Friday, April 04, 2014

The Month That Was - March 2014

As you can see I have actually update the blog look. Google kept pestering me to update to a revised template; can't blame them, since the old one was hand coded HTML from more than a decade ago and wasn't reacting well to the current browsers. This one still needs work: the titles are poorly spaced and the sidebar has to be rebuilt somehow. All in good time. For now, it's readable.

We actually saw a couple of warm days. By warm I mean 40. Then bam! A monster storm -- the first one in this year of storms that actually kept me in the house for the bulk of the day. But the end is in sight. We have passed the great triumvirate of end-of-winter events in Michigan: the Vernal Equinox, Oberon Release Day, and Opening Day for the Tigers. I am starting to make arrangements to have my deck stained and some work done in my yard once the ground thaws. I've ordered a big jar of coyote urine (no, really) to try to keep the critters aware from my flowers. I've also managed to complete the Ann Arbor Half-Marathon. I feel comfortable that I have survived my 54th winter.

[Books] Book Look: The War That Ended the Peace
[Science] Getting Physical
[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

[Books] Book Look:The War That Ended the Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Something you don't know about me: I have for many years had a passing interest in World War I. Not the war itself but the run up to it; the state of Europe in the early part of the 20th century and the events and conflicts the led to the war. Winston Churchill, who had fought in the Boer War, was Lord of the Admiralty at the outset of WW1, and led and inspired England in WW2, called the weeks leading up to the outset of WW1 hostilities the most dramatic moments in his experience. That's saying something.

Coming up on the 100th anniversary of its outset a spate of WW1 books were released this year, with probably more to come. The one I chose to read, The War That Ended the Peace, was well received, but I cannot give it a recommendation. It is unquestionably comprehensive and well-researched, and Macmillan writes fine, clear sentences. However, the content is overly dense and the focus is uneven. Paragraphs will often mix documented facts, general presumptions, anecdote, rumor, and editorial comments from varying years and circumstances, leading to the impression of cherry picking to validate a foregone conclusion. It is virtually impossible not to see the bias, and it's not just in the choice of adjectives or point-of-view. She has an entire chapter entitled "What were they thinking?" Also, rather annoyingly, she peppers the book with comparisons to current events. Whether as an earnest attempt to makes us see our current world more clearly, or as an act of marketing to help short-attention span readers relate, it's out of place. Also, although British, she seems to have a particular bone to pick with the U.S. Republican Party.

I should point out that bias in such a work is unavoidable. No non-trivial communication is bias-free and the start of WW1 is one of the most complicated moments of human history. But Macmillan's forthright projection that she views most of the main players as behaving foolishly, even drawing comparisons to those she believes are modern day fools, smacks of a soft arrogance. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the thing is that your final payoff for all this are conclusions that fall in lockstep with conventional wisdom. Again, there's nothing wrong with that it's just that as a reward for the time and effort of reading it's a bit of a letdown.

Here begins a minor historical rant.

One of the favorite games historians plays with WW1 is assigning culpability. For example, in the end we get the sense that Macmillan places the prime culpability mostly on Germany, or some combination of Austro-Hungarian intransigence and Germany's blank check, while acknowledging that the cumulative political effect of numerous individual developments over the preceding years contributed to the dangerous atmosphere. (From the meat of Macmillan's text she seems to fall into this camp, although in the epilogue she suggests that is is too complicated to sort out and really everyone is at fault for lack of effort or creativity in diplomacy. Weak tea.)

Minor variations on this is what I would call the conventional wisdom. People often stretch this by assigning smatterings of responsibility to the Russians for not having better control of Serbia or the England for being distracted and waffling, and so forth. Whatever the variation, I have a problem with conventional wisdom. All of these theories depend on the supposition that if the ultimate crisis wasn't triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand something else would have done so, therefore we can place blame based on who is responsible for Europe being in the state it was in at the time of the assassination. But as I see it, that is by no means a foregone conclusion.

There had been several crises leading up to the assassination and each crisis was averted through diplomacy. There were dissatisfied parties in each case, but none of them lead to war. This was referred to as the Concert of Europe and was, in fact, so successful, that until the final hours there was a prevailing expectation that it would prevail again. To her credit Macmillan is quite good at highlighting this sort of bipolar mindset in Europe wherein everyone believed war was inevitable as was actively preparing for it, but also had faith in the powers to sort it out in their usual messy but effective way. So the fact that the Concert of Europe failed in this crisis, does not lead me to believe that it was doomed to fail at some point. It seems to me just as likely to not fail given its history. Put another way, no political system is so impervious to events that there isn't some crisis that would flip the switch on it. That, to me, lays the culpability at the feet to the assassins explicitly. That would be the trigger man Princip and his Black Hand partners, their boss Ilic, and their patron Apis and his cronies.

If you really wanted to look for root causes I would explore how all those men got into the positions they were in (both politically and psychological) rather than blame the machinations of the European powers, which were the result of incalculable complexities generated by flawed and irrational human beings. You may as well blame it on the rain.

Here endeth the minor historical rant.

Should you read The War That Ended the Peace? I'm going to offer a qualified no. If you already have a background in the era and events, it will add little to what you know. If you don't it would serve as a comprehensive overview and a basis for further investigation if you find yourself interested, however, there are likely better, easier places to start.

Let me just lob a couple of WW1 book titles if you're interested in pursuing this further. The best retelling of the events leading up to the War that I have read is Europe's Last Summer, by David Fromkin. It dodges much of the criticism I had of the Macmillan book; it's taut and focused and the approach is sufficiently detached to not further muddy the already opaque waters. Though still in the camp of conventional wisdom, Fromkin settles very firmly of the German General Staff for culpability. I gave it a brief review a while back. Dreadnought, by Robert Massie, is a view of this time through the lens of the naval competition between England and Germany. Although limited in scope with respect to the War it was an excellent story. Lastly, probably one of my top ten non-fiction favorites, The Great War in Africa, by Byron Farwell. It is not about the run up to war, but about its execution in far off lands. Just from the tone of it, I would guess it doesn't sit well with formal historians, but who cares when the stories are so damn good.

[Science] Getting Physical

It seems science -- physics in particular -- is on a bit of a roll. Not only was the Higgs Boson located a while back (almost immediately after I chided scientists for having so much trouble doing so), but now it looks like gravity waves have been located, lending credence to the Theory of Inflation. What do these things mean?

The discovery of the Higgs goes a long way towards validating something called the Standard Model, which predicts the existence of a specific zoo of particles/forces. Every particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model had been found except Higgs -- now it's complete, except for that pesky force Gravity which nobody understands. But at least we can have a pretty high level of confidence in the Standard Model now.

The existence of gravity waves (yet to be confirmed, but confidence is high) supports the Theory of Inflation. As near as I can tell, Inflation is essentially the first thing the occurred after existence began. It turns out that our friend gravity can, in certain circumstances, work backwards -- it repels instead of attracts. At the instant of creation it was in repel mode and kickstarted the universe into expansion. Then at some point repel mode ended and the expansion of the universe has ever since been coasting along on the leftover of that early repulsion. There is a tentative implication from all this that the universe is quite literally something from nothing. Essentially, gravity is negative and matter is positive so they cancel each other out and mathematically a universe full of stuff that cancels to zero is no different from non-existence. Go figure. (An explanation from the horses mouth, physicist Alan Guth, is here).

What neither of these things do is explain the Darkness -- Dark Matter and Dark Energy, i.e. most of everything.

As we look around at the motion of things in the universe we realize that it behaves as if there is a lot more stuff that we can see; many times more matter than we can locate. So we decide to call this missing stuff Dark Matter. It must be out there, but we can't find it. Our Standard Model with it's hidden diva, the Higgs Boson, doesn't offer an explanation.

Inflation seems to say the expansion of the universe is coasting on the leftover push from the reverse gravity of Inflation, but it's not coasting. Oh it seemed to be coasting for a while, but now it's accelerating faster and faster. There is the idea that it coasted for a while but then something else began inflating it again. If Inflation isn't pushing it anymore what is? We have to invent something called Dark Energy that is all over, everywhere, but we can't see it or feel it or measure it independent of looking at the entirety of the universe. It is like a great ghost of existence.

These Dark things are really just shorthand for saying "The universe isn't acting like it's supposed to, and we have no bloody idea why." This is not a new phenomenon. This is what the medievals dealt with when they discovered magnetism -- objects moving for no good reason. In the past we might have assigned demons or spirits as the cause or possible some balance-of-nature sort of concept, now we just say it's Dark Stuff. For an interesting take on how humans respond to the unseen, see this article in Nautilus Magazine.

The bottom line for our era of science seems to be that while we have discovered more knowledge than any other era, we have been even better are discovering what we don't know. We have revealed ignorance faster than we have gained understanding. Much faster.

Tangential: The reboot of the legendary TV show Cosmos is underway. Carl Sagan has been replaced by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is very good -- genial and clear spoken and calmly enthusiastic. I prefer him to Sagan. He was an excellent choice. The show so far is a mixed bag. They have come up with some clear exposition of ideas and beautiful visual explanations, but they have completely accepted convetional scientific dogma, almost to the point of arrogance, and they have been way off base about some things. It's a good and entertaining show and I will continue to watch it, but in terms of influence a new generation of scientists, as the original series is known for, I would expect Through the Wormhole will probably be the one the next generation looks back on fondly.

[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

There is a reason Google and others are pouring so much money into driverless cars and it's not because they are techno-geeks chasing the latest flavor of cool. It's because there is disruptive technology-level money in this. Most of the commentary on this topic is about how much freedom will be lost to commuters -- no more speeding when you are late, no more of the visceral pleasure of the act of driving -- and the various consumer oriented issues, but the fact is the first place driverless cars will be adopted is in the commercial sector and probably in long-haul trucking. If I was a trucking firm I would be spending serious scratch to get out in front of this. The cost savings are astounding. Imagine the equivalent of a driverless big rig. No paying the trucker (union wages and all the retirement and health benefits that correspond). The truck itself can be simpler, smaller, and cheaper -- no steering wheel, no comfort controls, no airbags, no compartment to sleep in -- mechanical necessities only. Plus, it never needs to stop to eat or pee -- given enough fuel, it can go 24/7 from one end of the country to another, always moving at the most efficient pace possible. The profit increases in the transportation industry will be enormous.

It's interesting to speculate how all this will play out over time. Right now there is a certain, perhaps justified, fear and doubt about driverless cars. What happens if these things go haywire and slam me full speed into a telephone pole? What if they blindly follow my GPS and drive me into a lake? Although these occurrences will be exceedingly rare, the media will portray them with breathless moral indignation, dramatists will build stories around them for their police procedurals, and lawyers will sue for eight figures. It'll be like Invasion of the Zombie Cars.

Things will change, but very slowly at first. Eventually there will be a reaction to the overhyped driverless car-pocalypse. Guidance systems will get increasingly better. People who have become more dependent on things like adaptive cruise control and blind spot warnings will be less fearful. (Hell, you can barely see out of modern cars anyway, and the only thing you do see is the tinted glass of the gargantuan SUVs all around you.) Robot cars will catch on in one or two of the more fashionable addresses. More and more people will know someone who has gone driverless, or perhaps even had a chance to try one themselves. Insurance companies will adapt to cover them. Infrastructure may be built into the very streets in some particularly troublesome areas to assist navigation. Eventually folks will begin to realize that, although there may be an extremely rare case of death by a misguided driverless car, for every one of those there are a thousand fewer deaths in road accidents (or something on that scale) due to human fallibility.

When that tipping point arises, you do not want to be employed as a commercial driver. Not long-haul trucking or pizza delivering or anything in between. Those jobs will be gone in a matter of months.

But what of old school human-guided vehicles? I suspect things will get tough for them. They will be much less safe compared to our robot driver overlords who never get distracted and never do anything even slightly risky. Driver's licenses may come at a higher cost and other sorts of taxes increased in an effort to offset the cost to society of you and your dangerous meat-piloted minivan. "Dumb" cars will probably be required to have special lights or infrared transmitters so that the machine-guided "smart" cars know to give them a wide berth; they may be banned by certain jurisdictions. More and more, driving and car culture will become a niche activity -- like riding horses or worse, civil war re-enactments. Auto racing may become the main purpose of old-school vehicles, although it will likely take a hit too, assuming its attraction is as an extreme version of an activity everyone can relate to. It will be permissible to operate a motorcycle only one week a year and only in a ten square mile radius around Sturgis.

You might ask, Who on Earth would want to live in such a world? The soccer mom who can use her car as a chauffeur. The 88-year-old with the reaction time of a tree sloth. Pretty much anyone who drives a Camry. Normal people, that's who. As for auto enthusiasts, well, you can barely find a manual transmission today, how are you going to fight this?

I exaggerate to make my point, but only slightly. I don't know how much of this transformation we'll see in my lifetime (I'm 53), but I know that all things must pass. Every idea, every concept, every dream has its day. The automobile as we know it has had, and for now still has, a great one. We should pause every once in a while to consider ourselves lucky to have lived during it. Our antecedents will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.