Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Let me suggest a hypothetical.

Suppose there were two countries, in some sort of neo-colonial relationship. The rich country follows something like the German model, good social benefits, primarily tied to corporate employment, high capital stock, high education levels, and so forth. The poorer country has some social benefits, a social security system, a health care system that is overstressed and that doesn’t cover everybody, stagnating wages, and its capital stock is almost entirely colonial, i.e. the other country owns almost all of it.

Both share a common currency, and on a cash flow basis, the poorer country is sending a lot of cash to the richer country.

Monetary policy from the central bank clearly affects both countries, but both countries can have different fiscal policies. Moreover, cash flows between the two countries can dominate their local monetary policies. The cash flow from the poor country to the rich country has, in fact, produced a liquidity trap in the poor country. By the same token, the same cash flow has created a high degree of liquidity in the rich country, but, because the rich country imports much of its goods and services, it hasn’t seen much CPI inflation. Rather, it has had a series of asset price bubbles.

Now actually I’m talking about a single country here, the United States. The rich country consists of those who have substantial capital assets, and/or are well-situated in the corporate hierarchy. The poor country is low and middle income wage earners without major assets, whose primary asset, in fact, is their share of the social security system, and perhaps a low equity house in a “non-bubble” area like the mid-west.

The major cash flow is the Social Security surplus, which continues to divert enormous sums to the general fund, and the general fund pays out much of its cash to corporate contractors. Also whenever a member of the low income class buys something, a portion of that goes to the rich class, in the form of profits or the wages paid to the affluent class who manage the enterprise.
I think that, with only a few exceptions, “the poor country” has been in a liquidity trap for the past 25 years. CPI price inflation occurs when some of the liquidity that washes over the “rich country” manages to leak into “the poor country.” It is then immediately stamped down by raising interest rates, which pulls yet more money from low income workers (who tend to be debtors). Since high income liquidity primarily affects asset prices, and since asset price inflation is not considered inflation, monetary policy does not react.

Economic “growth” has been confined to the high income group, but since this tends to consist of nominal asset growth, it is not clear to what extent the growth is real. It may be largely an artifact of asset price inflation whose effects have been confined to a part of the economy that doesn’t show up in inflation estimates.

In short, the economy may actually be experiencing stagflation, but that is masked by asset price inflation. Any attempt to turn that nominal growth into actual consumption would trigger CPI inflation, which would immediately be met with interest rate hikes, which further hurt the real economy of low wage earners, but which does little to correct the underlying fiscal malady.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Slan: A Critique

A substantive impetus for my consideration of the demographic analysis of science fiction readers and fans came from some discussions that I’ve had with Ben Sano about the nature of Creationism and the Intelligent Design “theory.” Considering ID as just another idea of speculative fiction is not an unreasonable thing to do, and that led me to an informal review of how science fiction has treated evolution and mutation. Yes, these are “just stories”, but how and why stories strike a spark in an audience can tell a lot about the audience.

One thing to bear in mind is that there is substantial overlap between the demographic that supports science fiction (bright children of working class families) and the demographic of ID and creationism (working class families). Moreover, the actual players in the ID drama, the “experts” who provide its main arguments and writings tend to be similar to science fiction fans, e.g., engineers, academics at lower tier colleges, professionals in the “practical” sciences such as medicine, geology, etc.

Let’s just say that there is something about the demographic that makes us suckers for a good story.

So we come to Slan. It was one of the first evolution-in-SF stories I reviewed, because of its obvious importance to the field. An entire generation of sf fans had “Fans are Slans” as a slogan. The publication of Slan just before WWII launched A. E. van Vogt’s writing career, and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. Now it’s my turn, in part, because, despite my having what turned out to be a very good memory of the story, nevertheless, re-reading it and thinking about it gave me some surprising notions. So let’s review the story.

Slan is about slans, a race of mutant supermen, possessing greater than human intelligence, strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to disease. They are also telepathic, with golden “tendrils” in their hair; the tendrils serve as antennae for telepathy. We are not told, though it certainly seems to be the case, that slans are all physically attractive. We are told that slans are kinder, gentler, and more moral than humans, though some events in the tale suggest otherwise.

The protagonist of Slan is John Thomas Cross, “Jommy Cross” to his mother, who is killed by genocidal humans shortly after the novel begins. Cross is nine years old. His father is already dead, having heroically allowed his own murder, rather than turning his great invention (a form of controlled atomic power) on his attackers. We later see the invention, which is in the form of a gun, a curious design choice from such a pacifist.

Cross escapes from those who killed his mother, avoids the police, and finds refuge in the abode of “Granny” a larcenous old woman who expects Cross to use his mind-reading abilities to steal for her—which he does. He uses the time during his refuge with Granny to educate himself and to later (on his 16th birthday) recover the prototype of his father’s invention. At this time, he also discovers the existence of “tendril-less slans,” who possess many of the characteristics of slans (e.g., higher intelligence) without the obvious physical characteristics that mark them for attacks by humans. The tendril-less slans have a separate (and secret) society, where they prepare for world conquest and the probable extermination of humankind. They also hate tendrilled slans as much or more than they hate humans, so Cross has two groups against him. His only natural allies would seem to be the “true slans” but, with the exception of a single girl (Kathleen) that is killed almost as soon as he meets her, he can’t find any! So Cross spends the rest of the novel trying to find the true slans, solve the mystery of their origin, and, by the way, get to the Dictator of the World, Kier Grey, and kill him. This last one is a quest laid upon him by his mother, another interesting interpretation of what “kind, gentle, and moral,” means.

Cross’s search for a solution to the “mystery of the slans’ origin” drives much of the story. Slans were born of humans, and once, briefly, controlled the entire world. But slans “continued making more slans” according to one human in the book, i.e. the mutant births continued, and humans didn’t like having mutants as children. So humans initiated genocide, and killed most of the slans. Cross doesn’t believe the Intelligent Design hypothesis (that slans are originally the product of a mutation machine). He can’t believe that such kind and gentle people would do such a thing.

Finally, near the end of the book, all is explained, first by Joanna Hillory a sympathetic tendril-less slan woman (who had fallen in love with Cross on their first meeting, such is the power of super-human attractiveness), then by Kier Grey, the Dictator of the World. Slans are actually natural products of evolution; humans were stupid to ever think that they were created by a mutation machine. Tendril-less slans, on the other hand, were created by slans as a way of preserving the race. They were then persecuted by slans as an act of “tough love,” in preparation for the inevitable clash with humans. Furthermore, Kier Grey turns out to be a slan himself! And he was Kathleen’s father!! And she is still alive, resurrected with slan super-medicine!!!

So all ends well.

Now let’s consider a few things about the way evolution actually works.

Realize first that large morphological changes rarely occur within a single generation, and when they do, there is always a substantial physiological price to pay. Giantism, for example, leads to early death. Down’s syndrome is a mutation, but the affected individuals are sterile. And so forth.

Next, the formation of a new organ never happens in a single generation. This is the “irreducible complexity” so beloved of the Intelligent Design theorists. There are cases where such morphological jumps appear to occur (e.g. blind cave fish becoming sighted when reared in the light), but this is the activation of a vestigial (previously evolved) trait, not a new organ. So the likelihood of the slan’s “tendrils” occurring overnight is about zero.

Finally, something like generally enhance resistance to disease would be so universally beneficial that, if it were in the evolutionary cards, it would have happened already (and microbes would have evolved to counter it).

In short, if slans were to appear, modern biology would immediately ascribe them to “Intelligent Design.” Fundamentalists might look to a supernatural origin, but most biologists would assume that there was gene splicing behind it. In other words, a Mutation Machine.

Of course, what is actually suggested by Slan is a process of teleological evolution, evolution that has a purpose and a plan. Many people have believed in teleological evolution; there just aren’t any modern evolutionary biologists who do. One reason why teleological evolution is so appealing is that it fits a narrative rather better than does Darwinian natural selection. In any case, Slan is hardly the only example of teleological evolution in SF. Indeed, teleological evolution is probably the norm, if one includes Social Darwinism, which basically holds that natural selection has the purpose of advancing and maintaining a particular social hierarchy.

The implication here is that science fiction readers know little more about evolution by natural selection than creationists. The main difference between the two groups would be that creationists are against it, while science fiction readers are in favor of it. But I digress, and I’ll leave the question of why these two groups have such different reactions to what is essentially the same misunderstanding for another time.

Getting back to Slan, suppose we remove the scientific blunder of teleological evolution from the book’s context. Does that destroy the book, or merely change the reading?

Remarkably, Slan becomes a much more interesting book if read from the modern evolutionary perspective, i.e. if the “mystery of the slans” is answered the other way.

For one thing, it brings forth the idea that, while the protagonist, Cross, is a brilliant physical scientist, he knows little about evolutionary biology. That’s not hard to swallow, is it? I can certainly think of a few very bright fellows with that profile (e.g. William Shockley). Also, it would appear that Cross is entirely willing to believe things that he wants to believe, despite evidence to the contrary. He continues to believe that slans are all kind and gentle, even after he hears about how they brutalized the tendril-less slans (all for the greater good, of course). His mother tells him to kill Kier Grey (ditto), but he does not attribute this to so low an instinct as a thirst for vengence. Finally, he continues to believe in the essential morality of slans, even after learning that the brutal Dictator Kier Grey is a slan. That, it seems to me, requires some truly super-human rationalization. Fortunately, Cross is super-human, so it comes easily to him.

It also would appear that everyone is playing Cross for a sucker. “Give us the secret to controlled atomic power, nearly invulnerable steel, and telepathic hypnosis, and we’ll assure you that all slans are as good as your parents, and no one will get hurt.” And Cross, searching for a place to belong, falls for it.

But how can everyone be lying to Cross? He’s telepathic.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but maybe lying to a telepath is as easy as lying to yourself. It’s easy to see how Joanna Hillory, the tendril-less slan woman could lie to Cross; all that need happen is for her to believe what she’s saying, that is, she could be yet another pawn in the great game. As for Kier Grey, he’s older, more mature, in far better control of his mind. Couldn’t he be good enough to put on over on the youngster?

Still and all, it’s a happy ending. Lovers reunited and everything works out—provided you’re a slan. The outlook for mere human is more problematic. In any case, their fate is in the hands of the slans, not their own.

Historically, Slan is a wish-fulfillment fantasy that struck a chord with several generations of science fiction fans. Since their identification with the protagonist is great, they had little reason to pick at the flaws. What criticisms were made (Damon Knight, Alexi Panshin) went to the obvious holes in the plot, characterization, etc. or the general critique of the wish-fulfillment fantasy as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, not the sort of self-subversion that I’m describing here.

For me, however, the most interesting thing about Slan is that it can be read as a cautionary tale of how someone can be deceived, despite high intelligence and other advantages. As Tom Stoppard has his protagonist say in Professional Foul:” “You can convince a man of almost anything—provided he’s smart enough.”

I would add: provided he wants to believe it.

I Have a Code

In 1850, when the U.S. population was less than 25 million, farmers constituted the majority of the population, about 65%. By 1900, the farm population was 29 million, but the total population was up to 75 million, so farmers were down to less than 40%, although 60% of the population still lived in “rural” areas.

Nowadays, less than 20% of the population is rural and the farm population is down to less than 4 million, so it’s my guess that those millions of immigrant workers aren’t primarily picking lettuce.

The changes in the class structure in America follow the agricultural/rural trend. Those who left the farms for the towns and cities joined the immigrants who hit the cities and never left, mostly to fill the jobs in the burgeoning factories, and also to take up all the working class “service” jobs, dishwasher, mechanic, carpenter, bricklayer, etc., that the modern economy invoked. The next jump is into the true middle class, where the blue collar jobs become white collar. The growth of the middle class is one of the great demographic shifts that happened in the 20th century, a continuation of trends that got underway in the 19th. When the middle class grew, it could only come from the lower classes; there are enough people in the other classes.

For various reasons, many of them obvious, I’m interested in what happened to the bright ones who participated in the demographic migration.

For centuries, a bright lad born in humble circumstances would, if lucky, if he managed to catch the eye of a patron, become a clerk or a cleric. Originally, the job was called “scribe,” and he would spend his days copying manuscripts for the Church. With moveable type, that job transmogrified, but the Church was still the major employer, though “bookkeeper” became an option, as did some of the higher status professions, especially if the patron was of that profession and did not have a proper heir.

America opened up many opportunities. A good biography of Alexander Hamilton gives an indication of some of them, while a bio of George Washington can indicate how important a “surveyor” could become.

Then, in 1935, Samuel Morse invented a telegraph. A few years later, his assistant, Andrew Vail, visited a newspaper and realized that the relative size of the type bins constituted a good rough cut of the frequency of use of letters in English. From this observation, Morse Code was born.
For over a century thereafter, Morse Code was the ticket out for many a bright farm boy. Edison was first a telegraph operator, and his first inventions were related to the telegraph. Later, radio came on the scene, and spawned more generations of the burgeoning technical class. David Sarnoff, who founded RCA, first came to national and international fame as one of the amateur radio hounds who first heard the death throes of the Titanic and brought the news to the world. Sarnoff was only one of a populous breed.

My father was one of the last of that breed. He was born on a Montana ranch, and raised on a farm in central Illinois. When WWII broke out, he joined the Army Air Corps (later to become the Air Force), and when he scored high on the aptitude tests, he was trained as a radio operator. After the war he went to work for Eastern Air Lines, still working as a radio communications operator, before the modern air traffic control system.

But the long Morse code string was just about played out. Radio didn’t need code anymore, and air travel had become too big for individual companies to do their own air traffic control. The job moved a time or two, then more or less vanished, and my father first jumped to television repair, then he managed a couple of bowling alleys, and, after an impoverishing attempt to be a salesman, he got a job with General Electric that set him up for a nice retirement.

Morse code hung on as a requirement for the FCC First Class Radiotelephone License, required by radio stations of certain key personnel, and it was the bane of many a lad back in the day. Since you only needed a Third Class to sign a station on and off, most of us in college radio settled for the Third. In 1984, the rules changed, as I understand it, and most of the old First Class jobs now take a General License that doesn’t need a code test. But there are still jobs like ship’s communications officer that take a certificate with a code requirement.

Back when I was making my own break for freedom, Morse code had lost its magic, but other types of code had just been named, things like Fortran, Algol, Cobal, and Lisp. So my cohort had the computer to give us a ticket to the professional classes. I was second generation, of course, so I wound up in engineering and science (Engineering Science, as it happens), which is also a classic route for the bright children of working class families.

The “bright children of working class families” is a demographic marker for another group: science fiction fans. Engineers, programmers, science fiction fans, not quite the same group but the overlap is awesome. We moderns didn’t grow up on farms, but we did grow up in suburbia, and having lived in both, let me tell you: not that different when you’re a teenager. The escapees are often both radical and conservative, each a fitting response to being off the moorings, with only your trusty radiotelegraph to find your way back to port.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Gamma Laser

Originally written July 27, 2006

I saw Sharon Weinberger on the Daily Show, last night, touting her book, Imaginary Weapons. The book is her expose of weird DOD projects involving fringe science, etc. Amid the talk about psychic espionage and mind control rays, she mentioned the “atomic hand grenade” and hafnium. I know a lot of the background of that one, so there’s an excuse.

In the early 60s, when I was barely a teenager, there was an article in Scientific American about the gamma ray laser, graser, gaser, call it what you will. I read the article, talked about it with my science buddies, then put it in the back of my mind for a while. Then I went to RPI and joined the Rensselaer Engineer, the school’s student engineering magazine, and wrote a lot of articles, so many that some had to be under pseudonyms. One of them was on the gamma laser.

RPI’s library at the time was under fire for being inadequate, but it was good enough to get me a copy of the paper by Lev Rivlin describing the gamma laser, and I was young and cocky and indulged in a bit of speculation of my own in the article. So let me give some technical background.

Lasers work by a quantum trick. Light is typically emitted from an atom that is in an “excited state,” i.e. one or more of its electrons is not in its lowest possible energy level. The situation is symmetric, in that an atom in its lowest energy state (the ground state) will also absorb a photon to put it up into the excited state. The probability of the atom emitting a photon is related (actually, with caveats, it’s identical) to its likelihood of absorbing the photon in the reverse reaction.

It turns out (this was an Einstein thing), that you can get the atom to emit its photon “prematurely” if you hit it with a photon of exactly the same energy as the one it will emit. Thus the “stimulated” part of the light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation, and since you now have two identical photons, you also get the “amplification.”

In order to get real amplification, you need what is called an “inverted population,” where the number of atoms in the excited state is greater than the number of atoms in the ground state, otherwise the ground state atoms absorb all the photons you can make. Inversion is usually done by “pumping” the ground state into much higher energy states, which then decay into a “metastable state,” one that hangs around for a much longer time. Pumping can be done optically, chemically, or electrically, and all three are used in lasers.

The gamma ray laser does all this with energy shells in the atomic nucleus rather than electrons in the outer atomic shell. Also, because gamma rays are more energetic than regular light, you get a problem called “dynamic line broadening.” What happens there is that, because gamma rays pack a lot of energy, they have a “kick” that causes the emitting nucleus to recoil. But that recoil lowers the energy of the emitted photon, so it’s no longer at the right energy to stimulate the emission of the next atom. So the lasing action becomes very inefficient.

What Rivlin proposed was to make use of the Mossbauer effect. In the ME, the atom is embedded in a crystal matrix, and said crystal matrix allows the atom to vibrate only at certain fixed energies, so-called “phonon resonances.” That’s another quantum effect. If the “kick” from the gamma emission doesn’t match one of these resonances, then the entire crystal matrix is what rebounds. Well, the difference in masses between a macrocystal and a single atom is so great that all the energy goes into the photon and essentially none is lost to the matrix.

That left two problems for the gamma laser. The first is how to get the inverted population. The second is how to make an “infinite medium” i.e. get a long enough path in the lasing medium to obtain a lot of amplification. In most lasers, you put mirrors at both ends to create a “long path,” for the photons and lasing medium to do their thing.

Rivlin suggested that with a properly metastable isotope of high purity, only a few centimeters would constitute an effectively long path and no mirrors would be necessary. Others have suggested specially created crystal diffraction mirrors (which can reflect even low energy gamma rays if they are properly tuned to the correct frequency). In my little article, I suggested that low angel reflection might be sufficient, so you’d have maybe dozens of rods arranged in a polygon, each only a couple of degrees off the next, with a low angle metal surface in between. A similar trick is used for x-ray astronomy.

Pumping was something else again. I don’t think that either Rivlin or the Scientific American article suggested nuclear transmutation via neutrons, but that was something that I also speculated about.

Nothing much happened on the nuclear laser for another decade or more, but it became a hot topic for a little while during the SDI (“Star Wars”) period. There was even an underground bomb test that was briefly touted as having achieved amplification. Later that result was said to be a measurement error by some, while others hinted darkly at fraud. It appeared like the design was an attempt to “brute force” the matter (and there’s no brute like a thermonuclear bomb), but I could never figure out how they were going to solve the line broadening problem, and, by all reports, they didn’t.

In 1987 there was an experiment reported involving a metastable isotope of tantalum (Ta180m) exposed to high energy x-rays, with the result being a fluorescence that seemed to indicate some quantum stimulation was occurring. For a variety of practical and theoretical reasons, a lot of attention was then given to hafnium-178m2, the second metastable isotope of hafnium, having a half-life of about 30 years.

In 1999, a University of Texas group announced a stimulated emission result from hf178m2, triggered by a dental x-ray machine. It seemed like the Holy Grail was coming into view.
But then the criticisms began, the worst of which being that no researcher has ever replicated the original result, not even one of the UT group. Also, the original experiment did not have a control, so WTF?

Then came theoretical calculations that said that the process shouldn’t have actually reached breakeven, but a practical consideration was more important. The isotope does not occur in nature and is the product of an accelerator, which makes it hugely expensive. The idea of making a weapon out of it is ludicrous.

Well, so much for that.

But, as I say, I follow the field generally, and there is another story out in the hinterlands:

United States Patent 4,939,742 Bowman July 3, 1990 Neutron-driven gamma-ray laser

A lasing cylinder emits laser radiation at a gamma-ray wavelength of 0.87 .ANG. when subjected to an intense neutron flux of about 400 eV neutrons. A 250 .ANG. thick layer of Be is provided between two layers of 100 .ANG. thick layer of .sup.57 Co and these layers are supported on a foil substrate. The coated foil is coiled to form the lasing cylinder. Under the neutron flux .sup.57 Co becomes .sup.58 Co by neutron absorption. The .sup.58 Co then decays to .sup.57 Fe by 1.6 MeV proton emission. .sup.57 Fe then transitions by mesne decay to a population inversion for lasing action at 14.4 keV. Recoil from the proton emission separates the .sup.57 Fe from the .sup.57 Co and into the Be, where Mossbauer emission occurs at a gamma-ray wavelength.

This if very similar to some of the speculations I had back in 1969, but it gets around a big problem I noticed. I thought that the target nucleus would have to be of low atomic weight (low z) because otherwise the Compton effect would be too parasitic to allow amplification. This patent suggests that the production of the excited nucleus can be made to eject the atom from its normal substrate into a medium (in this case, beryllium foil) that is very low z, where the actual lasing would occur. I was thinking thermal neutrons, but the patent uses higher energy neutrons, so that’s how the recoil would occur. I also suspect that there may be some small angle gamma/x-ray reflection occurring in the device as well.

The patent holder, Charles Bowman, is someone I’ve noticed before; he was on of he scientists analyzing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site and who described a scenario where there might be a (low yield) nuclear explosion from the nuclear waste. That particular bit of work fit in with some other speculations that I’ve had, about highly moderated nuclear supercritical reactions, something that’s about half-way between a so-called “dirty bomb” and a real nuke. But that’s a topic for another time.


A buddy of mine from the air biz used to work at Lawrence Livermore Labs, and he was once at a luncheon where Edward Teller was holding forth. Since there were several atmospheric scientists at that particular lunch, at one point Teller speculated on whether it would be possible to set up a series of nuclear explosions that would cause atmospheric particulates to precipitate out of the air.

My friend was a little nonplussed, because this was a truly loony idea. But after thinking about it for a while, he chalked it up to Teller having a little fun with his own reputation. He had, after all, basically invented the thermonuclear bomb, and had then spent much of his remaining career overseeing its refinement, and looking for some place to use it. From proposed massive canal building projects to attempts to get more natural gas out of geological formations, Teller always had that single tool that he was trying to use: the H-bomb.

Later, when we all heard about the Teller’s backing of the Strategic Defense Initiative (called “Star Wars” in the popular press), some of us immediately wondered, “Where’s the bomb?”

We learned soon enough about the proposed X-ray (or gamma ray) laser, which was supposed to be pumped by a thermonuclear explosion, so there you are and bob’s your uncle. As I've noted in another essay, I didn’t expect that to work, for technical reasons, and it didn’t.

SDI did not die with the gamma laser failure, however. We’ve had various debates about the feasibility of “hitting a bullet with a bullet” vs “smart rocks” or “brilliant pebbles,” (or “sentient sand” for all I know). In any case, there’s really no idea so lame that a DOD bureaucracy won’t champion it, but there are some things that generally don’t get said, so I’m going to say them here.

The fact is that there are certain paths of least resistance in engineering. Some ideas, no matter their soundness or unsoundness, will never happen, because something else that is technically easier will happen first. It’s important to know what it is that will happen first.

A ballistic missile’s brief career is divided into several important phases: launch, boost, ballistic, re-entry, target, then boom. There were actually some studies in the early 1970s, during the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) debate, that suggested that it might barely be possible to stop a single bomb in the near-target phase, using what is essentially massive anti-aircraft fire, putting a more or less continuous shroud of shrapnel as an umbrella near the target. No one really thought of this as a good solution, for several thousand reasons, including the fact that it would only work on one bomb, and an early trigger would then blow all your anti-aircraft weapons to hell and gone.

Similarly, despite the PR graphics of SDI as a “shield,” there was never much intention to try to get at ballistic weapons in the re-entry phase, not least being that a single thermonuclear explosion at the edge of the atmosphere creates a good sized EMP pulse that will then blind subsequent defense radar.

That argument also applies to defensive measures during the entire ballistic phase, when the warheads are outside of the atmosphere in free-fall. But there’s actually a worse problem in the ballistic phase, camouflage.

In the absence of an atmosphere, anything, no matter how lightweight, follows a ballistic trajectory. It is very easy, therefore, to create decoys, simple balloons with the same radar signature as the warhead. In fact, you can put a balloon around the warhead and make it look exactly like the balloon. Since the balloon/decoys weigh only a few ounces, you can put hundreds of them in the same ballistic trajectory as your warhead, turning the problem from “hitting a bullet with a bullet” to “shooting a needle in a haystack.”

So no one really expects to take out a warhead during the ballistic phase. That leaves us with launch and boost. Launch is over in a few seconds, so the real development work is on stopping missiles in the boost phase, when they are conveniently located far away from the target (us) and near the launch site (them).

But how? First you have to sense the launch, then find the missile, then target it, then put something near to it, then kill it. That implies a really good sensor network, plus the ability to put your kill vehicle near the target very quickly.

The sensor network is easy, or, more accurately, it’s so difficult that there’s really only one way to do it, and that must be space-based. You need orbiting infrared sensors to see the launch, then something akin to radar to track it. The radar will need to be close to the boost, and that too is almost necessarily space-based. There have been arguments about “pop up” systems, but those are mostly red herrings; it’s a lot easier to do it from space.

Likewise, it’s a lot easier to target a high velocity vehicle with something that starts off at high velocity. If your initial sensor is in space, and your radar net is in space, the same arguments tell you that your kill vehicle needs to be from space.

Along this development pathway, as your identification and tracking systems get better and better, there will come a time when only the most effective type of kill vehicle will work. You can talk all you want about “brilliant pebbles,” and “kinetic kill” vehicles, but nothing beats a nuke for destruction at a distance. At high altitudes, the energy from a nuclear weapon is primarily in the form of hard X-rays, with an attendant electromagnetic pulse. The hard X-rays can melt or crack a warhead by uneven heating, and a nuke doesn’t really care how many decoys you put up, it’s going to blow them all away. The electromagnetic pulse will probably even wreck any putative missile guidance system from a much greater range.

So let me be very blunt here. There’s nothing secret about any of this. It is the inevitable result of any feasibility analysis. SDI is about putting nuclear weapons in orbit. It always has been.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I used to know a fellow who owned a graphics design company that did a lot of business with Hollywood; they did movie posters, newspaper ads, that sort of thing. Hollywood being Hollywood they were always getting last minute rush jobs, even though the release dates were known months ahead of time and even a modicum of foresight would have saved a lot of agony and grief, not to mention the premium fees that have to be paid for rush jobs.

Now, as the saying goes, at the end of the day, it’s just a movie, and the movies that this particular company did were seldom A list. Actually, they usually weren’t even B list; we’re talking projects that were often derivatives of Roger Corman’s B list, what are these days direct-to-video, or, as another saying used to go, direct to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But he was proud of his employees, and he often said so, for being able to turn out quality work (from a graphics design point of view) even under what were, to put it charitably, very sub-optimal circumstances. He had even extended the rationalization to the point where he would claim that the effort elevated the entire enterprise, an interesting philosophical reverse. Instead of “the ends justify the means,” he was essentially saying that the means justify the ends. After some thought I have to admit that I think the latter notion is probably less pernicious than the first.

Still, let me tell you a story. I don’t remember where I read or heard it, so I may have some details wrong, but the gist of it is what’s important.

Back during the Jim Crow days in the South, there were a variety of laws that had been passed for the specific purpose of disenfranchising blacks, things like poll taxes and literacy tests (with “grandfather” exemptions to allow illiterate whites to vote). In one particular county, there was an old black sharecropper who had, with substantial diligence, managed to keep his poll tax paid, qualify under the literacy tests, and so forth. It was a point of pride for him that he had voted in every election in which he’d ever been legally allowed to vote.

Now this was at a time of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and some members of the local Klaven decided that enough was enough, and someone should teach the “uppity nigger” a lesson, “teach a lesson” being Klan talk for “kill” or maybe just “beat so severely that he’d never manage to ever get to a poll again under his own power.” The owner of the property on which the old sharecropper lived got wind of it.

The owner paid a visit to the old man on the night before the election, just a friendly visit, he said, and the two of them spent the evening sipping and talking on the front porch of the old man’s shack. After it got substantially late, the old man confessed to being tired, and he wanted to be fresh for the trek to the polls in the morning. The owner smiled and nodded, and asked the old man’s permission to sit and rock on the porch for a while, if that wouldn’t bother the old man’s sleep. And could he leave the lantern outside? The old man agreed.

So the owner just sat on the old man’s porch for the entire night. But he’d brought his shotgun with him and he got it out and rested it on his lap. Dawn found him still on the porch, and if anyone came by, they’d seen him on the porch with his shotgun and they’d left without coming close.

Motives? Who can really tell? Probably some sense of justice, and just as probably a lot of plain cussedness. The old man was his old man, not property, but certainly under his protection, and the owner was damned if he was going to let someone else tell him whether or not the old man could go to the polls and vote. Furthermore, let’s not romanticize the owner too much. By our standards he was doubtless racist to his core. But whatever the mix of reasons, however noble or ignoble, I’m pretty sure that his actions add up to heroism, even though all he did was sit on a porch for a night.

This particular heroic act cannot happen today. There are no sharecroppers or Jim Crow laws. Modern methods of disenfranchisement are at the margin and not meant to be universal. They are methods of shaving votes, not totally disenfranchising an entire race. Black men are no longer routinely lynched, and even the later atrocities such as the murder of voter registration workers have given way to much more subtle forms of harassment and intimidation.

Which is all to the good. It does mean, however, that the standards have changed. It’s no longer possible to be a hero just by sitting on an old man’s porch for the night. To fight for racial justice these days means a lot more boring clerical work and a lot fewer heroic stances. And make no mistake, this constitutes a considerable improvement in social justice. We are the better for no one’s having the opportunity to be a hero by sitting on an old man’s porch with a shotgun.

I’m willing to generalize this observation substantially. A firefighter can be a hero, but we’d rather the fire had not started in the first place. An ER doctor can save an accident victim’s life through “heroic measures” but preventing the accident would have been better all around. A hero in war is a hero, but we’d rather have the war not be necessary in the first place.

Truth to tell, I can’t really come up with an example of heroic action that doesn’t involve some causative agent that we’d rather have never happened.

We’ve all heard the stories of people who start fires in order to then perform heroically, or of “Munchausen’s by Proxy” where someone gives someone else a poison or an injury in order to obtain the sympathy and respect that goes with “bearing the burden” of caregiver. There are a lot of similar examples in all sorts of areas of human endeavor.

And wars are sometimes started by people who dream of glory, and it’s not just the leaders to whom I’m referring. The glorification of war and conflict is often a matter of the yearning for heroes and heroic actions, and entire populations have succumbed to war fever, sad to say.

So let me raise a toast to prevention and prophylaxis, to the public health and environmental officials who keep the air fit to breathe and the water safe to drink, to the fire inspectors who prevent more fires than firemen extinguish, to the diplomats who cool the tensions, to the teachers who steer a student toward learning and away from crime. Here’s to all the professionals who are just doing their jobs. All of these people work to reduce the amount of heroism in the world. In a perfect world, there would be no heroes, and I would not mourn their absence.

The perfect world does not and cannot exist, of course. There will always be natural disasters to endure, and human misunderstandings that get out of hand. But I can hope for progress away from the heroic and toward a world less extreme. If you still crave on-demand heroics, there would still be mountains to climb, high waves to surf, glaciers to ski. In fact I suspect that speaking the truth will always remain dangerous, and honesty will always be difficult, even for men of honor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

That Creepy Little Smile

Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone and without accomplices, shot and killed the President and wounded Texas Governor John Connally from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository Building in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. --Summary of the Warren Commission Report

There are many reasons for a reasonable man to agree with the Warren Commission findings on the assassination of John Kennedy. The best one is probably that, while there are a fair number of people who agree with the Warren Commission finding, it’s pretty hard to get two of the conspiracy theorists to agree to anything. Castro did it. No, it was the Mafia. No it wasn’t, it was the CIA. Yeah, but the FBI had to be involved. So the FBI co-operated with the CIA, with Russian support, to help Castro do it. No, it was a Secret Service man who killed Kennedy by accident. Wait a minute, Nixon was clearly part of it. No, you idiot, it was Johnson. Are you sure it wasn’t Onassis?


It’s also depressing that so many people think it matters at this late date, that if they could somehow prove that Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, or if he did it as part of some Grand Conspiracy, then we could somehow re-write the last 40 years of world history so it would Come Out Right This Time. Or, at any rate, make us something less than 40 years older.

Well, I’m certainly not going to convince any Kennedy Conspiracy Theorists (you know who you are, but I’d rather you didn’t let me know it, actually), and I’m certainly not going to spend the inordinate amount of time that would be necessary to go over each obsessive detail that has been enlarged to cosmic significance here. I will make a brief aside to note that, if evidence of police interference and evidence tampering were evidence of innocence, then O. J. Simpson is as innocent as any man on the planet.

However, I have something different to say here.

A few years ago, the teenaged daughter of a friend asked about the Kennedy assassination, since all she’d ever heard was from people who thought it obvious that there was a conspiracy behind it, many of them believing that Oswald was framed. Here’s what I told her:

They caught the Olympic bomber recently, Eric Robert Rudolph, and I saw him on television as they brought him in. He was smiling, and I couldn’t get that smile out of my head. I’ve seen it before. It wasn’t a big smile; you could barely see it. But it was there. Timothy McVeigh had it, and so did John Salvi, who killed those abortion doctors. I realized that I’d seen that smile a lot of times.

Lee Harvey Oswald had it, practically up to the moment he was gunned down by Jack Ruby. You can see a hint of that smile even in Jack Ruby’s mug shot.

I think they feed on it. They’re nobodies for their entire lives, and then they get the attention that they’re sure they deserve. Why shouldn’t they smile? They’re alive and better human beings are dead. They’ve gotten what they’ve always wanted. They’re winners now, in the only way they know, by killing the real winners, and even executing them now just feeds that sense of their now being important, because now they’re important enough to kill.

That’s why people so want it all to be grander, to better purpose. Our President dead? Scores of people buried in rubble? Brave men bleeding on the pavement? It can’t be this nebbish who did it. It can’t be that pointless. It can’t, it can’t it can’t.

But it can be that pointless. There is an infinite hunger in that creepy little smile.

I wrote the above essay last June, but I was reminded of it when I saw this.

Monday, January 15, 2007


One of the strengths of fantasy, including that form of fantasy known as science fiction, but also all the old pulp forms like westerns and pirate tales, is that it allows a distillation of ideas into basic forms, which are then mixed and baked together to form a proper narrative pie. Jung liked the word “archetype” which is good for those ideas that can be individuated, but sometimes you have process forms and things like “motif” and “theme” appear.

Our own corner has a nice collection of monsters; my first impulse is to say “good” and “bad” monsters, but part of the point of monstrosity is that such words don’t apply. A monster may be helpful or hurtful, but monsters are not connected to ethics and morality as such. That is why they are monsters.

In the first two Terminator movies, it’s important to realize that the Terminators played by Schwartznegger are the same machine. The only difference is their “programming” and their experience. But in neither case are they part of human society, although in T2, the moviegoer is led to the notion that the creature has begun to learn an ethical sense, i.e. become less of a monster because of the love of the boy. That’s one narrative, one of the pleasant, comforting ones. But most factual monster narratives are darker.

I once did a lot of research on Bat Masterson, for a novel that I’ve yet to write, though I have maybe 20,000 words of it, which I’d have to almost completely rewrite now, because my own sensibilities have changed since its origins. However, I do retain a degree of scholarship about one small sliver of the Old West that is probably unmatched outside of academia and real Old West fanatics. Since my pinpoint interest was Masterson’s later years in New York, that even leaves out most Old West fanatics. But there is substantial overlap, because, in his later years, Masterson wrote extensively about his Dodge City days. And one of the most fascinating things about them was the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

There’s been enormous ink and celluloid spilled about the two, especially the Tombstone era (in which Masterson was largely absent). But as nearly as I can tell from what little real historical information exists, no one has ever captured the Earp/Masterson relationship, primarily because, in reality, Holliday wasn’t even close to being a sympathetic character. He was, in fact, a monster, a murderous sociopath with a short temper made even shorter by the fact that, as a victim of tuberculosis, he was always just on the verge of gasping for breath, something that does not improve the disposition.

But Holliday had one saving grace, if you can call it that. He virtually worshiped Wyatt Earp. So Earp had a monster on a leash, as it were, and that was a useful thing. I have little doubt for example, that Holliday fired the first shots at the famous O.K. Corral, and, given that it was a battle in a war, it was the tactically correct thing to do. Monsters are good for that. They will do the correct thing without hesitation, unhindered by whether it is good or bad.

War itself is a monster, as are all weapons or war and violence. The idea of a “good war” is preposterous; the only real question is whether or not a war serves its purpose. One can then argue about the morality of purposes, but that is an entirely different argument. Wars build, protect, or destroy nations. A war that serves the purposes of men and not the purpose of the nation is inevitably evil, and no good can come of it.

We like to say that science and technology are morally neutral, that it’s the uses to which they are put that determine the morality and ethics. But some monsters are more treacherous than others. You don’t deal with the devil, or make a wish on the monkey’s paw, and there are some technologies that are as treacherous as any of those. You can try to pretend that a nuclear weapon’s morality depends upon its target, but by the time you get to putting one into a parking orbit, you’re just trying to read the finest of the small print before you sign in blood. You can pretend that your bioweapon research is for “deterrence,” but every reader knows that the deal isn’t going to turn out well.

So sure, give the vampire a soul, chalk the mark on the golem’s forehead to save the ghetto of Prague, summon Gamera to protect the children, and all the rest. But always remember that monsters play by their own set of rules, and those rules are not yours. It is possible to tame a monster, but the monster is a monster still, and cannot change its ways for so small a thing as humanity.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Smartest Guy in the Room

If you’re reading this, odds are that you’ve spent at least some time in your life as the Smartest Guy in the Room. I’m going to hope that everyone at least temporarily lets me get away with the sexist aspects of that statement, though I’ll stipulate that there are plenty of times when the smartest guy in the room is a female. For that matter, I’ll state at the outset that the smartest guy in the room needn’t even be the most intelligent. The SGITR syndrome has a more to do with competition and aggression.

At Hickman Elementary and Donelson High School, Mark and I swapped back and forth for the top scores on standardized tests, achievement tests, PSATs, ACTs, and SATs. Mark went to Oberlin for a while, had a bit of a flameout, then attended and graduated from U. of Indiana, Bloomington in mathematics. Mark was shy and not nearly as aggressive as I am, but during his college years at least, he had the math version of SGITR, which shows up in casual statements like, “Oh, I can never remember that equation; if I need it, I’ll just re-derive it.”

In primary and secondary public education, the occasional Bronx High School of Science being the exception, it’s pretty easy to be the SGITR. My high school graduating class had about 200 students, so all Mark and I had to do was be in the top percentile. Larger schools will have a more in the top 1%, but still, everyone will know who’s who pretty quickly, and the pecking order sorts itself out.

If someone is really invested in being the SGITR, though, college can be a shock, especially if the school is science-and-engineering. If someone goes to MIT, RPI, CalTech, Cornell, or any of several dozen other schools, suddenly he’s confronted with an entire school full of 1 percentiles, each and every one of them with his own history of being the smartest guy in the room.
Some guys just go into shock, like the turkeys dropped from a plane; they just fold their wings and drop like stones, to flunk out of school in the first year or two. Others intensify their competition, sometimes sliding into stereotypes like cutting relevant articles out of library journals so their classmates can’t get them, or pestering their professors to squeeze out every last little decimal of their GPA.

I was lucky in a lot of ways. I was already a weird guy from a strange part of the country (there were exactly two of us from Tennessee in my class at RPI). Moreover, my skill set was markedly different from other RPI students. My math skills were about average (for a ‘Tute student), but my verbal skills were way above the norm, and I had some other things going, like my 3-D visualization is off the charts (if you ever need your trunk packed, I’m the guy to ask for help).

So I branched out. There were a ton of guys studying Math Analysis until 2 A.M., I went for operations research and statistics instead. I became a “publications nurd,” and wound up editing three student magazines during my undergraduate years. And so forth.
I also ditched the lingering traces of my southern accent, because people assume that someone who talks like that is stupid. I might have decided that I didn’t want to win the SGITR competition, but I didn’t want to lose it, either.

Still, I thought about what that competition entailed, and indeed, what all social competitions entailed. I mean, if you’ve got a hundred people and only one winner, what does that make the other 99? Losers? Those odds suck, even for the winner.

So the first thing to do was to put the whole thing in perspective. It’s easy to come up with a lot of things that are more important, at least in terms of the social competition, than being smart. Looks for example, or money. Sure, people will try to claim that smart people make money, but all you have to do is to look at the fate of all those mathematicians to see how silly that is.
But I was more interested in my own valuations, so I deliberately made a list of mental attributes that I thought were more important than raw intellect.

Honesty topped the list. Part of the reason for that is the recognition of how hard real honesty is, even to define. It’s not just a lack of dishonesty, or the inability to lie well (which I have pretty well down pat, but so what?). Real honesty takes considerable courage, because it first has to be turned on itself, stripping away rationalizations, lazy assumptions, comforting suppositions, and cherished theories. Cheap candor is easy; honesty is heavy lifting.

There comes empathy and compassion. I’d need an entire essay (probably more) to examine the nature of those currently popular political philosophies that try to rationalize what is basically a fear of compassion. Empathy and compassion, the ability to see and feel things from another’s point of view, are essential for any civilized view of the world, and it’s revealing that so much effort is being expended to avoid what is seen as “weakness” or “relativism.”

Curiosity isn’t the same as being smart, either, but without it, someone only learns if they think there is an advantage to it. That brings up the matter of depth and breadth of knowledge, another factor that isn’t the same as intellect, but is often mistaken for it.

Making my list at least gave me the intellectual reasons for abandoning the smartest guy in the room competition. I can’t say that I don’t still have the reflexes, of course. You don’t easily drop something that played a big part in your formative years. But I do notice when there is a smartest guy competition going on, and I sometimes manage to bow out honorably. It’s most difficult when someone is trying for an argument, of course.

I once spent an extended period of time consciously attempting to avoid arguments. Toward the end of the experiment, I remarked to a friend of mine, “You know, everyone calls me argumentative, but as nearly as I can tell, it’s everyone else who is trying to contradict every thing I say.”

She said, “Hey, I don’t try to contradict with everything you say.”

Then she cracked up, realizing what she had said. “Okay, proposition granted,” she said.

I am pretty lucky to have friends like that.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Suppose you wanted to put together a test of athletic ability, maybe to aid in the scouting of players for some team. Here’s one way you could do it. Give the subject a series of tests, like how much can he bench press, how fast can he run the 100, the quarter mile, the mile, how high can he jump, etc? Be sure to include some eye-hand coordination tasks, some height, weight, and bulk measurements, in fact, put in everything you can think of.

Now just add up all the scores, and viola! You’ve got your “A. Q.” measurement.

Well, that isn’t very good, is it? At the very least, you’re probably double counting some abilities, at least partly. After all, the speed tests probably correlate to some degree, as do a lot of strength tests. So let’s put all our scores through a mathematical procedure called “principle component analysis” (PCA). That will “orthogonalize” our test scores, and give you a series of “principle components” or “principle factors” that do not correlate with each other. You might wind up with uncorrelated factors that largely correspond to “strength”, “flexibility” and “reaction time.” Alternately, you might wind up with factors that look like “weightlifter”, “swimmer”, or “racketball player.” In truth, what you’re going to wind up with is a series of mathematical constructs, whose sole reason for existence is that each one is largely uncorrelated to the others. Also, owing to the nature of PCA, you’re only going to wind up with two or three components before measurement variance turns the remaining factors into gibberish or noise.

You could, of course, then call the largest component “general athletic ability,” and call the second component “crystallized athletic ability.” That’s how it’s done with I.Q. after all.
With athletic tests, of course, it’s pretty easy to see the problem. We know that upper body strength is different from eye-hand coordination, and that neither of them have much to do with how fast you can run 100 meters from a standing start. To be sure, there might well be some correlation; someone who is old, sick, sedentary, or drunk isn’t likely to be very good at any of them and that is correlative. But it’s still obvious that they are different abilities.

Moreover, our hypothetical scout doesn’t give a damn about “overall athletic ability.” If he’s a baseball scout, he wants to know how well the player can play baseball. There’s a cluster of skill associated with baseball, and that cluster is different from other sports. There’s no other sport where being left-handed is rewarded to the extent that it is in baseball, for example.
Similarly, height is useful to a basketball player, in almost exactly the way that it isn’t helpful to a jockey. Nor will you see many people who are triple threats in weightlifting, pistol shooting, and figure skating.

So while our scout might very well give a battery of tests to a potential player, those tests will be different, or at least weighted very differently, from one given by a scout for a different sport. And in any case, the eventual test of the matter will be in how well the player plays the sport.
While this may be obvious when it is applied to physical characteristics, for some reason, people don’t find it obvious when applied to mental characteristics. Maybe it’s because mental characteristics are abstract that people want a number to go with them, but I don’t find that argument persuasive. After all, there are all those baseball statisticians.

For my own part, I’ve gone from once putting a lot of value on I.Q. testing and scores to putting almost no value on it at all. I’ll stipulate that testing has been very good to me, giving me access to an education and a profession that I’d not have had, given the other aspects of my origins. But I’ve known too many smart people who tested poorly, and too many people who test well whose judgment I would not trust on anything.

Moreover, I’ve become very aware over the years of all the different mental skills that people possess, and how often one very different trait can substitute for another. And I’ve also seen how many times test scores of one sort or another have been used to beat up on the disadvantaged, to cut them out of the opportunity to even play the game.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Big Casino

We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. – Soviet era quip.

It’s a startup, so we’re mostly being paid in lottery tickets (stock options). – Dot-com bubble quip.

If you read practically any historical material from the time of the Founding Fathers, or a goodly number of years thereafter, the word “Providence” shows up, often in the phrase “Divine Providence.” “Providence” in this context means, “The care, guardianship, and control exercised by a deity.” In other words, divine luck. It fits in nicely with one type of Calvinism that holds worldly success to be a measure of divine blessing, “virtue,” in fact.

America was early on a land of farmers, and farmers are always dependent on luck, for rain at the right times, for a lack of hail or the killing frost, for their fields to escape predation by insects or other pests. It’s very easy for a farmer to be a “God fearing man.”

Even the coming to America was risky; there were no safe passages in the early days, and even the richest men could be lost at sea. Later, when the immigrants flooded in, they were packed so tight on the ships that disease flourished, and any number of physical ailments meant being turned back from Ellis Island. Simply making it to America has always been a matter of some luck.

Life is a crap shoot under the best of circumstances, but the history of America is a history of deliberate risks taken, beginning with the journey itself, then the measures used to “find one’s fortune.”. Sometimes the payoffs were huge, and men became wealthy beyond anything imaginable in prior ages. At other times, the losses were also immense, in mining disasters, fires, and civil insurrections that left the dead littered like so many playing cards on the floor of the casino.

And let’s not even dwell upon the Civil War, which pitted the wealth of slavery against the manufacturing power of the sweatshop and the Yankee trader. The sweatshop immigrants won, probably inevitably, but the cards were well scattered, and chessboards knocked off the tables, and the Party of Lincoln was picking up the chips for the next half century.

Even in strictly monetary terms, every great fortune consumes many smaller ones. John D. Rockefeller once said, “God gave me my money,” which is true, provided one sees God in a network of collusive arrangements with the transportation and distribution networks, aided and abetted by laws specifically written by bribed legislators. Still, God works in mysterious ways, and gamblers of the period also insured that God was on their side, with marked decks, dealing seconds, and nifty little holdout gadgets that could change a deuce to an ace if the need arose.

As time progressed, each generation made laws outlawing the more obviously predatory practices of the previous generation, all the better to invent new ones of their own. Those who reach the castle always want to raise the drawbridge before the riffraff arrive, but the riffraff are mighty inventive, so they keep sneaking in.

The Big Casino is a powerful economic engine. Consider, everyone knows the odds are against them in a casino in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or your local ad hoc Indian reservation, yet still people go in and bet. The odds of winning the Lottery are even worse, yet there are compulsives who chance even that slim chance for the big score, hoping to get rich enough to change their lives. The sad irony is how often the jackpot winner crashes and burns, unable to cope with the sudden change in altitude.

So imagine how much better the scramble when the game isn’t zero sum? When the pie is expanding, everyone can get a bigger slice, but it’s so much more satisfying to the imagination to crave a bigger slice than your neighbor. Then, with a little help from the circular reasoning of Social Darwinism / Calvinism (the fittest survive, which is to say, the virtuous become rich), one may pretend to be better than one’s fellows, which is what the game is about anyway.

Are personality traits heritable, and does that even matter? The risk taking tradition is a part of American heritage, something to be understood and controlled, if possible, something to recognize and live with, in any case, because it ain’t going away. Nor is it a matter of just passing some laws; risk takers will break the law if the potential rewards are high enough.

On the old Bilko Show (aka “You’ll Never Get Rich”), with Phil Silvers, Bilko manages to get himself to Monte Carlo, where he tries out his betting system and manages to lose all the money he’s been given by his platoon. Out on the balcony, looking horribly depressed, the casino manager suggests he do “the honorable thing” and gives him a gun. Bilko promptly returns to the betting tables and tries to bet the gun.

There are plenty of us who would have instead used it to try to rob the casino. I mean, really, they were just asking for it.

Monday, January 8, 2007

By Any Other Name

It just so happens that Killus is a rare name. That’s a little counter-intuitive; it doesn’t seem like it ought to be unusual. It’s not hard to spell, though it often gets misspelled. It’s not hard to pronounce, thought it often gets mispronounced. It is, however, easy to make fun of, though it could be worse. Ask anyone named Fluck, or Fuchs.

We weren’t even sure of the origin when I was growing up. We were pretty sure it was German, as my grandparents sometimes spoke German when they didn’t want the kids to understand what they were saying. This, of course, prompted my Dad to learn a bit of German. I do too, for different reasons. I suspect my fluency is similar to my Dad’s, which is to say, almost non-existent.

There was also some confusion owing to the old Deutsch/Dutch thing. I’ve had some colleagues from the Netherlands tell me that Kilius is a fairly common name there, but it’s also a common German name. I thought that Marika Kilius, who was in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics as a figure skater was Dutch, but it turns out she was German, so much for that.

In any case, I was contacted a few years ago by a nice lady named Crystal, maiden name Killus, from, I think, Leipzig, who was interested in tracking down members of the Killus family in the U. S. I’m pretty easy to find, given the wonders of the Web, so she contacted me first. I have the impression that she thought I was two people; it sometimes looks a little like that if you do a web search. She was also pretty excited at having found a couple of Killus’ in the Cincinnati phone book, since Cincinnati has a lot of German immigrants. I had to tell her that she’d found my mother and sister, and that my mother was from Georgia by way of Tennessee, and of English descent.

I’ve followed the careers of a few other Killus’ like Dagmar, who’s at the Max Plank Institute and apparently studies secondary education. Then there are Dorothea and Ranier, also German, who seem to be involved in missionary work. Crystal told me that the generations-back Killus’ were known for being “pious,” and that, added to the fact that my maternal relatives tend strongly toward the ministry, and I get a little uncomfortable.

Just a few days ago I got an email from Vicki Killus, who wanted to know if we were related. Since she and my mom used to be in a bowling league together when my folks lived in Illinois, I already knew of her. But I was off to college by then, and while I probably met cousin Vicki when I was young, she hadn’t connected the young squirt named Pete with the greybeard named James.

She did clear up that Lindsay Killus, who I first ran across when she showed up on the web as a star high school athlete in southern California, is indeed another relative, one of those “second cousin once removed” sort of things. Lindsay has written some sports articles since then, which is kinda cool.

In talking to a high school buddy a couple weeks ago, I told him to drop by my web site, it’s really easy to find, since I’m the first hit on Google. Naturally, a few days after that, I discover that there’s this Spanish metal band that’s named itself “killus” and they’re doing streamcasts of their stuff on MySpace. Well, you know, a few sf novels and scientific papers can’t really stand up to free music, so I’ve dropped off the number 1 spot. Serves me right. Besides, “Death Gun” is a killer song.

[Note added August, 2007; me and the rock band have been locked in an epic struggle on Google for some months now. Currently, I am ahead by a whisker. I am letting my beard grow.]