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  • Nuclear Fusion Update

    Posted on October 17th, 2016 Helian No comments

    At the moment the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is in a class by itself when it comes to inertial confinement fusion (ICF) facilities.  That may change before too long.  A paper by a group of Chinese authors describing a novel 3-axis cylindrical hohlraum design recently appeared in the prestigious journal Nature.  In ICF jargon, a “hohlraum” is a container, typically cylindrical in form.  Powerful laser beams are aimed through two or more entrance holes to illuminate the inner wall of the hohlraum, producing a burst of x-rays.  These strike a target mounted inside the hohlraum containing fusion fuel, typically consisting of heavy isotopes of hydrogen, causing it to implode.  At maximum compression, a series of shocks driven into the target are supposed to converge in the center, heating a small “hot spot” to fusion conditions.  Unfortunately, such “indirect drive” experiments haven’t worked so far on the NIF.  The 1.8 megajoules delivered by NIF’s 192 laser beams haven’t been enough to achieve fusion with current target designs, even though the beams are very clean and uniform, and the facility itself is working as designed.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chinese paper is not their novel three axis hohlraum design, but the fact that they are still interested in ICF at all in spite of the failure of the NIF to achieve ignition to date.  To the best of my knowledge, they are still planning to build SG-IV, a 1.5 megajoule facility, with ignition experiments slated for the early 2020’s.

    Why would the Chinese want to continue building a 1.5 megajoule facility in spite of the fact that U.S. scientists have failed to achieve ignition with the 1.8 megajoule NIF?  For the answer, one need only look at who paid for the NIF, and why.  The project was paid for by the people at the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile.  Many of our weapons designers were ambivalent about the value of achieving ignition before the facility was built, and were more interested in the facility’s ability to access physical conditions relevant to those in exploding nuclear weapons for studying key aspects of nuclear weapon physics such as equation of state (EOS) and opacity of materials under extreme conditions.  I suspect that’s why the Chinese are pressing ahead as well.  Meanwhile, the Russians have also announced a super-laser project of their own that they claim will deliver energies of 2.8 megajoules.

    Meanwhile, in the wake of the failed indirect drive experiments on the NIF, scientists in favor of the direct drive approach have been pleading their case.  In direct drive experiments the laser beams are shot directly at the fusion target instead of at the inner walls of a hohlraum.  The default approach for the NIF has always been indirect drive, but the alternative approach may be possible using an approach called “polar direct drive.”  In recent experiments at the OMEGA laser facility at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the nation’s premier direct drive facility, scientists claim to have achieved results that, if scaled up to energies available on the NIF would produce five times more fusion energy output than has been achieved with indirect drive to date.

    Meanwhile, construction continues on ITER, a fusion facility designed purely for energy applications.  ITER will rely on magnetic plasma confinement, the other “mainstream” approach to harnessing fusion energy.  The project is a white elephant that continues to devour ever increasing amounts of scarce scientific funding in spite of the fact that the chances that magnetic fusion will ever be a viable source of electric power are virtually nil.  That fact should be obvious by now, and yet the project staggers forward, seemingly with a life of its own.  Watching its progress is something like watching the Titanic’s progress towards the iceberg.  Within the last decade the projected cost of ITER has metastasized from the original 6 billion euros to 15 billion euros in 2010, and finally to the latest estimate of 20 billion euros.  There are no plans to even fuel the facility for full power fusion until 2035!  It boggles the mind.

    Magnetic fusion of the type envisioned for ITER will never come close to being an economically competitive source of power.  It would already be a stretch if it were merely a question of controlling an unruly plasma and figuring out a viable way to extract the fusion energy.  Unfortunately, there’s another problem.  Remember all those yarns you’ve been told about how an unlimited supply of fuel is supposed to be on hand in the form of sea water?  In fact, reactors like ITER won’t work without a heavy isotope of hydrogen known as tritium.  A tritium nucleus contains a proton and two neutrons, and, for all practical purposes, the isotope doesn’t occur in nature, in sea water or anywhere else.  It is highly radioactive, with a very short half-life of a bit over 12 years, and the only way to get it is to breed it.  We are told that fast neutrons from the fusion reactions will breed sufficient tritium in lithium blankets surrounding the reaction chamber.  That may work on paper, but breeding enough of the isotope and then somehow extracting it will be an engineering nightmare.  There is virtually no chance that such reactors will ever be economically competitive with renewable power sources combined with baseline power supplied by proven fission breeder reactor technologies.  Such reactors can consume most of the long-lived transuranic waste they produce.

    In short, ITER should be stopped dead in its tracks and abandoned.  It won’t be, because too many reputations and too much money are on the line.  It’s too bad.  Scientific projects that are far worthier of funding will go begging as a result.  At best my descendants will be able to say, “See, my grandpa told you so!”

  • Nuclear Power and the Anti-Science Ideology of the “Progressive” Left

    Posted on February 22nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.”  The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism).  True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left.  As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs.  The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle.  In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century.  The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating.  “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example.  However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.

    Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious.  They are mere poseurs.  Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors.  The situation is no better in the U.S.  Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge.  Instead, they are exporting it – to China.

    As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans.  Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States.  U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China.  The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.

    I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere.  It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet.  However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves.  It was not always so.  The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.  More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s.  None has been built since.  The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor.  Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now.  The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.

    The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power.  They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs.  They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers.  Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.

    The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left.  The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials.  These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.

  • “Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

    Posted on April 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

    I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

    Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

    Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

    …for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

    It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

    The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

    In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

    As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

    Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

    Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

    The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

    Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

    The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

    Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs

  • The “Worry” of Chinese Eugenics

    Posted on January 20th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Click on the “About” link at the Edge.org website, and you’ll  find that,

    Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere.  Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.

    To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals.  This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?”  One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics.  In his words,

    When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention.  China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.

    He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:

    The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

    Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of “bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca.  However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well.  Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.”  On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.

    As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!”  All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses.  That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog.  It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs.  It exists because it promoted our survival in the past.  Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future?  Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals?  How much will all these moral niceties matter then?  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction.  The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small.  In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.

    My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future.  I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals.  For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible.  There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up.  For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice.  I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach.  However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state.  States tend to serve their own interests.  Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies.  As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving.  Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.”  It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.

    In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online.  In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally.  Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue.  To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals.  Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.

     

  • Artifacts of the Defenders of the Faith

    Posted on September 26th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast.  See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson.  If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point.  In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time.  It’s not surprising.  Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world.  Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam.  Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part.  If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse.  Much worse.

    It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by.  Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example.  The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day.  Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof.  I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.

    The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.”  I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers.  Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening.  He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between.  He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.”  Hitler was a “bad guy.”  Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.”  When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.

    In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927.  To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928.  Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head.  They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union.  The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country.  Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:

    The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate.  Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount.  The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.

    …the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great.  The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind.  The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).

    Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it.  He was an Old Bolshevik.

    Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934.  As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism.  I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time.  The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not.  For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks.  The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.

    Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon.  One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933.  Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists.  He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt.  This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time.  The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail.  Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”

    It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing.  One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance.  But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article.  Perhaps the film could do it justice.

    A sound film, of course, it would have to be.  Drums – no, not the drums first.  Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute.  Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…

    Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal.  Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question.  There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one.  The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.

    Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler.  He continues,

    Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.

    Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.

    Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact.  Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’  His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France.  There is good ground for accepting these assurances.  But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state.  To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.

    Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:

    Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.

    It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the  great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history.  It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.”  As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952.  Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”

    In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart.  Things have been worse.  At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence.  Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future.  Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.

  • …and our “Allies” Grieved

    Posted on May 10th, 2011 Helian No comments

    The European media don’t flaunt their anti-Americanism the way they did in times past.  I follow the German media, and the level of spite and hatred directed at the United States by the Internet media there a decade ago was amazing.  Der Spiegel was always at the head of the pack of baying hounds.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on their website in the maze of quasi-racist anti-American rants.  People on this side of the pond began to notice, and eventually the “respectable” media began to refrain from wearing their hatred on their sleeves.  Apparently some rudimentary sense of shame still existed among them.  However, the phenomenon of anti-Americanism is still alive and well.  Inevitably, it reappears on the occasion of any significant American victory.  The squaring of accounts with bin Laden is a case in point.  Here’s a sample of the headlines that have appeared on the Spiegel website since that happy event:

    Merkel’s Joy Outrages Critics  (The usual cheap shots from the pathologically pious against the German Chancellor for daring to approve of the raid.)

    How a Judge wants to Bring Merkel to her Senses (A terminally self-righteous Hamburg judge wants to sue Merkel for “approving of an illegal act.”)

    Bin Laden, the Victor (Psychobabble deploring the fighting of “evil with evil.” Hand-wringing over an action described as, “an assault by 79 elite soldiers, who shot an unarmed old man, surrounded by women and children.)

    Poll – Germans are not Happy about bin Laden’s Death  (no kidding?)

    American Justice  (Oh my!  It seems there are some questions about whether the operation was justified under international law.)

    Schadenfreude over bin Laden’s Death is Unworthy  (A particularly nauseating display of ostentatious self-righteousness by a “theology professor.”)

    …and so on, and so on.  All this isn’t a purely German phenomenon, of course.  Other bloggers have noted the pervasive grief in the rest of Europe over bin Laden’s demise.  Seen from a purely psychological perspective, it’s encouraging.  Apparently the Europeans still perceive us as “King of the Hill.”  After all, they would hardly have worked themselves into such a lather if Gautemala had succeeded in bumping off its public enemy number one.  It may be that China’s turn is coming, but they’re not there yet.

  • Fukushima and the Battle of the Hysterical Headlines

    Posted on March 15th, 2011 Helian No comments

    I’ve seen some wild disinformation about the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in the British and U.S. media, but the Germans take the cake.  Here’s the headline and byline that just appeared on the site of Focus, Germany’s second leading news magazine:

    A Super Meltdown is Imminent at Fukushima

    50 workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are fighting a hopeless battle – it appears that a super-meltdown is now just a matter of time. The operators anticipate explosions in the last two intact blocks.

    You’ll find a more sober assessment of what’s going on here.  I suspect it’s moot as far as the U.S. is concerned at this point.  For the time being, our nuclear industry is dead, and I will be very surprised if it experiences a resurrection any time in the next decade.  The Chinese will likely be the biggest beneficiaries of the disaster in Japan.  That country’s leaders aren’t stupid enough to be taken in by the hysteria mongering in Focus and Der Spiegel, and will likely proceed with the building of a series of new reactors as planned.  They will probably find the cost of fuel to be significantly lower than anticipated.

    UPDATE: Today’s (March 16) Wall Street Journal has a nice graphic of the six Fukushima reactors on the front page, showing the spent fuel cooling ponds all neatly ensconced above the primary containment vessel near the roof. It boggles the mind that it never occurred to the apparently brain-dead designers that maintaining the coolant levels in the ponds might be problematic in the event of an environmental disaster.

  • China: Daydreams of the Fall

    Posted on January 25th, 2011 Helian No comments

    Philosopher Nassim Taleb is famous for his theories regarding black swans, described in his book of that name as events of large magnitude and disproportionate consequence that are unexpected and unpredictable.  According to the summary of his ideas on his webpage,

    We don’t understand the world as well as we think we do and tend to be fooled by false patterns, mistake luck for skills (the fooled by randomness effect), overestimate knowledge about rare events (Black Swans), as well as human understanding, something that has been getting worse with the increase in complexity.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union has my vote for the greatest Black Swan of the 20th century.  As Taleb predicted, once it happened, it immediately became a basis for “overestimating our knowledge about rare events.”  Transformed in the public imagination from an unprecedented and unpredicted anomaly into a commonplace, it now serves as the basis for all sorts of fanciful predictions, the most prominent of which are probably the recurring reports of China’s eminent demise.  Insty just linked another typical example penned by Lawrence Solomon.  According to the first two paragraphs:

    In 1975, while I was in Siberia on a two-month trip through the U.S.S.R., the illusion of the Soviet Union’s rise became self-evident. In the major cities, the downtowns seemed modern, comparable to what you might see in a North American city. But a 20-minute walk from the centre of downtown revealed another world — people filling water buckets at communal pumps at street corners. The U.S.S.R. could put a man in space and dazzle the world with scores of other accomplishments yet it could not satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. That economic system, though it would largely fool the West until its final collapse 15 years later, was bankrupt, and obviously so to anyone who saw the contradictions in Soviet society.

    The Chinese economy today parallels that of the latter-day Soviet Union — immense accomplishments co-existing with immense failures. In some ways, China’s stability today is more precarious than was the Soviet Union’s before its fall. China’s poor are poorer than the Soviet Union’s poor, and they are much more numerous — about one billion in a country of 1.3 billion. Moreover, in the Soviet Union there was no sizeable middle class — just about everyone was poor and shared in the same hardships, avoiding resentments that might otherwise have arisen.

    Right.  Except for the fact that the Chinese economy today does not parallel that of the latter-day Soviet Union (how prominent were Soviet consumer goods in the U.S. market in 1988?), the mentality of China’s citizens has nothing in common with the descriptions of pervasive despair in the Soviet Union so poignantly described by David Remnick in Lenin’s Tomb, and the rest of these “obvious” parallels amount to a broad comparison of apples and oranges.  Such stuff might have figured prominently in Taleb’s book if it had been written a little earlier.  In a chapter about World War I, for example, he describes how no one expected it before it happened, and everyone suffered from the illusion they had known about it and predicted it all along after the fact.  They then used it as the basis for all kinds of delusional predictions, almost none of which came true.  Copious examples can be found in the intellectual journals of the decade following the war.

    Meanwhile, predictions of China’s doom have become something of a cottage industry for some writers.  Gordon Chang, for example, wrote a book in 2001 predicting China’s collapse not later than 2011, and spend the intervening years writing articles proving inductively and deductively that it must be true.  China’s leaders apparently didn’t read the book.  We have arrived at 2011, and China’s governing class seems to be as alive and kicking as ever.   Black Swans can always happen, but I will not be too astounded if they are still around and still cheating their “inevitable” fate in 2021.

    China’s rise is itself a Black Swan of sorts.  She was a basket case in the 1920’s, and still patronized as little removed from a third world country as recently as the 1980’s.  Many in the West are uncomfortable with her sudden rise to superpower status.  However, it’s unlikely she will be toppled by wishful thinking.  In the long term, her government is in a state of unstable equilibrium.  It does not govern by the consent of the governed, and bases its legitimacy on a failed alien philosophy which its economic policy entirely contradicts.  However, Rome’s government was similarly unstable during the reign of Augustus Caesar.  Somehow she managed to stagger on for another four centuries and more.

  • In the Garden of the Amity/Enmity Complex

    Posted on January 13th, 2011 Helian 2 comments

    Behavioral scientists of the old school would call the Amity/Enmity Complex a “just so story.”  In other words, it’s a universal phenomenon, observable in countless instances in both humans and other animals, inexplicable other than as a manifestation of an innate behavioral trait, but something that they find inconvenient for ideological reasons and therefore choose to deny and ignore.  To justify this seemingly irrational denial of the obvious, they demand a standard of proof that such traits exist immeasurably stronger than that they apply to “proved scientific facts,” by which they mean far flimsier hypotheses that happen to have the virtue of  agreeing with a preferred narrative.   

    Briefly put, the Amity/Enmity Complex refers to our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups, favoring the former and hating and despising the latter. As the great anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith put it, “Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”  Today the Complex is commonly referred to as in-group/out-group behavior, but I see no need to conform to the constantly shifting nuances of jargon in the behavioral sciences.

    China’s Great Cultural Revolution was a great tragedy.  It was also a perfect illustration of the Complex in action.  In 1966 the bored old man who happened to run China at the time decided that the Chinese Communist Party and society at large were permeated by a “bourgeois spirit,” and that what the country needed was more revolutionary spirit.  He decided to shake things up a bit.  What happened next is summed up in Wikipedia as follows:

    On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CPC passed its “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (also known as “the 16 Points”). This decision defined the GPCR as “a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage”:

    “Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”

    The decision thus took the already existing student movement and elevated it to the level of a nationwide mass campaign, calling on not only students but also “the masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres” to carry out the task of “transforming the superstructure” by writing big-character posters and holding “great debates.”

    In the intervening years many eyewitnesses have published vignettes of what happened next including Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, and China’s Son by Da Chen.  One of the most interesting is Born Red, a fine piece of writing by Gao Yuan.  It is a case study in how new in-group/out-group relationships emerged in the supposedly “classless” society that was established in the wake of the Communist victory, how easy it was to inflame them against each other, how seemingly insignificant and incomprehensible differences between them were magnified until they assumed earthshaking importance in the minds of the opposing factions, how loyalty to the in-group inspired acts of fearless bravado, “heroism,” and even martyrdom, and, in the end, how all the resulting chaos and mayhem were finally stopped and society returned to “normal.”  In short, the Revolution was an experiment in human psychology on a massive scale, demonstrating the manifestation of an ancient and innate human behavioral trait in a world  far different from the one in which it evolved.

    The Amity/Enmity Complex describes the interplay of in-groups and out-groups and, of course, Communism has always had its own idiosyncratic out-group.  It is the bourgeoisie, technically the private owners of the social means of production, but a term that has often been expanded to include peasants with slightly more land or slightly more productive and affluent than their neighbors, workers who were somewhat better off than average, people whose houses were larger than a certain size, or anyone else with some kind of a real or imagined privilege.  So it was that, when the Great Cultural Revolution was launched, it began with the posting of innumerable “dazibao,” or “big character posters,” attacking the “bourgeoisie.”  It couldn’t be just a vague, general bourgeoisie.  Individuals were needed.  The party helped things along with its suggestion that the “criticism” start with “reactionary bourgeois academic authorities.”  Thus, teachers and school administrators were among the first victims of the dazibao smears.  They were associated with a host of evil traits that have been associated with out-groups since the dawn of time.  For example, they were “impure” and “dirty,” by virtue of “bourgeois” parents, grandparents or other associations.  They were the essence of evil by virtue of their opposition to the embodiment of good, in the person of Mao and his “revolutionary line.”  They were guilty by virtue of association with evil incarnate in the person of Chiang Kai Shek and his Guomintang Party.  All these charges were usually baseless slander, but the “revolutionary masses” of students made them stick.  After all, in-groups must have out-groups, even if it’s necessary to invent them out of whole cloth.     

    Eventually, the in-groups began to turn their wrath against each other.  Nothing was easier than to convince themselves that the “others,” too, were “dirty,” “impure,” and “evil” distorters of the pure revolutionary line of Mao, just like the school authorities.  They began to “struggle” against each other.  Starting with dazibao, the means of “struggle” became ever more violent and destructive, escalating to fists, spears and slingshots with crude armor, homemade grenades, and, eventually firearms.  Captured opponents, people who had formerly been friends, schoolmates and neighbors, were beaten, viciously tortured, maimed, and occasionally killed.  The author tells of one young girl who, on the point of being captured by the “enemy,” committed suicide by throwing herself from an upper story window rather than be “defiled” by contact with the out-group.  Anyone who failed to take part in these sanguinary and seemingly senseless battles, or who sought to “desert,” became the target of all the opprobrium traditionally heaped on “traitors.” 

    And so it continued until Mao, finally tiring of the sport or deciding his political goal of consolidating power had been accomplished, called the whole thing off in 1969.  The active phase of the revolution sputtered on for a while, ending for good only with the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976.  Their mortal deity having passed from the scene, the contending factions forgot all the reasons for their mutual hatred that had formerly seemed of such earth shattering importance.  Disavowed by the powers that had called them into existence, and having no legitimacy but that conferred by a man who was now dead, the in-groups collapsed, and their members disbanded and went back to their “normal” lives.  In the epilogue, the author, who had emigrated to America in the meantime, recounts how he went back to visit some of his former enemies and torturers.  All acted as if the whole thing had been a bad dream.

    We have all seen it happen over and over and over again, across nations, cultures, tribes and societies of all stripes.  We have seen the incarnations of the Complex in the form of racism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, and countless other “isms.” The details change, but the fundamental nature of the behavior is always the same.  Isn’t it time to recognize the fact that our five thousand years of recorded history of the same phenomenon over and over again wasn’t just a coincidence?  If there is any reason for optimism about the Chinese experience, it is that it was neither inevitable that the Complex become active and virulent as it did, nor was it impossible to suppress and control once people with the necessary authority finally realized how destructive it had become.   If that experience is any guide, surely we are intelligent enough to control an innate behavioral trait that exists because it promoted our survival at some point in the distant past, but has now become the most likely source of our potential self-destruction.  We cannot, however, effectively control it until we recognize it for what it is, accept its existence, and stop covering our eyes, stopping up our ears, and shouting “just so story” because the Amity/Enmity Complex doesn’t fit in the “nice” world of our fond imaginations.  It’s time to end the denial.  We’ve graduated far beyond dazibao and slingshots to nuclear weapons.  It has become much too dangerous to refuse to understand ourselves in the name of preserving a world that never was.

  • The Yellow Peril: The German Media has a New Hate Object

    Posted on December 8th, 2010 Helian No comments

    Looking for Amity/Enmity Complex data points?  Look no further than the German mass media, where inspiring hatred of out-groups has acquired the status of an art form, then as now.  It’s odd, given the country’s history, but there you have it.  The hate object du jour varies from time to time, but the hate fetish itself remains.  Predictably, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was increasingly concentrated on the “one remaining superpower,” the United States.  In the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush administrations, anti-US hate mongering in the German media reached a climax that, in a favorite phrase of Dr. Goebbels in his Diaries, would have “made your hair stand on end.”  Eventually, people on the other side of the Atlantic began to notice, and the editors of Der Spiegel and some of the other major “news” venues began to realize that they could not keep it up and still expect to win any more of those prestigious international prizes for “objectivity.”  The “hate index” has declined considerably since then, but they still occasionally throw out a few chunks of red meat to the more atavistic of their fellow citizens to keep them interested. 

    Lately, the trend has again been upwards, but with an interesting twist.  The US has acquired a co-bad guy:  China.  The citizens of the Middle Kingdom should be proud.  German hate is a testimony to China’s newly acquired power and status.  She recently co-starred with the US in a Spiegel rant about our “sins” at the Copenhagen climate conference.  It seems that, based on a careful parsing of the latest Wikileaks material, the US and China formed a “pact” to de-rail the conference, no doubt as part of their greater conspiracy to destroy the earth’s climate and eradicate mankind.  According to the byline of a Spiegel article charmingly titled, “USA and China were Brothers-in-Arms Against Europe,”

    It was a political catastrophe – it’s now clear how last year’s Copenhagen climate summit became such a spectacular failure. The recently revealed US State Department documents betray the fact that the USA and China were working hand in hand. The two biggest climate sinners derailed all the plans of the Europeans.

    The article is full of dark hints about the “revelations” in the Wikileaks documents.  For example,

    It was a visit that China’s rulers could be pleased about. Towards the end of May 2009, John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had met with Vice-Premier Li Keqiang in Peking. Kerry told him that Washington “could understand China’s reluctance to accept binding goals at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. And then, according to a dispatch of the US embassy in Peking, the American sketched a new basis for a meaningful cooperation between the US and China against climate change.

    and,

    The US diplomatic papers now document how close the contacts between the two biggest climate sinners in the world, the USA and China, were in the months before (the conference). They give weight to those voices that have long speculated about an alleged coalition between the old and new superpower.

    As anyone who takes an interest in climate negotiations will have noticed, all of this and, for that matter, the rest of the “revelations” in the article are old hat.  All of it was copiously reported at the time, for example, here, here, and here.  Read through these articles and you’ll notice that, at the time, Kerry was referring to his visit as another potential “Nixon to China visit,” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also visited China at the time, hailed the climate change negotiations as a potential “game changer” in US China relations.  Under the circumstances, it’s rather difficult to understand how Der Spiegel’s astute editors could have been “shocked, shocked,” to discover the “closeness” of the discussions between the US and China only after they had waded through the Wikileaks papers. 

    The article continues with some pious remarks about the virtue of the Europeans compared to the sinfulness of the Europeans in matters of climate.  Under the byline, “The USA and China can continue to blow smoke,” we read,

    Because the US signed the (Kyoto Protocol), but never ratified it, China and America can continue to blow smoke. The Europeans, on the other hand, must reduce their use of energy. That’s why they fought for a new treaty in the days before Copenhagen: at the very least, the USA, China and the other “threshold countries,” India and Brazil, should agree to firm goals for reducing (energy use).

    Good Christians will be reminded of Luke 18; 11-12,

    The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

    As for my Chinese readers of a certain age, they will, no doubt, recognize a remarkable similarity between the Spiegel rants against their country and the slanders and innuendo in the dazibao (propaganda posters) that were so prominently visible during the heyday of the Great Cultural Revolution.  To them I can only say, if you really want to be a superpower, get used to it.

    It turns out, by the way, that the German’s are even more hypocritical than the Pharisee.  At least he actually did give alms to the poor.  When it comes to concrete results in reducing greenhouse emissions, however, they are the ones blowing smoke.  In the years between 2000 and 2007, they reduced their emissions per capita by 5%.  The “sinful” USA reduced its emissions by 5.5%.  Throw in the effect of reforestation (and it certainly should be thrown in, because it results in a real reduction in greenhouse gases) and the US reduction increases to 11%, bettering the German performance by better than a factor of two.  It would seem that the editors of Spiegel consider the striking of pious poses and signing of “worthless scraps of paper” of more importance in determining who is a “climate sinner” than actual performance.

    And what really did happen at Copenhagen?  What became of the “close relationship” between the US and China that “remained hidden” from the blinkered eyes of German journalists until they were happily enlightened by Wikileaks?  Evidently they count on both the short memory of their readers, and their inability to use Google.  In fact, the US and China began quarreling about climate change before Copenhagen, their disagreements became worse at the conference, became even more strident as the conference continued, and, according to other European observers who apparently don’t share the sharp eye of Spiegel’s editors for uncovering secret conspiracies, eventually wrecked chances of reaching an agreement.

    No matter as far as German editors are concerned.  When it comes to bashing their latest hate objects, the truth is of no concern.  If articles like this about Chinese women torturing animals, this, according to which China admits to being “climate sinner number 1,” and this, according to which China is “attacking” the West economically while its “paralyzed, weakened” victims look on are any indication, their latest hate object would be China.  Move over, USA, the new Yellow Peril has arrived.