07 November 1994

The Curse of the Blind Chihuahua

The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua™ (VCBC), having no authority, power, or even existence beyond the virtual, reserves the right to curse those whom it deems necessary to punish for their bad behavior. Among these are abusers of religion, people, animals, and our environment, both real and virtual. As examples we curse terrorists, dictators, animal neglectors, litterbugs, malicious hackers, and spammers.

Our curse relies on the miracle of transubstantiation. As the Catholic Church asks God to change the spiritual "substance" of the Communion bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so do we beseech God to inflict a less palatable miracle of transubstantiation on those whom we curse. Let the last three drops of every swallow of liquid they drink be transubstantiated into the urine of the Blind Chihuahua for as long as they live, or until they repent.


Some examples of those accursed:
  • Usama Bin Laden - for killing thousands in the name of his bastardization of Islam, and for convincing others to do likewise
  • Kim Jong Il - for making nuclear weapons and missiles the only viable economic activities in North Korea
  • Robert Mugabe - for starving Zimbabwe in the name of his personal amalgamation of Communism and Racism
  • Clerics who teach that democracy and/or science is incompatible with their religion - for loving power and control more than truth
  • Clerics who abuse their laity, whether physically, sexually, emotionally, or intellectually - for trading their relation to the Divine to do the work of its opposite
  • Laity who abuse their clergy without just cause - for punishing a clerics who don't meet the demands of their dark side
  • Anyone who persecutes people because of their ethnicity or religion - for dumbing down the definition of a human person to mean someone like themselves
  • Faith-based organizations who lend aid and comfort to those attempting the destruction of other faith-based organizations, such as the World Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).

06 November 1994

A Farewell to Arms Research

The beginning of the end of the National Laboratories?

Revised 1995 
As of 2007 Bell Labs is really most sincerely dead, the remaining employees (of what was once more than 20,000) belonging to Alcatel/Lucent, a French company. The name Bell Laboratories is retained as a marketing fiction.

And now, the National Laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Argonne, Brookhaven, etc.), have been privatized by an act of Congress. "We will make sure that this will not hurt these Jewels in the Crown of American R&D," say members of Congress, the DOE, and their staffs. Well, been there, heard that. It's bullshit. It's what they used to say about Bell Labs when they broke up AT&T. Which was swallowed and used to re-brand SBC, formerly known as Southwestern Bell.
If the National Laboratories helped win the Cold War, then where's our parade? — David Dearborn, 1992

The Republic has no use for scientists. — slogan at Antoine Lavoisier's trial in revolutionary Paris, 1794


The Jewel in the Crown

Bell Telephone Laboratories is dead. The Phoenix risen from its ashes is called AT&T Bell Laboratories, a new name for a new corporate culture distinguished by the short leash that now holds research in check. You see, research costs money, which is scarce now that AT&T is no longer a regulated monopoly with a guaranteed income from the "rate base," a term that indirectly meant you and me. So the management works harder to pick possible winners early on -- which means that it is better to do nothing than to do something that might be useless, which in turn means that most Bell Labs people don't do research anymore.

Moreover, Bell Labs isn't even managed by Bell Labs managers. Just two levels up from the working troops, or "Members of Technical Staff," the managers are listed as AT&T Network Operations or as Lucent Technologies. The top echelon of the Labs are essentially like old switching equipment that is too expensive to move when new equipment is installed — they are RIP, or "retired in place." But whether retired or active, all AT&T-BL managers embrace the new commandment: "Thou shalt have no other goals before the bottom line."

It was inevitable once the company was divested of its local telephone business. The changes make good business sense, and almost everyone at the Labs will tell you that what is happening there now is better than the chaos of the years just after 1984, when the break-up took place.
The problem is that the new Bell Labs now rarely tries the long shots, the revolutionary ideas that sometimes create whole new industries, because they are too great a short-term business risk. What was once described as one of the Crown Jewels of American Research has become just another industrial R&D lab. Which means emphasis on D — Development, and a back seat for Research. It's fine, really. It's just that everyone involved, including the government and AT&T senior management, said it wouldn't happen.

They were wrong. And the government is about to be wrong again. The government thinks that defense conversion in the form of small, short term projects won't hurt research at the National Laboratories.


The Hand that Rocks the CRADA

The Bell Labs conversion is part of a wholesale flight of American Industry from long term research that has been brought to you by changed economic conditions interacting with securities regulations favoring short term business strategy. We live in the "do it now" culture of immediacy. This originally business culture has pervaded government as well. Congress will "do it now" provided it is politically popular, as is defense conversion.

Now defense conversion of the National Laboratories is currently more like defense destruction, because they are told to "do it now" in the form of relatively small budget, short term Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which paradoxically, the DOE seems to take forever to approve. A CRADA is a partnership between a private corporation and a National Laboratory in which the corporation and the DOE each put up half the money to pay for some quick D -- development, which results in a few months to a year or two, in some product or process for sale by the corporation.

The destruction comes about because the powers that be can delude themselves into thinking that CRADAs are a substitute for the long-term, stable, mission-oriented research that the National Labs do best. Each CRADA harvests the fruit of decades of research, without providing for planting and raising the next crop of ideas. In other words, if CRADAs become a major mission of the National Laboratories, they will be taken over by the culture of immediacy, of short term projects with a quick payoff, to the detriment of their present corporate culture that enables them to take on long-term, high-risk/high-reward, large-scale research on problems of national or global importance.
But then, there are no such problems, and big science is bad, right? Well, there's a lot of big science behind your telephone, behind the pharmaceuticals you take, behind attempts to cure AIDS and various genetic disorders. And behind all those CRADAs that will help our industry be a little more competitive, to the extent that competitiveness is a function of R&D rather than managerial competence.

To keep big science going at the National Laboratories, all it takes is a small set of clear missions, and some stable funding, which has to come, like it or not, from us taxpayers. What missions? I nominate human genome research, global change research, the old standby of defense research (including nuclear weapons research, unless you want America to get caught with its pants down some day), and real industrial research. Of course, that last one will require something our leadership fears to define — a national industrial research policy. Without such missions and such policy, the hand that rocks the CRADA may rule the laboratory. And that hand has no eye for the long term.


The Koehler Method of TQM

"Oooooof!" On wet grass at either end of a leash lay my wife and our Great Dane. You see, the Koehler Method1 of teaching your dog to pay attention to you is to put it on a long leash and just go. When the dog runs in a direction other than the one you're going, it gets yanked off its feet. Of course, if the grass is slippery, you take a fall, too. To a dog, this is leadership.
It's also the way our government sometimes leads the National Laboratories. Rather than engage in substantive discussion with the labs over missions and priorities, they just jerk the funding/regulatory leash. The current rules earmarking nuclear testing (if we ever test again at all) for only safety and security comprise one example. The endless inspections of minute details of lab procedures are another — as of this writing, inspectors are planning to check (among other things) that the word "SECRET" stamped on so many of our documents is exactly the correct size. And now we are being asked to re-invent ourselves.

Total Quality Management (TQM) is coming to the United States' last bastions of long-term, large-scale, mission-oriented research. It could be marvellous. But if it is abused, there will be performance measures for everything, each one giving ignorant bureaucrats the illusion that they can manage what they do not understand. As one wag remarked, "TQM is the revenge of the 'C' students."
The upshot of this is that employees who maximize the measures of their performance may often fare better than the ones who do good science. Those who comply with the leash may dominate those who try to figure out which way to go. That's fine for dogs, who know less than their masters, but sometimes scientists really do have something to say about how to do science. Though the TQM slogan, "the customer defines quality," is tautological in the short term, it could be disastrous in the long term if the customer (the DOE), through willful ignorance and blind distrust, gets out of touch with reality.


Favorite Sins

I heard an anecdote once about a Russian couple who, tired of city life, moved to a rural area just outside Moscow and bought a goat, which got poisoned soon afterward. Their neighbors had chickens, rabbits, and ducks, but no goats. Such an obvious sign of extraordinary wealth was not to be tolerated, because it made everyone else look bad. Besides, who did these transplanted city-dwellers think they were?

In the same vein, Russian entrepreneurs get their businesses raided and subjected to harrassment by the KGB. There was even a television news story recently about an independent farmer who, with twenty or so employees, out-produced a nearby collective farm with a staff of 2000. The collective farmers, who were on the town council, simply revoked his lease on the land and put him out of business.

The common theme in these examples is Russia's apparently favorite cultural sin -- envy. Rather than to create wealth, they just make sure that no one gets more than anybody else. It's no wonder that Communism took root so easily there. Now Russia is a poor country, and will remain so until its people pass beyond Envy — perhaps to our favorite cultural sin of greed.

On the other hand, we're more envious and less greedy than many of us would like to think. We have a business culture in which competetive strategy sometimes means screwing our opposition rather than doing a better job. Hence the occasional flurry of lawsuits, frivolous and otherwise, over restraint of trade. One can even imagine a company suing to prevent another from entering into a CRADA with a National Laboratory. The plaintiff isn't seeking to be included in the enterprise, just to keep the competition from participating.

As the saying goes, there ought to be a law against that sort of thing. You see, CRADAs are a poor way to sustain long term research, but they're a great way of capitalizing on it. As such, they should be protected.

And so should the scientists and engineers working on them. God help the National Laboratory scientist/engineer with enough entrepreneurial spirit to turn a CRADA or an invention into a business. Though we are trying to help our nation create jobs, we are not allowed to profit personally from our researches. This encourages the entrepreneurial researchers to take jobs elsewhere, which hampers the National Laboratories' efforts to help entrepreneurs.

So my current vision of a National Laboratory flanked by tens of small and large businesses founded by former Laboratory researchers, who still maintain close ties to the Laboratory, is currently illegal. As we re-invent our government, maybe we can fix that.


Paradigms Lost

Gathering the various threads at this point, we see that the National Laboratories are being jerked around by short-term thinking, without clear long-term national policy to guide them, or a even legal foundation encouraging them to respond well to the short-term pressures. Add to that declining budgets, which, in the absence of a clear mission, will incite turf-battles among the managers in which skill at self-promotion and compliance to the leash-holders will determine success, rather than the scientific merit. What we have here is a recipe for organizational decline.

Now the end of the Cold War was a very big thing, but by itself, not big enough to do all this. There's something else going on. It's all over the back pages of Physics Today , where the job listings are. Or rather were. Judging by the scarcity of "permanent" positions advertised, now is the worst time in this century to be a physicist.

It's not because our culture is obtuse, buying into the idea promulgated by otherwise well-educated people, such as Vaclav Havel, that science is immoral. It's not even because the public has replaced the undeserved faith it once had in science with an equally undeserved skepticism. It's because the paradigms that have sustained twentieth century physics may be, in a strictly technological sense, played out.

Take classical electromagnetism, for example. Radio, radar, telephony, satellite communications, fiber optics, etc., have already been invented and well studied. The consequences of classical electromagnetic theory are well explored. Further advances in the technology require engineering rather than physics.

The same can be said for classical mechanics, despite the recent breakthrough in our understanding of complex systems represented by chaos theory. Basically, we know how to build machines and fly rockets. Case closed.

Special relativity and quantum mechanics gave us nuclear weapons and some interesting accelerator-based cancer treatments, but again further technological advances in those areas no longer require theorists.

Areas do lie waiting to be explored in quantum field theory, such as superconductivity, but that is more a matter for the alchemist-like experimental approach of materials science. And the real frontiers, Grand Unified Theories (GUTs), superstrings, and the like, lie far beyond our present technology to explore.

So that's it. Twentieth century physics, for good and ill, has delivered on most of its promises. Physics as we know it probably has no more wonderful or terrible technological implications, beyond what it's already given us. The remaining triumphs will be small for the next decade or two, like scanning-tunnelling and surface-force microscopy -- applications of physics that make it possible for other sciences to advance. And though the big breakthrough into the next paradigm may be only a few well-thought ideas away (some of which I may have sketched elsewhere), none of us can quite imagine it now.

Is it unreasonable to expect, then, that our corporate and national investments would shift from the physical to the biological sciences, where the paradigms are fresh, the promises great, and the technology ripe to explore them? Is it such a bad thing that people just want to live better, longer, and more cheaply? The shift in investment is hard on physical scientists like me, but ultimately I have to applaud it. I want to live better, too. I just want people to remember that many of the tools used by the life scientists were invented by physical scientists, and that we need to maintian some level of investment in the physical sciences if we want better tools to keep coming.


Another Physicist on Madison Avenue

So the lab is on a short leash, defense budgets are declining, the general economy is in a rut, and the economy for physicists is unlikely to recover in my professional lifetime. Retirement is beyond my planning horizon, and my literary agent tells me to keep my day job. Well, it's no use waiting around to see if the axe will actually fall. It's time to consider how to sell my time again, to whom, and for what purpose.

I could use my work in fluid turbulence as a lever to pry my way into the global climate research group, and remain halfway in the weapons program -- global climate modeling is being partly funded as a way to diversify weapons research into more peaceful "dual-use" activities.2 But that bubble could burst if the improved simulations throw cold water on the global warming hypothesis, or if the movement to consolidate government-funded research gathers too much steam. I could try to work my way further into the Inertial Confinement Fusion program, but its future looks uncertain to me, too.3 I could continue studying nuclear explosives in hope of becoming tenured as a person vital to our national defense. But for my generation such tenure may be reserved only for those who have tested their own nuclear explosive designs — in a severe budget crunch the more theoretical nuclear weapons physicists like me would have to be considered expendable.4 Moreover, that tenure will exist only as long as the American people want it to. Even though there are good arguments for maintaining a state-of-the-art thermonuclear weapons design capability at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (some of which are presented elsewhere5), there are no guarantees.

So, maybe it's time to work the other side of the same street (or if the human propensity for war can be compared to a large carnivore, to switch teats of the tiger). Instead of contributing to nuclear deterrence, I think I'll try counter-proliferation. The Saddam Husseins of this world are doing their best to make it a growing business. Which for me means farewell again, theoretical physics. The weapons program still needs it, but it will be the first to go if funding gets much tighter. Hello again, systems engineering. I just hope the johns are as good to work for.6

Now my departure represents a small loss to the weapons program, because it has other physicists who could take up my work where I'm leaving it off. Unfortunately, that is less true for some others who have left the program ahead of me. While we work to make sure the former-Soviet nuclear weapons scientists have a future through such efforts as the International Science and Technology Center, we might think about making a future for our own. And for those of you who are unconcerned that the US nuclear weapons research program may be disintegrating, the words of Ghostbusters — if you wind up needing us after we've gone, "Who ya gonna call?"


  1. For more details on how to make a large organization comply to your commands, see William Koehler's, The Koehler Method of Dog Training, Macmillan, New York, 1962.
  2. The nuclear weapons design physics program is slowly diversifying into other fields in order to provide interesting and useful work for the people it needs to maintain sufficient competence in the various areas of nuclear design necessary to continue stewardship of the US nuclear weapons stockpile. As long as the US government considers that stewardship to be necessary, there will be no effort to "convert" the relatively small physics portions of the nuclear weapons program to civilian endeavors. The diversification of the physics parts of the program is proceeding slowly, because any new work must be synergistic with the program's core mission, and beause its management is as yet relatively inexperienced at the kind of business planning that such diversification requires. The much larger engineering portions of the program, which are not responsible for stockpile stewardship, are converting rapidly.
  3. For two reasons. (1) The ICF program is run on a short leash and is subject to cut-back or cancellation at any of several Key Decision Points as determined by a select panel of scientific rewiewers (the ICF Advisory Committee, or ICFAC), and/or by a budget-conscious government. I'm concerned that I could join the program only to end up like the scientists who worked until recently on the now-cancelled SSC. (2) I wonder if anyone has really worked through the engineering economics of ICF. Even if ICF can be made to work from a physics standpoint, ICF plants might have to be so big (and so costly) to be cost-effective that no electric power company could afford to build enough to take up the slack when any one plant is taken off line for maintenance. It may be more likely that ICF will be used to generate synthetic fuels rather than commercial electric power.
  4. I spent most of my "designer" days working on non-explosive parts of now-shelved concepts that were the opposite of the "neutron bomb" in that their use would have done much more harm to selected "assets" than to living things (an example of how a peaceful gesture — the current US "no new nuclear weapons" policy — might not necessarily make the world safer). Since then I have concentrated on theoretical work aimed at refining some aspects of our capability to predict thermonuclear explosive performance via computer modeling. And no, I can't build a bomb. If I could, I wouldn't be publishing this stuff.
  5. See "Obscenity and Peace" at this site.
  6. The title of this section refers to Tony Rothman's A Physicist on Madison Avenue, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Young Love

Love is the most fun you can have without laughing. - Anonymous
When I was in junior high I realized, after the initial rebuffs, that it was going to be years — an eternity to a thirteen year old — before I got laid. When I got old I would have a son, and I would tell him what I went through, so that it might go a little better for him. I even kept a diary. Now I'm not your father, and you're not my son. My diary I'll keep to myself. In its place I substitute my thirtysomething thoughts on my teenaged days.

As a teenager I was a human becoming more than a human being. This fact, this launching of myself toward adulthood, conditioned all my relationships, intense or casual. Falling in love under those conditions was like trying to move into an apartment in a skyscraper before the floors were poured — lots of pitfalls and construction noise. In choosing a girlfriend I was choosing a self to try to be — developing a sense of self that was genuine because it was mine, rather than my parents'. I was also measuring my self-worth — seeing what kind of girl I could trade myself for. With the young ladies' help I was doing the urgent and creative work that all teenagers must do — I was creating me. And I loved whom I wanted or needed my girlfriends to be more than who they were, or were becoming. Those who did not reject me reciprocated in kind.

Thus my first criticism of high-school romance: the emotions are intense because the hormone levels are high and the psychological needs are great, but real intimacy under such circumstances is nearly impossible. And my first praise of it: by finding out how difficult it is to achieve intimacy, I came to value it and to understand what I was willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice for it.

Besides love, intimacy, and a sense of self, high school romance is largely about sex, whether or not the desire is acted upon. In my experience of this phenomenon (through my own escapades or those of my friends and acquaintances) we used our sexuality to experiment with new behaviors (Did you get to first base?), to assert our emotional independence from our parents (What's the matter, are you afraid?), to gain social status (He can't be a fag — he's dating someone!), and self-confidence (Whatever she wants, I can handle it.).

All of this emotional loading may heighten the intensity of sexuality but tends to diminish its other qualities, an idea which may be lost on adolescents, who rarely appreciate that sexuality has dimensions other than intensity. The quest for intensity often leads teenagers into relationships that are emotionally — and occasionally physically — abusive. There is nothing quite like "first love," especially when one is in love with a beautiful or handsome emotional roller coaster jockey.

And what if despite all odds, the teenager makes some fleeting contact with the real person, the "inner child" of the other? Sometimes one finds the love of one's life. My relationships followed the far more usual course, ending because we were growing teenagers who grew apart. And then, because I had been changing so fast at that age, there was no normal state of being for me to return to. I couldn't go back to being the old me, because the old me was a kid. In that sense, I never "got over" my teenage romances. I just moved on after a couple of years, when I realized that the state I was in was as normal as I was going to get.

I don't know what of this you might say to your teenagers, in addition to the usual drug, pregnancy, and venereal disease information. Maybe that, despite the message of popular culture, they might look to God for the affirming love they often seek from each other. Maybe just that it might do them more good to look for a close friend rather than a lover. But teenagers tend to talk more than they listen, and to do risky things because they need to prove themselves and because they're too young to appreciate how risky they are. That's why they're used as soldiers.

Oh, well. As Jimmy Durante used to say, "God bless you, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." Or was it just "Good night?"

A Soldier's Story

I mean, you want to know if I'm moral enough to join your army, to burn women, kids, houses, and villages, after bein' a litterbug? — Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"
This is what happened to Russ in Vietnam. On R&R in Saigon, he and a beautiful Vietnamese woman fell desperately, and secretly, in love. After the madness was over, they would come to America and make a life for themselves. But for now, they would meet furtively, rarely, briefly. Nobody who knew either of them could know about both, because her brother was Vietcong. Technically, they were each sleeping with the enemy.

And then, at their meeting place, she didn't show.

"That one?" said one of his buddies casually, "They say she was killed by a mine two weeks ago."
The feeling of a kick in the stomach, the taste of acid on the tongue. And he had to hide it, to stay a soldier.

"Here today, gone tomorrow," he shrugged, feeling suddenly like a traitor -- not to his country, but to her memory and to himself. But if he shared his grief with his buddies, they would say it was to his country, and he would be dishonorably discharged, at best. So he fought on, silenced about what was becoming an incurable wound.

Funny. Here he was depending for his life at times on people he couldn't trust. And ready to give his all for those who would turn on him if they only knew.

When he got stateside, he didn't try to replace the love he'd lost. The singles bar scene was all he wanted, and he went for it with abandon. Alcohol and casual sex were his anesthetics for a while. Eventually he gave them up, left the service, and settled down to a wife and a tolerable job. And though he looked good on the outside, he had two constant companions that were slowly killing him. One was depression, and the other was the virus he'd picked up during one of those dates after the war.

The story of Russ (not his real name) is true, mostly. Except that his lover was not the enemy. His lover was an American pilot who got his name put on the big, black wall in Washington for giving "that last full measure of devotion" while flying a combat mission in Vietnam.

So, when I think of the people who oppose liberalizing the US military's position on gay and lesbian soldiers, I think of Russ and how he suffered under that policy. I think about the statistics on homosexuality, and how they imply that, along with that of Russ' lover, the names of as many as a thousand homosexuals may be written on the Vietnam War Memorial.

Those homosexual soldiers fought, slept, ate, showered, and died as heroes alongside heterosexual soldiers. They knew how to handle themselves in all those situations. Their heterosexual buddies did not, forcing them to keep their secret, most of them to the grave.

Now we Americans are concerned about the effect of gay and lesbian soldiers on military morale and discipline. But a thousand names carved in stone say that's not a gay soldier's problem. It's a straight soldier's problem. People are concerned because that is the nature of homophobia — homophobia occurs when straights who have problems with gays try to make gays solve those problems for them — even if it's just by keeping their homosexuality a secret. A thousand names say the concern is based on mythology believed by straights who don't think they know any gay people.

Except for the concern about how the straight soldiers will behave. On the other hand, gay bashing is another form of sexual harassment, an area that the military needs to deal with anyway, as shown by the Tailhook scandal.

So, I think we should move forward on the legalization of gay and lesbian soldiers. Doing so will take courage and self-discipline, and a sense of security in our own sexuality. It will take, as a soldier might put it, "balls."

03 November 1994

Church of the Self-Satisfied

I wrote this while attending a church that was ejecting its pastor. A case of the congregation abusing its clergy.

Greetings to you in the name of the Lord!
We Crucifiers meet each Sunday to lie about Jesus.
The sermon slides off our collective self-image into the cup
to be consumed with the body and blood of our Victim,
and so to pass through, changed by us, not us by them.
Greetings to you in the name of the Lord!

The Peace of the Lord to you!
A smile, a handshake, a Judas kiss.
Pieces of silver collected for service to our Values —
nothing special, just nothing different —
we come to be comfortable, above all.
The Peace of the Lord to you!

Visitors Welcome. Join us soon.

02 November 1994

Apocalypses Now

Nuclear war, overpopulation, global eco-catastrophe, asteroid impacts, exhaustion of the sun, the final crunch, rip, or heat-death of the universe. Science holds that ultimately, we are doomed. Christian Fundamentalists seem to gloat, judging from the apocalyptic "literature" in bookstores. But "eco-guilt" and religious end-game fantasists1 may be in for a disappointment. The end may be rather dull. Here are some possible scenarios.

See/hear also REM's TEOTWAWKI

Coyotes, Mosquitoes and Rats, Oh My!

Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. — Boyle Roche: Speech in the Irish Parliament, c. 1790

Every now and then I read in some magazine (most recently Natural History at the optometrist's office) about a wonderfully adaptable species that has managed to thrive despite the onslaught of human numbers. This time it was about the coyote;, an adaptable predator that, it turns out, doesn't kill cattle, but takes smaller prey. It seems that coyotes have made a determined comeback in the west, and have now spread east into Vermont and New Hampshire, with the eastern coyotes being noticeably bigger than their western cousins.

Why go east, young dog? Lured by the call of the tamed? Nobody knows yet, but it is certain that the coyotes are not moving into the ecological niche left by wolves. The wolves disappeared from most of this country because their niche disappeared -- moose, deer, and other large game lost their habitat to farmland, and were hunted heavily besides. No forests, no game, no wolves.

No, the coyotes are moving into a new niche, one created by us. They eat the discarded carcasses of the 10% or so of calves that don't make it every spring at dairy farms and cattle ranches. (The ranchers take the dead meat out to the back forty and dump it. The coyotes just couldn't leave it to rot.) They also eat rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, and the occasional domestic cat. In addition, coyotes have learned to use abandoned cars as dens, and to trot calmly along the sides of major highways.

Now human overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, and plain old inefficient land use are causing species to go extinct as fast as they did when the dinosaurs vanished. We are becoming a force of "natural selection" as powerful as an Ice Age. At this rate, only those species that adapt themselves to us, like coyotes, will survive. On the other hand, those that adapt themselves to us like pigeons, cockroaches, lice, and rats; will thrive. And in a world in which parasitism of human civilization is the only key to survival, God forbid that any of these parasites should become intelligent!

My fear is not that we may destroy all life on this planet. I'm afraid that we're turning the entire natural world into the equivalent of a giant smart rat, who can't wait to figure out new ways to get us. Imagine a picnic in a really hostile environment -- no big, dangerous things, just little annoying ones like clever mosquitoes who always bite in well-coordinated teams and who've learned to love insect repellent. Everywhere you go there will be a myriad creatures absolutely delighted to see you!

But so far it's still a wonderful world out there, with all sorts of intricate life and death struggles going on that we're not part of. Let's keep it that way. Let's leave more of it alone.

Birth of a Species

And they shall no more teach one another saying, know the Lord: for they shall all know me... —Jeremiah 31:34

Imagine the consternation of Oog and his fellow early modern humans at the strange new behavior of their teenagers. They no longer give a good old fashioned threat scream before a status or mating fight. They make little noises among themselves, and then act as a group, overcoming even the strongest Old Ones. The old ways are forgotten, the old order destroyed. It is the end of the world. Or at least it may have seemed to be the end of the world to the early humans, when some small group first started speaking true language;.

Much later, when the wasichus overran North America and displaced the original inhabitants, the world ended for many Native American tribes. They measured their humanity by adherence to their cultural values (some of which were nice, some of which were nasty -- they were neither more nor less saintly a people than anyone else). Thus when their cultures died, they believed there would be no more real people left on earth.

Now human culture seems pretty well entrenched. What could possibly make it die without tremendous upheaval? A change in perception, perhaps? Remember Oog?

Elsewhere I have conjectured that there may be more to the mind than the brain, and that some of our (un)consciousness may reside in patterns imposed directly on the quantum (gravitational and other) vacuum oscillations of the "empty" spacetime within and around us. If that were true it might be possible for some of us to learn to perceive or communicate via these oscillations -- which might amount to something like so-called telepathy. If such telepathy became the preferred mode of communication among a group of people, and if the talent for it were inherited, it could provide the basis for what would at first be a sub-culture of people for whom ordinary language might be lost. Eventually, since communication plays an important role in human relationships, and therefore in human reproduction, such an ability could provide the basis for the division of humanity into distinct subspecies -- the telepathers and the talkers. If the telepathers had enough other abilities going for them, or if telepathy enabled them to outwit us sufficiently, they might eventually supplant us talkers. But rather than build on our historical achievements, they would start over, because our history would be irrelevant and incomprehensible to them. The new Adams and Eves would begin as a tribal community, not knowing where they came from, and perhaps never discovering who we were. Rather than being a glorified version of ourselves, the Superior Race would be completely alien to us.

It wouldn't be the end of the world. Just the end of our world. Of course, once a new door of perception is opened, who knows what may enter -- a more direct awareness of God, perhaps? Don't panic, it's only a scenario and a ridiculously far-fetched one at that (I don't actually believe in telepathy -- but so many science-fiction writers speculate about it, that it's hard for me to resist). The point is that the extinction of our species, just like our own individual deaths, may come in a manner and at a time other than we expect.

But then, life is like marriage - you get into it for how it is, rather than how it ends.

That White-Hot Morning, Revisited

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. — Martin Luther, 1569

It looks like dawn, but the sun comes in the wrong direction, blinding bright, flashing the wallpaper opposite the window into flame. Your heart sinks, you grab your loved ones and dash for that protected closet. As you close the door the blast wave hits, a sound so loud it's more like silence. The building leans and shudders, the beams crack, and then tense stillness, waiting. Suddenly the walls reverse their lean, shaking under the impact of flying debris. Again stillness, except for beams groaning as the building settles. You open the door to thick dust clouds, which clear to reveal torn roof and walls, empty window frames, broken crockery, shredded books, smashed furniture. The power is out, the phone is dead. You find your portable radio, miraculously in working order, but no one is broadcasting. You search the rubble for some blankets, which you find smeared with blood -- yours. Just a cut on your hand from broken glass, but you know how you're going to die now. Weakened by hunger, thirst, and radiation sickness, and without antibiotics, you're going to die of infection.

Impossibly, the phone rings. You pick up the receiver, but your tongue is so thick you can't speak. The voice on the other end says, "This dream has been brought to you by Nuclear Nightmares, Incorporated. It's TIME to wake UP."

Fairly accurate effects, I thought. Just like they taught us in the Nuclear Weapons Orientation Advanced Course. The NWOA is a week long training session conducted by members of the Armed Forces for a number of organizations. At my National Laboratory, it is part of the orientation program for new employees. The lectures on Blast and Thermal Effects ("The Shake 'n' Bake Lecture") and Medical Effects were given to us by a Marine who seemed to evaluate his effectiveness by the dent he made in the cafeteria's business that day. So the concerned public needn't tell us about nuclear weapons effects. We know, even those of us who didn't write the book on them.2 Nuclear world war, if we have one, will make movies like "The Day After" and "Testament" look like a party. Even "Threads" will seem mild. Our species will probably survive, but our culture won't -- it's too complicated to be maintained by people with short lifespans.

As it says in the dream, it's time to wake up. Passivity just encourages bullies, while aggressiveness encourages us to become bullies ourselves. It's time to use our relationships to enfranchise and empower others, and to be assertive in deterring them from abusing us, should they try. It's time to include everyone in "us" rather than to pretend that some of us are "them." It's time to use our religions to open ourselves to God rather than to close ourselves to each other. It's time to engage in management as a human enterprise rather than a dominance/submission ritual. It's time to trust what little we know and yet to admit how little it is, and to open ourselves to the new. It's time to turn from making war on war to making peace. Or else time will run out for us sooner rather than later, whether or not I do research related to weapons which, thus far, are only a reflection of ourselves.


  1. I think the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible is provided for us to take comfort in tough times, rather than for us to treat as some sort of sorcery for making specific predictions of the future (an activity which Scripture condemns).
  2. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd edition, edited by Samuel P. Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, US DOE and DOD, Washington, DC, 1977.

Abducted in their Dreams

We are such stuff as dreams are made on. — William Shakespeare,The Tempest, 1611
In the middle of the night you find yourself paralyzed, lifted into a spaceship, and probed. You hear voices inside your head. The next thing you know, you are back in your car or bed, hours missing from your memory. Under hypnosis you recall fragmentary experiences, as if from a dream. You have had (if UFO abduction experiencers can be believed) a close encounter of the fourth kind.

Now I doubt such reports, because I doubt aliens could or would want to find a small needle like us in our enormous galactic haystack. But let's play Star Trek for a moment. Suppose aliens have found us, and have bridged the communication barrier natural to beings evolved on different worlds. Then we must ask why these encounters are the way they are — which is like our dreams.

Our dreaming consciousness has many of the attributes of a close encounter all by itself. Active brain mechanisms suppress movement and memory — otherwise we would all sleepwalk and recall dreaming ninety minutes each night. Though language occurs frequently in dreams, we rarely remember details of what is said or written. Our dreams shift from one paradox to another, as if we had no sustained attention span and little contact with reality. We enter a state of consciousness that Freud thought similar to a hypnotic trance (which may be why hypnosis can help us remember dreams), and which some modern researchers think similar to schizophrenia — that is, schizophrenia's characteristic hallucinations may be waking dreams.

Since dreams are so much like close encounters, perhaps the aliens deliberately induce a dreamlike state of consciousness in their abductees. That way they can interact meaningfully with semi-conscious individuals while using humans' natural dream mechanisms for suppressing movement and memory. This may allow them to cautiously study humans before "coming out" to us as a whole. But why so many encounters, and why don't they cover their tracks better?

Consider that UFO experiencers frequently report some kind of "telepathic" communication with their captors. Perhaps the mental state in which humans are most capable of telepathy happens to be the one in which we dream. Maybe the aliens induce this state in humans so as to facilitate communication, or maybe the dreamlike state is a simply a byproduct of their attempts at telepathy. If the aliens don't have dreams themselves, they may not realize that they are impairing humans' normal functioning. They may even think that humans reflexively become paralyzed, forgetful, and crazy whenever we experience anything new. Perhaps they repeat the same encounter many times with particular individuals hoping that some humans might get used it and react less strongly. Too bad their way of talking to us seems literally to put us to sleep.

Maybe the aliens try different experiments to find out what's going wrong. Though they keep trying to communicate we forget all about it, or act as if our encounters were unreal when we remember them, because dreamlike experiences don't connect with the world we know in our waking state. On their part, if the aliens are naturally telepathic, they may think all intelligent species are, and that contacting one human contacts us all. Perhaps they wonder why we don't get the message. So if you're a repeated UFO experiencer, try to remember to tell them (it's called lucid dreaming by sleep researchers) that if they're trying to communicate, they're blowing it. Tell them to write, instead.
Of course, the simplest and, to my mind, most likely explanation is that UFO abduction experiences aren't merely like dreams, they are dreams. Still, you never know.

Editor's Note:  See for example Passpost to the Cosmos - Human Transformation and Alien Encounters and/or Abduction, by the late John E. Mack, M. D.