right up against the booth to make myself obvious. She flicked a glance my way but made no sign, only went on talking.
My seething got vicious. I began to work up fantasies of what I would say to her when she finally yielded up the phone booth. I would yell at her for her selfishness in uncouth and obscene terms. Perhaps I'd demand that she pay for my call! — this evil, antisocial person, hogging a public facility without regard to the needs of others!
Reader, I began to hate that woman with hot, boiling hatred. She was not, in my imagination, a person, but a representative — of selfishness, of adult indifference to the needs of youth, of all that was wrong with modern society!
At last, when my imagination was turning towards homicide, the woman finished her call. She hung up the phone, opened the door, and stepped out of the booth. Addressing me with full eye contact, she said: "I'm terribly sorry to have kept you waiting so long on such a miserable night. It was really important. I'm so sorry."
The wave function collapsed. The woman was no longer an abstraction, a representative of loathsome types or trends. She was a person.
To the person I replied: "That's perfectly all right. I understand, of course."
[Afterthought: Perhaps I'm just being hopelessly geezerish here. That story is from fifty years ago, when civilized Western nations still kept barbarism at bay. I doubt The Phone Booth Principle would have much purchase on critters like this.]
Who named the Cold Civil War? After I posted a link to the Spring issue of The Claremont Review of Books, a couple of readers noticed that the front page of that issue showcased some essays on the Cold Civil War. They wondered whether CRB had cribbed the phrase from me, or thought it up independently.
I don't know the answer, but I'd think it's most likely the latter. "Cold Civil War" is an obvious descriptor to use in all kinds of contexts, not just the one I apply it to. I'd be gratified to think I originated it, but this is very improbable.
Checking with Ngram, I see that in fact the phrase "Cold Civil War," unknown before 1944, had a huge surge during the late 1940s and the 1950s, I suppose as a descriptor for those components of the Cold War that were relevant in U.S. politics.
Ngram shows the phrase dropping off in usage from 1960 to 1980, bottoming out in the Reagan administration, enjoying a slight uptick through the 1990s, then bottoming out again through 2008, which is as far as Ngram goes.
Someone more diligent than I might, with some serious googling, figure out what "Cold Civil War" meant in those various ups and downs.
Staring into the Abbess. In the writing business you get chidden a lot by readers over errors you've committed in spelling, grammar, or usage.
When you podcast, the level of grumbling rises. Radio Derb listeners frequently email in to tell me I have mis-pronounced something or other.
I don't mind acknowledging my errors in this zone. If you write a lot, you're bound to commit stylistic bloopers now and then. And a bookish person like me thinks of words more as marks on pages than as sequences of phonemes. I know a lot more words than I've heard.
(Although I at least have the alphabet to give me a clue. Bookish Chinese people are on their own.)
Well: In the April 21st Radio Derb I passed some remarks about a letter to the president of Pomona College signed by 27 black students. The president had vexed the black students by chiding — very, very gently, of course — the student activists who had tried to prevent Heather Mac Donald speaking. The black students reacted by sending this letter, which was of course incoherent gibberish.
Here's one of the things I said about that.
Reading that letter, I felt I was staring into the abyss. And yes, Nietzsche fans, the abyss was staring back. That dreck like this letter could come out of an institution of higher education tells us something terrible about the current course of history. This is the death of reason.
That stirred one of my listeners to a sarcastic protest. From the email bag:
Staring into the Abbess? Such mental evocations … what were the means of visual ingress? Is it less concerning that she stared into you, too?
Har de har har. I checked: Yes, my listener is right, the em-pha-sis should be on the second syl-la-ble. Now I think about this, I knew it. I just hadn't internalized it sufficiently for it to happen in the ordinary flow of speech.
And while I may be unsteady on the pronunciation of "abyss," I can at least, as of this month, boast that I know the Russian word for "abyss": пропасть, pronounced "pro-past'."
(With, of course, a Russian accent. That "o" is is long, somewhat towards an American "aw." The unstressed "a" is a schwa, a nondescript uh sound, like the first syllable of American "about." The closing apostrophe palatalizes the "t," as if you were going to say "tyuh" but left out the "uh." Practice!)
So how did I come to learn the Russian word for "abyss"? That's another email-bag item. Before I get to it, though, I note in passing that "abyss" may be one of the tiny number of English words derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian. The only other candidate for this distinction, so far as I know, is "hallelujah." You want bookish? I got bookish.
At one point in the novel a professor's daughter throws a party at which a poet turns up. There's quite a vivid, not very flattering, word-sketch of the poet. It made me think the sketch was based on a real person, some well-known poet of the 1950s. Who? I wondered aloud. (I mean, of course, a-screen.)
A reader offered the following.
My father, whose knowledge on such matters is exhaustive, thinks the poet from Sonya's party was likely a composite sketch, but his convention-flouting quip "where's the bathroom" was a clear homage to Gavrila Derzhavin.
Such acquaintance as I once had with Russian poets is far in the past. Derzhavin? Wasn't he one of the old-timers, back there with Pushkin?
I pulled down my Penguin Book of Russian Verse, 1965 edition, and blew the dust off it. Derzhavin was actually pre-Pushkin, by a lot: His dates are 1743-1816. Pushkin was born in 1799.
Then I got to reading Derzhavin's stuff. Not bad, so far as I can tell through my fog of extremely rudimentary Russian. I particularly liked this:
Река времëн в своëм стремленьи
Уносит все дела людей
И топит в пропасти забвенья
Народы, царства и царей.
А если что и остаëтся
Чрез звуки лиры и трубы,
То вечности жерлом пожрëтся
И общей не уйдëт судьбы.
Dimitri Obolensky's translation, from the Penguin book:
The river of time in its current bears away all the affairs of men, and drowns nations, kingdoms, and kings in the abyss of oblivion. And if, through the sounds of the lyre and the trumpet, anything shall remain, it shall be devoured in the jaws of eternity and shall not escape the common fate.
You really can't beat the Russians for doom'n'gloom, can you?
Anyway, that's how I got to know the Russian word for "abyss," which is stressed on the first syllable, dammit: "pro-past'."
What did Derzhavin have to do with bathrooms? The Penguin selections give no clue. Research continues.
His advice to me at the time was: "Don't even touch your bitcoins. Let 'em sit there for, like, years. Maybe a decade or two. Your children will never have to work!"
My friend is a bitcoin enthusiast.
Well, I have a bitcoin story. Around six months ago I decided to check how my bitcoins were doing. I tried to log in to Coinbase: userid, password.
Instead of getting me into Coinbase, this just brought up a wee screen saying: "2-Step Verification … Please install the Authy Chrome app to get your 2-factor code and login." Underneath there was a box where I should enter my 2-step verification code.
Hoo-kay. I downloaded Authy and told it the phone number I'd like my verification code texted to. In due course Authy told me it had registered my phone number. The next step, it said, was to register Authy itself with my Coinbase account.
How do I do that? "Login to the Coinbase dashboard …"
So to get a verification code in order to log in to Coinbase, I first have to log in to Coinbase.
I followed some links on the Authy and Coinbase websites. None of them was helpful. After a while I began to feel dizzy — trapped in some kind of evil logic circle leading nowhere.
At one point I actually found myself looking at a sign-in screen, complete with email and password boxes to fill, but all overprinted with a message saying: "Please sign in first to perform this action" — the action I wanted to perform being, to sign in!
It was clear that in order to log in to Coinbase, I first had to log in to Coinbase.
I sent an email to the Coinbase support address. After several days I got a reply directing me to follow the directions on the Coinbase support page … which is what I had been trying to do.
My patience for crappy, poorly-supported systems is very limited. I assumed that if I was having these issues, a lot of other people were too, and their clamor would eventually stir the Coinbase people to do something. With my friend's original injunction in mind, I left Coinbase alone for a few months.
This month, with bitcoin surging in value, I thought I'd try again. Sure enough, this time I got faster and better responses from the support desk. After only four or five exchanges with them I was able to log in and gloat at the much-appreciated value of my bitcoins.
Possibly my friend was right, I don't know. Based on my encounters with Coinbase and their systems, though, I shall continue advising my children to acquire marketable skills.
Europe's quiet corner. What do you know about Bulgaria? Until recently I knew just two things: (1) the Bulgars got a really bad press from Voltaire in Candide, and (2) there was some kind of terrorist atrocity in a cathedral in the 1920s, someone important — king? prime minister? — getting blown up.
(Checking, I find I somewhat misremembered that second one. The Bulgarian king was late for the cathedral service, which saved his life. However, "The bombing of the St. Nedelya Cathedral in Sofia in 1925 murdered 213 people, and wounded about 500 others, primarily representatives of the political, military, and intellectual elite." The bombers were communists.)
I'm a bit more knowledgeable about Bulgaria now, since receiving an email from a friendly Bulgarian. His main point was to pour cold water on my praise of Kemal Atatürk in the April 21st podcast. Sample:
I think you are giving too much credit to the Turks with respect to them having arrived at their reformist ideas endogenously, in a flash of inspiration. Besides the formative effect of the Ottomans' Balkan Christian subjects on the worldview of the secular Turkish intelligentsia of the time, the Turks had before them the example of the newly independent Balkan states that were rapidly modernising, adopting secular and civic-minded West European values, and quickly outpacing them.
Indeed the Turks suffered such a heavy defeat at the hands of the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) in the First Balkan War of 1912-13 that it must have brought this point home to them in a most resounding way …
As well as giving me a useful history lesson, though, my correspondent brought me up to date on Bulgaria. I'm obliged to him for the insights, and a bit ashamed at not knowing more about his country.
Like other former Soviet satellites, the Bulgarians are strongly ethnonationalist. As other East European countries have closed their borders to the floods of illegal aliens from the Middle East, Bulgaria has gotten stuck with several thousand of these illegals, and the Bulgars are not happy about it. They have fenced off their own border with Turkey, and severely restricted the movement of illegals inside Bulgaria.
Bulgarians know the Turks perhaps better than any other Europeans do. They spent 500 years under the Ottoman Empire; and still today, along with Greece, share a border with Turkey.
So here's a suggestion for the State Department while we have issues with Turkey, as we surely do: Hire in a few Bulgars as consultants. Don't be scared; they've improved a lot since Voltaire's time.
I am actually not one of those people. Since recovering from my adolescent sci-fi binge, I've been a meat'n'potatoes guy fictionwise. Tell me a story about people living in the world.
Jerusalem is not like that, not at all like that. Quite a lot of it takes place in the Afterlife, complete with angels and demons. The real-world parts are offered in random chronological sequence. There are long, intense evocations of childhood memories. One chapter is in verse; another is set out as the script for a play.
You get the picture: Harry Potter rewritten by Marcel Proust and James Joyce.
The metaphysics is Eternalist — roughly speaking, the view that time is just another kind of space. Einstein usually gets pulled in for support here, although the underlying idea goes back at least as far as Lagrange's formulation of Newton's physics.
Novelists have been playing with this stuff ever since popularizations of Einstein's work became part of the furniture of the modern intellectual's mind. I don't find their efforts very convincing, and my advice to a novelist tempted to this kind of thing would be first to sign up for some courses in classical mechanics — up to the Hamiltonian at least — then master tensor calculus and some basic subatomic physics, then tackle Relativity Theory in earnest, then reconsider.
That said, I approach novels of this kind with an open, charitable mind, at least until I've figured out whether the author's metaphysical preoccupations and stylistic fancies get too much in the way of his telling a story I want to read. Sometimes they don't; then he'll keep my attention.
In Moore's case they do, so Jerusalem is really not my kind of book. A chapter laid out as a play script? 'Scuse me for not being impressed by a literary stunt that was thrillingly avant-garde in 1920.
So … why am I still reading it? Because it's about Northampton, England — Alan Moore's home town, and mine. Reaching up to that fourth dimension (Moore's put me in an Eternalist frame of mind, sorry), it's even about the Northampton I grew up in during the 1950s.
Moore is eight years younger than me, but there's a big overlap in the Northampton we remember: the boathouse in Beckett's Park, the Pitt-Draffen Dance Academy, the joke shop in the old Emporium Arcade, those sleazy pubs — the Criterion, the Mitre — up by the fish market, the stink from the tanneries, … He even mentions Orme's men's outfitters in Marefair, where I worked Saturdays as a sales clerk circa 1962, and quite possibly sold the nine-year-old Moore a pair of socks.
The whole book is steeped in 1950s Northampton. There are all those Northampton surnames I remember: Perrit, Gotch, Botterill, Starmer. There are the soft drinks and candies: Tizer, Corona, kali fish. I wonder how many readers will know what an Ovalteeny was?
A lot of the characters speak in Northampton dialect, where the common verb of motion is pronounced "goo," an alley is a "jitty," the interrogative perfect tense second person is not "have you …?" but "are yer …?" and "me duck" is a friendly vocative. (Though I think Moore should have told his readers that "Mayorhold" is pronounced "Merrold" by the locals.)
No, I don't want metaphysics in my fiction; Jerusalem is way too long and loaded up with literary faults; much of it is silly, pretentious, or overwritten; the fantasy bits trail off into whimsy; the author's politics, which I'd been told are boldly anarchistic, are just conventional BBC/New York Times progressivism.
I shall likely be finishing the darn thing anyway. Proust went in search of lost time. I think I've found it.
Mokyr chews over the much-chewed-over question of why human society "took off" where and when it did — in the West, from the 16th to the 18th centuries — to give us modern technological civilization.
A sub-question within that larger one is the Needham Question. Joseph Needham himself phrased it as a two-parter:
Why did [Chinese] science always remain empirical, and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia?
I can't say that Mokyr added much to my understanding. He did play into my personal prejudices, though: against abstract philosophizing, for the "useful knowledge" of practical people. The book's hero is Sir Francis Bacon, who I wish I knew more about. Sample from Mokyr:
Bacon himself pursued the hunting metaphor tenaciously in his Advancement of Learning , recounting the myth of Ceres (the goddess of farming) and Pan, who discovered her after all gods had failed, during a hunt. This tale, Bacon explains, "contains a very true and wise admonition; which is not to look for the invention of things useful for life and civilisation from abstract philosophies … but only from Pan, that is from sagacious experience … which oftentimes, by a kind of chance, and while engaged as it were in hunting, stumbles upon such discoveries. For the most useful inventions are due to experience, and have come to men like windfalls."
That gets me off the hook. I shall never again feel guilty about not having read Hegel's Phenomenology.
Culture of Growth is a tough read itself, though. Mokyr has some interesting things to tell you, but he tells you them in a dull, heavy, dry-as-dust academic prose. "Rather plainly written," was Adam Gopnik's caution. He was being nice.
Trivial achievement of the month. I have always liked Dr Johnson's characterization of the idle rich striving "to rid themselves of the day" in pointless light pleasures. Here it is in its full context:
When we observe the lives of those whom an ample inheritance has let loose to their own direction, what do we discover that can excite our envy? Their time seems not to pass with much applause from others, or satisfaction to themselves: many squander their exuberance of fortune in luxury and debauchery, and have no other use of money than to inflame their passions, and riot in a wide range of licentiousness; others, less criminal indeed, but surely not much to be praised, lie down to sleep, and rise up to trifle, are employed every morning in finding expedients to rid themselves of the day, chase pleasure through all the places of publick resort, fly from London to Bath, and from Bath to London, without any other reason for changing place, but that they go in quest of company as idle and as vagrant as themselves, always endeavouring to raise some new desire, that they may have something to pursue, to rekindle some hope which they know will be disappointed, changing one amusement for another which a few months will make equally insipid, or sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate their bodies or exhilarate their minds.
I am not rich — not until those bitcoins fulfil their promise — and, with editors to appease and an old house to prevent from falling down, I am not idle either. I do, though, occasionally find myself with the need to rid myself of the day in some engaging but pointless task.
My choice in these situations is jigsaw puzzles. This month I completed — well, almost — an exceptionally challenging one, the Educa 9,000-piece version of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.
Here I am with the (almost) finished product.
Pointless? Possibly; but it beats sinking into languor and disease for want of something to actuate my body or exhilarate my mind.
1. Erratum. An old friend, slightly edited:
From your 5/24/17 Radio Derb Transcript, I quote this excerpt: "Europe has a population three and a half times greater than Russia's …"
I'd like to compare and contrast the phrases "greater than" (GT) and "as great as" (AGA).
Hearkening back to a 7th grade math teacher (one Mr. Phillips), I recall that AGA is a multiplication and that GT is, in contrast, an addition.
Let R be the population of Russia. Is then Europe's 3.5R (AGA) or 4.5R (GT)? You suggested the latter.
This statistics website gives the population of the EU in 2016 as 510 million and change. The CIA World Factbook gives the population of Russia in that year as 142 million and some. Dividing the first number by the second gives you 3.58. So "as great as" is right while my "greater than" is wrong.
Apologies for that and thanks to my friend for pointing it out. This particular error is the more annoying because it's one of those all too commonly made by innumerate or scientifically ignorant journalists, like not knowing the meaning of the word "galaxy."
And as my friend further pointed out, there is also the complication of how to classify Russia. Is its population regarded as a proper subset of Europe's?
Whole books have been written about that. Here's one I recommend … if you can find a copy; it's long out of print.
2. Transylvanian genius. As VDARE.com's resident expert on matters Transylvanian, I frowned at the first sentence in Osmo Pekonen's review of Tibor Weszely's János Bolyai: Die ersten 200 Jahre in the current (Summer 2017) issue of Mathematical Intelligencer. That first sentence reads:
The story of János Bolyai (1802-1860), the lone genius of Transylvania and one of the founding fathers of non-Euclidean geometry, has often been told.
"The lone genius"? I hope the reviewer means "the lone mathematical genius"; if not, he's perpetrating a slur on the people of Transylvania.
Wikipedia has an impressive list of accomplished Transylvanians. I don't know that many of them count as geniuses — I'm pretty sure that movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, for example, doesn't — but there must surely be more than one genius in there.
3. The CultMarxification of math (N-th in a series, N >> 1) The March issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society put Sir Andrew Wiles on its cover. Sir Andrew is the outstanding British mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem in 1995.
March is Women's History Month, though, a fact noted by a small tag on that cover.
So the first (of two) Letters to the Editor in the June/July issue of the Notices, occupying an entire page, is an indignant protest by Autumn Kent of the University of Wisconsin: "There should not be a man on the cover of the Women's History Month issue of the Notices …"
After 350 more words of victimological sputtering, Ms Kent concludes with:
Marginalized people are frequently and systematically erased the way that women were this March in the Notices, the way that black people were erased In the February issue.
Next year's March issue would benefit from a discussion of sexism in academia. It would be a good follow-up to a February issue addressing racism.
June is of course Pride Month, in the 21st-century meaning of the word "pride," i.e. pride in being sexually eccentric. (What happened to the idea that pride is a sin? The same thing, I suppose, as happened to the idea that buggery is a sin.)
June seems to be Autism Acceptance Month, too. Surely one or other of those — hey, why not both? — justifies a dedicated issue of the Notices.
And then, May is Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, and also Fat Acceptance Month. National Hispanic Heritage Month rather confusingly runs from September 15th to October 15th, but I guess that's a month. Muslim Heritage Month? October. Is there a Transgender Awareness Month? Of course there is!
The path to the logical end-point here is as straight and direct as it could be — a geodesic, for all you differential-geometry buffs. Every issue of the Notices should be dedicated to some grievance group or other.
Instead of being bored with fusty, socially un-woke articles about (samples from the June/July issue) "Dynamic Algebraic Combinatorics" or "The Open Mathematics of Crystallization," subscribers should have their consciousnesses raised by autistic transgender Filipinx Muslims writing about their weight problems.
That should improve the quality of American math!