The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem was published in the December 1922 issue of Criterion, 100 years ago. There’s a lot in it, and people focus on different parts. The first few lines get a workout every April, when people try to make them mean that April weather is changeable, but if you read the first four lines, and even better seven, it’s clear that that’s not what they mean.

The rest of the poem is harder. It’s fragmented, and thus easy to pluck pieces out, which is what people do.

But perhaps Eliot and his famous editor, Ezra Pound, had a thought that unified the poem. Let’s look at the title: The Waste Land. We can see that theme throughout: the dry red rocks, the inability of people to connect, water and death, and finally, in line 424 of 437, we meet the Fisher King, who rules the Waste Land and who suffers a wound that will not heal.

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Russia’s War On Ukraine in 2023

It’s hard to see how Russia’s war on Ukraine ends. It could end today, with an edict from Vladimir Putin that the Russian military stand down and begin a withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories. Negotiation would be needed to assure safe passage back to Russia, but the shelling could end today.

It’s hard to see how the war ends because it has reversed so many of our expectations. That we had come to the end of imperial wars. That Russia was a competent military power. It would be good to make 2023 the year we recognize that much we believed no longer holds. That goes beyond the war.

Ruth Deyermond, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, specializes in Russian foreign and security policy, US-Russia relations, and European security. She wrote an outstanding Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, so I’ll use it as the framework for a turn-of-the-year post on Russia’s war.

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Furiously Writing Deterrence Theory

This is…not good.

The United States is “furiously” writing a new nuclear deterrence theory that simultaneously faces Russia and China, said the top commander of America’s nuclear arsenal—and needs more Americans working on how to prevent nuclear war.

The quote is from Navy Admiral Chas Richard, the head of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for strategic nuclear deterrence, the conventional-weapon global strike, and operating the Defense Department’s Global Information Grid.

Writing “a new nuclear deterrence theory” is not a college essay. Nor can it “furiously” be done overnight, as if that essay were due tomorrow.

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The Volga-Don Canal Connects the Caspian Sea And The Sea Of Azov

Kazakhstan is isolated from the world’s oceans, but borders the Caspian Sea on its west. The Soviet Union completed the Volga-Don Canal in 1952 to allow shipping between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov, the northeastern arm of the Black Sea that connects through the Kerch Strait, across which Russia built a recently damaged bridge to occupied Crimea. From there, Kazakhstani ships can reach the Mediterranean.

Russia has recently granted Kazakhstan permission to use the Volga-Don Canal for its commercial ships, which will be carrying mainly Chinese goods. Those two countries now have an interest in keeping the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait open.

A shorter route has been proposed (red line on map), but it’s not clear when that could be built.

Sergei Prokofiev wrote the tone poem The Meeting of the Volga and the Don to celebrate its completion. The Wikipedia article is worth reading.

The header image is the Volga-Don Canal in Volgograd, from the Wikipedia article.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

The JCPOA Is Dead

Presiden Biden said it, but it’s seemed to me for some time now that the JCPOA – the Iran nuclear deal – is dead, thanks to Donald Trump.

The time limits in the JCPOA are approaching. Iran is repressing its people in brutal ways. Iran has been increasing its nuclear activities toward the possibility of building a bomb. There are too many bars to reviving the agreement.

I should say up front that there is no evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons. Misinformation has led people to believe that.

When the draft agreement was announced in the spring of 2015, it was far more than any of us had expected. Close to airtight on keeping Iran from having a bomb. The actual agreement was even better. And Iran seemed happy with it too.

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Silicon Valley’s Government Contracts

One more Musk-related post today, and then I have other tabs I want to write about.

We are all shareholders in Musk’s enterprises. Not Twitter, perhaps, but certainly SpaceX, StarLink, and Tesla for the government subsidies they receive. Just as those holding Tesla stock should be reconsidering their investment, so should the rest of us, through our government contracting agencies.

The arbitrary and unhinged behavior of a CEO is a concern. More specifically, an alleged meeting with Vladimir Putin is of concern; an ordinary contractor or clearance-holder would need to do a lot of explaining about that, especially combined with a capricious approach toward making StarLink available to the Ukrainians fighting against Putin’s invasion.

Similar problems are said to exist with another techbro startup, Rebellion Defense. Rebellion is developing AI products (apparently classified, because no further description is given in the linked article) for the military. The company is plagued by internal fighting and has no ethical oversight. The article reports overpromising and lowballing to get further contracts. Products may or may not have been delivered.

As we see more into the workings and mindsets of Silicon Valley, we have to ask whether these are the folks we want deciding what products and weapons are to be built.

Is the top illustration what Rebellion Defense is building? Who knows.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Information Theory

Several decades back, Claude Shannon defined information theory. Here’s a short description that partakes of some of the hype that has always surrounded information theory.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” served the purpose that “quantum” does today. It was a way for a group of people to show their perspicacity in understanding pretty much everything and probably a contribution to dealing with a developing field. The transistor was invented in the early 1950s, and World War II had demonstrated the usefulness of high-speed computation.

There was much trying-to-be-erudite discussion of information theory and just plain mystification, as for the quantum everything we keep hearing about today. “Entropy” has always been useful. The fad for information theory in this respect has largely died, which is why I was surprised to hear that it has intrigued Elon Musk and others in Silicon Valley.

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Making Sense Of Elon Musk

Between temper tantrums, it appears that Elon Musk has some coherence to his worldview. There’s the rightwing stuff, but there’s also a distinctive Silicon Valley contribution. Jason Steinhauer explicates that contribution in terms of three “clashes” on how power is to be wielded.

Clash #1: An integrity problem v. an interference problem

The professionals (lawyers, scientists, college professors, trust and safety people) on Twitter see integrity of information as primary, whereas Musk sees interference with information as primary. This requires a fair bit of explaining, which Steinhauer does.

Elon has spoken publicly about how he views problems through an information theory framework. Information theory, which you can read about in the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a mathematical framework, not a journalistic or humanistic one. It is not concerned with the substance of a message—its meaning, its accuracy, its intrinsic value. Rather, its principal concern is getting messages from point A to point B with as little interference as possible. Information theory insists that solving the technical problem is the necessary first step in developing any reliable communications system.

This is why Elon has doubled-down on engineering while laying off staff focused on marketing, public relations, and trust & safety (in addition to wanting to save money). It is also why Elon has consistently tweeted about Twitter’s improved network performance and reduced latency under his leadership.

Further, Musk construes government and journalism as contributing noise, where others might see them as contributing organization and clarification.

Clash #2: Reverence for legacy institutions v. animosity towards legacy institutions

This is one of Silicon Valley’s dearest beliefs. Move fast and break things. Steinhauer has more.

Clash #3: Saving democracy v. saving civilization

A person who defines this as a conflict has defined the side they are on. A bunch of white men from South Africa and elsewhere have decided that they will save the human race. The Mars thing is part of this. Producing many children of their superior stock is part of it. The long-termism of Sam Bankman-Fried and William McAskill fits.

Musk is not the only denizen of Silicon Valley who thinks this way. It’s useful to understand their thinking for future battles.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Oppenheimer Clearance Removal Vacated

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm vacated the 1954 decision of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy, to revoke J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

Many people have worked to remove this unfair judgment against Oppenheimer for many years. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been instrumental. Jeff Bingaman, when he was New Mexico’s senator worked hard on the issue. Many organizations and individuals were involved, even me to a small extent.

Here’s what’s not in the Granholm statement or an NYT article on the decision. In the early 1950s, Oppenheimer was not sufficiently in favor of developing the hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller had been pushing the idea since the Manhattan Project, when he had pursued it to minimizing his work toward the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had humiliated Lewis Straus, the chairman of the AEC, in a congressional hearing for his lack of knowledge of science. The knives were out.

As Granholm’s statement points out, no evidence was presented in the hearing that the two men precipitated on Oppenheimer’s security clearance that he was disloyal to the United States. Just that they didn’t like the cut of his jib. And they won at the time.

Now that has been reversed. Sadly, it doesn’t remove the harms of the past, to Oppenheimer and his family.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Laser Fusion Milestone

The announcement of the latest progress in laser fusion was a model of careful statement by all of the people involved. They were Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Jill Hruby,  White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Marvin “Marv” Adams, and LLNL Director Kim Budil.

Their comments emphasized the time it’s taken to get to this point – 60 years since the National Ignition Facility (NIF) was proposed, generations of researchers, many ups and downs in constructing NIF and making it work, the development of the tiny, multilayered targets and the hohlraums, containers for the targets that concentrate the energy of 192 lasers still further.

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