Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Frigates

Let's go down to the sea in ships ...

One of the great pleasures in life is to embark upon the sea of Patrick O'Brian's twenty volume series of novels about the adventures of a British naval captain and his physician friend during the Napoleonic wars.

These works, which some have called the best historical novels ever written, go far beyond adventure. They create an entire world, complete with exotic peoples and customs. Life aboard the square-rigged vessels of the time is portrayed in all its rich variety -- the sights and sounds, the smells, the food or lack thereof, the tedium, the cold, the heat, the sweat, the storms, the cruelty, and of course the horrendous mayhem of war fought with cannons and cutlasses.

Add to this the wonders of the natural world as explored along the way by Doctor Stephen Maturin (a foreshadowing of the voyage of Charles Darwin), season with his adventures as a spy, and you have a feast as satisfying as one of Captain Aubrey's best formal dinners.

If you haven't read them yet my only advice is to try the first one to test the waters, so to speak, and take them one at a time. If you're not hooked by the middle of the second book it will probably never happen, so you can save yourself the trouble of trying the rest.

Otherwise you will all too soon discover yourself at the end of the final volume (the unfinished #21 is now in print posthumously), wondering where to turn next. If you've gotten that far already, you may be ready for Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll's history of the early years of the United States Navy.

In my case O'Brian had whetted my curiosity about what that period of time was like on our side of the Atlantic. (I don't think it is giving away too much to mention that he was able to place his characters on board HMS Java at the time it was defeated by the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," after which they have to spend some time in Boston as prisoners of war.)

Toll has done a magnificent job of making his subject as alive as any current history, and it is full of interesting revelations. The title comes from the first order for ships placed by Congress to protect the commerce of the fledgling nation in 1794 -- a mere six wooden frigates. But these were to be no ordinary ships.

The designer was a Quaker ship builder named Joshua Humphreys who apparently had no qualms about constructing ships of war. By way of explaining how unusual this was for a member of that peaceable community, Toll quotes a Southern congressman who spoke of their uneasy union with the Northern states: "They adopted us with our slaves, and we adopted them with their Quakers." That's how notorious they were for their stance against war and enslavement.

The ships were to be of a unique design, large enough to carry a heavy battery of guns, yet with a hull sleek enough to let them outsail their rivals. This would give them the ability to choose their engagements, either chasing down their prey or escaping when overmatched. In fact, one of the most notable exploits of the Constitution was when it managed to elude a small fleet of British warships even while they were all becalmed.

You don't have to be a warmonger to appreciate the accomplishments that are recorded here. In its time it was an undertaking on a par with the space program. Right from the beginning lives were lost simply in the quest for the timbers to build the ships. The designer would accept nothing but the right-angled trunks and branches of the Southern "live oak" (well known to us in South Florida) to form the strongest possible "knees" in the frame of the ship. It is no exaggeration to say that this decision put the iron in "Old Ironsides." Yet the teams of men that went on lumbering expeditions to the jungles of the deep South were decimated by yellow fever, resulting in many deaths even before the ships were under construction.

One of the most interesting angles on the whole story is the way that the need for a navy brought up all the same concerns about taxation and the budget, the national debt, the power of the federal government, and the effects of a permanent military establishment that are still being debated today. If the aim was to protect the country's commerce, wouldn't it end up doing more harm than good if it saddled the nation with a debt it could never pay? The heated argument raged back and forth through several administrations and involved many of the Founding Fathers on both sides, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe.

With classic Congressional indecision, the ships were ordered, canceled, built, put into action, put into storage twice, and then taken out again. In the long run the outrages of the Barbary pirates, and the impressment of American seamen by both the British and French, convinced popular opinion of the necessity for a navy regardless of cost. And so it began.

Toll concludes his tale by rapidly reviewing the subsequent growth of the navy through the Civil War and up to the time of Teddy Roosevelt, who created the "Great White Fleet" and ordered it to tour the world, putting everyone on notice about what a big stick he was carrying.

Those who built the original sailing ships could never have imagined that in less than a hundred years they would be succeeded by such a number of steam-driven vessels built of iron and steel -- or that in another hundred years the fleet would include nuclear powered submarines, guided missiles, carriers full of aircraft, and hydrogen bombs.

They were right about one thing, though: The price tag is killing us, even if the bombs aren't.

[For much more on the work of Patrick O'Brian see www.patrickobrian.com. You might also like The Naval History of the United States published in 1886 by Willis J. Abbot, which is available for download from Project Gutenberg. Vol. I covers the same period of time from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812, with Vol. II picking up from there. Plenty of swash and buckles in both. And of course you can still walk the decks of the Constitution in Boston Harbor, though there is scarcely an original board remaining in it.]

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Man Who Knew Too Much

A new biography sheds new light on the work of Alan Turing ...

A couple of Book Fairs ago I promised to report on two science books from the series Atlas is putting out. These are biographies of notable scientists written by accomplished novelists who have an interest in their work, and who are able to render it accessible to general readers.

The first one I read was Rebecca Goldsmith's about Kurt Gödel, the logician who proved conclusively that we will never be able to prove everything we know, and that reality really does exist whether we can prove it or not.

Or, as Gödel put it when approached at a cocktail party and asked about his work, "I am attempting to prove that all knowledge is a priori." How's that for a conversation opener? Good luck with that, Kurt!

It's no accident that the other book that appealed to me was the one about Alan Turing, the man whose theoretical work on "provability" made history when he used it to break codes and help to win World War II.

In fact, Turing and Gödel were both working on the same problem from different directions. Gödel came from the background of pure logic, rooted in philosophy from his studies with Wittgenstein, so his solution was a construction of abstract symbols that can only be fully appreciated by another logician. (Maybe that's why he and Einstein were such good buddies.)

Turing, on the other hand, had more of a background in applied science. He loved to build things. So it is perhaps not surprising that he resorted to the use of an imaginary mechanical device (now known as the "Turing Machine") for his proof.

Using a hypothetical tape of infinite length, a sprocket to move it back and forth, and a sort of recording head to read and write symbols on it, he was able to show that any possible computation could be done mechanically. Building on this foundation he went on to demonstrate that the machine could analyze its own written instructions on the tape to determine if the problem to be solved was solvable. Of course, the instructions on how to do that could also be analyzed, and he was able to show that it was an example of a problem that could not be solved. Therefore, there will always be some things we can't prove even if they are true. Whew!

The main thing I took away from David Leavitt's new biography, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is an appreciation of why Turing's approach was so unique and far reaching. Gödel's proof may seem definitive to those who can do the math, but Turing invented a proof from which the answer emerges with the mechanical inevitability of a clockwork gear. It is compelling because it is physical, as irrefutable as the force of gravity.

My only complaint about Leavitt's presentation is that he spends so many of his pages meticulously explaining Turing's 1936 paper, "On Computable Numbers."*  Having understood it himself, he takes great pains to inflict the same achievement on his readers. But this is also the book's strength. I confess I skimmed the last part of that section, but not before the import had become clear.

In the 1940's Turing found himself in the perfect time and place, and with a compelling reason, to actually turn his imaginary device into reality. The result was the breaking of the German Enigma code, the changing of history, and the invention, by Turing and others, of the programmable digital computer -- the spirit of mathematics made flesh. We are only now beginning to realize how great an achievement that was, as the machines continue to work their way into quite literally everything we do.

Turing went on to theorize about the future potential of what he was the first to call "thinking machines." Having helped to give birth to them, he naturally had an interest in how his progeny would turn out. He seems to have understood at once that there was no fundamental difference between the logical operations of computer equipment and the functioning of the human brain. The concept was almost unimaginable back then, but it is now considered only a matter of time before a computer can pass the Turing Test -- proving itself indistinguishable from a human being in written conversation. 

[Trials have already begun, as explained in this recent BBC News story. However, many now believe this test is too easy and that a higher standard will have to be used to determine true intelligence.]

Missing from this version of Turing's saga is much of the exciting detail of the code breaking project, and the drama of looking over his shoulder as he invented one by one all the key elements of programming. For that and much more about his brilliant and tragic life, I recommend (as does Leavitt) Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, still the definitive work on this remarkable man.

[*A copy of Turing's original paper, now available online in PDF form, was recently valued at $15,000 to $20,000 by Christies. See also the Alan Turing Scrapbook, and the Turing Digital Archive.]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Un-Civil War

A Quaker diary tells a hair raising tale ...

Thanks to the Internet Archive I recently discovered a remarkable historical document. It's called The Record of a Quaker Conscience, and it consists of the diary of one Cyrus Pringle who appealed to the government for the status of Conscientious Objector during the US Civil War. (To find it, just do a search on the archive's website.)

The small book was published by MacMillan in 1918 and comes with an introduction by Rufus Jones, a prominent Quaker historian and theologian of that era. With no other preamble the journal begins with the receipt of the author's draft notice -- an event familiar to any of us who grew up prior to the end of the Vietnam War. Unwilling to buy his way out by paying someone to take his place (which was perfectly legal at the time), Pringle and some of his friends dutifully reported and immediately made their claim for exemption due to their religious beliefs, as provided by law.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried it (as I did myself back in 1968) that the exemption was not granted. Regardless of their community support, and the long-standing Quaker opposition to war in any form, Pringle and his few friends were declared to be in the army and were hustled off with the latest batch of recruits.

Apparently back then there was no oath given at the time of induction, so there was no such moment for anyone to refuse. In later years this was the opportunity for anyone who objected to opt for a trial and a prison sentence instead, which at least made their status clear. But in those days they were simply bundled along on the train with everyone else.

At every turn, whenever they came under the jurisdiction of a new officer, they would inform him of their position. But time and again their problem was referred up the line to higher officers, or kicked back down to non-coms. No one seemed willing to make a decision.

Meanwhile, their civilian clothes were taken from them so that they had to put on uniforms. When they refused to accept the rifles that were issued to them, the guns were strapped to their backs anyway. Finally they ended up in a series of prison camps where they often suffered severe mistreatment.

By "mistreatment," I mean for example that Pringle was stripped of his shirt and staked to the ground outdoors in the sun for hours on end. He and the others were also threatened with execution, sometimes at the point of a gun. But I suppose that nowadays, in this era of "extraordinary rendition" and "waterboarding," this should not give us cause for alarm.

Finally they were offered substitute service in a military hospital. But when they saw that their presence there released others to go to the front lines, they felt that their beliefs also compelled them to refuse this compromise, so it was back to prison again.

At length Pringle and his friends were freed to return home by the intervention of President Lincoln himself. Grateful and moved by his long correspondence with some other Quakers, Lincoln, when he learned of their plight, immediately instructed his war secretary, "It is my urgent wish that these Friends be released."

So the story has a happy end. We can only wonder how many others suffered their fate in silence, without the benefit of the President's aid. And how many more will have to endure the same struggle now, and in the future.

[For more, refer to my story about contemporary Conscientious Objector Camilo Mejia. I will have another example from World War II in time for Veterans Day.]

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Very Long Now

Instead of planning ahead, how about planning WAY ahead?

In this age of instant gratification it is unusual for any of us to plan very far into the future. Politicians are concerned only for the date of the next election. The main concern of most businesses is the next stockholders meeting and the quarterly.conference call with Wall Street. Gas and oil companies actually brag about having plenty of product to supply us "for the next 60 years," as if that is forever. And as individuals we may start saving some money toward retirement, even give some thought to the college educations of our children and grandchildren, but beyond that all is lost in the mist.

The pace of change may be partly to blame for this situation. At the rate we're going, even trying to imagine what the world will be like a hundred years in the future makes it seem impossible to plan for it. Just take a look backwards. How could the people of 1908 have planned for the advent of nuclear diplomacy, communications satellites, the manipulation of the electorate through television and email, the moral issues of human cloning, or any one of a thousand other modern problems? So how can we possibly know what will face us in 2108, let alone 3108?

It might seem hopeless, but there is one organization that is doing what it can to promote long range planning --  really long range. The Long Now Foundation (beautifully named by musician Brian Eno) aims to construct a Ten Thousand Year Clock, a mechanical device built to last and to keep accurate time for a period of 10,000 years. The clock will chime every 1,000 years as the millennium turns. They built a prototype in time for it to bong twice for the year 2000. Now we have only 992 years to complete the real thing and keep it running till the next time. Better get started right away!

Just to put this in perspective, we are talking about looking ahead as far as we can look back in the history of human civilization, to the first shards of pottery created by our ancestors. The general idea is that if we want to last for another ten thousand years we had better start planning on it. We may not know what the long term future will look like, but we do know that it will be of our own devising. So whatever we consider doing we will have to start thinking about the long range consequences.

The Ten Thousand Year Clock, or The Clock of the Long Now,  is both a monumental reminder of this concept and also an exercise in it. Just the act of planning a project on this scale will be a new benchmark in human activity. What else compares with it?

No doubt the medieval constructors of cathedrals intended them to last forever, or at least until the Second Coming, but they are already showing their age after less than a single millennium, and in spite of predictions the apocalypse still seems a long way off. The pyramids of ancient Egypt have survived for half of the ten millennium period (or even longer according to one theory), but they are just inanimate stone.

Just imagine what it will take to keep a clock running for that amount of time. Remember that on this scale empires will rise and fall, species will evolve, languages will die, humans may be replaced by artificial or genetically engineered substitutes, and space colonization may leave the whole Earth in a dusty backwater like some abandoned Sumerian city.

Author Neal Stephenson has written a new novel, Anathem, based on the premise of "millennium clocks" in which he speculates about what kind of cultural institution may have to be created just to maintain such timepieces as the centuries toll by. He imagines a kind of monastic order, not unlike the cloistered intellectuals of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, who are insulated from the vagaries of the civilization outside their walled enclaves. In these protected bubbles they carry on a ritualized daily routine, limiting themselves to the timeless technologies of the distant past.

Of course the point of all this is that we need to learn how to plan our long term survival as a species. It may seem an empty exercise just to run a mechanical clock for so long, but it will remind us about all the other things that need long term solutions, like food, drinkable water, raw materials, biodiversity, disease control -- not to mention the man-made problems of social stability, economic viability, and the prevention of annihilating warfare. Simply building the clock is a commitment to the future. By doing so we will be accepting the responsibility of solving whatever problems may arise.

Even if we stay on this single planet forever we will still have to find a sustainable way to live. And we will have to pay enough attention to what's happening in the space around us to prevent being extinguished by collision with a stray meteor someday.

If we fulfill the destiny that many of us have on our minds and begin to move onto worlds around other suns, just the sheer distances involved will require us to learn how to think in centuries as we do now in years. How will we feel as we wave goodbye to a ship full of colonists who may not reach their destination for a thousand years? Or when the mere reply to a radio message takes many decades?

Science fiction buffs imagine there will be solutions that will make travel much quicker and communications as instant as we are accustomed to here on Earth. But even so, the reality of the vast space just in our own galaxy is likely to humble us with what is possible. Any future civilization that hopes to span the stars will confront challenges on a scale never before imagined.

One other idea the Long Now Foundation promotes is the addition of another digit to our counting of the years. Just as we recently started writing "01/01/2008" instead of the ambiguous "01/01/08," they suggest we start calling it "January 1, 02008." After all, it's only another eight millennia until the big odometer will roll over from 09999 to 10000. We'll need some time to get used to the idea.

[For more technical details on the Clock of the Long Now, see the exhibit page for the prototype which is now at the London Science Museum.]