May 31, 2002:

Back when I had a regular column in GalaxyOnline (which was the most spectacularly fun writing gig I've ever scored) I did a couple of columns on my great fear: cruise missiles. I hazarded that they would become increasingly easy to build over time, and that even a model airplane hobbyist could create something that could do considable damage. Looks like I was right: New Zealander Bruce Simpson posted an article describing how low-cost cruise missiles might be made. Read it and you'll understand why I'm now more worried than ever.

Simpson speaks of building his own pulse-jet engines, but even that isn't necessary. Way back in 2000, I pointed out a site where you can buy miniature turbojet engines from SimJet in Denmark. These are smallish versions of the truck-sized engines that drive modern jetliners, and are very popular among high-end RC model airplane enthusiasts. Sure, the engines are a couple thousand bucks each, but for the most part terorrists don't lack for that kind of lunch money. Even building the aircraft itself isn't necessary, if you have the money and develop the contacts within the model aircraft community. The difference between a good-sized RC model fighter jet and a cruise missile isn't much more than a GPS receiver and the sort of minimal smarts that Simpson describes on his site.

Making such an aircraft nuclear is a much tougher challenge, but the scary part is that you can do a lot of damage and cause of lot of anguish and disruption—and even death—without anything nuclear at all. Given the drought conditions around the West these days, having an expendable GPS-controlled minijet cruise over some of the national forests dropping little incediary bombs could create a conflagration unlike anything ever seen. And let's not even talk about a quart-sized canister of anthrax spores...

It's too late to turn off GPS; too many things depend on it now, and even dithering it like it was until 1998 wouldn't deter homebrew cruise missiles, which don't need meter-precision guidance to cause havoc. And the Europeans are debating whether to deploy a global positioning system of their own, called Galileo—which will, if deployed, have even greater accuracy than GPS. The sorts of missile-shield systems the military is talking about guard against ICBMs. It's far from clear to me what one could use to guard against miniature cruise missiles of this sort—probably nothing. Sooner or later, we're going to have to face up to the Big Ugly: whether we begin profiling people for surveillance based on their Arabic origins or their Islamic beliefs. After the next big blowup, whatever it turns out to be (and while we can pray it won't happen, my suspicion is that it will) ducking that issue won't work anymore.
May 30, 2002:

One final question that I don't want to hear again, although this one is way more personal: Why don't you have children? I've been asked this a number of times in the past ten or twenty years, generally by friends who are close enough to me to figure I won't punch their lights out for their impertinence. The answer is simple, though I suspect most people won't accept it: Carol and I never felt called to be parents. It's not that we don't value children—hardly, we value them tremendously, and we do not see in ourselves some of the essential facets of temperament required to bring up children correctly. Childrearing is something we do not want to get wrong, and the older we get, the more we perceive that we were not cut out for that sort of adventure. To find a young son in my arms, bruised and weeping after an encounter with some claybrained bully, would break my heart—and fill me with a murderous rage. My father reacted to that situation many years ago by trying to teach me to fight, and was puzzled and disappointed that I could not bring myself to deliberately hurt another human being, even in self-defense. I lack his unflappable composure (though I did inherit his unshakable optimism) and most of his Germanic fearlessness and Irish charm. Could I do what he did? I don't think so.

He knew he wanted children, knew in his guts. Just as surely, I knew in my guts that I would fall short in the attempt to raise a child as well as he raised me. My strengths lie elsewhere, and it's remarkable that in Carol I found a spouse who felt almost precisely the same way. (Much conflict in marriages emerges from differences in feelings about having and rearing children.) I am pleased to see that among my own friends who chose to have children, their children are rapidly becoming intelligent, compassionate, sane adults. Clearly, that task is being well-handled by others. Carol and I have our own tasks to accomplish, things which may not have all the drama of childrearing, but are important in the cosmic scheme nonetheless. (Someone told me once that "you taught an entire generation to master Turbo Pascal," and if true, it's something I'm damned proud of.) Not everyone is called to be a parent, and with luck and a little Divine mercy, I won't have to answer that particular question again.
May 29, 2002:

While we're talking about idiotic questions that people ask (see my May 27, 2002 entry) here's another one I see in magazines and on the Web far too often: "Why do they hate us?" ("They" being Islam.) Well, duh: They're being taught to hate us, people! The Middle East is shot through with these little schools in which Islamic extremist teachers indoctrinate young boys in how Allah delights in the murder of westerners, and will reward suicide bombers and airplane hijackers with a private harem of virgins (virgins? Why not women who know what they doing?) and all the food they can eat, which for my money is a pretty thin vision of Paradise. Yes, I know, it's not all muslims; Islam is no more uniform than Christianity, and the fringes of all religious bell curves are pretty ugly. I also know the difference between the Shi'ite and Sunni factions within Islam and how they came about, and if you don't it would be worth reading up on, though I can't cite a book off the top of my head. (One I think is The Lucifer Effect, but I can't lay hands on it this morning. I'll try and find it and report back.)

In broader terms, I think it's fair to say that hatred is not a natural condition of humanity. Envy and pride and other things may be, but for the most part I think we're hard-wired by evolution to at least hold our noses and get along. Genuine hatred, be it KKK-style or Islamic nutcase style or any other style, is passed on from parents and other adults to children. As the Children of the Sixties preached ad nauseam (and yup, I was in that gang, participating in the ad nauseam): break that cycle, and the world will be a better place.
May 28, 2002:

More on clowning. (See my entry for May 25, 2002.) Jim Mischel had no clue where clowns and clowning originated, but he threw more fuel on the fire by citing one of the all-time worst SF movies: Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I didn't see that one, but I was in Santa Cruz when it came out in 1987, and the local druggies absolutely adored it. Whoever did the movie knew very well why clowns scare kids, because all those elements are exaggerated in the film. These are really scary clowns. (Why they spell it with a "k" puzzles me, unless the Clowns Union threatened to sue for defamation or something.)

Then there's The No-Clown Zone. Clearly, we're on the trail of a genuine cultural phenomenon here, and where it might lead is anybody's guess. Somewhere in the NCZ site the author expresses the opinion (which I've heard before) that clowns are the lineal descendents of the devil figures in medieval morality plays, and that certainly feels right, given the medieval abhorrence for chaos and uncontrolled behavior.

My sister Gretchen Roper suggested that our modern circus clowns were strongly influenced by the stock character Pantaloon in the Italian improvisational dramatic form Commedia Dell'Arte, who generally wore hugely baggy pants in an era (the 16th-18th centuries) when most men wore tights or cassocks of some kind. Pantaloon was a ridiculous character, and the other characters taunted and made fun of maybe our modern clowns can be seen as archetypal figures taking Pantaloon's revenge.

On the other hand, most of us now wear, pants—so perhaps Pantaloon has already had his revenge, in that we're now all wearing clown suits and don't even realize it.
May 27, 2002:

Why did the Sixties happen? (That is, why was that the period in First World history when all the young people went a little nuts?) My theory: The Boomer generation was the first generation not raised brutally in a brutal world. When the leading edge of that generation hit maturity, there rose up a desire to put an end to the myriad species of nastiness that had been absolved under the hateful (and often preconscious) conviction that "I had to suffer when I was young, so these young folks had better get used to it."

We forget sometimes how completely hideous most human life was prior to the post WWII period. My grandfather had a whip hanging on the wall during the Depression, and he beat his sons with it because he thought it would be good for them—and because he himself had been beaten as a teen in Poland. Because almost everybody had suffered from one cause or another (some unavoidable, some hateful) suffering was seen as the natural state of things, and structural nastiness like racial and ethnic discrimination was just one more inevitable downside of living. Once education and general higher standards of living had pushed many sorts of suffering down into the noise, those who had suffered the least (the maturing Boomer generation) set out with ideals blazing to eliminate all the structural suffering they could identify. Without maturity's sense of perspective, idealism can go wrong, and we had riots and drug parties and the sexual carnival to cope with.

On the other hand, the Sixties got people's attention, and for all the side effects we're still dealing with, the unquestioned cycle of brutality and injustice begetting brutality and injustice will never be what it was before 1950. I am a little surprised at how many times I've seen this silly question in print—usually by people who came of age before or after the Boomers. Those who came before couldn't see it, and those who came after took it for granted, but something very special happened in the 1960s: Suffering was no longer seen as the completely unavoidable consequence of being born.
May 26, 2002:
It seems a little (or more than a little) narcissistic to call attention to it, but what the hell: Delphi Informant's formidable Alan C. Moore interviewed me a couple of months ago, and the interview has now been published. Alan was great to work with, and didn't ask any stupid questions, which is a problem with interviews sometimes. ("Mr. Duntemann, how can you possibly believe in an afterlife without a shred of evidence reproducible in the laboratory by skeptical scientists?") My only quibble with the interview is that Alan (or somebody at Informant) changed my use of "SF" (for "science fiction") to "SciFi." I've never understood this (it happens a lot) unless it's to keep west coasties from thinking I'm talking about San Francisco.
May 25, 2002:

I don't scan Plastic as much as I used to. For the most part, it's become a gathering point for trolls, and I can only deal with so much of that. The bulk of the stories are now political in nature, when before there was a satisfying scattering of offbeat pointers to items in science, technology, and culture.

I spotted one today that was, however, intriguing: There is a technical name for fear of clowns. The term is coulrophobia. Now, there's a technical term for almost everything in psychology; I wouldn't doubt that there's a technical term for fear of variable stars. (See yesterday's entry.) This one taps into something significant: A lot of people are either afraid of clowns, or find the idea of clowns deeply disturbing. Steven King tapped into this fear in his pompously idiotic novel It, which I could not finish, but got far enough into to appreciate his nailing coulrophobia right to the wall with the loathsome and utterly evil clown-creature Pennywise.

King didn't invent the fear of clowns by any means. There is a whole category of weirdness involving satanic phantom clown sightings, summarized neatly in Loren Coleman's gonzo book, Mysterious America, a collection of captious reports of mysterious creatures great and small; good fun if you like that sort of thing. I don't give the events described a great deal of credence, but I will point out that kids don't much like clowns and don't generally think they're funny. Mostly, small children are terrified by grownups in funny outfits who romp around maniacally like they're completely out of control.

It's deep, nay, mythic fear, and I'll hazard a guess that beneath the psychiatric gobbledegook is the ancient fear of chaos. Clowns represent chaos, unpredictability, and disorder, and while grownups laugh at them, it's an odd, nervous sort of laughter, kind of like whistling past the graveyard. Life in general and human life in particular comprise a sort of attack on chaos via short-term reversal of entropy, so the idea of chaos cannot help but have mythic resonances within us, even if we can't explain them. Coleman states that circus clowns as we know them grew out of the devil figures in medieval morality plays, and although I've not heard that elsewhere, it's just possible enough to be true. So where did the modern idea of clowns come from? Anybody got any pointers? I went looking and didn't turn much up.
May 24, 2002:

"Antares" means "rival of Mars." Ok—what, then is the term for "rival of Antares?" Right now, Delta Scorpii. Something odd is happening in the constellation Scorpius. The star at the middle of the Scorpion's head (the farthest north of the constellations brighter stars) has doubled in brightness in the last two years, to a current high of +1.6. It now rivals Antares, which at mag +1.2 is the twelfth brightest star in the heavens. (Smaller is brighter in this system.) I saw it a few weeks ago, and I scratched my head: The constellation just looked wrong. What was that? Was Mars in Scorpius? No, that's Delta.

That's the fun part about astronomy. You never know what's going to happen. Is Delta about to blow up? Probably not. Is the new brightness permanent? We have no way to know except to watch. Scorpius is still mostly a morning constellation, but as the summer opens it will appear earlier and earlier in the night. If you've never watched the skies, it'll look like just another star...but if, like me, you've been watching with skies in wonder for forty years, you're likely to gasp. G'wan out tonight and look!
May 23, 2002:
Heading for home. Will spend tonight in Albuquerque, and then blast back to Scottsdale on Friday. We're out of clean clothes and we miss our waterbed, but egad—this place is marvelous! The scenery is beautiful, the size of the town manageable, the people were most friendly. I suspect we'll be back in the worst of the summer, but real life calls, sigh.
May 21, 2002:

One remembers odd things about places one visits, and the odd thing I'll always remember about Colorado Springs are the moths and the kamikaze birds. In every hotel room we've had here, there are, well, these moths. Moths have flown into my hair just walking down the street. They were in a beautiful custom home we looked through. They were flying around inside significant restaurants. I don't know what kind of moths they are; they're very generically moth-y, brown and about the size of the moths that you have to dump out of your bathroom light fixture every couple of years to keep it from casting weird shadows on the wall. Whatever kind of moths they are, they are about as far from an endangered species as it's possible to be.

But what really made these otherwise undistinguished moths unforgettable were the birds that pursue them. Every time we stopped at a red light, there were these small birds doing some of the most amazing aerobatics right in the middle of the intersection, dodging moving cars (some moving very quickly) in pursuit of the previously described moths. They move so fast we can't quite tell what kind of birds they are. Carol thinks they're swifts, and if they are, well, it fits. They're also highly maneauverable; one chased a moth to within a few inches of my 4Runner's windshield, and for a second and change I thought the car would be wearing it. Oddly, we see the most birds at intersections, even after searching for them up and down Academy Avenue, one of Colorado Springs' main drags. The birds are clearly feasting on the moths, and the moths seem to like traffic intersections. There are ecological dynamics here that I doubt have ever been fully explained—or even noticed by anybody who matters. We're looking forward to coming back in a few months to see if the moths are still here—or if those birds have gorged themselves until they're too fat to fly.
May 19, 2002:

Back in Colorado Springs for a few days, before we bid farewell to cool temps and head back to the Scottsdale griddle. (It was 104 there the other day.) On the backswing we got a room at a brand new Holiday Inn near the Colorado Springs airport. It's remarkable in two ways as hotel rooms go: It has bright light bulbs in the desk lamps—and even a floor lamp to read by!—and a broadband connection right at the desk, at no extra charge! This is amazing, and it seems to be a trend. The nice people at the front desk found us a room at an Albuquerque Holiday Inn with a broadband port in the room for when we head back home in a few days.

The link is a Category 5 jack in the wall over the desk, and all you need to connect is a laptop and a Cat5 patch cable. I had to go down to OfficeMax to get one, but it becomes a standard part of my travel kit now. There was no software to install. I plugged in the cable, booted the ThinkPad, and Win2K found the network all by itself. You have to be set for DHCP and WINS resolution must be enabled, but that's my ordinary setup at home. This link isn't as fast as the link at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort (see my entry for May 12, 2002) but it's more than fast enough for email and casual Web surfing. DSLReports gave me 250 Kbps down, 39 Kbps up just now, which is a little slower than when I tested it late at night. I would guess it's a shared link (heh!) but it didn't cost anything extra and it just worked.
May 15, 2002:
Reader Glen Gieske solved the mystery of the electric railroad out in the middle of dust-blown Indian country in northeastern Arizona. (See my entry for May 9, 2002.) The railroad we saw was the Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad, a 78-mile short line that has no connection to any other railroad from the outside world. It was created solely and specifically to haul coal from the Black Mesa coal mine to the Navaho Nation's electric generating station at Page. The power plant powers the railroad, obviating the need to truck in megaquantities of diesel fuel to a very isolated part of the country. For a nice writeup of the railroad, with pictures, see this site. Electric locomotives are not common in the US anymore, and the BM & LP bought its locos from Mexico. They were the first in the country to use 50,000 volt power, which makes for highly efficient use of electricity (less I2R loss, as you EEs know well) but sheesh, don't fly your kite next to that catenary!
May 14, 2002:

Carol and I worked our way north from Colorado Springs today heading for Denver, and took a short detour through Black Forest, Colorado, which is a small town set in the midst of a huge stand of ponderosa pine trees. It's becoming a very fashionable and expensive place to live, and we stood in awe of some of the log mansions they are throwing up over there.

There is something a little bit odd about mature ponderosa pines that is worth mentioning: The orange bark, where exposed (often where animals rub or chew it) smells not of pine but of butterscotch. You may not be anywhere near a ponderosa pine in the near future, but if you ever find yourself beside a big thick one with orange bark, put your nose up to it and inhale. It's the guldurndest thing.

I'll be busy at the Catholic Convergence 2002 conference in Denver for a couple of days, and won't bore you all with the details. (You've probably heard me blather quite enough about the Old Catholic movement here.) We're going back to Colorado Springs on Saturday, and will spend a couple more days there before heading home.
May 13, 2002:

After getting a good night sleep (and catching up on an enormous pile of email, thanks to the resort's marvelous wireless Internet access system; see yesterday's entry) we got down to some serious touristing and went up Pike's Peak on the famous Manitou and Pike's Peak Cog Railway. Shown at left is the two-car train parked at the Peak.

The Cog Railway is over 100 years old, which is remarkable enough: The thought of putting a railroad right up the side of one of the continent's most significant mountains is intimidating enough even today. In the 1890's they used these very odd "sloper" steam locos (photo below; this one still works and runs up the mountain every so often!) which were built at the average angle the railway used up the mountain (somewhat surprisingly, only about 20%) to keep the water in the boiler more or less level as the loco sat on the track.

A "cog railway" if you're not familiar with the term, is a mechanism used to overcome slipping on the rails for track that runs at very steep grades. There is literally a toothed linear gear (a rack) running down the middle of the entire length of track, and beneath the locomotives (the modern cars are self-driven) is a matching rotary gear (the cog) that meshes with the linear gear. Turn the cog via steam power (or today, electricity generated by a diesel engine) and the loco moves up the hill, reliably and without slipping. It's very smooth, and the ride was comfortable if not especially fast, and the scenery breathtaking. The summit was 40° colder than the balmy 70° at the mountain's base in Manitou Springs, and we were knee-deep in snow, whipped by intermittent but very strong winds.

Carol took the opportunity to make her first snowball in a good long while, and probably the highest one (at 14,100 feet above sea level) that she will ever make. Although it looks from the photo at left that there is a lot of snow lying around, there should actually have been several feet of snow at the summit this time of year, and the scant snowcover there is indicative of the serious drought being suffered by most states in the West, even as the lower midwest is fit to drown in torrential spring rains. Much of Colorado Springs' muinicipal water supply comes from snowmelt off the Front Range, so people here are understandably worried about the coming summer. We got a little rain in the evening, and more is forecast, but the outlook remains dry. We're off to Denver tomorrow for Catholic Convergence 2002, an Old Catholic conference hosted by the American Old Catholic Church. I don't know precisely where I'll connect to while we're in Denver, so my postings may be sparse for a few more days, but hang in there. I'll be back.
May 12, 2002:

Went over the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass and made our way east of the Front Range and north to Colorado Springs. The mountains were awesome, though their lack of snowcover at the highest altitudes (over 14,000 feet) was troubling. When we stopped for lunch at Durango yesterday, a young man told us that there has been only 20% of typical snowfall in the Colorado Rockies this past winter, which has taken river and reservoir levels way down. On the other hand, by the time we got to Pueblo, it was raining lightly but steadily, and although I hate driving in rain (and we came here to see Pike's Peak, sigh) I can't begrudge the locals the water they desperately need.

Here in Colorado Springs we're staying at a terrific place: Cheyenne Mountain Resort, just southeast of the city at the foot of legendary Cheyenne Mountain, where NORAD has its famous hidey hole. Apart from being beautiful and relatively cheap on the weekends (we got a gorgeous room for $89/night) they rent Lucent Orinoco wireless PC cards to guests for $10/day. Through the cards you get wireless access to their broadband connection to the Net. DSLReports calls it 1425 Mbps downlink and 1433 uplink, so it's T-1 class and symmetrical. I'm sitting in my room nuking spam and writing this entry on my laptop. No wires, and $10/day for T-1 broadband? Cheap! I had thought of looking for an Internet cafe, but this turned out to be a whole lot better. Highly recommended.
May 11, 2002:

They have a Galloping Goose here! Parked in front of the Dolores Public Library is Goose #5, of the seven originally made during the Depression to act as interurban public transportation for the little towns along the Rio Grande & Southern RR. A Galloping Goose is one of the guldurndest railroad lashups in history. An enterprising company transplanted a gutsy Pierce Arrow engine into the front of a passenger bus, hung an extension on the end for additional cargo space (primarily for the US Mail) and then put the whole shebang on narrow gauge railroad wheels. They ran from about 1930 to 1950, with suspension so bad you better have had your teeth glued in well or you'd lose 'em.

Another point worth making about Dolores is that, as far as we've seen (and this town is so small I suspect we've seen all of it, some of it more than once) is that there is not a single national franchise business here. Not one. No Applebee's, no Denny's, no Home Depot, no Burger King, no Marshall's, no Target, no WalMart. Everything is local, and I am surprised at how odd and legendary that makes the place seem.
May 10, 2002:

In Dolores, Colorado; a little town ten miles NNW of Cortez, which is a slightly (only slightly) larger town about 25 miles NW of Four Corners and due west of Durango. It's been around for quite awhile; some of the historic buildings we walked past were built in the late 1880s. In a fashion quite similar to Roseville, California (see my entry for April 9, 2001) Dolores consists of many old and slightly funky 1920s houses, some in better shape than others but all of them occupied and many of them strikingly elegant. A lot of the people who live here work all the way in Telluride, a ski slum waythehell up in the mountains, where the rich people have inflated housing prices to the point that the waiters and convenience store clerks haven't the least chance to actually live there. There's a cool sort of Sixties hippie funkiness about the whole town, and Carol and I spent some time walking up and down the gravel residential streets, leaning over the rickety picket fences to scratch the dogs and listening to the (much abated) breeze stirring the wind chimes people had hung beside their front doors.

Our hotel is right across the street from a little Catholic Church built in 1901. Cute as bug with a bell tower containing a real live church bell, (when was the last time you heard a church bell, folks?) to my eyes it looks like a Catholic church ought to look, not like the damfool sacred warehouses we see more and more these days. The Roman Catholic priest shortage has struck hard here; the parish shares a priest with three other small towns, and Dolores is the smallest among them, so mass is on Saturday night, and the church is locked and empty on Sunday morning. It used to be a mortal sin not to go to mass on Sunday; now, John Paul II's intrasigence makes it impossible for Catholics here to go to mass on Sunday at all. There's a Baptist church right across the street with services on Sunday morning, and I wouldn't blame them if local Catholics defected. Wouldn't it be easier just to let women and married men be priests too? Or must we destroy the Church in order to preserve these (highly dubious) traditions?
May 9, 2002: said "high winds" throughout this area, but what they should have said was "dust." For we've been driving through dust all day, dust and more dust, dust flowing across the road in shades of red and tan and drifting against the curbs like snow that doesn't melt. The wind out there must be forty MPH, and even my relatively massive 4Runner is getting tossed around the roads. Had lunch at a McDonald's in Tuba City, Arizona in the midst of a screaming dust storm, and clearly the locals do this a lot, because they just kept on keeping on as though it were as clear as sky blue water. One guy stood outside eating a Big Mac in the blinding dust—he's definitely getting his minerals today, if not necessarily his vitamins. May make it to Cortez if not Dolores. We'll see.

One peculiar thing we did see today was a run of railroad tracks that paralleled US 160 for about fifteen miles near Cow Springs, Arizona (boy, what could Gary Larson do with that?) that had catenary run above it. That means it was built for electric locomotives. The track was fairly new, and extremely well maintained over concrete sleepers. It looked, in fact, like the track they use in France for the TGV bullet trains. But Cow Springs is farther from the bright center of the galaxy than even Tatooine—what the hell was that track built for? We hoped against hope for a train while we paralleled it, but no luck. Does anybody have any clue?
May 8, 2002:
We're off tomorrow on a freeform road trip adventure, up through Northern Arizona to Four Corners, then east through southern Colorado, to spend a little time poking around Colorado Springs, and finally to attend the Catholic Convergence conference in Denver next Wednesday. I'm not sure entirely where we're going to stop nor what we'll look at. I'm interested in visiting the little town of Dolores, and later on, Pogosa Springs—have never dunked my butt in a natural hot springs, and this might well be my chance. I'll record my thoughts as I go, but unless I can find an Internet cafe somewhere that'll rent me a connection for an hour, it's unclear how quickly any of this stuff is going to be posted. Stand by.
May 6, 2002:

While cleaning out my wallet this morning, I found a lot of very peculiar stuff packed into its farther corners. Typical is this "take a number" ticket from the Barnelli's hot dog place on Dempster in Niles, Illinois, where Carol and I eat a lot when we're there. I ordered my usual, handed the girl a ten, and she handed me change along with a ticket that said, "Boo!" Their prices aren't all that scary, so I must have just gotten lucky and pulled the first ticket on the "B" roll. Too bad it wasn't Halloween.

I also looked in the "secret compartment" for the first time in a very long time, and found several wheat pennies that had been there so long the sulfur in the leather had turned them green. Keeping the pennies company was an old twenty—funny how odd they look now, doubly funny for how recently the new ones shoved them aside. So...what's the weirdest thing in your wallet?
May 5, 2002:

The biological weapons that most people are currently talking about are not the ones that worry me. I'm not being facetious in saying that weapons that kill have a drawback: Death attracts attention. People notice quickly when other people keel over. Causes and effects happen quickly enough to be apparent, and retaliation is at least possible. Even if you had a long-latency killer like AIDS, the effects would be horrific enough to cause the injured nation of group to do the sleuthing it takes to find the attacker and strike back. And as the history of natural plagues have shown us, the natural human birthrate replaces dead people relatively quickly.

Now, what if a bioweapon didn't kill, or even cause significant illness? Supposed all it did was sterilize?

I remember this whole nightmare bubbling up in the back of my head years ago, when I contemplated that all of humanity must pass through a pair of two-millimeter tubes inside a woman's body. Block those tubes—and humanity is history.

A sterilizer weapon that quietly blocked the Fallopian tubes—say, by causing scarring along the interior of the tubes—would be different from a death weapon in a number of ways:

  1. Sterility doesn't attract anything like the attention death or disease do. Just noticing that a sterility plague is abroad would take awhile—probably not less than nine months, until birth rate figures actually become affected.
  2. Reducing birth rates has an exponential effect on future populations. It's the un-gift that keeps on un-giving. If the weapon cannot be eradicated in a relatively few years, it could cause a radical reduction in human populations.
  3. Reversing sterility is a difficult and expensive business, as those women who have had second thoughts about tubal ligations have learned. Even if you cure people of the microorganism, the damage is done and would be hard to undo.
  4. The cultural nature of sexual interaction makes it possible to do some crude demographic targeting by making the weapon an STD.

The bitchy part is, nature offers bioterrorists an organism that's already halfway there: Chlamydia. It has fairly mild symptoms that sometimes mimic other conditions, like abdominal flu or food poisoning. Women, in particular, can contract the disease and not even know they have it. It is known to cause scarring in the fallopian tubes and the epididymis, the tubes in men that carry sperm from the testes.

Turning Clamydia into a weapon would, paradoxically, require making it a kinder, gentler disease, one that confined its affects almost entirely to the fallopian tubes. It's already highly contagious right out of the box. Not much else would need to be done to it. If it got around broadly (supposedly we see four million new cases a year) and never called much attention to itself, its damage would be done long before victims sought treatment. It wouldn't even need to be antibiotic resistant, though that would give it some extra time to work and isn't difficult to accomplish in the laboratory. Its genome is already being sequenced at UC Berkeley.

Once discovered, we'd have less than forty years to develop a lasting vaccine and vaccinate all humanity. Chlamydia vaccines have been attempted, but the peculiarities of the organism make it a difficult subject, and not all scientists are convinced a vaccine would be effective over the long term—and if the persons responsible for modifying the organism kept releasing novel strains into the wild, even effective vaccines wouldn't be enough.

Anyway. That's the sort of bioterrorism that worries me, and the more we learn about nanotech, the easier it will be to do this. (Bacteria and viruses, after all, are naturally occurred nanomachines.) Should I stop worrying? Probably. Will I? Probably not. But I'll stop talking about it before we all get depressed.
May 4, 2002:

One of the things I learned in reading Madeline Drexler's book Secret Agents (see my May 2, 2002 entry) is that we are furiously sequencing the genomes of disease pathogens in order to figure out ways to counteract them. We're learning a great deal about how viruses and bacteria hurt us and how they avoid the body's defenses, which on the balance is a very good thing. I can't help but be a little nervous about taking it the other way: Producing pathogens "to order" as weapons that can be targeted against a specific enemy.

Drexler (and many others) have wondered why biological warfare hasn't yet been waged in any large way. That's no mystery to me: Bacteria do not recognize national borders or citizenship, and turning loose a plague can backfire and wipe out the attacker as well as the attacked.

So...what if pathogens could be designed to narrowly target specific demographic groups? Citizenship and geography (the identifying traits in conventional warfare) would be difficult to target, but behavior and (perhaps) genetic cues would be much easier. Such demographic targeting might be especially attractive today, as a new species of tribalism is abroad, encouraging us to think of ourselves as Blacks, Christians, gays, or retirees before we think of ourselves as human or even as Americans or Canadians or Russians. American politics, once almost entirely (and fiercely) regional, has become more or less tribal, as demographic groups like the ones I mentioned (along with hundreds of others) battle over legal privilege, subsidies, discrimination, and so on. Back when AIDS was still a poorly understood emerging infection, rumors were rife in the Black and gay communities that the disease was a designer bug that had been concocted specifically to infect and kill them. This wasn't the case, obviously, but will the day come when such things are possible?

Count on it. We are learning a great deal about why some bacteria attack one type of tissue and not others, and how antibiotic resistance develops. Breeding custom bacteria is made easier by the fact that the organisms mature and reproduce in minutes rather than months or years, so the crude sort of hack-and-try genetic engineering (which is all we're capable of right now) can actually produce results in months rather than decades. Furthermore, bacteria have only a few moving parts. There's less to understand and get wrong than there would be, for example, in breeding designer dogs or custom cattle. Malformed legs and miswired nervous systems are not an issue in organisms lacking legs and nervous systems.

I guess I worry too much, about that and other things, but about that quite a bit. More on this tomorrow.
May 3, 2002:
I honestly don't know why I'm laughing so hard at the Web site I just stumbled across. Maybe it's because I came up in personal computing from back when computers could barely turn over (my first had a clock speed of 1 Mhz) but maybe because it's such a completely and sublimely gonzo thing to do. I'll say no more, other than to say it's about drawing things with ASCII characters. Go see for yourself.
May 2, 2002:

To gauge the dangers of nanotechnology, I think it's useful to study the nanomachines that nature has already developed, particularly viruses and bacteria. One of the best recent books in this area is Madeline Drexler's Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections. The book isn't about microbes or even infections per se, but about how microbes change their vectors and biochemical tactics, with sometimes devastating effects.

Some of those changes are mysterious, but some are direct consequences of human activity. Most people understand that overuse of antibiotics have bred bacteria resistent to them. Fewer understand that such bacteria are doubly dangerous because they're kept in check to some extent by "friendly" bacteria in the body, particularly in the digestive tract. When you take the stronger doses of antibiotics often prescribed these days, friendly bacteria die off, allowing the antibiotic-hardened bugs to run rampant in the body.

Nonobvious insights like these are the real value in this book, but the vivid journalistic description of the West Nile Virus epidemic in the New York City area in 2000 was as engaging as it was chilling. Ditto the explanation of why flu is dangerous, where it comes from, and how little we understand the dynamics that allowed the misnamed "Spanish Flu" to kill one percent of the entire human race in the 1918 flu pandemic.

Also sobering was the chapter on bacterial food poisoning. I've never been much for raw food, and am lukewarm at best on sprouts—now, never again! Drexler explains why alfalfa sproutsare about as dangerous as any raw food you can eat: Because the salmonella organisms are present in crevasses in alfalfa seeds, they migrate inside the sprout tissue as the sprout grows, from which they obviously cannot be washed off. Because of the way hamburger beef is processed, one infected side of beef can infect hundreds of tons of burger, which is then shipped to all corners of the country and beyond.

We don't do everything we could, sometimes for appallingly stupid reasons. Unpasteurized fruit juice reliably kills several children every year, yet irradiation, which kills microorganisms without heating and thus changing the chemistry of the juice, has been so demonized by the junk science crowd that juice packagers don't use it, even though there's more radiation coming from the natural potassium-40 in the human body than from irradiated juice. So junk science wins out—and children continue to die. We continue to allow use of low-level doses of antibiotics in cattle feed as a growth stimulant, even though such use has predictably bred resistant forms of salmonella and its cousins. Political turf wars between government agencies regulating food production and political pressure from farm and food industry lobbyists have also hampered efforts to reduce food-borne infections.

The chapter on bioterrorism was less interesting to me because I'd read most of it elsewhere, but like everything in the book it is well-written and comprehensible to people (like me) without much background in biology or medicine. The book's one major flaw is shared by many recent popular treatments of various subjects: The author does not footnote individual sources in the text, so it's tough to connect textual citations to the works cited in the end-of-the-book bibliography. (Vicars of Christ is another recent book that irritated me that way; see my entry for March 3, 2002.) Still, it's an engaging read and a terrific overview of what we currently understand about the ways that infections travel, change tactics, and kill us. Highly recommended.
May 1, 2002:

A friend sent me a pointer to a site that pleads for us to create nanomachine replicators so that we can move all manufacturing to the Moon and thus save the Earth by not using Earthside minerals or energy anymore. The author envisions Moon-launched cargo pods landing in the ocean, carrying tools, toys, food, and anything else we might need. Only in this way, he says, can we save the Earth.

I wonder.

I've studied nanotech for a number of years now, and worked it heavily into my (still unpublished) novel The Cunning Blood. The notion that nanoassemblers could create endless perfect replicas of an initial artifact or artifact design is not new and certainly not new with me, and whether or not it's even possible (I'm far from sure myself) hardly anybody seems to think much about what it would mean to human society. What it would mean, of course, is that about four fifths of humanity (generously) would become completely idle—and that would be serious trouble.

The idea of nanoreplicators itself is attractive. Here's a scene from The Cunning Blood in which character Jamie Eigen takes a shortcut through the Neverending Factory:

The messenger who had come to fetch him paused at the door to a large cinder block building and waved him through. Shortcut. Jamie and the other man walked briskly between rows of corrugated sheet-iron tanks, with gloved and aproned men swarming around them. Each tank was a never-ending something—pipe fitting, girder, length of ventilation duct, mercury vapor lamp, floor tile, or any number of other things. The men watched dials and gauges beside the tanks, and adjusted the automated hoppers that fed tiny spheres of raw materials into the bubbling water where the magic happened. To an outsider, it was magic in the purest sense: In a tank, the dirty-looking water bubbled, then stopped bubbling. A man reached into the steaming tank and removed an object. The water bubbled for a few seconds and stopped. The man reached in and removed an identical object, and the bubbling began again. Another man stacked the objects that came out of the tanks on little trucks, to be carted off to warehouses and construction projects. The smaller tanks were bled of waste heat by fans; the larger ones with cooling coils and heat exchangers. The building was always sweltering inside—but the men who worked there sounded very smug about the brilliance of it all.

Jamie granted the system a certain disarming elegance. A few kilometers outside of town he had seen a five-hectare concrete pond of dirty water that bubbled and steamed continuously. At one end, a zero-point generator in a bunker fed electricity into the water. Into the other end a continuous procession of trucks dumped crushed rock, soil, dead vegetation, and the entire town’s production of trash and salvage. (That night, he suspected that Marv the Mason’s ravaged body would slide into the pond as well.) Something in the water, something related to the something that was in the never-ending iron troughs, dismantled whatever was dumped into the pond into its component molecules, and gathered like materials together. Periodically, a gantry scoop erected over the pond dipped into the water and removed tons of small spherical nodules, each of which was a chemical element or useful compound. The nodules produced by the pond were composition-coded by diameter, and were sorted from one another by a system of graduated screens. Simple mechanical gadgetry fed the nodules into the galvanized iron tanks as the gauges indicated they were needed. Skilled labor was not required.

And this was in a borderline interstellar colony only a couple of years from inception. Refine the concept a little further and nobody would be in the Neverending Factory at all. Whether or not such a system would be erected on the Moon (which I think is mostly absurd) the larger question looms: What would the billions of people who partake of all the Free Stuff from the Moon (now there's a book title!) actually do with their time? How would they expend their energies? How would they see themselves fitting into human society?

If I have a great fear associated with genetic engineering, it is for the notion of demographic warfare, in which warring groups would use genetically engineered microorganisms to either kill or (worse) sterilize other groups. (I'll take up the question of why sterilization would be worse in a future entry.) If the group that controls nanotechnology suddenly discovers that everybody else living on Earth is simply a nuisance, the resulting battles would reduce humanity by nine tenths, making Earth a sort of nature park for the ruling aristocracy. Peasants are only required to do the heavy lifting for the aristocracy; if your nanomachines make everything you need, the peasants become an unnecessary burden who must be fed and housed and guarded against. There are many SF novels here that would be too depressing to write, but the possibility still haunts me.