Recessional

(© 2007 by Russ Lewis All rights reserved)

 

 

I’ve been around now for nearly 78 years, and, I think I can say, more or less lucid for 64 of them; in other words it’s been 64 years since I graduated from junior high. Actually, I never did graduate from junior high because my class at Coolidge School in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan was so unruly that the principal wouldn’t allow us a formal graduation. I wasn’t one of the unruly ones; that came later when I tried to get the Lincoln High School principal fired.

In any case, I’ve been around long enough to have at least some perspective as I look back over those years of reasonable rationality. Let’s call it “depth of field,” a photographic term meaning the distance over which a picture is satisfactorily sharp. Beyond the limits of depth of field, the “circle of confusion,” the increased visual size of what should be a point, becomes large enough that things start to get fuzzy.

Here are some of the things I see as I look back over my depth of field:

First, science has brought us what people once would have thought a paradise. Dial telephones didn’t come along until after I was out of high school. Before then you’d pick up the phone and the girl would say, “Number please.” (yes, Virginia, operators always were women.) You’d tell her, “Townsend eight three oh oh oh, please.” She’d answer, “Thank you.” If there already was a plug in the jack for that number she’d say, “The ‘lion’ is busy.” If not, there’d be a click, and you’d be talking with someone at MacDonald Coal Company. Nowadays you punch some buttons to reach your party and instead of the operator’s friendly voice you hear, “beep bloop boop blop bip…” If the lion is busy you hear either some depressing buzzes, or a voice that sounds like a female version of Hal in the movie “2001” saying, “The lion is busy. For a dollar fifty…” But in most cases you make your connection more quickly than an operator could make it for you.

In high school I learned to use tables of logarithms to exponentiate and extract roots. Later on I owned a beautiful Keuffel & Esser slide rule that would let me do the same things with less work. You can still buy log and trig tables, and I still have my beautiful slide rule, but who uses them? Nowadays you use a cheap scientific calculator which, at the press of a couple buttons, not only does the work for you but displays the results graphically.

When I first began to fly airplanes, if you were going cross-country in the soup on instrument flight rules, you’d tune your radio to one of the Adcock radio beacons that marked the airway. The Adcock beacon broadcast four tonal quadrants, and on the airway the quadrants overlapped by 3 degrees. If you were on the airway, you’d hear a solid tone, but if you were to the left you’d hear a morse-code “N,” “dah-dit” on your headset, and if you were to the right you’d hear an “A,” “dit-dah.” The volume got louder and louder as you approached the beacon, and when the sound stopped, you were in the “cone of silence,” right over the station. On the other side of the cone the tone or the “dah-dit”s and “dit-dah”s would pick up again. Later on “omniranges” came along to replace the Adcock ranges. The omnirange put out a 360 degree radio signal that an instrument in your cockpit could pick up and tell you the distance and bearing to the station. Nowadays commercial pilots use the Global Positioning System to get from place to place. Cockpit readouts show them graphically where they are and where they’re going and let them kick back and talk about the qualities of the cute “cabin attendants” (stews) or the qualities of fine wines, instead of listening to dits and dahs.

In 1955, while I was operations officer at the radar site at Rapid City, South Dakota, Lincoln Labs and RAND corporation were designing the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment System (SAGE), which would collect radar data from all the radar sites in a region, combine the information with a computer, and display the results on consoles in the region combat operations center so that controllers could vector our interceptors to the bombers during an attack. I had the good luck to be sent to Santa Monica for about a month to head a guinea-pig crew that was playing war games with a simulator designed to go with SAGE. It was my introduction to the world of computers, and it was fascinating. John von Neumann was there and you could buy a copy of his new book on game theory in the RAND bookstore for next to nothing. I got a glimpse of the great man, but since I was a peon first lieutenant I never got to meet him. Computers in those days were based on vacuum tubes, and a computer large enough to do the SAGE job required enough tubes that bushel baskets of them burned out every day. If I remember correctly (the circle of confusion grows a bit here) the SAGE computer had about 250K of core memory. You can see a SAGE computer at http://www.computermuseum.li/Testpage/IBM-SAGE-computer.htm.

About 12 years before my month at RAND, Tom Watson, founder of IBM was reported, possibly apocryphally, to have said, “I think there’s a world market for maybe five computers.” Since all of you are using computers to read this I don’t need to convince you that computer science has changed since Watson said that. What we have on our desktops, and even in our laps, would have been supercomputers in those days. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been around at the beginning of all this. Over the years I’ve taught the C programming language at college level, C++ to industry, and built a lot of applications that my clients are still running. I’ve had a lot of fun with it and still do, but it was more fun in the late seventies when microcomputers were new, ran CPM, and were programmed in assembly language or FORTRAN.

These are just a few of science’s children I’ve been associated with during the period covered by my depth of field. Some of the other things that have come along are TV, automobiles that can run for years without serious mechanical problems, airplanes that can take you across the country faster than you can get through the screening lines at the airport, kitchen appliances like microwave ovens and dishwashers that make life easier, and on and on…

But there’s a down side in my depth of field too.

First, there are the losses in language. The arrogant Dutchman who asked my son, Tom, who was on his way to climb Mt. Everest: “What’s it like traveling when the entire world hates you?” made two mistakes. First, his question was an alarming display of ignorance. Second, he begged the question. I keep reading supposedly well-educated editorialists who will write something like, “The fact that he didn’t know, begs the question: ‘Why didn’t he.’” That’s not what begging the question means. To beg the question is to embed an unsupported assertion in the question. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the textbook example. Don’t anyone start lecturing me about how language changes. I know it does, and when English adopts perfectly good technical or Spanish or French words (the French won’t allow the reverse) that’s fine. But when the meaning of “beg the question” becomes obfuscated by this kind of ignorance, we’ve lost some of the subtlety that lets English convey a lot of meaning with a few words. If you can’t say, “It begs the question” to indicate that the question is loaded with an assertion, then you have to go all the way ‘round Robin Hood’s barn to explain what’s wrong with the question.

Then there’s the fact that even educated people nowadays seem not to know the difference between the verbs “to lie” and “to lay.” When I hear someone say, “He’s laying in the hammock out back,” I wonder what he’s laying and whether or not he intends to sit on it until it hatches. If I’d said something like that in grade school, Miss Duddles would have shrieked at me. I can only conclude that our current Miss Duddleses don’t know the difference either.

I spent time on some Leica M8 discussion forums earlier this year because I wanted a good digital rangefinder camera. The camera is new and full of bugs at the moment and I’m watching and waiting and hoping that Leica fixes the problems. The M8 is an expensive camera, so most of the people writing on the forums are businesspeople and professionals. At least thirty percent of the Americans on there are what I’d consider functional illiterates or very close to it. The British are better, and there’s a Dutch dentist who’s English is better than the English used by most of the Brits and almost all of the Americans. As near as I can tell from what they write, these are fine people, upstanding citizens, and mostly university graduates. But they can’t spell, don’t know the meanings of words, and can’t construct a sentence.

The loss and corruption of our language matters because we think with language. As language becomes more corrupt we become less able to think coherently and, among other things, more gullible. We’re asked to buy into things we know little or nothing about, and people who sound as if they know what they’re talking about play on our emotions and try to point us toward the things we should be concerned about. I’m not aiming this specifically at Al Gore, but you get my point. You can avoid this kind of stupidity by recognizing that you don’t know what the guy’s talking about and do your own research to find out. But you need the kind of analytical tools that precise language gives you to see that you don’t know, and to separate your emotions from your thinking. We’ve always had this problem, but my depth of field tells me it’s getting worse all the time.

Music has been getting worse, though it’s had its ups and downs. It seems to me that the amount of good classical music being written has declined, but I can’t be sure about that since music, like any art, gets filtered by time and the really bad stuff drops off along the way. It seems to me that Samuel Barber is the most recent classical composer I’d call great, but I’m out of my depth when I plunge into that end of the pool. I love the stuff but I don’t know as much about it as I should.

Some pretty good popular music came out of the sixties and early seventies, but more and more of what passes for music is just noise with a big beat. The problem, as in the case of language, is a loss of subtlety. Popular music has always been sexual. Near the point where my depth of field emerges from early circles of confusion, popular music was seductive, as was courtship. Then, in the sixties and seventies popular music and courtship became more provocative and less seductive. Recently both popular music and courtship, if you can call it that, have become invasive. Nowadays, instead of “dating,” people “hook up.” And popular music has become thump, thump, “hook up” music.

Music isn’t the only art that’s declined. Painting and the other visual arts have become infected with politics, an infection that quickly destroys art. You can see the effect for yourself by looking at what passed for Russian “art” during the Soviet era. And poetry has had the same problem popular music’s had; it’s degenerated into incoherence. By incoherence I don’t mean surrealism. Surrealism can be very powerful, but what I’m seeing in current poetry is the same kind of thump, thump stuff I hear in popular music. Poetry is nothing without subtlety and this crap isn’t subtle. I subscribed to Poetry magazine for many years but finally dropped my subscription after I’d received two or three issues in a row with nothing in them worth reading. There’s an essay I did on the decline of poetry on this web, so I don’t need to expand on it here.

There was a time in the range of my depth of field when people dressed to be harmonious. If you were a man you put on decent clothes and, usually, a hat when you went out. Nowadays at the mall I see men in their thirties or forties or even fifties dressed as if they were in fifth grade: sloppy, ragged, overlong t-shirt with an obscene inscription, and baggy, sagging, ripped shorts. The women are just as bad, but in a different way: the men are trying to look like kids and the women are trying to look like sluts. They’re both succeeding. Dressing properly wasn’t an affectation or an attempt to pretend you were something you weren’t. Hats might have been superfluous, but the idea was to avoid offending the people around you. Now the idea seems to be to offend as much as possible. A cover on one of last year’s issues of Black & White magazine shows a photograph of two depression-era hoboes getting out of a boxcar wearing suitcoats and hats. They were seedy, but they were trying their best to look as if they were part of their society. Google “White Angel Breadline” for a picture Dorothea Lange shot in 1932. I was two when she shot that picture, so the period is back in my circles of confusion, but things were still like that in 1938 when I lived a year in Buckeye, Arizona where drifters would come by offering to chop wood for food. They were dressed to be as inoffensive as possible. As Casey Stengel said, “You could look it up.”

In the end our society won’t survive because of science, wonderful as it is at giving us what DuPont used to call “better living.” Someone once said, “Science can tell you how everything works but it can’t tell you what anything’s for.” Science can tell us about chlorophyll and how photosynthesis converts sunlight to glucose, and how the plant that’s trapped the glucose feeds the cow that shows up in your Big Mac. But science can’t tell you why there’s grass or why there’s a cow, and the continued existence of a society like ours depends on more than the literalisms of science. We need answers to things like why there’s grass, who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going. We need answers to these things as individuals and as a society, and science can’t answer any of these questions. You need to be still to get answers to these things, and science, by its very nature, must always be in motion.

At the moment we’re engaged in what’s going to go down in history, if after it’s over there’s still a thing called history, as the war of the millennium. In the long run it’s going to be worse than either world war and it’s going to last longer than both world wars, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam war taken together. I know that a lot of people will disagree with what I’m saying, just as a lot of people still refuse to see that we’re in a war, though this war’s already been going on for more than 20 years. To many people, 9/11 was an isolated, criminal event, and the Iraq war is an over-reaction. And, of course, there’s no way I can convince you you’re wrong if that’s what you believe, because I can’t force you to learn what you need to learn to see what’s happening. I think we’ve handled Iraq very, very badly, mainly because the people who’ve had the power to deal with it, on both sides of the political divide, have played politics with it instead of treating it as what it is: a war to the death with a world-wide group of religious fanatics. But it’s a war we have to win if we’re to continue as a society. Al Gore to the contrary notwithstanding, global warming is a trivial threat compared with this one.

When I attended Squadron Officers’ School in 1957 I wrote an article on air power that retired general Orville Anderson published in the “The Air Force Historian,” a magazine he was editing for the Air Force Historical Society. After he’d decided to publish my article he asked me, a baby-faced first lieutenant, to come and talk to him. We had a very pleasant hour’s chat and he said something I’ll never forget: We have people coming to power who believe we can win wars with technology, but technology is never sufficient. Wars are won by the minds of men, not their technology.

And so it’s minds I’m concerned about. I’d like to include Europeans when I say it’s a war “we” have to win, but the kind of naïf who made that stupid statement to Tom sets me off big time. He seems to epitomize the incredible ignorance in Europe about the existential threat we face. Looking back at the lead-up to WW II, though, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Churchill warned and warned and warned and Europe ignored and ignored and ignored, until Poland and then France and the Netherlands and the rest of them suddenly descended into the fire. But when I look at our own readiness before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I realize that Europe wasn’t any stupider than we were. The difference was that we and the Brits fought while the French surrendered as soon as they could, even though Churchill went to France at considerable personal risk and tried to stiffen the limp French “leaders.”

Lincoln’s words echo in my mind: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” And I wonder… and I substitute “religious” for “civil…” and I wonder… Can we endure? Surely we need better leadership than we’ve had, but we also need enough civility that we can talk to one another honestly, without the political sideshows -- at least talk enough to objectify our danger and find a way to deal with it. I think we can do it, but time’s flying and we need to lower the noise level in our society so we can hear each other.