Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Man Fallen

I've vowed not to write about sports in this blog, but this item is about sports or, should I say, a sports figure. Lattrell Sprewell had a fairly long career in the NBA. He played until well into his mid-thirties. He was a controversial figure for sure. There was the well-publicized incident where he choked his coach in practice. Many commentators held him up as everything that was wrong with professional athletes when he turned down a three-year $21 million contract. At the time, he stated that the money wasn't sufficient because he had a family to feed. You get the picture. As a public figure, Sprewell wasn't easy to like.

Now, after being out of the league for only a few years, it turns out that Sprewell is in financial trouble. His yacht has been repossessed and auctioned off to pay the $1.3 million still owed on it. His home is in foreclosure, though it isn't an extravagant dwelling, at least not given the money he was making. He bought it for a bit over $400,000 in 1994 and the payments were $2600 a month, chump change for somebody making millions a year. One wonders why he didn't just buy the house outright, but whoever was advising him probably assumed that Sprewell wouldn't want to keep living there in Milwaukee after he retired, so he might as well get the tax benefits that come with a mortgage.

Sprewell made about $95 million in the course of his career. How does one blow through that kind of money in the course of a ten or fifteen year career? Did he have a problem with gambling? I've read of certain high rollers losing a million bucks in a single evening at one of the Vegas casinos. Was he one of those characters? I don't know, but $95 million and now he's broke! I just can't wrap my mind around it. Perhaps he got some bad financial advice, or some downright shady financial advice, but wouldn't he notice the losses? At some point, any reasonably sensible person would realize that something was wrong.

My first thought was that Sprewell just isn't very smart. Perhaps he isn't, but I think it goes farther than that. There have been many professional athletes of limited intelligence who have managed to hold onto their money. I'm led to wonder if Sprewell isn't one of those unfortunate African-Americans who have internalized the negative racial stereotype, the one that says that blacks are inherently inferior, great at athletics, but not too smart, and unable to hold onto their money. It would certainly explain his behavior, the choking of his white coach, and the smart-ass public persona. Perhaps he was acting out of his felt inferiority. Those who are so motivated are often self-destructive, often to the extent that their behavior is incomprehensible to others. I'm inclined to believe that something of the sort was going on with Sprewell. It wouldn't excuse his ungracious behavior, but it just might explain it. If that is the case, then Sprewell's current troubles aren't just sad, but tragic.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The End of Science?

You just might be a nerd, if this makes you chuckle. "Heisenberg might have slept here." But on with the show.

I'm reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007", editied by Richard Preston. One of the articles in there is "The Final Frontier" by John Horgan, a science journalist who is also on the staff of the Stevens Institute of Technology. In the article, he offers up the opinion that we just may be at the end of science as we've known it. He has apparently also written a book on the subject, The End of Science. As Horgan's article says about his book, "I made the case that science - especially pure science, the grand quest to understand the universe and our place in it - might be reaching a cul-de-sac, yielding 'no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.'"

I'm inclined to agree with Horgan's assessment. I have followed theoretical physics as an interested layman for a long time now, and I keep up with a couple of blogs on the subject. Though most of the scientists in the field would probably disagree, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the physics of first principles, of subatomic particles and the forces that lie at the basis of the universe is pretty much played out. Physicists keep lobbying for larger and more expensive particle accelerators with little to be expected in return except for possible verifications for increasingly esoteric theories. The latest accelerator that has them all hot and panting is the Large Hadron Collider, which is scheduled to come online sometime this year. The LHC, as it is referred to, is 16.5 miles in diameter and will employ a couple of thousand scientists and technicians. With overruns, it is costing around three billion Swiss francs to build. That's about 2.7 billion dollars.

The promoters of this accelerator name all kinds of experiments that will be carried out on this machine, but there's really only one thing the physics community is interested in. Will the LHC's energies be sufficient to generate the Higgs boson. This is an as-yet-undetected particle predicted by the so-called Standard Model, which is the accepted theory of subatomic physics. What happens if the LHC fails to detect this Higgs boson? Well, then certain theoretical predictions will be proven false, and new hypotheses will have to be generated. And, oh yes, they will need a bigger, more expensive machine that can generate even greater energies. You get the point, the cost-to-benefit ratios have become huge.

I'm not making an anti-science argument here, nor is Horgan. It's a question of emphasis. As he points out in the article, the money devoted to scientific research might better be applied to "back filling" in the areas we already know about. For example, wouldn't it be a better use of money to invest in a big way in solid-state physics, just to name one field? It is much more likely that such research will produce results that will prove of benefit. But solid-state physics isn't sexy. It isn't the sort of field that the towering intellects are drawn to.

Horgan reports that a lot of scientists disagree with him, some of them quite vehemently. That's understandable. I'm sure a lot of them perceive him as attacking their livelihoods, but there's more to it in that. One of the underlying beliefs in the Western cultural and intellectual traditions is the notion of progress. As time goes on, it is expected that we will learn more and more as things get better and better for all of mankind. That just might not be true though. Everything must come to an end, even the quest for scientific first principles.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Damning With Faint Praise?

The other day while at the library, I saw Amy Chua's Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - And Why They Fail. Her thesis is that these hyperpowers, which range from the ancient Persian empire to the present-day United States, succeeded because of their ethnic and religious tolerance, and that they declined because of the erosion of that quality. Though I looked through the book, I wasn't tempted to check it out. I've read a lot of history in my time and, though I'm hardly a scholar, I'm well-versed enough in certain topics, like the Roman empire, to know that her thesis is bullshit. The reason I'm writing this entry though is because of the chuckle I got when I read one of the blurbs on the back. It's by the prominent British historian, now at Harvard, Niall Ferguson. Here's what he says.

"From ancient Achaemenid Persia to the modern United States, by way of Rome, Tang China, and the Spanish, Dutch, and British empires, Amy Chua tells the story of the world's hyperpowers - that elite of empires which, in their heyday, were truly without equal. Not everyone will be persuaded by her ingenious thesis that religious and racial tolerance was a prerequisite for global dominance, but also the slow solvent of that cultural 'glue' which holds a great nation together. But few readers will fail to be impressed by the height of this book's ambition and the breadth of scholarship on which it is based."

Did Chua or anyone at the publisher read that carefully? Or did they just figure that any sort of "recommendation" from such a prominent historian was of value? The way I read it, Ferguson is not at all impressed by the book and its thesis. When he says, "Not everyone will be persuaded by her ingenious thesis", he might as well say, "No one with any real understanding of history will be persuaded by this nonsense." Okay, maybe I'm finding something that's not really there, but that last sentence says otherwise. Ferguson praises her for the height of her ambition. Could that be "overweening" that you were thinking of, Niall? Hmm, and then he praises the breadth of her scholarship. Take note there. The breadth, not the depth. From a serious scholar, that's almost an insult.

As I paged through the book, reading a passage here and there, it came off as more like a college term paper than a serious work of scholarship. Perhaps that's what Ferguson was getting at. Chua is the typical little, over-achieving tool. She tells on herself in that regard in the preface, when discussing her elementary school years. "In the eighth grade, I won second place in a history contest and took my family to the awards ceremony. Somebody else had won the Kiwanis prize for best all-around student. Afterward, my father said to me, 'Never, never disgrace me like that again.'" Ah, yes, Daddy dearest.

"Kolchak" Is Not The Name of Some Movie Vampire

After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, many of those who opposed him fled to the reaches of the far-flung empire to set up their own governments-in-exile and organize a counter-revolution. Among them were those who settled upon Siberia as their base of operations, installing an Admiral Kolchak as their dictator. Civil war in Siberia by Jonathan Smele is a 675-page study of the civil war that resulted during 1918-1920. May the god of compendious volumes bless me, I just finished reading the whole thing.

Smele's audience is scholars of Russian history. His book is detailed and dry, but that's pretty much unavoidable. He's writing an in-depth study, so he had to make his points and back them up. That resulted in a lot of humdrum facts and scholarly references. He also had to comment upon the arguments of others who have written about the period. A certain tedium is inevitable is such cases and, like I said, I don't blame him for it. Given that I'm no Russian scholar by any means, you might be wondering why I put myself through this.

It was another book that made me do it. I was reading Conjuring Hitler: How Britain and America made the Third Reich by Guido Giacomo Preparata. The title of the book says it all, and I was intrigued. Right away though, I started having my doubts. Preparata seemed to think that the Brits were the hidden hand behind everything that happened in Europe since the mid-19th century and the rise of the German nation. He portrayed them as the puppetmaster working the strings of the continent's most influential political actors. It smacked of a conspiracy theory to me, but Preparata's credentials are legit. He's an assistant professor of political economy at the University of Washington, but still. That's the left coast and it got me to wondering. The book is thoroughly footnoted and it has a large bibliography, so I decided to check him out.

Consider this passage from Conjuring Hitler. By the way, for those of you who don't know, the term for those who opposed the Bolsheviks or Reds was "Whites". Also, regarding the Czechs mentioned below, they were former prisoners of war from World War One, who had been interned in POW camps in Siberia. Though it was a bit more complicated than this, when they were released they fought on the side of the White forces and against the Bolsheviks.

"By mid-1918, Siberia demanded a White commander.

Before the local orientation could identify a chief, the British rushed to slip a straw man in the cockpit. For the role British intelligence cast a former czarist admiral, Aleksandr Kolchak, who had been on its payroll since November 1917.

Flanked and directed by General Knox, Britain's intelligence officer in the Siberia, Kolchak, with the cooperation of the Siberian Whites, and the discreet assent of the Czechs, usurped command of the Siberian counter-revolutionary outpost a week after the armistice in the West, on November 18, 1918, and made Omsk the capital of his dictatorship."

Everything that Preparata says there is factually correct, however, he casts his statements in such a way as to create a false impression. First, let me say that Kolchak was without a doubt the Brits' man, to the point that, after his installation, British troops guarded his residence. He appeared at affairs of state in a British uniform where "God Save The Queen" was played. However, he wasn't just some creation of British intelligence. He was a genuine hero in World War One, one of the few the Russians had, and he was being courted by all of the great powers to one degree or another, because he was seen as a likely leader of the counter-revolutionary movement in the east of Russia. Hence, when Preparata points out that he was on the British payroll since November 1917, he's creating something of a false impression. The fact is that he was also on the Japanese payroll for a while as well, and he had connections with the French. The truth is murkier than Preparata suggests.

The upshot of this is that I now know that Preparata is trying to make a stronger case than the facts support. Through various overt and covert means, the British did their best to ensure that a regime came to power in post-War Germany that would stand in opposition to Bolshevik Russia in the East and there is some evidence that they financed the Frei Korps, a German movement of veterans from which the Nazis sprang. Likewise, the British and American governments and businesses were complicit with the Nazi regime in many ways, but it goes too far to suggest that Hitler was their creation.