As we once thought

The Internet, the World-Wide-Web and hypertext were all forecast by Vannevar Bush, in a July 1945 article for The Atlantic, entitled  As We May Think.  Perhaps this is not completely surprising since Bush had a strong influence on WW II and post-war military-industrial technology policy, as Director of the US Government Office of Scientific Research and Development.  Because of his influence, his forecasts may to some extent have been self-fulfilling.
However, his article also predicted automated machine reasoning using both logic programming, the computational use of formal logic, and computational argumentation, the formal representation and manipulation of arguments.  These areas are both now important domains of AI and computer science which developed first in Europe and which still much stronger there than in the USA.   An excerpt:

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, although he sometimes preserves this appearance by adopting into the fold anyone who becomes logical, much in the manner in which a British labor leader is elevated to knighthood. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.
Logic can become enormously difficult, and it would undoubtedly be well to produce more assurance in its use. The machines for higher analysis have usually been equation solvers. Ideas are beginning to appear for equation transformers, which will rearrange the relationship expressed by an equation in accordance with strict and rather advanced logic. Progress is inhibited by the exceedingly crude way in which mathematicians express their relationships. They employ a symbolism which grew like Topsy and has little consistency; a strange fact in that most logical field.
A new symbolism, probably positional, must apparently precede the reduction of mathematical transformations to machine processes. Then, on beyond the strict logic of the mathematician, lies the application of logic in everyday affairs. We may some day click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register. But the machine of logic will not look like a cash register, even of the streamlined model.”

Edinburgh sociologist, Donald MacKenzie, wrote a nice history and sociology of logic programming and the use of logic of computer science, Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust.  The only flaw of this fascinating book is an apparent misunderstanding throughout that theorem-proving by machines  refers only to proving (or not) of theorems in mathematics.    Rather, theorem-proving in AI refers to proving claims in any domain of knowledge represented by a formal, logical language.    Medical expert systems, for example, may use theorem-proving techniques to infer the presence of a particular disease in a patient; the claims being proved (or not) are theorems of the formal language representing the domain, not necessarily mathematical theorems.
Donald MacKenzie [2001]:  Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust (2001).  Cambridge, MA, USA:  MIT Press.
Vannevar Bush[1945]:  As we may thinkThe Atlantic, July 1945.

Recent listening 4: Caravan

One of life’s pleasures is listening to John Schaefer’s superb radio program on WNYC, New Sounds from New York.  I have just heard his recent program presenting different versions of the jazz standard, Caravan. The song is associated with Duke Ellington, although it was composed by trombonist Juan Tizol (pictured playing a valve trombone), and the words were by Irving Mills.   Some of these versions I knew and like, particularly the ambient versions of trumpeter John Hassell:

  • Jon Hassell:  Fascinoma. Water Lily Acoustics, 1999.

The program also included a superb ska version which I did not know before, by the band Hepcat:

  • Hepcat:  Out of Nowhere. Hellcat, 2004.   (Reissue of Moon Ska Records, 1983).

One great version not on the program is an arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. This has a fast-moving orchestral accompaniment (sounding like a walking treble), and was included in Season 1 of Mad Men.  Someone has posted a recording on Youtube here.

  • Mad Men:  Music from the Series, volume 1. Lionsgate, 2008.

A superb live version I once heard by a violin-and-guitar band in Brisbane I have written about here.
Two other great ambient albums are:

  • Bill Laswell and Remix Productions:  Bob Marley Dreams of Freedom. Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Island Records, 1997.
  • Ethiopiques, Volume 4.  Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumental 1969-1974. Buda Musique.  This volume comprises performances and arrangements by Ethiopian jazz keyboardist, Mulatu Astatke, on albums first issued in Ethiopia in 1972 and 1974.

Posts in this series are here.

Those pesky addition symbols

On 28 March 1979, there was a partial core meltdown in a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Generating Station near Harrisburg, PA, USA.  The accident was soon headline news, at least throughout the western world.   An obscure computer programmer apparently hearing this news had a crisis of conscience and, in April 1979, phoned anonymously to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, telling them to examine particular program code used in the design of certain types of nuclear reactors.   The code in question was a subroutine intended to calculate the total stresses on pipes carrying coolant water, but instead of adding the different stresses, the routine subtracted them.  So the resulting coolant pipes were extra-thin instead of being extra-thick.

This story would not surprise anyone with any software development experience.   Few other people understand, I think, just how dependent modern society is on the correct placing of mundane arithmetic operators or the appropriate invocation of variable references in obscure lines of old program code.  No programmers, in my experience, took less than seriously, for example, the threat of the Millenium Bug, although lots of people who are not programmers still think it was a threat without substance, or even a scam.

Below I have re-typed the article where first I read about this, as I can find no reference elsewhere on the web.

Faulty software may close more nuclear plants
(from Australasian Computerworld, 18 May 1979, pages 1 and 15).

Washington, DC. – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the US may soon order more shutdowns of nuclear plants if it finds the design of their piping relies on invalid computer algorithms.

The commission is completing a study [page-break] to determine whether earthquakes could rupture the computer-designed piping of active US nuclear plants as well as those under construction.  In March, the commission ordered five plants in the eastern US to cease operation after an error was discovered in their design software.

The study was initiated following an anonymous phone call last month from an individual who reportedly told the NRC that many other plants were designed or are being designed with similarly flawed routines.  As a result, the commission ordered all 70 licensed plants and the 92 granted construction permits to declare whether they rely on any of three algebraic summation methods.

The water to cool reactor cores in the five suspended plants ran through pipes with tolerances far below NRC standards because of an algebraic summation routine subtracted, rather than added, stress figures.
Nuclear energy experts consider reliable reactor piping a critical safety factor.  A reactor core overheats if not enough water circulates around its radioactive rods to carry heat away.  Pipe ruptures or pump failures would thus induce core overheating that, if unchecked by reserve cooling systems, might force the reactor to discharge dangerous radiation.
NRC inspectors may order more shutdowns if they find other plants in violation of piping tolerance requirements, a spokesman said.  Their decisions will be based on responses to a general bulletin to holders of licences and construction permits.

Need God be complex?

Philosopher Gary Gutting attacks the logic of the argument of Richard Dawkins for atheism, here.   Gutting formulates Dawkins’ main argument for atheism as the following chain of reasoning:

1. There is need for an explanation of the apparent design of the universe.
2. The universe is highly complex.
3. An intelligent designer of the universe would be even more highly complex.
4. A complex designer would itself require an explanation.
5. Therefore, an intelligent designer will not provide an explanation of the universe’s complexity.
6. On the other hand, the (individually) simple processes of natural selection can explain the apparent design of the universe.
7. Therefore, an intelligent designer (God) almost certainly does not exist.”

Gutting argues that Claim #7 does not following from Propositions #1 through #6.  But this stated chain of reasoning falls well before reaching claim #7.  Claim #3 does not follow from Claims #1 and #2.    Complex phenomena may emerge from simpler components, as is seen (for example) in the apparently-coordinated, but actually-uncoordinated, behaviours of insects and (simple-rule-following, non-communicating) swarm robots, or in the patterns that emerge in some cellular automata, as in John Conway’s Game of Life.  One could easily imagine a creator who established some simple ground-rules (eg, the laws of thermodynamics and the rules of biological evolution) and a starting position for the universe (eg, the Big Bang), and just let the process evolve or adapt over the course of time, without further divine intervention, subject only to the given rules.  Such a creator need not, Him-, Her- or It-self, be very complex at all, and certainly could be less complex than the universe that resulted in the fullness of time.
This phenomenon is known to most software engineers working on large systems, writing software that exhibits behaviours more complex than they are able to explain or understand subsequently, and even more complex than they intended to create.  The recent Flash Crash of stock prices on 6 May 2010 may be the result of such emergent complexity, unintended (and as yet unexplained) by the system designers, programmers and financial market regulators who operate the world’s stock markets.   Even common computer operating systems are beyond the ability of one person to entirely comprehend, let alone design:  Windows XP has an estimated 40 million source lines of code (SLOC), for example, while Debian 4.0 has an estimated 283 million SLOC.   These are among the most complex human artefacts yet created.  Indeed, the phenomenon is so prevalent in software development that the British Government sponsored research into the topic (see, for example, Bullock and Cliff  2004).
It also seems to me that Claim #4 needs some justification, since it is not obviously true.   Most scientists, for instance, seem perfectly happy accepting certain claims as not requiring any explanation or even any inquiry.  These claims differ from one discipline to another, and typically change over time.  Moreover, uncontested claims in one discipline often form the basis, when contested, of another discipline:  marketing, for example, starts from the contestation of  the foundational notions of commodities, of perfect competition, and of infinite consumer mental processing capabilities that remain uncontested (at least until recently) in mainstream economics; computer science, in another example, contests the assumption of the existence of non-constructive entities taken for granted in mainstream (non-intuitionistic) pure mathematics; parts of the study of uncertainty in artificial intelligence contest the Law of Excluded Middle taken for granted in probability theory and in mathematical statistics.
Gutting also criticises Dawkins for the lack of sophistication of his philosophical arguments:

Religious believers often accuse argumentative atheists such as Dawkins of being excessively rationalistic, demanding standards of logical and evidential rigor that aren’t appropriate in matters of faith. My criticism is just the opposite. Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.
The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. Dawkins simply does not do this. He rightly criticizes religious critics of evolution for not being adequately informed about the science they are calling into question. But the same criticism applies to his own treatment of philosophical issues.”

I am reminded of Terry Eagleton’s criticism that Dawkins had read insufficient theology, in this spirited review of Dawkins’ book.  Eagleton begins:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

Finally, Gutting repeats something mentioned before on this blog:

There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being . . “

If we broadened this group of people to “sensible people who report some kind of direct awareness of non-material realms and divine entities”, then, inter alia, the majority of African, Indian and Chinese people and the first peoples of North America and Australia would fall in this category.
Seth Bullock and Dave Cliff [2004]: Complexity and Emergent Behaviour in Information and Communications Systems.  Report for the UK Foresight Programme on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems, Office of Science and Technology, Government of the UK.  Available here.   Programme Information here.
Richard Dawkins [2006]: The God Delusion.  Bantam Press.
Terry Eagleton [2006]: Lunging, flailing, mispunching.   London Review of Books, 28 (20):  32-34.  2006-10-19.
Gary Gutting [2010]:  On Dawkins’s atheism:  a responseNew York Times, 2010-08-11.


Recent reading 4: Achtundsechziger

While elements of the left turned to revolutionary violence in most countries of the West at the end of the 1960s, three countries experienced this turn to a much greater extent than any other:  Germany, Italy, and Japan.  This fact has always intrigued me.   Why these three?     What facts of history or culture link the three?  All three endured fascist totalitarian regimes before WW II, but so too did, say, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.  The countries of Eastern Europe, however, met the 1960s still under the Soviet imperium, and so opportunities for violent resistance were few, and in any case were unlikely to come from the left.   Spain and Portugal and, for a time, Greece, were still under fascism in the post-war period, so opposition tended to aim at enlarging democracy, not at violent resistance.   Perhaps that history is a partial explanation, with (some of) the first post-war generation, the 68ers (in German, achtundsechziger) seeking by their armed resistance to absolve their shame at the perceived lack of resistance to fascism of their parents’ generation.  Certainly the writings of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), the Red Brigades, and the Japanese Red Army give this as a justification for their turn to violence.
I have always thought that another causal factor in common between these three countries was the absence of alternating left and right governments.  With a succession of right-wing and centre-right regimes in Italy and Japan, and right-wing and grand-coalition (right-and-left-together) regimes in Germany, how were views in favour of socialist change able to be represented and heard?  Indeed, in the German Federal Republic, the communist party had been declared illegal in 1956, and remained so until its reformation (under a new name) until 1968.   And even the USA may not be an exception to this heuristic:  In 1968, the candidate of the major party of the left, Hubert Humphrey, was a protagonist for the war in Vietnam (at least in public, and during the election campaign).  And while the candidate of the major party of the right, Richard Nixon, had promised during the campaign to end the war, once in office he intensified and extended it.   For anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam, the democratic political system appeared to have failed;  indeed, one of those who had most publicly opposed the war, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. It is interesting in this regard to note that the Weather Underground only adopted armed resistance as a strategy in December 1969, a year after Nixon’s election.   In Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism view of democracy, a key role of political argument and verbal conflict is to bring everyone into the political tent.  If some voices, or some views, are excluded by definition or silenced by assassination, we should not then be surprised that those excluded try to burn down the tent.
And perhaps because I like the idea of acting according to (an empirically-grounded) theory of history, I always found the primary argument of the RAF very intriguing:  That by engaging in armed resistance to the capitalist state, the revolutionary left would force the state to reveal its essential fascist character, and that this revelation would awaken the consciousness of the proletariat, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. Although intrigued by it, I never found this argument quite compelling:  First, it could be argued that a democratic state only has a fascist character in response to, and to the extent of, armed resistance to it.  So predictions of its fascist tendencies become self-fulfilling.   Second, the history of countries ruled by fascism in the 20th century surely shows that life under totalitarian rule makes organizing and engaging in dissident activities, particularly group-oriented dissident activities, less not more feasible.     Third, I believe strongly that not only do ends not usually justify means, but often means vitiate ends.     This is the case here:  suppose the violent left’s violent resistance had indeed worked in overthrowing the governments they were directed at.  What sort of society would have resulted?   What we know of the personalities of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolutionary colleagues leads me to think that a Cambodia under the Khmer Rouges, rather than a Sweden under Olof Palme, would be a more likely description for life in a West Germany led by the RAF.  Thank our stars they failed.
These thoughts are provoked by some recent reading on the subject of leftist urban terrorism in the West, both fiction and non-fiction.  The fiction concerns the psychology and consequences of life underground, long after any thrill of plotting and executing armed resistance has passed.
First,  a novel about the Angry Brigade (AB), the lite, British version of the Red Army Fraction:  Hari Kunzru’s “My Revolutions”.   This is a gripping first-person account by someone who had participated in AB actions, and now, 30 years later, is living under an assumed name.  His past comes back to him, through some not-fully-explained, but dirty, tricks that British intelligence agencies seem to be running.  These dirty actions are (or rather, appear to be) targeted against those who were on the edges of the violent left, but not part of it, who have now risen to prominence in Government (Joschka Fischer comes to mind), and the narrator is used by the shadowy intelligence forces to blackmail or destroy the career of the target of the action.  The writing is fluent and plausible, and the tale engrossing.  Only occasionally does Kunzru trip:  Who ever uses “recurrent” (page 4) in ordinary speech?  (Some people may say “recurring”.)    Precisely how does the sun beat down like a drummer? (page 10).   But most of the novel reads as the words of the protagonist, and not the words of the novelist, indicating that a realistic character has been created by the author’s words.
The same cannot be said for Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document”.   Although this book too is riveting, it is not nearly as well-written as Kunzru’s book.   The story also concerns the later after-life of some formerly violent leftists, presumably once members of the Weather Underground, now living in hiding in the USA, incognito.   The story is told through the purported words of multiple narrators, a technique which enables the events to be described from diverse and interesting perspectives.  I say “purported” because too often the words and tone of different narrators sound the same.  In addition, often a narrator uses expressions which seem quite implausible for that particular narrator, as when the teenage boy Jason speaks of “recondite” personalities in suburbia (page 74):  these are not Jason’s words but those of the author.
These works of fiction are partly engrossing to me because I once unwittingly knew a former violent leftist on the lam – the Symbionese Liberation Army’s James Kilgore,  whom I knew as John Pape.  I wish I could say I’d always suspected him, but that is not the case.  Indeed, if anything, I suspected him of being a secret religious believer.  He was serious, always intense, and softly-spoken, and ideologically pure to the point of having no sense of humour. The Struggle was all, and life seemed to be all gravitas, with no levitas (at least in my interactions with him.  I have no idea how much of this serious demeanor  is or was his true self.)  Adopting a position as a committed revolutionary is certainly an interesting strategy for a cover;  one does not expect underground weathermen to be regular attenders at Trotskyist reading circles, but Pape was.  (And he did the homework!) But perhaps someone with a sense of humour does not join a movement of revolutionary violence in the first place, at least not in a democracy.
In the non-fiction category is Susan Braudy’s history of the Boudin family, one of whose members, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground.   As with Kunzru’s and Spiotta’s novels, this non-fictional account is also riveting.   It is, however, appallingly badly written. For instance, for a history, the book is very fuzzy about dates – when did Jean Boudin die, for example?  And much of the text reads like third-hand family anecdotes, perhaps interesting or amusing to the family but not to anyone else.  (Aunty Merle always was partial to rhubarb and once asked for it in a restaurant.)    And lots of very relevant information is simply not provided, for instance the prison sentences given to Kathy Boudin’s fellow-accused in 1981.   As a history book, this is certainly a book.
Finally, a quick report on Hans Kundnani’s superb analysis of the extreme German left, Utopia or AuschwitzGermany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust.  Kundnani argues that there were competing strains within the violent German left in the 1960s and 1970s:  one strain engaged in struggle (against capitalist and western imperialist injustice) as a form of remedy for the failure – or at least, the perceived failure – of their parents’ generation to resist Nazism, and other strains comprising German-nationalist and, suprisingly, even anti-semitic tendencies.    The presence of such tendencies at least explains how some on the far left in the 1960s ended up on the neo-Nazi right thirty years later.  Kundnani’s book is superb – interesting, well-written, humane, engrossing, and tightly-argued.  I had only one small quibble, which is perhaps a typo or an oversight:  On page 252, Kundnani refers to German military participation in a NATO-led attack on Serbian forces on 24 March 1999 as the “first time since 1945, Germany was at war.”  Well, the Federal Republic of Germany perhaps.   The DDR sent troups to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in August 1968.   If I was a former citizen of the DDR, regardless of my opposition to that invasion, I would be annoyed that my nation’s history seems to have been forgotten by people writing after unification on German history.
UPDATE (2010-08-25): My remark about participation by the DDR military in the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR in 1968 is wrong.   The forces of the DDR were, at the last moment, stayed, as I explain here.    Thanks to Hans Kundnani for correcting me on this (see comment below).
Bill Ayers [2001]:  Fugitive Days:  A Memoir. Boston, MA, USA:  Beacon Press.
Dan Berger [2006]:  Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA, USA:  AK Press.
Susan Braudy [2003]:  Family Circle:  The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. New York, NY, USA;  Anchor Books.
Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.
Ron Jacob [1997]: The Way the Wind Blew:  A History of the Weather Underground. London, UK:  Verso.
Hans Kundnani[2009]:  Utopia or Auschwitz:  Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. London, UK:  Hurst and Company.
Hari Kunzru[2007]:  My Revolutions.  London, UK:  Penguin.
Chantal Mouffe[1993]: The Return of the Political.  London, UK: Verso.
Dana Spiotta[2006]:  Eat the Document.  New York: Scribner/London, UK: Picador.
Tom Vague [1988/2005]:  The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993.  San Francisco:  AK Press.
Jeremy Varon [2004]:  Bringing the War Home:  The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley, CA, USA:  University of California Press.
Some previous thoughts on beating terrorism here.  Past entries in the Recent Reading series are here.

Concat 3: On writing

For procrastinators among you writing the Great American Novel, here are some links with advice on writing:

  • Hilary Mantel [2010]:  The joys of stationeryThe Guardian, 2010-03-06. On why writers need to keep loose-leaf notebooks.  An excerpt:

That said, le vrai moleskine and its mythology irritate me. Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers? The magic has surely gone out of the little black tablet now that you can buy it everywhere, and in pastel pink, and even get it from Amazon – if they believe your address exists. The trouble with the Moleskine is that you can’t easily pick it apart. This may have its advantages for glamorous itinerants, who tend to be of careless habit and do not have my access to self-assembly beech and maple-effect storage solutions – though, as some cabinets run on castors, I don’t see what stopped them filing as they travelled. But surely the whole point of a notebook is to pull it apart, and distribute pieces among your various projects? There is a serious issue here. Perforation is vital – more vital than vodka, more essential to a novel’s success than a spellchecker and an agent.
I often sense the disappointment when trusting beginners ask me how to go about it, and I tell them it’s all about ring binders.”

  • Rachel Cusk [2010]: Can creative writing ever be taught? The Guardian, 2010-01-30.  A moving discussion on teaching creative writing, and the relationship between writing  and therapy.

Honest criticism, I suppose, has its place. But honest writing is infinitely more valuable.
At the start of last term, I asked my students a question: “How did you become the person you are?” They answered in turn, long answers of such startling candour that the ­photographer who had come in to take a couple of quick pictures for the ­university magazine ended up staying for the whole session, mesmerised. I had asked them to write down three or four words before they spoke, each word indicating a formative aspect of experience, and to tell me what the words were. They were mostly simple words, such as “father” and “school” and “Catherine”. To me they represented a regression to the first encounter with language; they represented a chance to reconfigure the link between the mellifluity of self and the concreteness of utterance. It felt as though this was a good thing for even the most accomplished writer to do. Were the students learning anything? I suppose not exactly. I’d prefer to think of it as relearning. Relearning how to write; remembering how.

Caute on Marechera

You did not have to visit many bars or nightclubs in downtown Harare in the early 1980s before encountering the late Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987), Zimbabwean novelist and poet.    I knew him slightly, as did anyone who was willing to share a drink with him and enjoy (or endure) a stimulating late-night argument on politics or literature.   Some of his writing, for all its coarse language, is powerful and sublime (in the tradition of Burroughs and Genet), and David Caute, in a book I have just read, argues correctly that he was a great writer.  The book also captures his personality well,  even if it gives the impression that Caute thinks the work forgives the man.  It does not.  As a person, Marechera was a victim of  his addictions and perhaps also of a psychosis – mercurial, abusive, racist, foul-mouthed, illogical, self-destructive, and paranoid:   not someone who was nice to be around for very long.     Nothing forgives such poor behaviour, not even great writing.
As always when I read David Caute, I am reminded of Graham Greene:  both are writers who grapple with the major moral questions and issues of our time, yet both write in the sloppiest of language, insincere and vague, and have the tinnest of ears.  Woolly writing might be evidence of woolly thinking or evidence of malice aforethought (perhaps attempting to hide or obfuscate something, as Orwell argued); it could also be evidence of insufficient thinking.  In any case, Greene’s and Caute’s arguments are often undone and undermined by their style.  We only get as far as page 6 of Caute’s book on Marechera, for example, before we stumble over:

Piled high at the central counter of the Book Fair are copies of his [Marechera’s] new book, Mindblast, published by College Press of Harare, an orange coloured paperback with a surrealist design involving a humanized cat and a black in a space helmet.”

A black what, Dr Caute?  A black what?  I guess you mean a black person.  Just two sentences later, though,  you speak of,  “An effusive white executive of College Press . . .” So, let me get this right  – white people are important enough to have nouns to denote them, but black people not, eh?  Hmmm.
Although the effect is racist, I am sure Caute is not deliberately being racist in his use of language here, but rather just sloppy.    But the sloppy expression, here as elsewhere, leads one to doubt his sincerity and/or his ear.   Of course, someone who spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians could easily forget how offensive the first usage sounds (and is); and we know from Caute’s earlier books that he spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians.
Pressing on, on page 43 we read:

Such rhetoric counts for little against the current surplus of maize, tobacco and beef which only the commercial farmers can guarantee.”

Well, actually, no, Dr Caute.  Tobacco and beef were in surplus at the time referred to (1984) due to commercial (ie, mainly white-owned) farms.  But maize was in surplus because the avowedly Marxist government of Robert Mugabe used the price mechanism when it came to power to encourage communal farmers  (ie, subsistence black farmers) to produce and sell surplus maize crops.   This was something so very remarkable – the country in food surplus for its staple food almost immediately after 13 years of civil war and 90 years of insurrection, and because of the fast responsiveness of peasant farmers   – that all the papers were full of it.  Surely Caute must have heard.  (See Herbst 1990 for an account.)  And even beef production was boosted by contributions from communal farmers, particularly after the Government decided not to prosecute the many illegal butcheries competing against the state-owned meat-processing monopoly, the Cold Storage Commission.  (One may wonder why a socialist government would not support its own state enterprise against privately-owned competitors until one learns that many members of the Cabinet had financial stakes in the competing butcheries.)
Is the sloppiness in Caute’s sentence then due to Orwellian sleight-of-hand – seeking to promote a case that was factually incorrect – or just  due to insufficiently-careful thought?   I suspect the latter, although it is throwaway lines like this – as it happens, lines so common in the conversation of white Rhodesians in the 1980s – that make me ponder  the sincerity of Caute’s writing.
And, finally, Caute seems eager to berate the left and liberals for their failure to call attention to Robert Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing in Matebeleland in 1982-84, the Gukurahundi campaign.  Certainly more could have been said and done, especially publicly, to oppose this.  But why is only one side of politics to blame?  Both the US and the UK had conservative administrations at the time, both of which (particularly Thatcher’s) made strong representations to Mugabe over the fate of several white Zimbabwe  Air Force officers detained and tortured in 1982.   These governments did not make nearly such strong representations over the fate of the victims of the Gukurahundi. Perhaps Mugabe was right to accuse the west of racism on this.  And Mugabe’s military campaign in Matabeleland was not launched for no reason:  As Caute must know, South Africa and its white Rhodesian friends were engaged in a campaign of terrorist violence against Zimbabwe from its inception, with terrorist bombings throughout the 1980s.   The Independence Arch he describes traveling under on the way to Harare Airport was in fact the second arch built to commemorate Independence:  the first had been blown up shortly after it was built.   And even Joshua Nkomo admitted (at a press conference following his dismissal from Cabinet in February 1982) that he had asked South Africa for assistance to stage a coup after Independence.  While Mugabe’s 5th Brigade was certainly engaged in brutal and genocidal murder and rape, the campaign was not against an imaginary enemy.
Although evil may triumph when good people do nothing, from the fact of the triumph of evil it is invalid to infer that nothing was done to oppose it by good people.  Where are the mentions in Caute’s account of the strong, high-level and repeated Catholic opposition (both clerical and lay) to Mugabe’s campaign?  Where is the mention, in the statement that Mugabe detained people using renewals of Smith’s emergency powers regulations, of the independent review panel established by ZANU(PF) stalwart Herbert Ushewokunze when Minister for Home Affairs, the Detention Review Tribunal, to consider the cases of people detained without trial?  The members of this panel included independent lawyers, some of whom were white and liberal.    Some people, even some of the people Caute seems to excoriate, were doing their best to stop or ameliorate the evil at the time.
David Caute [1986/2009]:  Marechera and the Colonel:  A Zimbabwean Writer and the Claims of the State. London, UK:  Totterdown Books. Revised edition, 2009.
Jeffrey Herbst [1990]: State Politics in Zimbabwe. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. Perspectives on Southern Africa Series, Volume 45.

Agonistic planning

One key feature of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations identified by David Halberstam in his superb account of the development of US policy on Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, was groupthink:  the failure of White House national security, foreign policy and defense staff to propose or even countenance alternatives to the prevailing views on Vietnam, especially when these alternatives were in radical conflict with the prevailing wisdom.   Among the junior staffers working in those administrations was Richard Holbrooke, now the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.  A New Yorker profile of Holbrooke last year included this statement by him, about the need for policy planning processes to incorporate agonism:

“You have to test your hypothesis against other theories,” Holbrooke said. “Certainty in the face of complex situations is very dangerous.” During Vietnam, he had seen officials such as McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national-security adviser, “cut people to ribbons because the views they were getting weren’t acceptable.” Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity—the facility to outmaneuver one’s counterpart in a discussion, without questioning fundamental assumptions. A more farsighted wisdom is often unwelcome. In 1975, with Bundy in mind, Holbrooke published an essay in Harpers in which he wrote, “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” That was one of the lessons of Vietnam. Holbrooke described his method to me as “a form of democratic centralism, where you want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward, but once the policy’s decided you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it. And very often in the government the exact opposite happens. People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.”  (page 47)
Of course, Holbrooke’s positing of policy development as distinct from policy implementation is itself a dangerous simplification of the reality for most complex policy, both private and public, where the relationship between the two is usually far messier.    The details of policy, for example, are often only decided, or even able to be decided, at implementation-time, not at policy design-time.    Do you sell your new hi-tech product via retail outlets, for instance?  The answer may depend on whether there are outlets available to collaborate with you (not tied to competitors) and technically capable of selling it, and these facts may not be known until you approach the outlets.  Moreover, if the stakeholders implementing (or constraining implementation) of a policy need to believe they have been adequately consulted in policy development for the policy to be executed effectively (as is the case with major military strategies in democracies, for example here), then a further complication to this reductive distinction exists.
UPDATE (2011-07-03):
British MP Rory Stewart recounts another instance of Holbrooke’s agonist approach to policy in this post-mortem tribute: Holbrooke, although disagreeing with Stewart on policy toward Afghanistan, insisted that Stewart present his case directly to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a meeting that Holbrooke arranged.

David Halberstam [1972]:  The Best and the Brightest.  New York, NY, USA: Random House.
George Packer [2009]:  The last mission: Richard Holbrooke’s plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in AfghanistanThe New Yorker, 2009-09-28, pp. 38-55.

Precision as the enemy of knowledge

I have posted previously about the different ways in which knowledge may be represented.  A key learning of the discipline of Artificial Intelligence in its short life thus far is that not all representations are equal.    Indeed, more precise representations may provide less information, as in this example from cartography (from a profile of economist Paul Krugman):

Again, as in his [Krugman’s] trade theory, it was not so much his idea [that regional ecomomic specializations were essentially due to historical accidents] that was significant as the translation of the idea into a mathematical language.  “I explained this basic idea” – of economic geography – “to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn’t that pretty obvious?’  And of course it is.”  Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years.  Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into [tractable analytical mathematical] models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it.  His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography.  Sixteenth century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior – the River Niger, Timbuktu.  Two centuries later, mapmaking had become more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank.  As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards – secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants – was discarded and lost.  Eventually, the higher standards paid off – by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again – but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain. ” (page 45)

Larissa MacFarquhar [2010]:  The deflationist:  How Paul Krugman found politicsThe New Yorker, 2010-03-01, pp. 38-49.

Ljova profile

Yesterday’s NYT carried a profile by Allan Kozinn of Lev Zhurbin (aka Ljova) who featured in a previous post about Joe Stickney’s poetry.  From the profile:

Lev Zhurbin, the violist, composer and arranger who performs and writes under the name Ljova, almost always has a lot of projects before him. If he isn’t writing for, or recording with, his folk-classical ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband, or performing in Romashka, a Gypsy band led by his wife, the singer Inna Barmash, he is working on film scores or transcriptions. (He has arranged Indian and Sephardic pieces for the Kronos Quartet; Asian and Eastern European works for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project; Schubert and Shostakovich compositions for the Knights, a chamber orchestra).”

Which gives me the chance to recommend again Ljova and the Kontraband’s superb album, Mnemosyne.  They are even better live, if that were possible.