Archive for April, 2010

Herman Wouk

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I did not know that Herman Wouk was still alive, I’m ashamed to say. He’s 94. I’ve read many of his novels, Winds of War and War and Remembrance many times. One of my medical students was the daughter of the producer who put them on TV as miniseries.

Today, I found this and it is priceless. In addition to Wouk’s novels, Richard Feynman was to me the pinnacle of intellect in my lifetime. I can’t complain, but one sadness is that I never met him or listened to a lecture of his. I was accepted to Cal Tech in 1956; a faculty member traveled to Chicago to interview me, but I didn’t have the money and my big scholarship didn’t come through. Anyway, I would have been an undergrad before he got there. Here is Wouk’s story:

More years ago than I care to reckon up, I met Feynman. I was then out to write a sort of War and Peace of War World II, and early on in the moonstruck enterprise I realised that if I were at all serious about it, I had to learn something right away about the atomic bomb. Tolstoy could not consult Kutuzov, the general who drove Napoleon out of Russia, because the canny old one-eyed field marshal was long since dead; but when I started to work on my unlikely notion nearly all the men who had created the bomb were alive, and several of them were at the California Institute of Technology, including Feynman. President Truman, who had been an artilleryman in World War I, said of the bomb, “It was a bigger piece of artillery, so I used it,” a striking remark which shows up in my War and Remembrance but surely something less than the whole story. So I went to Caltech to talk to those who knew the whole story.

This may seem monstrously pushy, and no doubt it was. Like many novelists I have spun my books out of my experiences when I could, but in attempting work far outside my own relatively jog-trot existence I have had to pick other men’s brains. My World War II service, three years on destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific, gave me the substance of The Caine Mutiny, but taught me nothing at all about the world storm that swept me from Manhattan to the south Pacific like a driven leaf. When the bomb fell on Hiroshima my ship was a bobbing speck on picket duty in the rough waters off Okinawa, and we had just survived a kamikaze attack unscathed; so I joined heartily in the merriment aboard ship, very glad that I had survived the war and would soon go back to my free civilian life and marry my sweetheart. As to the larger issues of dropping a whacking new bomb made of uranium on a Japanese city, I was innocent and indifferent. The radio said that our scientists had “harnessed the power of the sun”, and that was quite enough for me and for all of us aboard that old four-piper, halfway around the world from home.

The Caltech scientists received me cordially, and talked freely about their adventures in working on the bomb. I remember one physicist telling me, for instance, how he drove to the Trinity test site in New Mexico with the dread plutonium core in the back seat of his car. But to a man, one after another, they warned me so earnestly not to try to see Richard Feynman that I began to think of him as a human plutonium core. However, I had nothing to lose so I did try, and somehow I found myself in his office, talking to a lean guy in white shirtsleeves, with long hair and a sharply humorous countenance calling to mind a bust Voltaire. It didn’t go well at first.

“You know,” he said, as I groped to explain my purpose, “while you’re talking, you’re not learning anything.” So I blurted out baldly, any old way, my vision of a fiction work throwing a rope around the whole global war. As I spoke, an enigmatic look came over that strong face, something like remote tolerant amusement. “Well, that’s the sort of thing genius reaches out for,” he said, and he took over the conversation.

In swift strokes Feynman brought the entire Manhattan project to life, the excitement and the perils alike, mentioning that once in a laboratory corridor he passed uranium materials stacked so carelessly that a chain reaction was within a whisker of going off. His main point was that the whole enterprise was gigantically messy, and that the atomic bomb was by no means at a frontier of science. He put it so: “It wasn’t a lion hunt, it was a rabbit shoot.” There was no Nobel prize, that is to say, in the concept or the calculations; it was just a challenge, if a huge one, to audacious innovative technology and brute industrial effort.

This formidable fellow walked out of the building with me, and said as we were parting: “Do you know calculus?” I admitted that I didn’t. “You had better learn it,” he said. “It’s the language God talks.”

Wouk has an excellent section on the Manhattan Project in both books.

I should add that I have many books by and about Feynman and a series of his recorded lectures. A nurse friend of mine took care of Feynmen and loved him as he lay dying, still able to joke. What a loss! He was only 69 years old. The year before he died, he figured out why the shuttle blew up. Nobody else had an idea of why it happened. Fortunately, he was on the commission and figured it out by himself.

We are losing in Afghanistan

Friday, April 16th, 2010

UPDATE: Michael is taking heat from milbloggers who have never been embedded and being defended by others.

How do I know ? Michael Yon has has his embed with the troops cancelled by McChrystal.

Michael Yon: McChrystal’s crew has spoken: Embed is ended. This comes from McChrystal’s own spokesman (through one CPT Jane Campbell USN cc RADM Greg Smith and COL Wayne Shanks USA). This lends confirmation to ideas that the disembed came from McChrystal’s crew. (If not before, 100% now.) McChrystal cannot be trusted to tell the truth about this war. Packing my bags.

Michael Yon was the only reliable reporter from Iraq and when that war was won, he moved on to Afghanistan. His photos have been fantastic and his reporting has been the only window on the real war. He is an Army veteran in good enough shape to go out on patrols with the troops for the past six years. Now his career as an embed, the only one, is over.

Michael Yon: The disembed from McChrytal’s top staff (meaning from McChrystal himself) is a very bad sign. Sends chills that McChrystal himself thinks we are losing the war. McChrystal has a history of covering up. This causes concern that McChrystal might be misleading SecDef and President. Are they getting the facts?

This is a very bad sign. Not only the implication that we are losing but that it is being covered up.

One comment from an Afghanistan vet: Greg Watson Mike – thanks for your work. I was in Kabul for 2007. The real story needs to be told. Your leaving scares me in a way that an uptick in attacks doesn’t.

Me too.

UPDATED — Tea Party Day In Oceanside

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

By Bradley J. Fikes

Hundreds* of Tea Party supporters gathered in the seaside amphitheater adjacent to the Oceanside Pier Thursday afternoon for the Tax Day rally. I stayed for about an hour, listening to some speakers, and taking photographs.

(*UPDATE — I was being very conservative with my estimate, not having done a rigorous crowd count. But the correct number appears closer to 3,000, which was the estimate of the Vista Tea Party patriots. I base this on noting that the amphitheater seats were packed, and hundreds of people were standing in the amphitheater itself. The amphitheater’s capacity is rated at 2,700, and various stories have put attendance of other events at 3,000.)

Here they are:


Overview photo of the Oceanside Tea Party rally

Looking toward the west, hundreds of people gathered into the Oceanside amphitheater for the Tax Day Tea Party rally

They are John Galt

They are John Galt

The Tea Party had a significant Libertarian component.

Cool on Global Warming

Cool on Global Warming

Signing a ballot initiative to suspend California’s job-killing global warming law, AB 32.

Born indebted

Born indebted

Lament of parents for a child born into debt.

But the magic has worn off

But the magic has worn off

The Prestidigitator-In-Chief has lost his charm.

This post is the opinion of Bradley J. Fikes, and not necessarily that of his employer, the North County Times.

Tea Party Day in Mission Viejo

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

UPDATE: Here is another account with more information. I didn’t know, for example, that a guy attended with an Obama tee shirt and was invited to speak several times but declined. That was across the street where there was more room and where the speakers were.

Here is the OC Register with a typical undercount. There was a head count of 600 by one observer but the Register gets it wrong more than it’s right. I was a subscriber for many years but no more. Oddly enough, the Register is delivered to my house every morning and goes straight to the recycling bin.

I went down to the corner of La Paz and Marguerite, the putative city center of Mission Viejo to see the Tea Party rally. I would say the group was larger than the last one last year. There were groups on all four corners although the southeast corner seems to have the largest group. They filled the sidewalk and, this time, spilled over into the parking lot of the office building. The total number was about 750 to 1,000. I took a number of pictures to show the signs, especially.

This is walking up Marguerite from south to north. This was the most crowded corner, I thought.

Lots of flags, big and small

This is looking across at the northwest corner. This was about 6 PM and there were 100 to 150 people there.

More signs.

This is from the parking lot behind. The sidewalk was too crowded.

More signs and again the view across the intersection. Lots of honking.

There was music and some speeches on the corner across La Paz. More room there.

There were lots of kids there. I would say the average age was about 50 with the median very close to that, as well.

Democracy in action. I saw few signs that were not about spending.

I don’t know who this guy is but will find out.

More signs.

Spilling over the curb into the street. Nobody seemed to mind. Lots of honking.

Here’s the spillover into the parking lot behind as the crowd got bigger. This was about 6:30. I headed home after this. It was a successful demonstration for a small town like Mission Viejo.

Progressive taxes

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

UPDATE: There is more on this from National Review Online, including a letter complaining that Republicans are stupid because they don’t count FICA as “paying taxes.”

There is an argument made, even by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, that the FICA payroll tax is regressive. The bottom 50% of American workers pay no income tax. The left then responds that the payroll tax is still paid by that segment of society and that negates the argument of the right. Let’s look at how that plays out in real life.

As you see, the lowest quintile of income group pays a net minus 27% tax rate in the payroll tax. That is, they get 27% more than they pay in during a lifetime of work. Of course, the beneficiaries of the Social Security system have to wait until they are 67 or disabled to collect those benefits. That is a form of forced saving and would work out if Congress had not spent the Social Security Trust Fund on other matters, leaving only IOUs behind to pay the benefits.

The Anglo-Saxon society was built on the Protestant Ethic of deferred gratification. That is why those who endure poverty and hard work to get an education (a real education) or to complete an apprenticeship for a trade, are rewarded later while those who chose big screen TVs and flashy cars often never get ahead. The plan for a satisfying life does not include winning the lottery. This can be difficult to explain to those who have not had a decent introduction to life from caring parents. Even so, some still figure it out. Some of them use the military to get an education when other avenues are closed. Ambition and intelligence will often emerge from unlikely places.

You would think a Nobel laureate could figure this out.

Observations on the recession

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Victor Davis Hanson has a piece today on his observations on the recession. The comments are as good as the essay, itself.

This week I drove on I-5, the 99, and 101. Except for a few stretches through San Jose to Palo Alto, most of the freeways were unchanged in the last 40 years. The California Water Project of the 1960s hasn’t been improved — indeed, it has been curtailed. My local high school looks about the same as it did in 1971. The roads in rural California are in worse condition than forty years ago.

Private houses are, of course, larger and more opulent. But the state seems not to be investing in infrastructure as before, but more in consumption and redistribution. For all the mega-deficits out here, we are not going broke building upon and improving the material world we inherited. The drive from Selma to Palo Alto is identical to the one I made in 1975 — no quicker, not really safer. The comfort and increased safety come from improved cars (seat belts, air bags, better structures), not from government’s efforts to make super freeways and new routes.

I have made this observation for some time. I came to California in 1956 to go to college. I had a very modest scholarship and very little money but I managed fairly well except for the lack of a car. I was struck by several things in my first impressions of California. The highways were the best I had ever seen. At the time, the Harbor Freeway ended at Century Boulevard and the Santa Ana Freeway ended at 17th street. There was no 405 and the Hollywood Freeway ended at Lankersheim Boulevard. I can’t remember if there was any of the San Bernardino Freeway built yet. I don’t think so. The downtown interchange was called the “fourway” because the Harbor connected with the Pasadena and the Hollywood connected with the Santa Ana. Construction continued under Pat Brown until the present configuration was largely complete. Then came Jerry Brown and construction stopped. We were supposed to learn that “Small is beautiful” and the decline of California began there. Now, he is running for Governor again. God help us !

Here follows some other unscientific observations. This is a funny recession. My grandfather’s stories of the Great Depression — 27 relatives in my current farmhouse and barn — were elemental: trying to find enough food to survive, and saving gasoline by shifting to neutral and gliding to stops or on the downhill.

My parents did better than this but my grandparents had a farm and my father had various jobs in Chicago. My mother lived with her sister and brother-in-law (who is my male hero). He sheltered many members of his wife’s family in a big house and supported them all with his job as a master bricklayer in a steel mill. His father had been superintendent of bricklayers in that mill before him. The mill is now closed. My mother worked in a warehouse, technically as a secretary but she had a more responsible job, until she was married and then, after I was in the 8th grade and my sister in the 5th, she went back to work. She did not like to ask my father for money. She worked until she was 77 years old when the company told her she would have to retire as no one knew how old she was and they would have trouble with their insurance if someone was over 65 and working. During the Depression, she also worked as a legal secretary and could type 120 words per minute. I could dictate my high school papers to her at normal conversational speed. She told us that she was subject to income tax but the amount was so small that her employer paid it as a fringe benefit.

The problem I saw this week was rampant obesity, across all age and class lines. If anything, the wealthier in Palo Alto/Stanford eat less (yes, I know the liberal critique that they have capital and education to shop for expensive healthier fruits and vegetables while the poor and neglected must turn to fast food, coke, and pop tarts). No matter — a lot of Americans are eating too much and moving too infrequently — and no one, at least if girth matters, is starving.

My mother walked to work from the train terminus every morning, a distance of about a mile. My father could carry a juke box (his business in the 1940s) up a flight of stairs on his back. He was the strongest man I ever saw. He owned a music company with a partner and he had a story that might have been a joke. They had a pair of piano movers that worked for them. The two consisted of an enormous Pole and a skinny little Indian. The Indian was the man at the bottom carrying the piano up a flight of stairs.

There is a new beggar. I see him on the intersections now on major urban boulevards. They are never illegal aliens, rarely African-Americans, but almost all white males, and of two sorts. One is someone who looks homeless, not crippled but in a walker or wheelchair (yet he gets up occasionally). He has a sign on cardboard with a wrenching narrative (fill in the blanks: veteran, of course; disabled; will work (not) for food, etc.). Choice corners become almost enclaves, as two or three cluster on islands and stoplights, as if certain franchises are choice and more lucrative than others.

I’ve seen a lot of homeless-looking white beggars and quite a few black beggars at freeway off-ramps where there is a stoplight. I haven’t seen the affluent looking ones he mentions but Orange County might be less tolerant of them than Palo Alto. I have listened to conversations in the market. Two very attractive women in their late 30s were talking near me in the meat department. One said “Well, we’re still paying our bills.” There was an open house last weekend, a block from me, that had a sign “bank owned.” I wonder how many others there are in this area. It was the largest model of the style of homes in this neighborhood.

I confess this week to have listened in on many conversations in Palo Alto and at Stanford, read local newspapers, and simply watched people. So I am as worried about the elite upscale yuppie as the poor illegal alien. The former have lost almost all connection with physical labor, the physical world, or the ordeal that civilization endures to elevate us from the savagery of nature.

While many were fit, and seem to work out, bike, ski, and hike, none understood the mechanics that lie beneath the veneer of the good life — the chain-sawing, hammering, drain-unplugging, tractor-driving, irrigating, and welding that allows a pleasant afternoon Greek salad and cappuccino on University Avenue — the disconnect between those Pennsylvania “clingers” and Obama’s arugula-eating crowd.

I have worried about this quite a bit. It goes back a ways. When I applied for a surgical residency, only one professor asked me about whether I used tools or played a musical instrument. That was 40 years ago. I have always had tools around and have made them available to my children. One son has gotten into the use of tools and has borrowed many of mine but I don’t mind. He has a family and a house to maintain. The whole culture of tools is important to me. One of Hanson’s commenters said it well.

This passage reminds me of a book I recently read on the Internet Archive : Mind and hand : manual training, the chief factor in education by Charles Ham. Categorized as a vocational text but it is actually promoting the inclusion of manual training as part of the intellectual development of students. The author does a survey from Egypt to 19th century America discussing how as civilizations became separated from manual labor they have declined. I really recommend chapter 2 on the Majesty of Tools. The guy really raises tools to a higher level. But the curious item is, if you ignore that the author mentions nothing after 1899, it could be discussing today’s society.

For if man without tools is nothing, to be unable to use tools is to be destitute of power; and if with tools he is all, to be able to use tools is to be all-powerful. And this power in the concrete, the power to do some useful thing for man—this is the last analysis of educational truth.

We are now governed by a generation of talkers. They do nothing but talk and, worse, believe that talk will solve problems, even with enemies. Reading and talking are important as it is the way we learn but there are many things that cannot be accomplished except by getting hands dirty. Sometimes that is a metaphor. I didn’t get my hands dirty in surgery but I often came home drenched in blood or had to shower and wash out my underwear after a big trauma case. Not all of life fits between the pages of a book.

“Moderate” Bart Stupak Retiring – UPDATED

Friday, April 9th, 2010

By Bradley J. Fikes

No, no, the Tea Party didn’t scare off Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak from seeking re-election. The political moderate was going to retire anyway, but held on until he could help health care reform  passed.

That’s the spin in an Associated Press article about Stupak’s sudden announcement. that he is retiring from Congress. Well, to be fair, the Associated Press was simply reporting Stupak’s explanation for his retirement, although it didn’t seriously challenge it.

But the labeling of Stupak as a political “moderate” was the AP’s counterfactual spin:

“A political moderate, Stupak is known for an independent streak that sometimes put him at odds with his party’s leadership. He voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and an assault weapons ban in the 1990s, despite appeals from then-President Bill Clinton.”

NAFTA was extremely controversial among liberal Democrats, while Republicans generally liked the agreement. NAFTA passed the House with the votes of 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats, while it was opposed by 156 Democrats, 43 Republicans and one independent. Since most House Democrats opposed the bill, Stupak’s opposition hardly counts as an example of an “independent streak.” This is just the ahistorical spin of the AP story’s author, John Flesher. Or maybe like many of his MSM peers, Flesher just doesn’t know how to use Google.

Stupak’s putative moderation is easily invalidated by a look at his voting record, as compiled by both the left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action and the conservative Americans for Constitutional Union.

In 2008, Stupak got a 90 percent liberal rating from the ADA, as liberal as John Dingell. Here’s the list of his Michigander congressional delegation:

The "moderate" Bart Stupak

The "moderate" Bart Stupak

If anything, Stupak has turned more leftist in recent years. The ACU, whose ratings are almost a mirror image of ADA’s, rates Stupak’s lifetime conservative voting record as 21 percent.

Stupak’s alleged moderation is almost entirely the result of his stand on abortion, which indeed has been more moderate than most Democrats. It allowed Stupak to portray himself as being in the political middle, while voting left almost all the time.

And media outlets like AP let Stupak get away with it.

UPDATED — Here’s another gem of a John Flesher article spinning against the Tea Party people “gloating” over Stupak’s withdrawal:

Michigan’s northernmost district tends to favor moderates more concerned with federal money for local projects than with ideology.

Stupak announced Friday he wouldn’t seek a 10th term. He fit the district mold so well he repeatedly won re-election by large margins.

A “moderate” with a 90 percent liberal rating from the ADA? Well, moderate by Flesher’s own politics. He’s an environmental writer, which is as good as an ADA membership. Of course, Flesher does PR for the global warming movement, such as writing a mostly unskeptical story about how reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Michigan can supposedly help the state’s economy.

Flesher’s assertions about the political views of northern Michigan are, of course, unsupported by any evidence than his word.

Another example of negative value reporting from the Associated Press — if you believe it, you know less than you did before.

(DISCLAIMER: This article represents my opinions, and does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, the North County Times.)