Intellectual Capital (3)
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
This is a Part Three of a collection of the columns I wrote for Intellectual Capital during the all too brief years that publication existed. Published by Pete DuPont (former Governor of Delaware), it was a splendid collection of ideas and thoughts. It was also a victim of the dot bust.
These are presented more or less in the order they were written. The final as it appeared in Intellectual Capital was somewhat different: the editor, Bob Kolasky, managed to make them shorter, and, I hate to admit it, better. Not many editors can do that with my work. In most cases the titles were supplied by the editors.
Part Three January 1999 --
Sunday afternoon (January 24)
At the 1999 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Vice President Gore predictably came bearing gifts. He usually does. Gore likes speaking at the AAAS, because while many scientists privately think he's dumber than a box of rocks, most scientists and all scientific administrators flatter him into thinking he's one of them.
Gore has always had a particular devotion to the Internet. I recall a few years ago Gore lecturing about how he started the Internet and how it works. The people he was speaking to were the ones who actually made the Internet happen, and their comments after Gore's speech were a great deal gentler than I expected. This year his devotion manifests itself in money: Gore proposes some $366 million dollars increase in government "investment" in information technology.
This is a really poor idea.
I don't say this from dogmatic opposition to government funding of basic science; indeed, there's really no alternative, because there's no one else to look out for the future. At one time you could count on dynastic concerns to keep kings interested in the future - Charles II was very much a member of as well as a founder of The Royal Society - and great fortunes were passed down through generations, so it made economic sense to plant trees and make other investments that wouldn't mature for a generation or more. Churches looked further ahead than that. Who today would start a cathedral that everyone knew wouldn't be completed in two lifetimes?
Private industry isn't going to help with long term plans. The discounted value of a dollar in twenty years is effectively zero, and corporate management is judged on close range bottom line returns. Investors may buy stocks valued at 100 times earning, but they don't really expect to wait 100 years to get their money back; and corporate managers who allocate real money to research with no payoff in twenty years or more are going to be instant targets for hostile takeover bids. The fact is that no one but government is going to look out for our grandchildren, and basic research is more likely to benefit our grandchildren than this generation. There's nothing inherently wrong with government research in the future, and it's likely we need more of it.
Indeed, I am willing to argue that our investments through the National Science Foundation have been spectacularly successful, one of the best investments of tax dollars ever made by us or anyone else. NSF, in contrast to the National Institutes of Health and many of the other research funding agencies, developed techniques for allocating money to the best research while cutting off money to projects that shouldn't have it. You could, and NSF officials do, argue that there are some good projects left unfunded, so that NSF could use more money; but the interesting part is that no NSF officer I ever talked to wants a LOT more, and most wish that some parts of NSF had less.
The reason is simple enough, and it's not just the waste of money on useless work. The problem is that adequately funded projects attract really good people. Throwing money at a project attracts not only the top people interested in that project, but others who aren't that good: people who might be splendid at a less knotty problem, but who are simply over their heads working on this one. We need a name for those people, but I don't think of one. Second rate doesn't work: they're only second rate in some areas. They'd be first rate elsewhere; and since we don't have an oversupply of such people we can't afford to waste them. That's the first misallocation of resources. You can see it in the health sciences, where we spend something like fifty times as much money per death from AIDS than on cancer. Lately breast cancer has attracted enormous amounts of money, although lung cancer kills more women than breast cancer. The result is funding a bunch of low priority breast cancer studies while high priority lung cancer studies go begging. The very top people with something to contribute probably continue to work in lung cancer, but a lot of graduate students choose breast cancer as a specialty as career insurance. All this is easy to see, and isn't particularly controversial.
But that's the problem with Gore's jump on the Internet/Information bandwagon. It's already over funded through the marketplace. There may be some sense to Amazon.com (which has never shown a profit) having a stock market value 3 times that of the New York Times enterprises and 15 times that of Barnes and Noble (which actually has book stores and reports profits), but there's certainly no sense to all of this Internet ferment. Some of those investments are bad, and those who made them are going to lose, and that's what market economics is about. Meanwhile, there's no shortage of research funds. Several AAAS panels (Gore didn't attend any of them, of course) were in information theory and models of Internet information flow. The fundamental mathematics aren't being ignored, and if there are any interesting Internet research projects out there going begging for funds, I don't know about them.
Pouring money into the research project of the moment is precisely what government ought not be doing. The market will take care of that. What government should be doing is finding areas where there isn't any basic research but there ought to be; and alas, bureaucrats aren't very good at doing that, because almost by definition, basic research seldom has any payoff. Oh, sure, once in a while there's something spectacular, like Shockley's work on solid state physics at Bell Labs resulting in the transistors which created our modern world; but that doesn't happen often. Mostly, basic research funds look like money poured down a rat hole, candidates for Senator Proxmire's "Golden Fleece Awards", and in fact many such projects turn out to be dry wells. Good research will always pay for itself (if only by showing where it's not a good idea to invest) but it's not always easy to see that. Intelligent funding of basic research takes hard work by smart people.
Government science funding has a spotted track record. Some projects had spectacular success: the X Projects transformed aviation, and NSF funding has changed the very nature of our understanding of the physical world. Others, such as health sciences, have had mixed success, although generally doing a lot more good than harm; but some, including "research" into "regulatory science", have done a great deal of harm. Gore's $335 million for the Internet isn't enough to cause a serious distortion, but it could be the opening wedge of a campaign to take control of the most dynamic part of our economy; and that is extremely dangerous. Scientifically, Gore may be dumber than a box or rocks; but he understands policy very well, and the real danger here is that he's not just jumping on a bandwagon to gain favor with the science community.
The real danger is that he knows exactly what he is doing.
- 30 - -
If I tell you that "bits is bits" you will probably think me neither profound nor grammatical, but in fact that homely little phrase portends some dramatic changes in our lives, and will certainly revolutionize intellectual property.
A few years ago many of those working in and around the computer industry realized that digital data is all of a piece: it makes no difference whether your digital file is a document, a digitized picture, a sound recording, a movie, or all of those at once. So far as the computer is concerned it's just a stream of bits, and the only difference between a short story and Jurassic Park is length. Long files take longer to copy, that's all.
Moreover, not only is there no difference between the copy and the original, but it hasn't cost much to make that copy. It may take time to make a copy of Jurassic Park complete with sound track, or the complete works of the Rolling Stones, especially if you're using the standard desktop computer to make that copy, but the time spent is the only real cost. The media onto which you copy the files costs about $20 a gigabyte for a hard disk, and 10% of that for DVD blanks. There aren't any other costs; and if you're sending your 'product' out over the Internet, you don't even have media costs.
"Information wants to be free," goes the Internet slogan, and we see signs of that every day; and since making a copy of any particular chunk of information costs almost nothing, and distributing it across the Internet even less, most information eventually becomes freely available. Once you've paid the costs of accessing the Internet, there's little to no marginal cost for getting almost any information you like; and since bits is bits, the difference between "information" and "entertainment" is a matter of definition, and of no importance at all to the computer system; except, of course, that "entertainment" tends to larger files and thus longer times for downloading. There are ways to overcome that problem, too.
Of course creating that information isn't "free". Entertainers, writers, editors, and reporters all expect to be paid for their work. As Samuel Johnson observed, no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Finding the revenue to keep non-blockheads writing and acting and composing in a time when "information wants to be free" is the central problem of the Information Age.
The record industry is already learning this. The MP3 compression standard can be implemented on any modern desktop computer and makes it possible to send and receive almost any digital sound recording through the Internet. A night's web surfing can bring you dozens of songs and instrumentals all for free. There are web sites all over the world where the latest hits can be downloaded, and as soon as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) closes one, two more spring up. Despite all their efforts, RIAA isn't going to shut down the song traders and distributors. Appealing to listener consciences won't do it either. Residual morality may slow things down this year, but let's face it, our national leaders aren't providing us with the kind of role models to discourage immorality. Information wants to be free and bits is bits. Live with it, and learn to find new sources of revenue.
Some industries aren't in so much trouble.
For a last dozen or so years it was my responsibility to give the "Best Technology" Award at several major computer shows including the Computer Dealer's Exposition or COMDEX. About 3 years ago that award went to Texas Instruments for a new image projection system that used tens of thousands of individually steerable tiny mirrors in a computer chip to guide and focus a bright image that could be as large as a movie screen. Since then that technology has become an actual system. Eric Haseltine of Walt Disney Imagineering used one in his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last month in Anaheim. Those projectors aren't cheap, but like most high technology products they're subject to Moore's Law: twice the capability at half the price every eighteen months. It won't be long before they're cheaper than conventional film projectors.
This will have a profound effect on the movie industry. At the moment it costs about $2000 to make a copy of a feature length film. Several thousand will be needed, particularly if the film is a hit and multi-screen theaters want to have it running on more than one screen. Each film is a copy, meaning it is not as good as the original, and it's subject to scratching: most are noticeably degraded after they've been used 25 or more times. The result is that unless a film is expected to be a blockbuster, it is very difficult for it to become one, because no matter how much the demand for more copies to show, it takes time and money to make and distribute those copies. They're big, and heavy, and hard to handle.
This all changes with digital projection. Copies can be made rapidly for trivial costs, so that if a low budget film catches on the distributors can instantly increase the number of theatres showing it from hundreds to thousands. Moreover, each copy is as good as the original, and the copies never wear out.
In this situation the revenue source is obvious: theaters continue to make money despite the existence of video tapes and VCR's because theaters sell an experience that you can't get at home off your TV screen. Protecting the copies is also fairly easy: the film is to be shown on a projector that incorporates a sophisticated computer, and it would be no great trick to encrypt the distribution disks so that each one is keyed to the theatre that will show it; if you make a copy it will do you no good because you won't be able to play it anywhere else. Of course sufficiently clever hackers can defeat any such scheme, but there aren't so very many of those. Distributors can afford to lose a few hundred, or even a few thousand, copies to smart people; after all, they can't show the film in a theatre, and it's the theatre experience customers are paying for.
That won't be the same in the home market, of course, where the cost of movies on digital disks will inevitably fall to commodity prices, simultaneously putting both Video Tape Rentals and VCR Makers out of business within a decade - if it takes that long. I suspect that in five years VHS tapes and players will be as scarce as Betamax systems are today.
A decade ago, single speed CDROM readers sold for well over $500, and equipment to make a CDROM cost $25,000. Today you can't buy a new CDROM reader slower than 16X, and the best won't cost you fifty bucks; while for under a hundred you can get one that records as well. Meanwhile, Digital Video Disk drives capable of playing movies are well under $500 and will read your CDROMs in the bargain. DVD recorders cost $20,000 or so. It doesn't take rocket science to predict where those prices will go.
Add one more trend: Internet bandwidth is getting cheap. Minimum ADL digital telephone service is four times the effective speed you get with the best modem and is about $50 a month. Bandwidth isn't precisely subject to Moore's Law, but so what? It took 20 years to get data transmission speeds from 300 bits per second to 13,000, but only another five to get from 13,000 to 56,000 - and two years to go from 56,000 to ADL speeds of 120,000 bits/second upload and something over 300,000 bps download. It doesn't take rocket science to project that trend, either.
The capital cost of getting into the entertainment business is falling fast. Big entertainment companies can expect increasing competition as well as falling revenues. We live in interesting times.
Fast computers. Cheap recording devices. Fast transmission capabilities. Information wants to be free, and bits is bits. Live with it.
- 30 - -
In Which I make an incorrect prediction. Or a delayed warning, take your pick...
Last Friday I got an email from an account executive at a public relations firm. The message said "Here's the document you asked for," and sure enough there was a Microsoft Word document attached. I hadn't asked for any documents, but since I knew both the executive and the firm she works for, I opened it because I thought it was a promotion. My security system told me the document had embedded macros, but I thought that was probably some kind of animation. There are several conferences coming up, and PR firms are always looking for clever ways to get you to review their products. I allowed the document to open with macros enabled.
Immediately my hard disk began to whir and my modem lights began to flash. That wasn't any part of what I expected so I used Task Manager to shut the thing down. Too late. I had been had by the Melissa virus. I expect by now you've heard of it. The Melissa virus infects systems using Microsoft products, and mails copies of itself to the first fifty names it finds in your address book. Worse yet, it mails them as coming from you, so your friends, recognizing the source, are likely to open the document and be infected, whereupon it mails copies to the first fifty names it finds on their address books. Pretty soon your entire mail server resources are being used to mail copies of Melissa back and forth, and meanwhile it has gone to another office where the whole thing starts all over again. Last Friday a number of companies, including Microsoft, were forced to shut down email altogether.
Melissa was relatively benign, but it didn't have to be. It could as easily have begun randomly deleting files, or searching through your files and mailing copies of any document with the word "SECRET" in it to whomever it liked, or worse, going through data files and transposing numbers in interesting ways. I can think of a number of wicked things you can do in Word BASIC, and that at bottom was what Melissa was. Worse, one of the things Melissa did was to turn off the warning about macros in Word documents, so that it would be much easier for a new Word virus to infect your system.
As I write this, it's not clear what purpose, if any, the author of Melissa had in mind. One speculation was that it was a marketing scheme: the payload document, when opened, turned out to be a list of pornographic web sites, and this may have been an all too clever way to distribute that. Interestingly enough, that wasn't what I got; the document sent to me was a rather banal checklist of Do's and Don'ts for web site designers. The clear implication is that someone intercepted the Melissa virus, determined what it was, changed the payload document, and sent it on its way again. That's a pretty irresponsible thing to do.
It may seem a long leap from the Melissa virus to the NATO efforts in Kossovo, but think about it. The United States has decided that we cannot tolerate the Yugoslav Serb atrocities against the Kossovo Albanians, and is using the full panoply of high tech aerial war against Serbia. We're using our advanced smart bombs and cruise missiles, at about a million dollars a missile, to prevent light infantry actions against a poorly armed civilian population. I can't believe that any sane general thinks this can be accomplished with air power alone. If we want to bend the Serbian forces in Kossovo to our will, we will have to hurt the Serbs enough that their leaders will call off their ethnic cleansers. Alternatively, we'll have to go in on the ground, into territory that hasn't been pacified since King Phillip sent young Prince Alexander and a general named Parmenio into Illyria to suppress uprisings against Macedonia.
The Yugoslavian military isn't particularly high tech. For example, they have a lot of SA-3 and SA-4 air defense missiles, which date from the 60's. They've been planning the defense of Yugoslavia from Western attacks for at least 30 years, too. We know they have a lot of those air defense missiles, but as of now we haven't been finding many. One found us, to shoot down a $50 million dollar stealthy fighter-bomber. That won't be the last expensive airplane we're going to lose over there, either. Since each aircraft costs more than the entire Ken Starr investigation, there will be pressure to stay at high altitude and bomb large targets.
My guess is that we'll try air power for a while, and when that doesn't work we'll try bombing Serbia into submission from 25,000 feet. It won't be pretty, it will kill a lot of Serbs, but we won't be risking Allied pilots in the low-level air support missions that could help - but still not rescue - the Kossovo Albanians.
Bombing Serbia is easy, and there's no way for the Serbians to bomb us using airplanes or missiles - but there are other means. The obvious one is satchel bombs placed in American buildings both here and abroad, and when we condemn such terrorism the retort will be that bombers and missiles are no less terrifying. If Serbian saboteurs in the West confine their activities to the sorts of targets we attack in Serbia - airfields, railways, munitions plants - it might make for some interesting arguments in international law.
But this is the information age: you don't need bombs to destroy the Western economy. You don't even need to destroy anything, and since we have been trumpeting our fear of the Y2K problem and how much it will cost us, any smart Yugoslavian intelligence officer already understands this. All you need to do to mess up the west is to tie our commercial computer systems into knots: the sort of thing Melissa could have done, but didn't. This time.
But surely a backward nation like Yugoslavia can't have programmers sophisticated enough to unleash a flood of viruses whose sole purpose is to damage the West? Don't be so sure. Most of the really insidious computer viruses we know about have come from Eastern Europe. Moreover, Serbs are Slavs, and anyone who does not understand the power of the Pan-Slavic movement in Russia shouldn't be writing about that part of the world.
And I can tell you from long experience that Russians are superb programmers. They have done marvels with their limited equipment.
One final point. The Melissa virus attacked only Microsoft products. Netscape users and Macintosh systems weren't affected, nor were Windows systems that didn't run Word. Even so, vulnerable systems were sufficiently widespread that Melissa, relatively benign as it was, shut down whole companies and for a while threatened to shut down the Internet.
Biologists warn us that single crop farming is dangerous, and mono-culture agriculture in which every plant is an exact clone of all the others is especially so. We are not quite to that stage in our overall computer world, but whole segments of that world are. Can you imagine what a virus that attacks Windows could do? I can, and so can any number of Slavophilic computer programmers.
Our military adventures may have a far higher cost than the President supposes.
- 30 - -
There are lessons in plenty to be learned from the Littleton, Colorado murders, but we seem to be busy learning the wrong ones.
First, it shouldn't come as any surprise that there are a lot of alienated young people in the nation's high schools, and some of the most alienated are among the smartest kids we have. There has always been war between the geeks and the jocks, but we usually pay little attention. I'm not sure why, but it's probably because the jocks always win and we don't care much what happens to the geeks. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and the jocks won't actually kill the geeks, although I can say from experience that they can make a young intellectual wish he were dead. And of course we don't give much thought to what the geeks and nerds can do about it.
When I was in seventh grade I made half a cup of nitroglycerine. We detonated it harmlessly - well harmlessly enough. We floated it in a bottle on a hog pond, stood about fifty yards away, and shot it with a rifle. The result was more than satisfactory, distributing the contents of the hog pond - 2 feet of water and 4 feet of muck from the bottom - over a uniform distribution of about 100 yards radius. I think I mentioned that we were about fifty yards away.
So when I was in high school and feeling alienated and miserable and hating the jocks, I could and did indulge myself in a bit of fantasy about what I could do to them. All the ingredients for nitro were at hand, and I already knew I could make it. I also had some experience with butyl mercaptan and nitrogen tri-iodide, both of them easy enough to come by if you knew how, and both having extremely interesting properties. Of course I did nothing about any of this beyond indulging in fantasies.
I suppose there were multiple reasons. While I might wish I were dead, I didn't really wish it. My chances of getting away with it were small since my abilities with nitrogen tri-iodide in particular were well known to the school authorities. Mostly, though, I didn't do anything lethal for the same reason I wasn't a thief, and why the jocks didn't actually break bones: we were well brought up kids with a sound religious background, and you just didn't do that sort of thing. Like anyone else I may have had a few gnawing worms of doubt about the details of religion, but everyone I admired professed belief. Every civic event opened with an invocation by a Roman priest and a benediction by a Protestant minister, and on big occasions a rabbi participated as well. The city of Memphis made it very clear that it stood four square for religion, and didn't care who knew it.
Today it's all different. Today's kids see that the official position of the United States and their civil authorities is anti-religious; that while it is perfectly safe to disparage religion, open profession of religious values is forbidden. If one of the Littleton teachers had dared tell one of those alienated young men that God loves him even if the jocks don't, the teacher would have been out on his ear in a hurry. Today we profess to admire those who make war on religion.
And while it is possible to have morality without religion, it's not easy. Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth of the city by undermining their faith in the gods, and even he stated that were the charge true he would deserve the hemlock. Reasoning one's way to the Golden Rule is possible, but it's a job for philosophers, not for teenagers besotted with raging hormones. But that's not a lesson we are likely to learn.
Another lesson we won't learn is that more laws won't change much. Our President has said that it's absolutely certain that lives would have been saved in Littleton if we only had his new laws restricting gun purchases and explosives; as if, somehow, two young men determined to kill their teachers and classmates would not want to break the law by acquiring an illegal weapon. I don't know how to tell Mr. Clinton this, but around here guns are about as easy to obtain as drugs, and neither is in short supply. More laws are like fair words, and butter no parsnips. There's already a law against murdering your teachers and classmates.
Another lesson we aren't learning is that you really do have to pay attention to young people, particularly to bright young people who aren't doing well and who take up bizarre tricks of dress and behavior. Of course it's best to pay attention to them from the beginning. In my family we had dinner together. Every day, and you didn't miss that without an awfully good excuse. We might rearrange the dinner hour to accommodate an extracurricular activity, but we were all expected to be there, at the table, and on time, and in a civil mood. My parents paid attention, as my wife and I did with our children. I am told that family dinner is no longer the custom in the United States, and I suppose I believe it. If you eat together you have to pay attention to the children. The young people in Littleton couldn't get their parents' attention by dressing in black and leaving sawed off shotgun barrels lying around the room.
When we do pay attention, we do it in the wrong way. The stories of the Littleton aftermath are flying around the Internet: in one school, a girl with no criminal record was strip searched when she wore an ankle length black duster to school. A boy was expelled when he said in speech class that while he certainly couldn't condone the actions of the Littleton Two, he could certainly understand why they might want to do that. A girl was expelled for having a pocketknife. There's talk of banning computer games and trying to cut high schoolers off from the Internet (although we all pay the Al Gore Telephone Tax in order to get more of them ON the Internet). Kids are required to turn in their 'gothic' clothing. I could multiply those stories by the hundred. It would seem obvious to me that you don't cure alienation by persecution. It seems that first we are all "non-judgmental" allowing kids to get away with every form of rudeness and incivility, then suddenly we crack down and demand they conform to a set of rules we can't even state. Psychologists know that kind of inconsistency can drive rats crazy. It should be no surprise when it works with young people too.
We ought to be learning that enormous schools are bad. Schools where nobody knows your name, and the teachers have no control over the halls because of the sheer numbers of students in them; where even bizarre dress and behavior won't get you noticed: such schools are simply too big. Yes, I know, there are even larger high schools, and most of them don't have murder sprees. Most of them do have alienated students, and the larger the school, the more likely the alienation. Meanwhile the teachers have lost control, so that the war between the jocks and the geeks escalates. For every brooding young nerd contemplating bloody murder, there are a dozen bullies contemplating battery. According to the Wall Street Journal, in Washington DC schools things have gotten so bad that academic awards ceremonies are held in secret, lest the jocks do grievous bodily harm to the prize winners. The geeks rightfully fear being crippled. Escalation works both ways, of course: whereas it was rather difficult for me to learn how to make nitroglycerine in 1944, a smart kid can find the exact procedure in ten minutes today. Half an hour's research will turn up the formula for a rather effective nerve gas.
I said in 1979 that by the year 2000, anyone in Western Civilization will be able to get the answer to any question. We are there now. That genie won't go back in the bottle. Perhaps it is time to stop passing laws in a vain attempt to bottle the genie, and instead pay more attention to the young people who are working so hard to get our attention. Time to make the schools smaller. Time to listen to our young people instead of using them as justification for more crackdowns. ("It's for the children!")
But we won't listen. We'll pass laws, and dress ordinary cops up in SWAT outfits, and kid ourselves that we are in control.
We have sown the wind.
- 30 - -
Moore's Law states that every eighteen months computer chips double in power for half the cost. This doesn't quite translate directly to consumer price and performance for entire systems. For one thing, monitors and other important peripheral equpment depend on technologies other than computer chips. Even so, it's close enough for government work. I can today for under $500 buy a full system with monitor that I could not have touched for $2000 a couple of years ago. For that matter, flat screen monitors good enough for the fastest computer games are now available for under $1000, and those are based on chips: We can expect them to follow Moore's Law in future.
Moore's Law is empirical, of course. There's no necessary reason why it must be true, although I have seem some theories based on chip manufacture costs that try to explain it. Mostly, though, it's merely a very good description of how things have gone in the past twenty years, and most of us see no technical reasons why it shouldn't continue for another ten at least. Out past ten years there come some fundamental technological limits that we don't know how to get past. Of course thirty years ago no one knew how we would get where we are now, so there's a pretty good chance that computing power will continue to increase as prices fall for quite a long time.
No matter. We're pretty certain of another ten to twenty years of Moore's Law, and that has quite enough implications to think about.
The practical effect of all this is to put computing power - real power - into the hands of just about everyone. I said back in 1978 that by the year 2000 everyone in Western civilization would be able to get the answer to any question that has an answer. We're on schedule for that now, but carry it further. Some of the implications may surprise you.
The saying goes, God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal. Whatever the truth of that, cheap electronics will do a very great deal to equalize talents. Whatever advantage good memory has today will be much lessened tomorrow. What effect that will have on the economy remains to be seen, but there certainly will be an effect.
Longer ago than I care to remember I was science columnist for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. One of my monthly articles was about the moons of Jupiter, and as part of it I had to calculate the orbits of each of thirteen moons. This involved not only a slide rule but log tables. It took a long time to do the calculations. Not long after I did that column, Texas Instruments came out with a new scientific calculator that did fractional exponents, logs, and trig. It cost $150, which was a good bit of money in those days. I scraped it together, and it made my life a lot easier. Today you can buy that calculator shrink wrapped in drugstores for under ten dollars. More to the point, so can anyone else. My ability to use slide rules and log tables was a big advantage 20 years ago; today it's a mild curiosity.
This month you can buy a personal data assistant (PDA), such as the Palm Pilot, for a couple of hundred dollars. The Franklin Covey day planner works well with the Palm Pilot. Others use Day Runner. For that matter, the calendar, appointment, and contact manager software that comes with the Palm Pilot works well enough. All of these give a terrific boost to those who can afford them. They make our lives more efficient. How long we will have an advantage is another story: while PDA's cost hundreds of dollars today, they won't cost that two years from now.
In considerably less than a decade the PDA will not only be cheap, but it will come with both sound and image recorders for taking notes, or recording agreements and conversations. Actually, some PDA systems already have sound recording. The recordings are on small digital chips. Moore's law says they will be dirt cheap in the near future. The same chips will record digital images. I routinely use my Olympus DL-400 digital camera to take dozens of pictures wherever I go. I can throw away the ones I don't want, but why bother? They all get downloaded onto disk. Computer disk space is already so cheap it's pointless to conserve it. Just now having all those pictures gives me an advantage as a journalist. Five years from now, everyone will be able to do that.
In fact, within a few years, literally everyone will have efficient appointments management, good record keeping, near perfect memory, and access to all the books in the world. This may not have the same equalizing results as the Colt .45, but there certainly will be an effect.
Communications, calculating power, access to data, bandwidth, record keeping: all these things will be available to nearly everyone in Western civilization at such low prices that everyone will have them. The effects will be profound.
Let's look at one inevitable result:
Wall Street makes a lot of its money on the bid/ask spread: the difference between the asking and selling price of stocks. While this spread is low, typically under ¼ a share, on a volume of millions of shares that ¼ can add up. In a sense, Wall Street is playing against its customers - after all, when a broker advises you to buy stock, you're going to buy it from that broker: if it's such a great deal, why does he want to sell it? Leave that, though: the point is that the money comes from the general public and goes into the Wall Street coffers, and until recently only the Wall Street brokerage houses could make money on that bid/ask spread.
Then came small computers and the Internet. Suddenly anyone who could afford a computer and a telephone line could subscribe to a ticker service and get bid/ask spread information almost as fast as the Wall Street houses could. From there it was only a question of time until one or more brokerage houses began to offer discounts on trading commissions; and after that, it didn't take long for the day trader phenomenon to develop. Day traders jump in and out of the market when the bid/ask spread is right. In doing it, they take some of Wall Street's profits. There's plenty left for the large brokerage houses, but it's surprising how well day traders can do.
They do it by making the market more efficient. Now the market is already efficient in the long haul. One reason capitalism works and socialism doesn't was explained long ago by Hayek: it just isn't possible for a central government to gather, process, and usefully employ all the information required for efficient allocation of resources. For this reason alone a market will inevitably be more efficient than a central command economy. More efficient - but not perfectly efficient. There is still an information processing lag. Over the long haul a capitalist market is quite efficient, but not necessarily for the short term, and the shorter the term, the greater the inefficiencies. It is because of those inefficiencies that Wall Street can make money on the bid/ask spread - and day traders, by working for a smaller profit than Wall Street wants, eliminate some of those inefficiencies.
That trend will continue to its logical stopping point: when the market gets so efficient that day traders can't make wages trying to operate in the steadily decreasing margins Wall Street demands.
That's just one unexpected consequence among hundreds. If anyone tries to tell you the computer revolution is over, laugh. It's just beginning. Like it or not, we live in interesting times.
- 30 - -
Now that we have achieved victory in Kossovo, what are the lessons learned? What did we achieve?
Of course we don't know the final chapter, so we can only speculate about short term effects; but presume that all goes well, and we're not taking casualties in a bloody guerrilla war. What will that mean?
First, of course, it will be long and expensive. Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti is cheap by comparison. Of course no one is touting Operation Restore Democracy as a victory any longer, and most of the Administration just wishes we'd all forget about it. On the other hand, the flood of refugees has been halted, our troops are safe enough in their enclaves, and things aren't getting worse; and of course Haiti is in our hemisphere, and we do have some obligations to keep the peace here.
Kossovo will be a lot stickier. The expected standard of living is higher, and there used to be a more or less developed country there until we began bombing it. At the least we'll have to rebuild what we flattened: with luck that won't cost more than $50 billion. That's a fair amount of money, but it's pretty cheap compared to what it could cost. Let's hope it won't be a lot more. Secretary Albright assures us that the Europeans will pay most of it, a sort of Marshal Plan for Kossovo. Assuming she's right, we'll only have to put up $25 billion (plus the cost of the war, say another $10 billion).
The one thing you can be sure of is that our NATO allies won't want any large numbers of Albanians settling in their countries. It's all right if the US takes them, but the rest of NATO doesn't want them.
Of course at $50 billion NATO could have bought Kossovo - few Albanians would have refused to sell out for $5,000, much less $50,000. Fifty billion dollars would not only have bought the whole place in fee simple, but would leave enough money to pay Disney to build Kossovo-Land, or Field of Crows Land, complete with monorails, airports, tourist attractions, and an EPCOT center. Still, $50 billion isn't all that bad. The market is over 10,000. We can afford it, and if the Europeans kick in for half or more, that's even better.
Alas, there's the KLA to deal with. They've already made it clear they don't intend to disarm, and they've got scores to settle in Serbian blood. If everything goes just right, the US won't need troopers in Kossovo for more than a generation while we send in school teachers to bring up the children of these Albanian refugees in New Age enlightenment. After all, many of those Albanians are the children of Mussolini's army of occupation and Wehrmacht collaborators, brought in to fight the Serbians who were our allies fifty years ago, and we've forgotten those old quarrels. Now the Albanians have German soldiers to help them fight the Serbs again, just like the old days, but the Germans are our allies in Yugoslavia now. If we can let bygones be bygones in only a generation, surely the Albanians can?
But if they can't be taught New Age Enlightenment, then it's going to cost some more blood and treasure to keep the KLA from implementing its dreams of a Greater Albania. We went into Kossovo, supposedly, in order to stabilize the region. When the Albanians use Kossovo as a base for incursions into Macedonia and Montenegro, it will be interesting to see just whom the Germans aid, and what stability will mean then.
Then there's the long term effect on our relationships with Russia. Of course we are encouraged to treat the Russians as toothless and mangy bears, dreaming of a time when they were a Great Power. What can they do? Can't we just ignore them? Serves them right, anyway.
If the short term effects of our victory are clouded in fog, the longer term effects are as clear as a bell. First, we have sent an unambiguous message to every country on Earth: there is no longer any sovereignty that matters unless you have military power and lots of it. International law, which originally rested on sovereignty; the various WW II and Cold War treaties that guaranteed European borders; and the UN Charter, are all no more than scraps of paper. There is only one possible guarantor of sovereignty now: you may still be sovereign if you have nuclear weapons. You certainly are not if you don't.
This lesson has not been lost by India and Pakistan, nor is it likely to be ignored by Iraq and Syria. Turkey, with its record of ethnic cleansing of Armenians and Kurds will surely understand. Indeed, any country with a sizable alienated minority will soon be in the market for nuclear weapons. Indonesia comes to mind: but since their despised minority is Chinese, they won't be able to buy nukes from the usual arms merchants of Asia.
The Chinese have always been in the weapons business. It's one of the ways they support their army. They've been reasonably careful not to supply potential enemies (they undoubtedly helped Pakistan but not India develop the bomb), but they're no longer the only world source for weapons designs and fissionable materials. Now Russia has a pretty strong incentive to sell nukes, if only to put one in our eye. They aren't a maritime power, and they have no interests in the Malay Straits.
The Chinese have more advanced weapons designs than the Russians (or the designers at Los Alamos Laboratory certainly believe so) but the Russians have enough fissionables to make 22,000 warheads we know of, and the primary of a thermonuclear device counts as a nuke even if the secondary doesn't go off properly. Sure, a full 300 Kiloton hydrogen bomb makes a bigger bang, but even the 20 KT primary atom bomb will do in a city: ask them in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We also learned that clean surgical wars, even against a country with an economy comparable to that of South Dakota, need lots of weapons, far more than we used to keep in the inventory. If we are both swift and lucky we may be able to replace those smart bombs before someone threatens a place in which we have real interests: South Korea, or Taiwan, for example. We learned that we don't have enough transport and rapid deployment capability; that needs to be fixed. Look for increases in the military budget, probably enough to wipe out the "surplus"; another long term effect of our glorious victory.
Of course South Korea and Taiwan aren't stupid: they too see that you're no longer really sovereign unless you have a few nukes. I wonder who'll be first to sell them some?
We live in interesting times, and our victory in Kossovo will, I fear, make them more so.
- 30 - -
China: Two Nations or One?
Samuel Johnson remarked that people seldom need educating, but they often need reminding. Recent articles on Taiwan new policy of "Two Nations" rather than "One China" demonstrate that. The origins of this new threat to world peace - and alas, it is that - are lost in what is history to most Americans, and even those of us who lived through it have forgotten much.
On the surface it should be obvious that Taiwan and Red China are different countries. Taiwan is an industrialized island democracy with a fast growing economy, one of the Asian Tigers helping to fuel the world economic boom. The People's Republic of China is a gerontocratic tyranny whose vast economic potential is saddled with a command economy, an Army that owns many industrial and agricultural enterprises, and a huge bureaucracy. The astonishing fact isn't that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hiu has finally said that Taiwan is a separate and sovereign nation, but that it took so long for him to do it.
Red China has the same reasons for claiming Taiwan is part of China as Milosovec has for claiming Kossovo is part of his Serbian Yugoslavia; but why would Taiwan go along with the fiction that Taiwan neither is nor should be a country separate from Mainland China?
It started in 1911 when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Empire and proclaimed the Republic of China. The result was what usually happens in China when Peking loses the Mandate of Heaven and there is a new dynasty: many of the provinces, often aided by foreign powers, go their own way and become the personal fiefdoms of local warlords. It was no different after 1911, and the first major task of the new Republic was to get control of the country and prevent it from breaking apart. This wasn't easy. Corruption was widespread both in Peking and the provinces. Some of the warlords gave better and more honest government than the Republic's bureaucracy. Japan set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. Russia sponsored the Chinese Communists who waged war against the central government even as Imperial Japan invaded the country with a view to dismembering it.
[Taiwan wasn't even part of China then. For a history of Formosa, which was a Spanish and then Dutch colony planted among apolitical aboriginals until conquered by the Warlord Koxinga the last Ming general, click here. The Ming Dynasty managed to take Formosa from Koxinga's son, beginning Chinese Imperial rule on the island. That didn't last long either, and Taiwan became at various times a province of China, an independent Kingdom, an independent Republic, and a Japanese colony. JEP 2003]
When World War II broke out, the United States, traditionally the foreign power with the best relations with China - we had always demanded an "Open Door" trade policy as opposed to concession territories and colonies - recognized the strong man Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT, Union of all peoples or Nationalist) Party), as the only legitimate government of China. All of China, including breakaway provinces, and the newly restored Taiwan which the US caused Japan to give to KMT China rather than restore as a Republic. This was in part due to the enormous popularity in the United States of Madame Chiang, a Catholic member of the Soong banking family, who spoke perfect English and toured the US charming nearly everyone she met. As a result, when the war ended and the United Nations was formed, China was given one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council (along with the US, Britain, France, and the USSR); thus Chiang's Nationalist China was recognized as a Great Power and treated as such, and included Taiwan/Formosa as one of its provinces.
Stalin agreed to all this, but his support was for the Chinese Communist insurrection under Mao Tse Dung. Note that all parties, were agreed at this point: there was only one China, Taiwan/Formosa and the Pescadores (which had their own history, at one time being the French Hong Kong) and the Nationalist government was the recognized government of it.
Things stood this way until the Chinese Communists won control of the mainland. Chiang Kai-Shek took his Nationalist Party Army and a million mainlanders including most of his government to the island province of Formosa (now known as Taiwan), where he formed a government, not of Taiwan, but of China itself, retaining the name Republic of China. It was a dictatorship. A majority of seats in the parliament were reserved for mainland provinces, which meant they were held in perpetuity by Chiang's old friends (and their designees after they began to die off). The local Taiwanese were represented only as a province (there was a provincial government, but it had little power). Like Spain under Franco, the Nationalist government of Taiwan (code named here CHINATS) gave reasonably efficient if corrupt government, and plenty of economic liberty including property rights and economic rule of law, but permitted no political activity beyond boosterism. Dissent was suppressed, not as brutally as on the mainland, but quite thoroughly.
It was known as the Republic of China or ROC, as opposed to the People's Republic of China or PRC (code named here CHICOMS). The Republic of China (CHINATS) retained the official embassies in all non-communist countries including the United States, and US officials attended the official Independence Day parties on October 10 celebrating the official proclamation of the Republic by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. In nearly all countries outside the Communist bloc the ROC was recognized as the only government of all China, Taiwan and mainland alike. China was one country.
The People's Republic had precisely the same view, except that they claimed their Communist Party, not the Nationalists on Taiwan, were the legitimate government. Since they were clearly the de facto government of most of China, this was a strong argument. Many thought the sensible thing to do would be to recognize the PRC as the de facto ruler of the mainland and the ROC as de facto rule of the Taiwan, and leave the question of de jure recognition out of the picture. After all, Taiwan had spent about as much time as an independent Republic as it had as a province of mainland China.
This was impossible for two reasons. First, neither ROC nor PRC would permit it: recognize one and the other would break off relations. Since the Nationalist ROC despite its smaller size was vastly more important as a trading partner, this presented a real dilemma to many mercantile nations. In those days mainland China was a vast sea of poverty made worse from time to time by imbecile policies like the Great Leap Forward, drives against Foreign Devils, and a campaign to kill every sparrow in China since they ate grain (as well as insects, which flourished after the birds were killed). It was pointless to trade with mainland China. They had little to trade, and what they had was generally made by slave labor.
Secondly, there was a strong moral component to not recognizing the PRC. Senator Thomas Dodd (father of Senator Chris Dodd who shares few of his late father's views) was Chairman of the Committee of One Million against the Recognition of Red China, and there was a very active movement to punish any US official who advocated recognizing the PRC. This movement was strongly supported by the Republic of China, which still insisted there was only one China, and that they would one day take their rightful place in Peking as its government.
In those times Red China would sometimes mobilize in an attempt to retake Formosa by storm. Sometimes they bombarded offshore islands held by the Nationalists. Whenever they did, the US would send a fleet and threaten war. After the Korean War, in which Red China intervened through the cover story of "volunteers", it was a truism that the US should never again become involved in "a land war in Asia", but our Fleet was invincible in the area, and both Navy and Air Force planes flew over China pretty much at will.
There were also some signs that the Nationalist wishes weren't entirely based on air. There was the "Walking Rice" program. Unarmed Taiwanese officer cadets would be dropped onto the mainland and walk to the sea. They carried radios and called in air drops of rice to each village through which they passed. Chiang claimed this showed that his officers had some jurisdiction in China. It certainly showed that a lot of the mainland people were hungry enough not to kill Santa Claus. Meanwhile there was widespread poverty and actual famine on the mainland, while Taiwan grew more wealthy.
Then came the break between PRC and USSR. China had conceded a great deal of territory to Imperial Russia. This was not important so long as both nations were communist, but it became so when their affair was broken off. Red China stumbled toward industrialization, and the development of nuclear weapons. Some saw this as a major new threat to the West. There was even a movement to work with the USSR to "enucleate" China: that is, a joint US and USSR air strike on the PRC uranium separator plants. This was seriously considered at one time in the Johnson Administration.
Most importantly, Red China was part of the Communist "containment" area. The US Cold War strategy of containment, first publicly articulated by George Kennan but refined and developed by Stefan Possony of the Hoover Institute, said that communism couldn't work without expansion: coop them up to stew in their own juice, and communist societies would come apart. It would work to bring down the USSR without war, and it would do the same for China; it took only time and courage. Both Korea and Viet Nam were fought as part of containment. Containment would bring down both USSR and Communist China if given a chance.
Nixon and Kissinger saw things differently: a working alliance with PRC would be a way to put great pressure on the USSR, which was seen as the only real threat to the US. Kissinger in particular thought the Cold War was unwinnable because the American people didn't have the will and stamina for victory: better to negotiate a détente, cut the best deal we could and hope a victorious Communist Empire in Europe and Asia would let the US live, at least during our lifetimes. To that end Nixon went to China, and the long path toward recognition of the PRC as the real government of China began.
[Note that Possony approved of the Chinese de facto Alliance: The USSR was very vulnerable to threats from China, and pressure on the USSR from China was valuable in keeping the USSR from economic investment to shore up the regime. JEP 2003]
During all that time the old mainlanders who governed Taiwan insisted that there was only one China; better to allow the Communists to take over the perquisites of a united China than to admit there were two China's. This suited the PRC fine, and since neither side was in favor of two China's the US went along with the myth, and thus were lost several opportunities to extract Red China's recognition of the de facto division into two Chinas as part of our deal in resuming trade relations with the mainland.
That's the history. Today it's different. The Soviet Union is no more. Mainland China is wealthy enough to offer some trade possibilities (although last time I looked Taiwan is a more important and valuable trading partner than the mainland [probably no longer true; JEP 2003] ), and contributes to US political campaigns. Most important, though, the former Republic of China, now better known as Taiwan, is governed by a president elected by the local population, and a legislature that no longer reserves most of its seats for old men in exile. There remains some veneration for elders on Taiwan, but nearly all of the influential Taiwanese were born there, and while some are descendents of mainlander exiles, most are Taiwanese by ancestry as well. Red China has a mighty army and is developing a navy; there's little hope that Taiwan could ever invade the mainland, while military operations in the reverse direction become increasingly possible.
And finally, the US has used up much of its naval strength in the Balkans, where we have no interests, and have made no promises; so that we don't have a lot left to defend Taiwan, which has at least as much right to independence as Kosovo, and where we have strong commitments of national honor and many ties of promises made. Make no mistake: Red China has the same legitimate claim to Taiwan as Serbia does to Kosovo, but no more.
The current administration was undoubtedly surprised by President Lee's recent shift to a "Two Nations" policy; but then the current [Clinton] administration has never paid much attention to Taiwan, which it regards as a Republican ally. It is now clear that we're going to have to develop a new policy, fast, and do it while we try to restock our weapons used up to achieve our great victory in the Balkans.
Bismark once said that God looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America. We can hope he was right, but perhaps it is time we gave the Almighty some assistance by looking out for our real interests instead of piddling away our strength in places where the outcome doesn't matter. Taiwan and the Formosa Straits are an area of real interest.
We live in interesting times.
- 30 - -
The pace of technology is accelerating, and we aren't really adjusting. We aren't even building the mechanisms for adjustment.
Example: The other day some wretched thief broke the window of my Explorer to steal the cell phone. It did him little good. He got four one-minute calls out of it before the phone company turned it into the equivalent of a block of wood. Two of those calls were to his home, which wasn't the brightest thing ever done.
Reporting it was another story. I spent half an hour going through automated telephone trees to get to the phone company so I could report the telephone stolen, then another half hour getting to the police. A human police officer then informed me that he couldn't take a theft report of a stolen cell phone over the telephone: I would have to get a copy of my telephone service contract and bring that to the police station: then and only then could they take my report.
My first thought was that this is an explanation of why crime statistics are down. It's not that we have less crime, it's that we can't report it.
In order to get my telephone replaced - I have handset insurance - I must have a police report number. To get that I have to get the telephone contract. To get that I have to go to the store where I signed up for the service. They don't have copies of those contracts at a central office. This leads me to wonder what would happen if I decided to stiff them on the phone bill by claiming they had no contract with me: how would they ever find it? When I went to the Pacific Bell phone store, they needed the exact date on which I signed the contract. Those contracts are filed by date, not by name or telephone number. I didn't remember the date. They couldn't find the contract.
Back to the house, back through the telephone tree, eventually to Pacific Bell. What was the date my service began? December 24. Ah. Back to the phone store. Armed with that date they found my contract and gave me a copy. Now out to the North Hollywood Precinct headquarters. Beautiful building, one of the newest in Los Angeles. Stand in line: there are two others reporting stolen cell phones. Eventually it's written up. I still don't have a report number. That will take another few hours to assign.
Next day I get the report number. Now I can spend another half hour on hold to the telephone handset insurance company. They can't take any of this over the telephone, but they can send me a form by fax. I get it, fill it out including the police report number, sign it, fax it back. I will hear from them in two working days, they say. So far I have not, but we'll see.
By now USAA insurance - the only competent organization among those I have dealt with, so far as I can tell - has sent out a chap in a van who replaced the glass window. There's a tiny dent - what my son calls a "new car dent" that I ought to have fixed but probably won't. The window works. I have my Explorer back.
The entire incident cost $241 to replace the glass; half an hour to arrange to have the glass replaced and go meet the repairman; and five and a half hours to report the crime. I'm in the middle of a novel, and the cost in my time far exceeds any of the other costs. Most of the time lost was due to telephone trees and the silly policy requiring me to get a copy of the contract. It would have been more cost effective simply to arrange to have the glass replaced, and buy another telephone. That would have taken about half an hour to report the phone stolen to Pacific Bell, and half an hour to arrange for the glass replacement. Leave the police out of it.
Crime isn't down, it's reporting crime that's down.
Second case of technology racing past our systems for dealing with it: digital zombies.
Today at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group, Graphics) which is the annual goshwow show on graphics technology we saw the usual 3D dinosaurs, haunted houses with morphed objects and live bedposts, and new tools for creating movies. We also saw Steve McQueen driving cars not invented before he died.
Making three dimensional recordings of actions and activities of a living actor, then using the recordings to build a computer model which can then be used to generate new activities the actor never did, has been possible for several years. There is a Bruce Willis film made that way. What we saw today was different: they took two dimensional film records, used those to generate a three dimensional model of the actor, and then let the model do things Steve McQueen never did.
Computer graphics aren't up to creating a human being from scratch. It looks pretty good, but you have no suspicion that it is real. However, when you take a sufficiently detailed model of an actual human and add new actions, those can look quite real.
All of which leads to the question, who owns these digital zombies? Does the studio which made the film? There's no questioning that clips form one or more copyrighted films were used to generate the model. However, not one frame of the new footage ever appeared before. It's not a copy of an old picture. The actions and dialogue and plot are all new. The only points of similarity are that the actor looks like Steve McQueen.
Does his estate own the rights, then? How? Not through contract. McQueen never posed for those pictures, and this kind of thing wasn't dreamed of while he was alive.
Future contracts will probably deal explicitly with these rights where movie stars are concerned. What about the rest of us? There's certainly enough footage of Richard Nixon or John Kennedy or William Clinton to build a 3D model which would then move and act like the originals, enough so that you'd be unable to tell this wasn't genuine. Would the resulting footage belong to the estates, the creative artist who made the new film, or the public domain?
What about private citizens? Who owns rights to their digital zombies?
Lest you think all this a theoretical exercise, understand that the equipment to build these digital models and create new actions from them now costs considerably less than fifty thousand dollars, and is subject to Moore's Law: twice the performance at half the price every eighteen months. In six years it will be down to desktop computer prices. After all, a better machine than the million dollar Cray-One that Ron Cobb and his art group bought to generate action sequences in The Last Star Fighter now sits on my desk: I'm writing this with a more powerful machine.
Final note: For under twenty thousand dollars you can buy the equipment to set up a blue screen room in your closet. You sit or stand or move in your closet which is draped with a new cloth that isn't even blue, and take pictures with an ordinary digital camera such as the new $2000 Sony. Now mix in scenes from Moscow or Patagonia or San Francisco Bay for background. It comes out broadcast quality, and while a technical expert can determine that the background is fake, most viewers won't be able to. That's twenty grand today including the camera, a quarter that in five years.
Now consider that I've described a tiny fraction of the marvels available to all of us, and that no more than ten percent of the Congress has the foggiest notion of how any of this works. New telephone systems made communications more difficult as we, with increasing frustration, try to work past automated telephone trees to make contact with a human being. Heaven alone knows what side effects the new digital technologies will have - or what a mess a technologically ignorant Congress will make of them.
We live in interesting times.
- 30 - -
THE GRAND INQUEST OF THE NATION
Most of us knew all along, there was very little truth in the official story about the Waco Massacre. Even now as the official story is changed to cover new physical evidence - tapes of conversations, and canisters of pyrotechnically activated tear gasses - the coverup stories continue. All this thrashing does far more harm than good. Are they trying to make us believe the worst?
Napoleon Bonaparte once said "Do not ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence," and the official story echoes that. Both the FBI and the BATF are willing to admit to grievous mistakes so long as the record shows that they acted in good faith: that they are, however tarnished by incompetence, the good guys, so that the final judgment at Waco must be that the good guys won. So long as that is the bottom line, the rest is unimportant.
It's axiomatic in Washington that it's not the initial crime that gets you in trouble, it's the cover up; in the Waco case, the official story is that there wasn't an original crime. The cover up, the story goes, had two motivations, the normal human desire not to appear grossly incompetent, and secondly, to allay the fears of the public, lest there be hysterical rage leading to acts of rebellion; and lest the citizens have an hysterical fear of their own government.
The trouble is that a good part of the public no longer believes a word of it. There always was some suspicion that the real truth never came out. Now there's certainty. It has got to the point that a significant number of people now believe that the agents in charge at Waco did not mean for anyone to come out of that bunker alive; that this was hot blooded murder, quite competently carried out; that there was no incompetence at all. And while that seems fantastic, it is no longer any more fantastic than the official story; and the longer the official story is told, the more people will believe that this is a cover up of something far worse than incompetence.
The only way to lay this growing body of suspicion to rest is to get and publish the real story; and that is going to require that the Congress put aside partisan notions, depart from politics, and act as the Grand Inquest of the Nation.
I put this to Congressman Newt Gingrich during the period between the election of November 1994 and the swearing in of the new Congress. I said then that the Waco Massacre was going to haunt America until the truth, however ugly, came out. Alas, his reply was "Not interested." He had, he thought, far more important things to accomplish. There was, after all, the Contract with America. I tried to argue that the official story at Waco would undermine America's confidence in our government; but I got a repeat of the first reply, "Not interested." And that was that.
Now everyone is interested.
Consider the problems with the official story.
Almost no one now doubts that the original raid was needless. There was not the slightest indication that Koresh and his people would resist agents demanding the right to inspect the premises. At least one of the Branch Davidians held a Federal Firearms License, entitling the authorities to inspect without a warrant. The Davidians knew this. The local sheriff had been to the premises without incident. Koresh himself regularly left the campus. There was no reason for a massive raid other than to generate publicity for the raiders.
That wasn't enough. On the basis of no evidence whatever, the BATF swore they had reason to believe that there was a drug factory in the compound. This entitled them to aid from the military including helicopters, making the raid even more spectacular; but it was in clear violation of the posse comitatus act whose purpose was to remove the US military from civilian constabulary power. Having sworn to lies to obtain a no-knock warrant - having acted in malice - the BATF then carried out the raid with less than minimum competence. No one knows who fired the first shots. Years ago in Lebanon the first shot was fired accidentally as a sergeant's pistol discharged while he climbed a ladder. Who is to say that didn't happen at Waco?
One thing we can say is that the BATF agents fired wildly and indiscriminately at a house known to be occupied by women and children. Everyone watching saw one BATF agent crouching behind an automobile, his sub-machine gun firing wildly toward the house while he remained behind the car unable to see where he was shooting. This technique is known as "spray and pray" and is almost guaranteed to produce results you don't want. There were BATF agents trying to enter the house while the shooting was going on. Casualties to friendly fire are not merely possible but likely.
So far, though, we have minor malice - manufacturing the need for a spectacular raid to impress the incoming administration - and major incompetence.
Then the FBI came aboard.
We can assume the Congress competent to ask the obvious questions about the conduct of the siege. Why were supposed adults playing recordings of the sounds of death? Why were the dying screams of animals being broadcast to a house full of children? Was it seriously supposed that doing this would cause a frightened group of religious people to trust that their government meant them no malicious harm? Was this supposed to increase the Branch Davidians' confidence in the FBI?
These are the obvious questions, and we can trust the Congress to ask them.
Some questions aren't so obvious.
Not many people had heard about the Ruby Ridge tragedy while the Waco incident was playing out to its fiery end. Still, the final act was gruesome enough, an unarmed mother shot to death while holding an infant. The official story was that this was a regrettable accident. No malice at all, and only minor incompetence. Later that story would change, and courts would award the survivors substantial damages. But from the beginning the one thing all could be sure of was that something went very wrong. Officers of the United States are not supposed to shoot down unarmed citizens in their homes. Whatever happened at Ruby Ridge should not have happened, and it shouldn't happen again.
Except that it was bound to. At the time few of us were aware that the FBI commander at Waco was Richard Rogers, the same man who had been in charge at Ruby Ridge. Rogers had been in command of an operation that went very sour. Here was a chance to do far more damage. Why let him command?
What none of us knew was that Lon Horiuchi, the trigger man at Ruby Ridge, was also present at Waco.
This puts things in a far more sinister perspective. Not only do we have the man who changed the rules of engagement from "return fire" to "shoot on sight", but we have with him, in a position of authority, armed with armed subordinates, West Point graduate Lon Horiuchi, the man willing to carry out the "shoot on sight" order.
That is an important question the Grand Inquest of the Nation should ask: who brought in the butcher of Ruby Ridge and gave him a gun? Who thought it a good idea to have Lon Horiuchi present? Why did Rogers want him there?
Another question: we are told that the pyrotechnic grenades were not fired at any flammable part of the compound, and their purpose was to "close off an avenue of escape." This sounds plausible until you think about it; then it comes apart. Close off an avenue of escape? Escape to where? The place was surrounded. No one was going to leave the vicinity. There was no escape to freedom. If the purpose of all that operation was to get people to come out, why fire grenades in an attempt to prevent just that? Just what were they escaping? Flaming death?
We have the commander at Ruby Ridge, assisted by an officer he knows will not hesitate to shoot to kill, commanding an operation against a wooden structure. The wind is hot and dry and rising. The only light inside the buildings are kerosene lamps, and not only is the structure highly flammable, but bales of hay have been used in lieu of armor. The place is a tinder box and any damn fool would know there was a risk of fire: so the Fire Department is kept a long way away. This is at best depraved indifference, but it gets worse. Lon Horiuchi is out there with a gun in his hand. Tanks tear down the structure.
One would think any rational person would predict uncontrollable fire under those circumstances. And when the place burns down with 17 children inside, the doors are removed as evidence and "lost", the building is bulldozed, the soil and debris including any evidence of pyrotechnic grenades is removed to places unknown. The BATF flag is hoisted above the smoking ruin. Later an American flag is raised as well. One wonders if anyone thought to sing about the land of the free and the home of the brave as the Stars and Stripes rose over the site of a massacre?
And for six years we are told that no pyrotechnic grenades were fired. Yes, yes, we know that the Symbionese Liberation Army was burned out by use of those devices, so certainly we wouldn't use them here. Unfortunately, the chance to prove they weren't used is gone because the debris was removed, but trust us, we're from the FBI. Would we lie to you?
Only, it turns out, for six years we have heard lies.
I don't know what happened at Waco. I do know that Richard Rogers and Lon Horiuchi were there, and they were already responsible for one of the most shocking incidents since Reconstruction. Why, given their record, were they there at all? Do I really believe that officers of the United States deliberately pursued a 'allow none to escape' policy? That they intended that everyone die in the fires? Not really. Yet - if that happened, the very people you would expect to see were in charge. Why?
The Waco massacre will remain a festering sore until it is lanced; until the truth, however horrible, comes out. It doesn't take any special investigators. It doesn't take a national commission. We have an institution for getting to the bottom of things. The Congress of the United States has always been the Grand Inquest of the Nation. Let it be so now.
- 30 - -
October 4, 1999
The TV advertisement shows a group of concerned Japanese executives around a table. They're worried because their only supplier has raised the price of a critical item. Down at the other end of the table are some junior executives concentrating on a laptop. "An offer just came in on the Internet. It's half," one announces.
The day is saved. A Texas company offers to sell valves for half what the Japanese supplier wanted.
This is a model of the future: a traditional supplier is dramatically undercut by a previously unknown competitor from halfway around the world. We leave out details, such as performance guarantees and quality assurance - Japanese manufacturing companies with their "just in time" inventory controls are particularly concerned with avoiding incoming inspections and other quality-related delays - but the essentials are there. In the Information Age, all competition is global.
Of course all the structures aren't in place. Right now you can grow a long beard waiting for the "shopping cart" to come up, shave it off waiting for the system to recognize your password, and grow it again before your commerce is done. It won't actually take as long to buy a used book from, say, Powell's as it will to drive down to Hollywood Boulevard and find it in one of the remaining book shops, but it will certainly seem so. That will eventually be fixed. Already about half the new cars are bought through some kind of Internet activity, and dealers order pre-sold cars. That trend too can only continue.
The quality control issue isn't quite so simple. The great secret of Japanese productivity is inventory turnover. In 1973, Japanese automobile companies had inventory turnover rates of 15 and greater: that is, they used up all their inventory of parts fifteen times a year. By contrast, American companies were running at a turnover rate of about 6. By 1983 the United States had doubled that turnover rate to 12 - but the Japanese had moved to 40 or so. In 1994 the comparable rates were around 20 for the United States and over 130 for Japan.
Turnover rates are important because the cost of capital tied up in non-productive inventory is one of the major costs of a manufacturing business.
How have the Japanese achieved these astonishing turnover rates?
The first factor is quality assurance. In Europe, which has lower turnover rates than the United States, the job we call "assembler" is called "fitter": small parts are made to fit, sometimes by reshaping. This requires a lot of skilled hand labor, and is expensive, but does result in job security so long as the company is able to survive. American workers aren't expected to reshape parts that don't fit; instead they draw another from inventory. The number of bad parts reaching the assembly line is kept down by inspection of incoming parts.
In Japan there is no inventory: their high turnover rates are achieved through rigid application of the "just in time" system in which parts go direct from receiving to the factory floor without preliminary inspection. This was the practice for a long time, and small computers have made it even more efficient: a major reason for their increased turnover rates. Japanese automobile and computer companies are supplied by a network of firms which deliver goods as often as every three hours, and there is never an incoming parts inspection because all the parts are expected to fit precisely. When I asked on Japanese executive what would happen if a batch of parts didn't fit, he said "It would be very serious. Someone would be shamed."
The Information Revolution "solved" much of the inventory turnover problem in the United States by allowing US firms to export the manufacturing part of their industry: every decade we make less and less of what we consume. We're even exporting information jobs: many of those telephone solicitors who annoy you at dinner time are calling from one of the Mexican free trade areas. We can probably afford to lose that "skill", but it's not quite so clear that we can afford to lose all our manufacturing capabilities: yet the inevitable result of world free trade is that jobs go to the places with the lowest paid people competent enough to do them; and competence is a variable. If off-shore wages are a fifth of what is paid here, it's generally cheaper to send the job out even if you must hire three people to do it.
The result can be a rather vicious spiral. As there are fewer jobs in manufacturing, fewer learn the skills to do them. Eventually there's no one left who remembers how it's done. We've lost not only the jobs, but the ability to train anyone to do them. This can have significant defense implications.
There are policy implications as well. If there aren't any manufacturing jobs, or not many, then what do people do for a living? By definition we have to be producing enough of something to be able to buy goods from those who still make them. Farm products and raw materials can take care of much of that, but the new industrial revolution sees to it that we produce more with fewer farmers and miners every year. Those activities won't be providing us with many more jobs.
The conventional answer is that we'll all become knowledge workers, develop computer skills, and share in the information revolution. That's questionable. Unlike Lake Woebegone, in the real world all the children are not above average. By definition, half are below average. So long as the average demand for skills was lower than the average ability to perform the job, this wasn't much of a problem: we built a great nation that way. Comes now the computer to change all that: depend on it, any repetitive job can and will be automated out of existence. The minimum human skill level required to hold a decent job climbs ever higher as computers and robots get more versatile.
The result is a growing gap between those who can get in on the information revolution and those who can't; between those who become knowledge workers, and are sought after for those skills, and those who didn't quite make it into the knowledge worker class, and who don't fit any of the other advancement paths such as athletics or entertainment. That gap is already noticeable. It will grow.
Partly through foresight and partly through tradition the Japanese have hit on two answers to this problem. The first is very traditional, an intense concentration on education. Japanese is a more difficult language than English but the literacy rate in Japanese schools is higher than in America. Clearly you won't learn computer skills if you can't read - and far too many American children leave high school functionally illiterate. They won't get in on the knowledge revolution. A far larger percentage of Japanese children will.
The success of the Japanese national education system is often used as an argument for nationalization of the American education system. This hasn't worked in the past, and doesn't seem likely to work in the future, if for no other reason than we are a much larger and more diversified country. I can make one suggestion: the Congress has the undoubted power to operate the schools in the District of Columbia. Do what it takes to make those the best schools in the world. It's not likely to happen, but that would be a demonstration project worth the effort.
On my recent trip to Japan I saw their other approach: Japan too faces competition from low wage workers overseas, but their answer is to keep some of the production lines in Japan - and use those as models to develop even more efficient manufacturing techniques. The actual mass production may be done in the Philippines, or even in the United States, but the production techniques were designed in Japan. There is thus a core of skilled labor available to serve as cadres if there is a sudden need to expand domestic production. I am certain it would be worth our effort to adopt economic policies that encouraged similar systems here.
No one can predict the future, but some trends are unmistakable. Moore's Law - computer capabilities including robotics doubles in power at half the price every eighteen months - has held for two decades and seems destined to hold for two more. In another decade, everyone of any economic significance in the United States will be connected to the Internet. In almost every field, everyone will face "world class" competition - and if they can't be world class, they aren't going to survive. Information services, purveyors of cheap china for restaurants, sporting goods, communications systems, dry goods and other retail sales - all of that and more will have to compete internationally.
We don't seem ready for that, and we're running out of time.
- 30 - -
November 9, 1999
If we knew that the automobile industry in the United States was about to collapse, would we be concerned? Microsoft has a capital value of more than the automobile industry, and it is now vulnerable to enormous financial liabilities, as the Federal Government seeks total victory. Beyond the Federal Government are the states attorneys general, then a raft of hungry lawyers for Microsoft competitors, all hoping to use the Findings of Facts in the Microsoft case as ammunition to get in on the spoils. The whole scene reminds one of circling sharks about to go into a feeding frenzy; and the stakes are the long boom itself.
For the moment the Department of Justice is flushed with triumph, and announcing that it will settle for nothing less than an end to Microsoft's monopoly position, as well as substantial punishment. They want it known that they have won, and won big. It is as if their manhood were threatened. The findings of fact read as if they were written by Microsoft's competitors, which is probably true: Mr. Barksdale privately met with Mr. Klein twelve times before DOJ brought its suit.
I don't agree with the judge's reasoning, and some of his historical findings are dead wrong, but the judge has ruled that Microsoft is effectively a monopoly. He has good arguments for that conclusion.
Microsoft does have rivals. Both Apple and Red Hat stock went up as a result of the decision, and unlike the judge, I don't dismiss Apple or Linux, and especially both in combination, as competition for operating system business, even in the restricted domain of desktop machines running on Intel chips. That may comprise the vast majority of the small computer business today, but things move fast in this industry. Most machines today run on chips not invented five years ago, and not conceived of last decade.
Of course the judge doesn't take judicial notice of a simple fact: most of that Intel desktop market wouldn't exist without Microsoft. Good enough or not good enough, Windows took us into the computer age in a way that neither Unix nor IBM PC-DOS could. At a time when Apple was making 25% and more profit on each machine sold, and IBM considered desktops "entry level" systems, this crazy kid named Bill Gates was babbling about a computer on every desk, and in every home, and in every classroom - and he was just about the only one with that vision. While Apple was selling their systems "for the rest of us" at monopoly gouge prices, Microsoft was writing software to make cheap computers easy to use. That expanded the market, and soon enough the rest of the rest of us could afford them. The commodity priced mass market in small computers simply could not have happened without a "user-friendly interface."
For a while Windows had competition. There were other systems with a graphics interface, some perhaps better than Windows, but by the very nature of the computer business, only one of these could win out. It might have been Apple, but Apple went for quick profit over market share: they cost too much. It might have been the Atari system, except Apple sued on the grounds that it looked too much like the Macintosh. Atari had to change to "drop down" menus, and other uglifications. It might have been the Amiga. It might have been some graphics interface shell of Unix. It might very well have been IBM's OS/2. Had IBM not declared war on Microsoft it would have been, because Windows would have been a "presentation manager" on top of the OS/2 system. As it was, IBM had every chance to win that war, but after they declared it they decided not to fight. IBM executives didn't consider the "entry systems" market important enough to spend real money on capturing.
The winner was Microsoft Windows. It need not have been Microsoft, but it's important to note that someone would win. Desktop operating systems are a natural monopoly. Developers don't want to write software for a number of platforms. Few remember that in the early days of this industry an important question was which computer language would become standard, and C won out largely because of its "portability". Today "portability" isn't too big a problem. You don't write for one platform and "port" it to others, because Microsoft Windows is very nearly a monopoly. In the judge's view it is a monopoly, and even those who disagree are mostly haggling over details. Microsoft has a monopoly because someone has to have a monopoly.
It's a Monopoly. So?
So. Microsoft has a monopoly in a vital field. What should be done about that?
First, understand that it's not illegal to have a monopoly. It's not necessarily illegal to use that monopoly power to harm your business rivals. Harming your rivals may open you to a civil suit among companies, but the questions of "fair" and "unfair" competition are pretty tricky, and in any event it's not the business of the people of the United States in the person of the Attorney General. Before it's the people's business, the people must be harmed. The current findings purport to show harm to the people, but every paragraph that purports to describe harm to consumers gives only examples of harm to competitors. The case for harm to consumers isn't proven.
On the other hand, monopolies should operate differently from struggling competitive companies. Now what do I mean "should"? Well, first, there are some ethical considerations. Even if it's legal to be a bully, it's not smart to look like one after you are legally found to possess a monopoly.
Second, "should" can be translated into "you'd better if you know what's good for you." Once again there are practices that less important players like Netscape, and Novell, and Oracle can get away with that a big alpha gorilla like Microsoft would do better to avoid. A few years ago Netscape's Andreeson was telling the world that Bill Gates was the Anti-Christ, and Netscape was going to bring Microsoft to its knees, even drive Microsoft out of business. He could say this quite openly in Wired and other publications and lose nothing; but it was very unwise for Gates to put anything on record showing he would fight back.
Third, "should" means there are some preventives you ought to take. There are some things you may legally be able to do that you ought to swear off doing, and some things you might legally keep secret that you ought to publish.
Examples: In Microsoft's case there is the widespread suspicion that the Windows Operating System contains undocumented features (which it undoubtedly does) and that the Microsoft Applications Group knows about these and can use them while their rivals cannot, thus giving Microsoft applications an unfair advantage. Now Microsoft has always denied this, but the interesting thing is that it's not clearly illegal. It is, however, seen as an unfair advantage unduly hampering competition, and it would be very much in Microsoft's interest to remove that suspicion entirely.
There's an easy way to do that. Microsoft could adopt, as company practice or as part of a consent decree, the policy that the instant any programmer makes use of an operating system feature, that feature must right then be documented and published, both in a web page update, and in their regular TechWeb disc distributions. Now this isn't all that onerous a task, because Microsoft already does most of this: There are people in the company whose sole job is to go find undocumented features, write them up, and publish them for software developers. After all, even in its most arrogant moments -and Microsoft has plenty of those - Microsoft knows that it needs lots of outside software developers working to write applications for Windows.
Next, Microsoft must not give up the right to determine what products it will include in its software bundles - the decision as to whether to give away networking capability, or calculators, or notebook editors, or mail handlers, or web browsers as part of the operating system package is a business decision, and it ought not be made with the threat of court action hanging over it. Neither the Judge nor the Department of Justice has any expertise in company management - one wonders if part of the viciousness of both DOJ and this judge doesn't stem from simple envy, as much of it certainly does come from the arrogant pride of taking on the wealthiest man in the world. DOJ and the judge have no business making business decisions, and we can be pretty sure that if they do start making them, the rest of us will suffer.
That would be true no matter what bureaucratic mechanism was set up to decide what is "appropriate" to put in an operating system. There's no quicker way to kill the growth of this industry than to make software developers go ask "Mother, may I?" to a focus group of soccer moms chaired by Al Gore.
On the other hand, Microsoft must give up dictating what its customers can bundle in with their computers. If Compaq wants to give away Netscape, or Intuit's Quicken, or WordPerfect, or even the BeOS development system with their computers, that is their decision, not Microsoft's, and Microsoft ought not even be trying to dictate those terms. Ford may insist on the right to dictate what third party equipment can be installed by Ford dealerships, but Ford doesn't have 90% of the market, and isn't perceived as an arrogant bully. Ford can do what Microsoft can't, and if that's not fair, well, the business world isn't always a fair place. Adjust to it.
Indeed, those two agreements alone would end this nonsense. Anything else is haggling over the details. If Microsoft would agree to document all the operating system features its applications people make use of - they might consider not only protection but awards for whistleblowers - and cease dictating marketing bundle terms to its licensees, the major objections to Microsoft's monopoly would vanish. We could then get on with the industry and spend resources on better engineers and programmers instead of lawyers.
The Long Boom
The long boom depends in large part on the electronics industry. That in turn depends on being able to keep a cage full of young tigers focused on their work. It is not surprising that Microsoft arrogantly considers its fair market share at 100%. It would be astonishing if they did not. After all, that used to be IBM's philosophy until it became a kinder, gentler company; but the long boom wasn't build by kinder gentler companies.
The long boom depends on young bright people who think they are the best, and think no one else can possibly be smarter because if there were anyone smarter, we'd hire them. Microsoft glories in thinking its people are smarter than anyone else. The long boom depends on keeping a cage full of these young tigers, any one of whom could have another job simply by reaching for the telephone, working together to produce the most complicated intellectual constructs in the world - and get those computer programs out to be operated by the rest of us.
Microsoft has been extraordinarily successful in attracting and holding the best and the brightest. None of them deliberately produce bad code. Few are intentionally unfair. Most do hold their competitors in contempt, and all certainly consider their company better than their rivals. How could it be otherwise? Isn't that what competition means? It takes a critical mass of those programmers to produce a phenomenon like Microsoft. You don't arbitrarily break up a successful team like that. Yet that's what Microsoft's competitors want, and DOJ seems to take its cues from those competitors. The result is a chorus of howls for the dismemberment of Microsoft.
And that would be a disaster for the long boom.
Fortunately it's not likely to happen. The likely final outcome of this affair (other than making a number of lawyers rich) won't happen for five or ten years, an eternity in this industry, and when it does the issues will be quaint and irrelevant. We may thank God that Bill Gates is likely to be stubborn, and unlikely simply to take his money, buy citizenship in Liechtenstein, and move his company to a place more friendly. But DOJ will howl for breakup. That must not happen.
Breaking up Microsoft sends signals we don't want sent. So do large fines. Pounding Microsoft says it doesn't matter if you're bright and eager and work hard, we will punish you for success. Perhaps you were crazy to work that hard. Winning isn't the object of the game. The object of the game is to manipulate the system, pull strings, get friends in Washington, suck up to government officials. The most important people in the world are not engineers and scientists and programmers, but politicians and lawyers; not the people who produce wealth, but those parasitic on it, who take the wealth and redistribute it while keeping large piles for themselves: who create nothing but endlessly blather about innovations they don't understand and couldn't have made.
That is not a message we want sent, and it is not a message that helps maintain the long boom.
Yes, Microsoft is a monopoly. Yes, Microsoft is arrogant and sometimes brutal and often bullying. So are their rivals. It is the way of the young and competitive, and thank God for it. So yes, let us find ways to mitigate the effects of this monopoly; but let's do it in a way that doesn't transfer more wealth from those who create it to the lawyers and the politicians and the manipulators. Let's do it in a way that doesn't squander our intellectual capital.
The Treason of the Clerks
Asked to name the most important event of the century, the temptation is to look to technology. The first industrial revolution was based on big centralized power sources. This century saw a second industrial revolution built around devices like the quarter-inch drill: small, portable, high energy devices allowing decentralization of production. No sooner was that well begun than we had another industrial revolution built around robotics. Then came the computer and the information revolution that has only well begun. All of these events have profound effects on everything we do.
Then there's medicine: this century saw sulfa drugs and penicillin, the most radical expansion in medical capability since the discovery of the germ theory of disease, and in a sense the first real cures doctors ever had; prior to anti-biotics the most physicians could do was facilitate healing.
And of course many science fiction writers believe the discovery of nuclear energy so important that they dated their future stories in the Atomic, rather than the Christian era.
These are all important events, but I think the most important event of the century is only marginally connected with technology. I believe it is the treason of the clerks, the abandonment of Western Civilization by the intellectual class and intellectual institutions. For good or ill, the West must face a future in which every individual has enormously increased power for good or ill without any coherent support from the intellectuals: from those supposed to be our intellectual betters, the best and the brightest among us.
Not only have the intellectuals completed Nietzche's murder of God, but they exchanged the God of Jacob and Jesus for a false god that failed. But even after the gnostic god of Marx proved false, the intellectuals remained more sympathetic to Marx, Lenin, even Stalin, than to Jehovah. They remain so still. It is far less embarrassing on the modern university campus to confess residual sympathy for communism than for Christianity.
It is indeed the end of the Christian Era, not because the discovery of Atomic Energy is so important, but because Christianity has become intellectually so unimportant. It has all but vanished from our public affairs; indeed, our public institutions actively war on any public signs of religion.
Today when we face profound questions of morality, our television announcers turn to "ethicists," intellectuals of no discernable qualification beyond being presented on the evening news as moral and ethical authorities, who may as well draw their pronouncements from thin air as from any religious source. How could it be otherwise in today's anti-religious order?
When I was a young man, it would have been inconceivable that a major civic event - an inauguration, ground breaking for a new civic building, a parade, launching a warship, graduation from public institutions - could take place without the participation of clergy. Smaller events might make do with a single protestant minister, but larger ones required both a minister and a Roman priest, and really important events brought in a rabbi as well. The event would open with an invocation and close with a blessing. The effect was to show that the civic elders believed in a Power higher than themselves.
Today the very suggestion that we as a nation owe any kind of thanks to Divine Providence provokes lawsuits, and while the majority of the populace still wishes for the old rituals, the people have been persuaded by their intellectual leaders that this is improper, and what was common for the first two centuries of the Republic was in fact forbidden by its Founders.
Whitaker Chambers went to Columbia a "Coolidge Republican." It did not take long for his intellectual leaders there to laugh him to scorn, to convince him that his theistic beliefs were contemptible. Like many of his generation, Chamber did not merely abandon religion. He persuaded himself that western civilization pointed unerringly to Stalin. Much the same thing happened to me as an undergraduate. If you were to be in tune with history, you moved to the left, at least as far as anti-anti-communism. One might not BE a communist, but surely it was contemptible to oppose those who were.
That attitude prevails today. Anyone applying for an academic position would do better to admit having held fast to Stalinism right up to the collapse of the USSR than to have been a Cold Warrior.
Religion has not been the only casualty. Everyone knows that the entire canon of what we once thought were the essential works is gone. When I was in 8th grade everyone in Tennessee read (or had already read in a previous grade) Hiawatha, Paul Revere's Ride, The Skeleton in Armor, The Lady of the Lake, Treasure Island, The King of the Golden River, Evangeline A Story of Acadia, and a dozen other such works. By the time high school was finished we had encountered a large sample of the treasures of Western Civilization - and in doing that we had come to at least a partial understanding of what was, and was not considered proper behavior. We had a common language with which to discuss vice and virtue.
No more. There is no canon of respected works. The very idea has fallen into contempt. Real intellectuals, we now understand, are above all that; above and beyond mere "texts".
For better or worse, Western Civilization was religiously based, specifically Christian or if you like Judeo-Christian, since the ethical considerations are reasonably equal and somewhat different from the Graeco-Roman traditions.
No serious intellectual now defends Judeo-Christian society and in fact the intellectual leadership of Europe and America is the declared and steadfast enemy of what used to be the basis of Western Civilization. Most of them went over to the Communists, and when some abandoned the Left to become neo-conservatives they didn't bring with them any real basis for a social order; indeed many of them, and all the rest of the intellectuals, purport to have great respect for the intellectual class which went over to the Communists, made anti-anti-communism a sine qua non for being an intellectual, and pathetically clung to Gorbachev long after even Russia had given up.
We now have greed and money and power on the one hand, hatred of the bourgeois and the power of money on the other, and damned little in between; we no longer have a moral basis for a society in so far as you could find that among the intellectual class. When we have moral questions we go to "ethicists" as if they had any moral authority whatever, or any basis for their pronouncements.
There remain some Christian intellectuals, but they aren't admitted to the ranks of the anointed on campuses. The universities are, except in the sciences, dominated by the left who have an aimless hatred of wealth (or an excessive envy and greed for it), continue to believe you cannot be an intellectual unless you are an anti-anti-communist, and have no well spring for their "ethics" or justice; who have turned the "best Shakespearian theatre in the world" into a place where Cordelia is mute and speaks in sign language; in which the intentions of the authors mean nothing; in which not even deconstruction is taken seriously because nothing is taken seriously. To get tenure in "liberal arts" or "social sciences" you must profess to believe nonsense such as the "fact" that Dow-Corning was guilty in the silicone implant business, the Earth is in the Balance and Global Warming can't even be questioned, and a myriad of other junk science.
Thus we face a world in which there is unprecedented economic and technical power devolved to lower and lower levels of the social order with no intellectual leadership class, no consensus on what society or even humanity is FOR, and no one to set examples for us. We are to be led by "ethicists" who hardly lead by moral example or continuity with any past tradition.
We may find our way out of all this. Technology gives us the means to communicate with each other directly, without mediation from the clerks. It may even be that we don't need the intellectual class.
Let us hope so, because the intellectuals climbed aboard the flywheel of history and marched into the machine; now that the Marxist dream has betrayed them, they have no God to replace the God that failed. And THAT is the most significant event of the century.