Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thunderbirds, Heroism, and Suicide Bombers: A Teaching Moment

While discussing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, one of my students in a history class asked how suicide bombers could do what they do. I told them a personal story. The Thunderbirds were a high-performance United States Air Force aerobatics team of six pilots who flew T-38s back in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I had gone to a church event where two Thunderbird pilots came to talk. I was too shy to go up afterwards and shake either of their hands.

The following day I was among the tens of thousands up at Hill Air Force Base standing along the runway watching the Thunderbirds go through their paces. It was very impressive. Then we noticed that a plane was missing and there was a spiral of smoke coming from the south, beyond the end of the runway. The fire engines went roaring down the runway while the remaining Thunderbirds continued with the rest of their show.

Many people had stopped their cars along the road at the end of the runaway to watch the show. The plane’s engines flared out and the pilot had only a moment to make the decision: eject or ride the plane into the ground in order to try to protect the bystanders. He rode the T-38 into the ground, crashing in an empty field, though a horse was decapitated.

He essentially committed suicide. I asked my class: what was that pilot? It was a somber class, but one student volunteered, “A hero.” Exactly. He chose to die for a higher cause; in his case, saving the lives of others. Suicide bombers die for a higher cause, not a cause that we believe in, but often a cause that their community, friends, and comrades believe in. They are heros or heroines to their fellow believers. For them, their lives have meaning, and their manner of death is noble and honorable, just as that Thunderbird pilot’s life and death had meaning.

I agree that there are essential differences between the two. The pilot died in order to save lives, while the suicide bomber died in order to take lives, but war requires death and sacrifice. Often deaths during war are random, while the suicide bomber has chosen to assert control over their own death in order to make their life worth something.

Just to complete the story. At every air show that I have seen at Hill Air Force Base since then, the police make sure that no one parks at the end of the runway. The pilot had a wife and children that he left behind and he was one of the two Thunderbird pilots that had attended the church event the night before. I googled the event and found that it happened on May 9, 1981.

Posted: 20 June 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time

Daniel Keyes died one year ago at the age of 86.  He lived a full life and his death is not a time for sadness, but to appreciate the singular accomplishment of his life.  He wrote "Flowers for Algernon," which I consider to be the greatest science fiction story of all time.

In that odd way of ranking art, we often like to describe something as the finest example of such and such.  "Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov, is often touted as the best science fiction story ever published.  While I like "Nightfall," it never really affected me emotionally, just intellectually, and I disagree with the ranking.  When the Science Fiction Writers of America were voting, they only ranked stories from before 1965.  First published as a short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "Flowers for Algernon" also ranked high in the voting, but “Nightfall” won.  I suspect that Nightfall won because Isaac Asimov was such a commanding presence within the community of science fiction writers, and while “Nightfall” was his best work, it was one of many outstanding works.  As for Keyes, while he published other work, "Flowers for Algernon" shines so brightly that he almost feels like a one-hit wonder.

I was an adult before I read the story and I am not going to describe what happens.  Read it yourself.  According to the New York Times obituary, Daniel Keyes said that “the character of Charlie occurred to him while he was teaching a special needs class; a student approached him at the end of the period and asked to be transferred out of the ‘dummy’s class’ because he wanted to be smart.”

After Keyes wrote the story, the editor of one science fiction magazine thought that the story was “good,” but would be “great” if he changed the ending.  Keyes refused and published in another magazine and won a Hugo Award for best novelette of 1960.  The editor at Doubleday also wanted a different ending for the later novel.  Keyes again refused.  Both editors were wrong.  This is a great example of an artist sticking with his original vision and being rewarded.  A different ending would have compromised the power of the story.

“Nightfall” is essentially a gimmick story, based on a single idea, while "Flowers for Algernon" confronts the central issue that forms the core of scientific inquiry and the themes of science fiction--that is, intelligence.

Even in a modern world, where race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are often obstacles to succeeding, the greatest obstacle to success has always been the lack of intelligence.  Being intelligent is an enormous asset, as are the accompanying traits of conscientiousness, perception, emotional control, and the ability to sacrifice for long-term goals.

What makes us human is our minds and “Flowers for Algernon” teaches us how precious that intelligence is.

Posted: 15 June 2015

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2012)

I had heard about this book and bought it with every intention of reading it, but didn’t get around to it until a writing friend of mine who is very liberal told me that he was reading it and that it was expanding the way that he viewed politics.  So I started reading it and soon had my highlighter out, always a good indication that I am paying attention.  Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University who studies moral psychology, which is how we make moral choices.  He used to be at the University of Virginia and previously published a book on happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006).

Haidt first shows that psychological research has demolished the idea that we arrive at moral choices through rational thought, as supposed by philosophers, who tend to put rational thought at the center of all our thinking.  Rather, he argues that we make moral choices though a process of moral intuition, which is a subconscious (or preconscious, if you prefer) process.  These intuitions are genetically-based modules, subject to natural selection.  His Moral Foundations Theory explains that we have six modules:
  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
There may be other modules, but these are the ones that Haidt and his colleagues have identified.  You can take a survey at YourMorals.Org to see where you stand on these different modules, though the survey requires honest reflection, which is not something that many of us are inclined towards doing.  While this theory of morality can be applied to many different arenas of human life, Haidt applies it towards explaining politics in America.

For most of us, our political attitudes are really moral choices, beliefs about how the world works and how it should work.  In America, political orientations are often considered moral imperatives by their most ardent advocates.  Haidt found that liberals or progressives in America are very preoccupied by the first three moral foundations, while conservatives tend to draw from all six foundations.  For instance, a liberal is very concerned if someone is being hurt (an example of care/harm) or disadvantaged because of their race, sex, or sexual orientations (an example of liberty/oppression).  While a conservative does care about someone being hurt or being oppressed, the conservative will often also balance those moral intuitions with other moral intuitions, such as a sense of loyalty towards established norms and respect for authority.  The conservative may also seek sacred values that create a moral intuition.

Once any person has reacted to a moral situation with a moral intuition, then comes the rational phase, which is the conscious thinking that we often call rationalization.  The purpose of this second stage to explain to other people and to himself or herself rational reasons for the moral reaction they have already arrived at.  Haidt describes this as the Elephant and Rider metaphor, where the elephant is those innate moral intuitions and the rider is conscious post hoc rationalizing.

This fascinating book has changed how I think about political issues.  It made me more sympathetic to other points of view (even though I think that I was already pretty sympathetic, since I am in the middle on most issues and quite moderate).

Posted: 27 January 2014

Monday, December 2, 2013

We're Witnessing Our Own 20th-century Renaissance

We're Witnessing Our Own 20th-century Renaissance

Average IQ scores rose during the twentieth century.  Are people getting more intelligent?  James R. Flynn, a professor of political science at the University of Otago in New Zealand noticed this phenomenon, which is now called the Flynn effect.  Flynn himself does not see this as evidence of increasing intelligence.  People are probably just getting better at taking IQ tests.  In a profile in Scientific American, Flynn asked the rhetorical questions: "why aren't we undergoing a renaissance unparalleled in human history? . . . why aren't we duplicating the golden days of Athens or the Italian Renaissance?" (Scientific American, January 1999, p. 37) <>  His views are shared by many.

When the sensitive person thinks of the past century and first thirteen years of this century, their inclination is to see the horrors.  Two world wars that destroyed generations of people.  We remember the ovens of Treblinka, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the mass starvation of Stalin's terror, and the many cases of ethnic cleansing, from Armenia and India, to Bosnia and Rwanda.  Past centuries have seen such atrocities, just not on the same scale or so well documented.

In 1900, our planet supported 1.7 billion people; in 2013, the biosphere strains under seven billion people.  Of those seven billion, perhaps a third live in relative comfort.  Far too many live in the squalor of poverty with little if any hope for a better future.

We now live on the edge of ecological catastrophe.  While the growth of population and technology have degraded our environment, science and technology also offer the only realistic hope for understanding and coping with such a problem; that is, short of a worldwide plague that eliminates most of the people on the planet.

The Italian Renaissance was a "rebirth" of cultural vigor based on the rediscovery of ancient Greco-Roman learning.  Self-proclaimed humanists learned to savor their individuality and found glory in art styles patterned after Greco-Roman sculptures and paintings.  The Italian Renaissance spawned renaissances in other European countries, especially France and England.

Part of the Renaissance was a renewed appreciation for the value of the individual.  At the beginning, this valuation was reserved for white males.  The twentieth century witnessed the successful beginnings of women's rights and civil rights for racial minorities.  Despite the road that still must be followed, women and racial minorities enjoy greater opportunities in western nations than ever before.  The twentieth century has seen the triumph of the ideals of liberal democracy, moving from a European and American oddity to a more global aspiration.

The Renaissance created the intellectual environment necessary for the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The growth of science is a continuing saga of gaining ever greater understanding of and control over our natural environment.

The twentieth century was revolutionized with Einstein's theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the discovery of genetics, and plate tectonics.  In 1900, we thought that the Milky Way galaxy was the universe; now we know that our galaxy is one of many and not unique in any way other than that we live here.  We now have a science of ecology, showing us the complex relationships within the environment.

Medical advances have reduced the need for people to have so many children as insurance that some would make it past the gauntlet of infant and childhood diseases.  Certain types of mental illness are now treatable with drugs and therapy, giving hope where none existed in 1900.

Twentieth-century science has fueled technological growth.  Computers have allowed us to tackle problems that pencil and paper never could.  Telephone and telegraph provided long distance communication in 1900.  Now we send enormous amounts of data and video around the world by satellite and optical fibers.  Furthermore, we have the technological base to collate and interpret the resulting flood of data.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a event that riveted hundreds of millions of viewers and will stand as one of the greatest events in human history.  While the space program has faltered in fulfilling the fondest ambitions of its advocates, satellites now provide a web of telecommunications knitting the world closer together.

In its own way, the Space Shuttle was as impressive as Michelangelo's murals in the Sistine Chapel.  The shuttle was such a complex piece of machinery that the first real complete systems test came when John Young and Robert Crippen sat on top of almost ten million pounds of thrust in 1981 during the shuttle's first launch.  The Challenger and Columbia disasters and other deaths in the American and Russian space programs are sobering reminders of the cost of reaching beyond our planet, but are also a testament to the many successful returns of humans from the unforgiving vacuum of space
Five hundred years from now, when historians look back at the twentieth century, they will remember Einstein, the advances in genetics, computers, and our tentative reaching out from our earthly cradle.  Furthermore, the late twentieth century also saw the birth of the Internet, a web of network connections that has revolutionized commerce, learning, and social relationships.

To return to Flynn's rhetorical questions.  When people idolize the Italian Renaissance, they tend to forget the reality of that time.  Shifting alliances of Italian city-states, fueled by mercenaries, frequently warred with each other.  The vast majority of the population lived short, harsh lives, unprotected from disease and entirely oblivious to the creative ferment in elite, literate society.

Flynn also mentioned the golden days of Athens as a time that the twentieth century does not compare to.  Even though Athens practiced a form of democracy, they were known by their Greek neighbors as tyrants.  Athens fueled the awful twenty-seven year long Peloponnesian War, which ended with the complete defeat of the city of Athena.  We inherited the beginnings of science and mathematics from the Greeks, but those sages were not inclined to take the next step toward practical implementation.

The accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greeks were carried out by a few and known by only a few.  Accomplishments today are carried out by the combined efforts of millions and billions more can appreciate them.  In my study are thousands of books and hundreds of musical compact discs, combined with the millions of books and musical compositions digitally available at the click of a button, all which bring the wisdom and pleasure of many cultures to my room.  The telephone, television, and Internet allow me to live in a community that defies geography.

Having sung the praises of the twentieth century, we must not forget that these Western pleasures and privileges are not available to the majority of people on our planet.  Perhaps the twentieth-first century will solve that problem and bring even greater equality.

While Flynn's misgivings about IQ tests are well-regarded and certainly accurate, not seeing the accomplishments of the twentieth century is blindness.  We may not be more intelligent than our ancestors, but we have witnessed a modern-day renaissance.

(Updated and modified from an Op-Ed piece published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, 12 May 1999.)

Posted: 4 December 2013

Reponse to 8 Worst Mistakes Made by the Allies During World War II

Yesterday, I read an interesting post on io9 on The 8 Worst Mistakes Made by the Allies During World War II. I both agree and disagree with their choices.

I agree with the first four mistakes:

1. The Failure to Attack Germany After It Invaded Poland

2. The Failure to Anticipate a German Blitz Through the Ardennes

3. America's Failure to Immediately Adopt the Convoy System

4. Underestimating the Japanese

The other four mistakes are a bit more questionable, even completely wrong.  I have listed them with my opinions:

5. The Utterly Useless Raid on Dieppe

Yes, a mistake, but not a particularly dramatic one unless you are Canadian, who composed the bulk of the 3,600 Allied casualties.   We still don't completely understand what the goals of the Allies were.

6. FDR's Demand of "Unconditional" German Surrender

My major complaint, a perfect example of 20/20 hindsight; yet even then, this was not a mistake.  Most wars with coalitions fighting as allies end with the breakup of the coalitions.  The alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations was a natural fit; their alliance with the Stalinist Soviet Union was not a natural alliance.  Stalin had a long record of breaking treaties and other commitments and he was paranoid that the Western Allies would make a separate peace.  Considering his track record, the Western Allies were also afraid that the Soviets would make a separate peace with Germany, and the Americans and British knew that they could not win the war in Europe without the Soviet Union.  The public declaration that only "Unconditional surrender" would be accepted by the Allies was a brilliant way to show Stalin that the Western Allies would not quit the war early.

Furthermore, the First World War ended before any Allied troops had set foot on German soil.  Because of this, Germans entertained a widespread belief that the First World War had only been lost because of a "stab in the back" by nefarious forces, such as Jews, communists, and other revolutionary leftists.  This belief helped propel Hitler to power and justified in German minds a renewal of war to undo the injustices of the First World War peace settlement.  The German attitude after the Second World War was completely different: they felt utterly defeated with only perhaps one-tenth of their nation yet unoccupied by Allied forces at the end of the war.  In order to rein in Germany, the German people needed to taste true defeat.

7. The Failure to Seize the Early Initiative At Anzio

Yes, this would have shortened the war in Italy, but I would argue that the incompetent defense of the Philippines in 1941 and 1942 by the Americans was an even worse mistake.  Furthermore, retaking the Philippines in 1944 and 1945 was unnecessary for any purpose but to salve Douglas MacArthur's ego.

8. The Premature and Overly Ambitious Operation Market Garden

Yes, this effort to shorten the war was ill-conceived, but it made a pretty good movie, A Bridge Too Far.

 Posted: 2 December 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Review

David Brin, Existence (Tor, 2012)

Its been too long since I immersed myself in a big science fiction novel where world-building and ideas hold sway, prompting me to think big thoughts and muse about the fundamental purposes of human life.  David Brin’s novels and short stories have often provoked those emotions in me, an example of the sense of wonder that is so key to good science fiction.  I have read most of his novels and two of his non-fiction books and enjoyed reading his most recent novel, Existence (Tor, 2012) (ebook).

This is a long novel (I estimate 300,000 words), a sprawling epic, scientifically-grounded and optimistic, similar in scope and intent to his 1990 novel Earth (ebook)  A large cast of characters and events occur over the course of the next hundred years or so, though the exact time frame is only vaguely described.  The plot centers around the discovery of large crystals which contain the virtual remains of extinct aliens.  Brin imagines a world with virtual overlays, instant information, a rapid rate of change, and human civilization striving to make the right decisions and avoid possible civilization-ending traps.  As is common with his writing, he focuses on themes of how alien civilizations might evolve, humans adding other intelligent species to our planet by genetically modifying dolphins and chimpanzees, and issues about privacy, transparency, and how political power works.

His characterization is good, particularly in showing how people can get excited about science.  His portrayal of autistic people, as a type of new human with different capabilities, is intriguing and heartfelt.  One character is obviously based on the late Michael Chrichton, well-known for his thrillers based on science gone wrong.  For Brin, the greatest human traits are curiosity, problem-solving, and diversity.

Brin ends the Afterword of the book with an ode to humans, decrying the idea that humans are a pox on the environment.
We aren’t a curse upon the world.  We are her new eyes.  Her brain, testes, ovaries . . . her ambition and her heart.  Her voice.  So sing. (556)

While it is not a popular idea among some circles, I personally believe that humans are the culmination of life on Earth and give the Earth meaning.  In the best science fiction, we see these ideas discussed and dissected, a useful activity for all of us, because these issues will someday become burning issues of the present day.

Posted: 16 November 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Ultimate What-If of the Cuban Missile Crisis: What If There Had Been a Nuclear War?

The fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis just passed and America justly celebrated the event. Five decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, the world survived the most dangerous moment in human history. During the course of thirteen days, the Soviets and Americans confronted each other, but sanity won out and a deal was negotiated to end the crisis.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of historical archives, as well as participants speaking up, we have learned that the crisis was much more hazardous than initially supposed. The Soviets had four submarines in the Atlantic, each armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo, and ambiguous instructions on when those weapons could be used. American naval vessels found some of the submarines and harassed them with noisemakers and grenades into surfacing. On Cuba itself, the Soviet troops were armed with tactical nuclear weapons, again with ambiguous instructions on when they could use those weapons. If Kennedy had followed the advice of the military and bombed or invaded Cuba, these weapons might have been used. While the American military knew that the Soviets on Cuba might have tactical nuclear weapons, they had no intelligence showing this and tended to believe that the Soviets had not brought such weapons with them.

The chances for an accidental war were very high. Many of us might assume that people are more rational than that, but nations are independent actors and when they are playing chicken, unwanted outcomes are the norm. World War I and World War II both effectively started by accident in that none of the major powers were seeking a general war.

What makes the Cuban Missile Crisis fascinating for me as a historian is not what happened, as grateful as I am that we all survived, but what could have happened. What if the U-2 flight that found the Soviet missile sites on Cuba, thus starting the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been delayed by just seven days? Many of the earlier reconnaissance flights had been delayed by too much cloud cover over Cuba. Because the time line of the crisis was dictated by how close the Soviets were to getting their strategic missiles on Cuba active, such a delay in discovery would have created a much shorter time period for decisions to be made. At the beginning of the crisis, the tendency of the president’s advisors was to be much more belligerent, and the longer length of the real crisis allowed emotions to cool and caution to prevail. A shorter crisis could have encouraged Kennedy to follow the advice of the Pentagon and resort to the bombing of the strategic missiles on Cuba before they became active and then to invade the island just to make sure that they had been destroyed. Removing Fidel Castro from power, who had already demonstrated his inclination to be a thorn in the side of American foreign policy, would have been a bonus.

Two years ago, I wrote a what-if history book based on the premise that the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a general nuclear war. The first half of the book was accurate history, with a few changes to match the narrative of fictional history in the second half of the book. The book was not a novel, at least not in the traditional sense, since it was written as a history book in both style and content, but it did later win an award that normally went to novels: the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The recent documentary on the crisis, CloudsOverCuba, also portrayed an alternate outcome of the crisis. [Disclaimer: I consulted on the documentary.]

In my counterfactual history, because of the shortened time line for decisions, Kennedy follows the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cuba is bombed. The Pentagon then implements its plans for an invasion, but the invasion fleet is destroyed by a Soviet tactical nuclear weapon and the world holds its breath. The Americans react to the loss of their ships and troops by dropping fourteen nuclear bombs on Cuba. Kennedy is assured by Air Force general Curtis LeMay that this will destroy all possible Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, a claim that LeMay could make because he was unaware that the Soviets had brought over one hundred nuclear weapons to the island with their troops.

The crew of the remaining Soviet medium bomber on Cuba, absent orders from their superiors, retaliate by dropping their nuclear bomb on New Orleans. Quick messages are exchanged between the two superpowers. Khrushchev recognizes that because his own strategic forces are so much smaller than the American forces, that the only hope for the Soviets is to strike first. The Soviets have 25 intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, while the Americans have ready 180 ICBMs that can reach the Soviet Union; only 110 Soviet strategic bombers can reach the United States and 1,600 American strategic bombers can reach the Soviet Union. In other classes of weapons, the United States enjoys similar advantages. It is a classic case of desperately opting for war because of a sense of weakness, instead of strength.

My research led to an unexpected outcome. In 1962, because of the disparity of strategic nuclear weapons between the Soviets and Americans, a general nuclear war would have destroyed the Soviet Union and Europe, but only damaged the United States. Canada and the United States had strong fighter defenses, and Soviet missile-carrying submarines were all in port, so the United States would probably only be hit by less than thirty nuclear weapons. That is horrific, but not a civilization killer; in comparison, the Soviets took proportionally a similar number of casualties during World War II. Western Europe would be devastated by numerous shorter-range Soviet missiles and in return, the Soviet Union would be obliterated by over a thousand American nuclear weapons. The American war plan for nuclear war was politically inflexible, not taking into account that a global war might not include all communist nations, so in following the plan, China and other communist nations would also be hit hard by the Americans.

Nuclear weapons were set to either explode high in the air, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, maximizing the range of blast effects, or on the ground, in order to destroy command bunkers and missile silos buried in the ground. In 1962, the long-term effects of a global nuclear war would have been minimized because almost all of the nuclear explosions would have been air bursts in order to increase immediate damage and reduce fallout. For instance, the Soviets had no motivation for maximizing the fallout from their strikes on Western Europe, because the jet stream would have just brought that fallout to their own nation. The massive silo-building program of the mid-1960s had just began and had not yet forced a change in tactics.

After the real crisis ended, the Soviets resolved to not be caught in a position of strategic weakness again, and so embarked on a massive buildup in strategic nuclear forces. Both sides also buried their missiles deep in silos, which meant that during a nuclear war ground bursts would be required to destroy those missiles. A general nuclear war, in which each side used its thousands of weapons, throwing massive amounts of fallout into the atmosphere, would kill human civilization. The proposed outcome that I presented in my book, where the United States would have survived, however weakened and shocked, would not have happened after the increased nuclear buildup.

In the end, in an argument for what-if history, we need to remember that history may now be in the past, but at one moment it was in the present. Contingency is too often neglected by historians and other people. When thinking about history we assume that whatever happened was inevitable. This is a poor way to think about history and about why events unfolded as they did. Thinking about alternate outcomes of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an extended exercise in continency and helps us to imagine what the crisis must have felt like for people at that time ... and for what might have happened instead.

(Originally published on the History News Network on 12 November 2012.)

An article in the local newspaper, the Standard-Examiner, about my interest in this subject.

Posted: 22 October 2013