Archive for April, 2002

Pondering the Infinite

Sunday, April 28th, 2002

Pondering the infinite is an activity usually relegated to undergraduate philosophy students, particularly in their sophomore year. Physicists often spend their time reducing physical phenomena that are for all practical purposes, like the size of the universe, infinite to comprehensible descriptions. Mathematicians are perhaps the most facile in dealing with and manipulating concepts of infinity. For a mathematician, it is a simple matter to specify a mathematical surface that is infinite in area, but encloses a finite volume. In other words, mathematicians can conceive of a shape that one could fill with paint, but not paint. It is not until recently, that people in computer sciences have considered quantities and qualities, which if formally finite, may prove to be practically infinite.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, extrapolated from the fact that the number of transistors on a integrated circuit grew from one in 1959, to 32 in 1964, to 64 in 1965 that transistor density was doubling every 18 to 24 months. This is the narrow statement of Moore’s Law. The more general statement of Moore’s Law is that computer computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months.

The latter formulation of Moore’s law has been given more depth by MIT-educated computer scientist, entrepreneur and writer Ray Kurzweil. He has tracked back the growth of computer power from electromagnetic punch card calculators used in the 1890 census to Pentium 4 processors that have 42 million transistors. Kurzweil foresees accelerating increases in computer power past physical limits of silicon-based devices as manufactures employ more exotic bio-chemical technologies.

Much thought has been given to whether Moore’s Law can really exceed limits posed by silicon-based technology and the ever-increasing capital costs required to construct chip-manufacturing plants. Additional consideration has been given as to what this increased computer power can be used for. Kurzweil is not shy about predicting a future with machines that are more intelligent than humans and computer implants interfaced to human minds. While increases in computer capacity has proven to be more persistent in time that anyone has a right to expect, predictions about the future abilities of artificial intelligence have a notorious record of over optimism.

What has not received much thought is the rapid increase in data storage. Writing in American Scientist, Brian Hayes explains how recent changes in technology are actually increasing rate of growth is disk storage. A large disk on a personal computer is about 120 GBytes. Technologies in the laboratory presently achieve storage densities equivalent to disks with 400 GBytes of storage.

At the present rate of increase, personal computer disks will reach 120 Terabytes (120,000 GBytes) in size in ten years. Even if the growth rate decreases by 60 percent, the 120 TByte level will be reached in 15 years. What are we to do with this storage capability? Is natural American acquisitiveness sufficiently great to use of this space.

Recently MP3 digtial music files have been filling disks, especially in college dorms. However, as Hayes points out, if you put enough music to listen to different songs 24 hours a day for an 80 year lifetime you barely fill a third of a 120 TByte disk disk. Even this assumes that storage technology would remain fixed over the 80-year lifetime.

Digital photographs are a new source of data filling up disks. Assuming each such photograph require 1 MByte of storage and assuming a itchy shutter finger producing 100 photographs a day — certainly a well-documented life — less than 3% of the 120 TBytes would be filled.

Fundamentally, storage of video is the only data source likely to fill 120 Tbyte disks. Even so, with growth beyond 120 TBytes over our lifetimes, we likely face the prospect of being able to store more data than we have. It is roughly comparable to having an attic that is growing so fast that we cannot fill it fast enough.

It seems that if we are having problems filling up new disks over a lifetime, the only solution is to increase lifetimes.

  • Fixmer, Rob, “Internet Insight, Moore’s Law and Order,” Eweek, April 15, 2002.
  • Hayes, Brian, “Terabyte Territory,” American Scientist, 90, 212-216, May-June, 2002.


Sunday, April 21st, 2002

The word and suffix “phobia” derives from the Latin word phobos for fear. In psychiatry, a phobia refers to any irrational fear. [1] Arachnophobia is the irrational fear of spiders. People who fear heights suffer from acrophobia. People who post at political web sites obviously do not suffer from doxophobia or fear of expressing opinions. Recently, a secondary meaning of phobia has fallen into a too common usage. The new definition of phobia includes not only fear, but also aversion and hate. For example, homophobia has come to mean hate of homosexuals, not just fear of the same. Actually there is a double intended meaning here. Certain activists for homosexuals would like people to believe the aversion to homosexuals is borne of a phobia about personal sexuality. There is no use arguing about the new usage of phobia. Changes in usage happen in living languages.

In a recent article in the Weekly Standard, David Brooks argues that we are encountering a new phobia, a phobia characterized more by hatred than by fear. According to Brooks, this “Bourgeoisophobia” explains why European and Arabs have come to hate America and Israel. [2] Brooks recently wrote Bobos in Paradise on how a unique combination of bourgeois and bohemian values and attitudes characterize the new upper class in America. He has thus spent considerable time studying the history and evolution of bourgeois values.

According to Brooks, the attitude of Islamic fundamentalists iseasy to understand. They hate the values of the “meritocratic capitalist society.” They hate highly commercial cultures and what they are based on: individual liberty for the masses, even women. They hate what free cultures produce: everything from popular music to videos. Most of all, Islamic fundamentalists are “inflamed” by “humiliation.” In the 1960’s and 1970’s, some Arab societies attempted to embrace a modern economy, but wouldn’t allow their cultures to adapt. The lingering and unhappy residue of these attempts is a sense of failure and anger. America represents the West with its bourgeois values and Israel is the foothold of the West in the Middle East. Hence, they both evoke a particular animus.

Europeans both love and hate America. The love American popular culture, while showing a distaste for the idea of American exceptionalism. Europeans embrace bourgeois values at least as much as Americans. How then can Bourgeoisophobia explain European anger with the United States? Part of it is a little jealously of American economic success. Some Europeans view Americans as many of us might view a rich uncle who wears checked suits, sports a $5 haircut, and became wealthy by selling brightly colored Cadillacs. We have to acknowledge the monetary success even while our sense of fairness and justice is assaulted because of our conviction that the uncle is our moral and intellectual inferior. Even worse, unlike the uncle, to Europeans Americans possess a blithe, casual, and infuriating certainty in their own goodness.

As Brooks explains:

“No European would ever acknowledge the category, but America and Israel are heroic bourgeois nations. The Israelis are driven by passionate Zionism to build their homeland and make it rich and powerful. Americans are driven by our Puritan sense of calling, the deeply held belief that Americans have a special mission to spread our way of life around the globe. It is precisely this heroic element of ordinary life that Europeans lack and distrust.”

Once Europeans thought themselves to be the economic, cultural, military leaders of the world. Europe had a colonial empire that extended around the globe. Two world wars and their aftermath splintered off what was left of European colonial holdings while dissipating European self-confidence. American hubris reminds them of what they once were and can be no longer. Retaining a sense of moral superiority by creating the myth of the unsophisticated American cowboy blustering unthinking into the world acts as a mild analgesic to European frustration at self-imposed impotence.

  1. On-line list of Phobias.
  2. Brooks, David, “Among the Bourgeoisophobes,” The Weekly Standard, 20-72, April 15, 2002.

World Opinion of Israel

Sunday, April 14th, 2002

It was early in the afternoon on June 7, 1981, when F-15’s and F-16’s of the Israeli Air Force lumbered with their heavy loads of weapons and extra fuel tanks into the sky above Etzion Air Force Base in the Sinai Peninsula. Now over twenty years later, the base has been turned over, by agreement, to the Egyptians. Nonetheless, on that day, the planes leaving Etzion changed the world dramatically. The Israeli planes managed to elude radar and Jordanian, Saudi and Iraqi air patrols at they flew over 600 miles at low level through Arab territory to the Osirak nuclear reactor near Bagdad, Iraq. Two hours after their mission began and in less than two minutes, the planes delivered their ordinance on the dome of the reactor. The Israelis managed to destroy the reactor before it was loaded with nuclear fuel and went hot. It is very likely that that single act kept nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. If Hussein had such weapons, the Iranian-Iraqi War and the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait could have been radically different with far more loss of life. Hussein has shown little reluctance in using chemical weapons. There is little reason to believe that he would exhibit much more continence with regard to nuclear weapons.

The Iraqi reactor was built under contract by the French who argued that under their supervision nuclear material that could be used for bomb construction would be difficult to smuggle from the reactor. It is impossible to know for a certainty whether French supervision would have been effective, but more recent international supervision of Iraq with regard to weapons of mass destruction has not been successful. Add this fact to the 1975 remark by Saddam Hussein that getting a reactor would represent “the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming” and it is easy to appreciate the importance of the bold Israeli action.

Rather than expressing gratitude for disarming a dictator, the world reacted with universal, brutal, and severe criticism. The ever-predictable New York Times characterized “Israel’s sneak attack” as an “inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.” United States Senator Mark Hatfield described the destruction of the reactor as “provocative, ill-timed, and internationally illegal.” What time would Hatfield have suggested would have been better to destroy the reactor? Even the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, who one might have hoped would have known better, thought the attack was unjustified and that it represented “a grave breach of international law.”

The wise ambassadors in the United Nations Security Council unanimously (that means the US joined in) adopted resolution 487 which “Strongly condemns military attacks by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct.”

Now Israel suffers international condemnation for its efforts to stop terrorist attacks on its citizens by attempting to root out terrorists in the West Bank. The condemnation is virtually universal. It does not follow logically that just because the entire world was radically wrong with respect to Israel twenty years ago that the world is again in error, but the precedent it there.

Despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat, in direct violation of the Oslo accords, was arranging for massive arms shipments from Iran, Hanna Kvanno of the Nobel Peace Prize committee wished it where possible to recall the prize from Shimon Peres who shared the 1994 Peace Prize with Arafat. Peres is currently Israel’s Foreign Minister. There was no similar expressed desire to recall the prize from Arafat. Despite the fact that evidence has appeared directly linking Yasser Arafat with financing homicide bombers who deliberately kill as many civilians as possible and the fact that Arafat rejoiced at the bombing of a Jewish celebration, the Belgians are considering indictment of Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a war criminal. Given the uncalibrated ethical barometer of much of the world, reticence in the use of world opinion a moral standard is justified.

The West and the Rest – A Race

Sunday, April 7th, 2002

There is something of a global, political, economic, and demographic race on. On one side, we have Western and Western-class countries with their open and transparent societies, ethos of tolerance, respect for individual liberties, adherence to the rule of law, and robust economies. On the other side, are various authoritarian countries, that use ideology or religion as a yoke to control their populations. In terms of wealth, growth, and technological leadership, there is a large gulf between the West and the rest.

However, the fertility rates of Western and Western-class countries are rapidly decreasing. In countries like Italy and Spain fertility is far far less than what is required for replacement. In Western Europe, the fertility rate is about a third less than required for replacement. Residents of the United States are not producing children at a rate necessary for replacement. Were it not for immigration, the population of the United States would be decreasing. Though there are a few countries like China that have used Draconian methods to limit population growth and others that match high birth rates with an AIDS epidemic so pervasive that there is the threat of population decreases, the population in developing countries is growing far more rapidly than in developed countries. Even with an expected drop-off in the fertility in developing countries, the ratio of people living there to those in developed countries will significantly increase this century.

It does not take much of an imagination to realize that unsuccessful leaders in developing countries will find the West convenient targets for demagoguery. The assertion that “We are poor, because the West is rich,” has a saliency in the developing world and insolates local repressive leaders from accountability. Unless developing countries can be rapidly integrated into the world economy and unless living standards begin to approach those of the West, there is a strong potential for political instability and increased terrorism. The race is whether these developing countries can achieve some level of economic prosperity before the developed and undeveloped worlds come into more conflict.

The Middle East, particularly the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is an extreme example of this phenomenon. While Israel is a relatively affluent country, it floats in a sea of despair and economic stagnation. Much of this economic stagnation is a consequence of the authoritarian rule by Palestinian leaders, pervasive corruption, and a consequence of the devotion resources to arms and security as opposed to economic development. This economic despair combined with a culture of misogyny causes birth rates that are so high that it is difficult for any economic development to keep pace. In the West Bank, the Palestinian fertility rate is 5.8 children per woman in a lifetime, far in excess of the 2.1 replacement rate. In the Gaza Strip the rate is an astounding 7.8. It is small wonder that life has become so worthless, that suicide bombers seem to be a renewable resource.

The best foreseeable near-term outcome for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is some sort of agreement where Palestinian leadership, not intent on the destruction of Israel, agrees to live with borders roughly corresponding to the 1967 borders between Jordan and Israel. Even given such an outcome, unless there is very rapid economic development on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the world will be faced with an Israel of modest population density, bordered by high population density areas of relative poverty. No political accommodation can withstand this extreme level of economic disparity. Any honest armistice between the Palestinians and Israelis must be accompanied by intensive economic development. Unfortunately, hopes for the necessary cultural and economic changes are probably more desperate for than those for political change in Palestinian-controlled areas. Without political peace, adoption of a Western economic model, and perhaps massive economic aid to the area, one lap of the world race will likely be lost here.