Saturday, December 02, 2006

According to Yogi Berra, or Niels Bohr, or Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain, or Somebody

Maybe he was coming down with a cold. One of my favorite writers, Paul Krugman, began Friday’s column on “Economic Storm Signals” (Times Select Link) with a weary cliché, the kind of tired ironic trope used by speechwriters on a bad day, bloggers looking for an opening hook and columnists on deadline desperate for a lede.
“It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “especially about the future.” Actually, his remark makes perfect sense to economists, who sometimes have trouble making predictions about the present. And this is one of those times.
Nothing wrong with that. Writers are human. Who among us has not relied on the old Prediction Quote Crutch on one occasion or another? I know I have.

But Yogi Berra? Huh? I thought it was Neils Bohr.

It always seemed such a perfect union of quote and source. Bohr's friend Albert Einstein was famously driven to complain that God does not play dice when Bohr's quantum theory undercut the whole idea of causality -- leading not only to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle that says nothing is or even can be where you think it is, but also to Schrödinger's cat awaiting the invitable collapse of the wave function in that infernal box. But modern quantum theory also became one of the most powerful predictive systems the world has ever known (while you might not be able to predict the path of an individual subatomic particle, their behavior in the aggregate is highly predictable, as any atomic explosion attests). So there always seemed to be many levels of meaning in Bohr's words, with wheels of irony spinning playfully inside other wheels.

But can the words really be traced to Yogi Berra? Sure, the attribution has a certain witty inside-baseball logic. As a manager, Berra's job was all about staying a step ahead, using statistical modeling (i.e., prediction) to size up how his tactical moves are likely to affect the other team. As a catcher, Berra had to try to predict the path of a breaking curveball. Still, it doesn't sound like a phrase he coined himself, so much as one he -- or his attributors -- appropriated.

Berra's public persona -- which seems to have replaced Casey Stengel's in the long-running competition with the ineffable Sam Goldwyn for the title of King of Malapropisms -- has become a vacuum cleaner sucking up other people's pithy, witty quotes that have the right blend of sense and nonsense, of meaning struggling to emerge from chaos, and that sound quotably dumb while at the same time being pregnant with hidden meaning. Or, as Berra put it, "I never said half the things I really said."

So, how goes the competition between Bohr and Berra? Who's on first? Well, to begin with -- they're not the only players. According to Google, Bohr isn't even the leader among public figures who have been quoted as connecting "prediction" and "future."

Topping the list is Einstein. He's followed by Mark Twain, and it does sound like something Twain might have said, even though it seems he would probably have have dressed the concept up in a more folksy Mississippi River metaphor. Bohr is a distant third, and Berra is hardly in the running at all. You get the impression that Berra was not nearly as interested in speculating about how we can know the future as the other luminaries were.
SEARCH STRING: prediction future (name)

875,000 Einstein
584,000 Twain
364,000 Bohr
113,000 Berra
But things change when when you make a more syntactical search, following the sentence structure of the actual quote and using an asterisk to allow for the fact that the wording varies slightly from person to person (i.e., “about” vs. “of”). Now the phrase clearly seems to belong to Bohr, with Yogi clearly coming on strong, while it seems clear that this was one ball neither Einstein nor Twain particularly wanted to play with.
SEARCH STRING: prediction "especially * the future" (name)

31,200 Bohr
18,500 Berra
864 Einstein
539 Twain
What happened? I'm sure a more comprehensive Lexis/Nexis search could nail this down with more precision, but the available Google evidence seems to suggest that Bohr actually once said, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future," or something very like that. It was quoted and repeated more and more often. Then, as quantum physics lost its allure as the next new thing and became part of the established scientific order and Bohr faded into the pages of scientific history, the quote, like a restless transposon finding a new home in the genome, attached itself to Berra's name.

You can find plenty of "missing links" on the internet that seem to trace this evolutionary history -- citations quoting both Bohr and Berra, generally giving precedence to Bohr. This abstract of a scientific paper puts it nicely.
Yogi Berra once observed, apparently paraphrasing Niels Bohr, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Berra's and Bohr's backgrounds, respectively, in baseball and quantum mechanics, probably prejudiced them, since recent studies show that, at least in geophysics, not everything is as difficult to predict as the path of a knuckle ball or an electron through a double slit.
This quote has clearly taken on a life of its own, and since language is a fickle and restless force, Yogi Berra is probably not the end of the line for these famous words. Who's next? Borat? So far, he hasn't been credited with the quote, but I'll keep checking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Survival of the fittest


So much for cute posts about frost-covered leaves or a light dusting of snow. Now it's the real thing. Now it's about survival of the fittest. On the news this morning they talked about all the accidents, rollovers, and cars in ditches. But I left for work a bit later. The roads weren't any better. In fact, they were worse. But all the bad drivers were gone, their crumpled cars towed away from intersections they had sailed through, brakes locked, or the ditches they had flipped into. Towed away to the prospering auto body shops.

What was left on the roads were (mostly) the painfully slow, overly careful drivers. We crept along at a snail's pace, and because we were driving away from Madison, in a direction opposite to the typical morning commute, we also drove on the relatively unplowed part of the road. With all the drifting snow, it was hard to tell where the road actually was, and every once in a while the right front wheel would plow into a little snowdrift and tug at the steering wheel. Frustrating, but manageable. Still, every now and then a driver ahead of me would tire of driving in this white quicksand and -- apparently saying "the hell with it!" -- would start to drive against traffic on the plowed side of the road on the left, veering back into their own lane when another car or truck approached. I hung way back, fearing a pile-up in front of me, but nothing ever happened.

Going to the dogs


We need more nurturing, creative ideas like this. I did a double-take when I first saw this poster in the doorway of my local branch of the Madison Public Library -- and then it made perfect sense. I asked a librarian about it, and she said the program was started by a woman with a dog that likes children and enjoys being read to. Parents of children who want to practice reading aloud but are shy about doing it in public can schedule time with the woman and her dog. The canine listener makes a perfect, attentive and non-judgmental audience. Live outside Madison and want to call for more information? The area code that goes with that number is 608.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Polonium 210 as a terror weapon?

Brad DeLong picks up on another aspect of the apparent murder by polonium 210 case in London -- the fact that whoever did it has demonstrated an apparent capability not just for murder but for terrorism.
Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).

What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)
Well yes, the capacity demonstrated by some shadowy somebody who may or may not be in Russia is scary -- but no more so than the shadowy somebody who took the equally lethal weapons grade anthrax sporesfrom a U.S. weapons facility and infiltrated the US postal system with the stuff. Even more people died in that case. Nobody was caught in that case either. Remember?

Let's face it, current and past superpowers have long had the capability to kill damn near everybody on the planet and it seems that every once in awhile some individual affiliated with one or the other just can't resist taking the toys out and playing with them, just a little.

'Pale Fire and London Fog'

That's the title of Chris Floyd's fascinating truthout piece about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB guy who died slowly in London of polonium 210 poisoning, over several weeks of steady deterioration under a worldwide media spotlight, after leaving a deathbed message blaming Vladimir Putin for his death.

The title, with its tip of the hat to Nabokov, nicely suggests the surreal strangeness of the case. And it's a relief finally to read something written in a more nuanced manner than the usual tabloid sensationalism. The trouble with the "Putin did it!" story line beloved of lazy media the world around is that it makes no sense. Putin is certainly ruthless enough, no question about it. But had he felt a need to silence an obscure critic and former KGB colleague, why would he have done it in so public a fashion, in a foreign capital, in a manner designed to maximize negative media exposure?

Floyd makes it clear that we'll probably never know exactly what happened, but he reports on some of the mysterious figures who lurk around what he calls "the shadowlands - that murky confluence of crime, violence, money and politics where so much of the real business of the world is conducted." It's a great read, even if, unlike the thriller it otherwise resembles, Floyd's story concludes on a note of uncertainty and ambiguity. The crime remains unsolved, and most likely never will be.
All of this adds up to ... well, nothing much in particular. It's the usual murky ooze you find whenever an incident like the Litvinenko case turns over a rock in the shadowlands: strange connections, mixed motives, bluffs and double-bluffs, half-truths, black ops, lurid tales, chancers, bagmen, spies, tycoons, mercenaries, war, murder, and money. It's clear that almost every single player in the Litvinenko killing could have had access to the sophisticated technical means necessary to deliver Polonium 210 as an edible poison. It's not clear at all that any of them had a compelling reason to do so.

To be sure, Putin is a ruthless operator on behalf of what he perceives as Russia's national interests, which he tends to identify with the power and privilege of his own elitist clique, as do all our world statesmen - none more so than his avowed soulmate, George W. Bush. And like Bush, Putin has proven himself capable of wholesale slaughter and pinpoint "extrajudicial killing" in the service of those interests. Some of his critics have certainly ended up dead. Some of his supporters have too. (And so have some of Berezovsky's critics, such as the American journalist Paul Khlebnikov, whose book, Godfather of the Kremlin, blackened Berezovsky's name around the world far more successfully than Litvinenko's ignored, forgotten tome ever did with Putin. Khlebnikov was gunned down, Godfather-style, in Moscow in 2004.)

But it beggars belief that a savvy operator like Putin would have countenanced a plan to kill a small-fry critic in a such a spectacularly public fashion, in the capital of a foreign country, with a slow-acting radioactive isotope that guaranteed weeks of damaging headlines and international outcry, putting at risk months of delicate negotiations over Russia's expansion into the European energy market and other lucrative deals. Someone who wanted to embarrass Putin might have done it. Someone with motives entirely unconnected to Russian politics might have done it. Rogue elements of this or that faction or agency or government might have done it. But it's clear from all the facts available that the one person who would benefit least from the murder is the one who has been most widely and confidently accused of ordering it: Putin.

And so the question of who killed Alexander Litvinenko remains an impenetrable mystery. But at least it has thrown a flickering light on the borders of the shadowlands, a pale fire in which we can dimly perceive the ugly machinations, the violence and deceit, the crime and corruption that lie beneath the gilded images of the movers and shakers of the world.
This stuff is better than any spy novel. Nobody could make it up.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More troops here, more troops there,
and pretty soon you're talking a real war


U.S. soldiers secure the scene following a car bomb explosion in Mosul, northern Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006. AP Photo/Mohammed Ibrahim

What election? Who said anything about pulling out? Maliki snubs Bush? Hey, let's send some more troops.
The Pentagon is developing plans to send four more battalions to Iraq early next year, partly to boost security in Baghdad, defense officials said Wednesday. Meanwhile, a commission studying Iraq policy said it would make its report next week.

The extra combat engineer battalions of reserves, likely to be sent to Baghdad, would total about 3,500 troops, officials said. They said the units, coming from around the United States, have already done tours in Iraq but there has been no final decision on which will go.
Yeah, right. That'll work. And if it doesn't, we can dream up something else. More troops, maybe?

Or maybe we should just impeach the guy and put an end to this thing.

Ancient analog astronomical computer


Fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism, left, have now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. New York Times / School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University

Its geared teeth enabled it to perform astronomical calculations of the moon's motion and possibly planets as well -- more than 2,000 years ago. According to the NYT, it turns out that mechanical computing devices far more advanced than previously thought existed in the classical world. The technology eventually was lost and had to be rediscovered much later.
Dr. Charette noted that more than 1,000 years elapsed before instruments of such complexity are known to have re-emerged. A few artifacts and some Arabic texts suggest that simpler geared calendrical devices had existed, particularly in Baghdad around A.D. 900.
Hard to imagine today that Baghdad was once a great center of learning and technology, but of course, it was.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Shop here till they drop there



This is a busy time of year, and life is good. For some people. There's holiday shopping to do, holiday parties to attend, cookies to bake, cards to send out, the excitement of the approaching Christmas and New Year's holidays.

For others, it's not so good. They are killing and being killed in Iraq. In the 36 days until the new Congress convenes January 3, not much will change. Oh, the Baker Commission will probably issue its report and the talking heads will do what they do best -- talk. But the fighting and dying will go on.

There's not even the possibility of action reflecting the will of the people as expressed in the November election until members of the new Congress take office. By then, if present rates hold, close to another 90 American servicemen and women will be dead, about ten times that number wounded, and close to 2,0000 more Iraqis will be dead -- and that's if we're lucky. These will all be people who died or were wounded while the politicians took their own good sweet time deciding what to do and how to avoid blame for it.

Happy holidays.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Last Sunday in November

Warm, pearly-gray, hazy day. Great day for swimming, if you're a duck...

Or golfing if you're not...

Or fishing if you haven't put the boat away...

Or just meditatively bridging the gap between autumn's riotous color, now faded, and winter's white blanket, coming all too soon.

(As always, click on photos to enlarge.)