Friday, March 30, 2007

A Nuclear Waltz

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions and the Views of Kenneth Waltz

We are looking down here through the lens of Google Earth at Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, located in the desert 129 air miles south of Tehran and 37 miles from the ancient oasis city of Kashan, heretofore more famous for carpets than bombs. The facility is like the ocean -- smooth on the surface, but everything interesting lies underneath. Here is a what some western experts think is underneath:

Iran is here assembling the centrifuges that enable the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. No one knows quite how many they have assembled and linked to date, but it is probably not more than 500 of the 3000 they need in the first stage. But just because we do not know, the International Atomic Energy Agency wishes to install additional cameras underground at Natanz in order to monitor activity at the plant and has made a demand on Iran to permit the installation of such cameras. Iran has predictably refused. The crisis continues. Iran is demonized. The angst of the West rises and the US pitches for a nuclear shield in Europe.

This brings us to the inimitable Kenneth N. Waltz, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley, now Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, and one of the world's most influential international relations scholars, whose views on nuclear arms are provocative, interesting and far out of the Bush-Cheney mainstream. According to Waltz, we can sleep well even if Iran acquires the bomb.

Waltz's perspective can be best heard in his recent debate with Scott Sagan of Stanford University. The debate is available on Princeton University's excellent University Channel, which makes a collection of public affairs lectures, panels and events from academic institutions all over the world available online to view, listen to, stream or download. The easiest way to access this superb resource is to subscribe to it (without cost) in the iTunes Music Store (select Podcasts and search University Channel). It will then download to your iPod when you next synchronize it with your computer. This gives you a continuing stream of lectures, debates and discussions to listen to in your car or on the plane when you are underway. You can pick and choose, of course, and accept those of interest to you and delete the others. It is best to keep an open mind, however, and listen to what is offered, whether or not you thought you were interested.

Here is Waltz's view, as I understand it:

First, in the 50+ years of the nuclear era we have not in fact experienced nuclear proliferation. There are today just nine nations with nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran would be the tenth. Waltz calls this "glacial creep, not proliferation."

The countries with nuclear weapons have, to date, for over fifty years, uniformly behaved with moderation with their weapons. We can even say "responsibly." And bear in mind, not all of the nuclear powers are nations that generally get high marks for stable, responsible, non-aggressive behavior. One can think about a rogue Red China in an earlier era, the Stalinist Soviet Union with its mad generals in the depths of the Cold War, and a wild, islamic and unstable Pakistan today. These were and are nuclear powers, after all. Some might add the Bush-Cheney United States to the list of dangerous rogue nations. Consider also that Pakistan and India fought a war and neither used nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of states can only serve one purpose according to Waltz -- deterrence. They have almost no offensive value. Take the case of Iran and Israel. Many in the west seem to assume that once Iran has the bomb Israel will be its first target. But that is nonsense. Israel, we understand, possesses at least 200 nuclear weapons. Iran could not possibly knock them all out in a first strike, and if it did not Iran could count on certain obliteration in the Israeli counter-attack. What is in that for Iran? Annilihation, pure and simple.

Even less is it plausible that Iran would initiate a nuclear war with the US. The Iranians might just as well drop their bomb on themselves and end the suspense. The "nuclear shield" the US is presently trying to impose on Europe would constitute a colossal, unnecessary waste of money.

If an Iranian bomb would serve no offensive purpose, then we might ask does Iran have a legitimate need for deterrence? Of course it does. As Waltz points out, in 2002 Bush declared the Axis of Evil, naming three states, and then proceeded to invade one of them. Might Iranian planners not be thinking, "maybe we're next?" Iran has a US-occupied Iraq on one border and a nuclear Pakistan on the other. And 980 miles down the road from Tehran sits Israel, an aggressive nuclear opponent of Iran.

We in the west may think Israel is a benign neighbor who poses no nuclear threat to Iran, but then again maybe we are wrong. Perhaps Bibi Netanyahu has a covert team of first-strikers sitting in a war-room deep underground in the desert. Do we know? Israel has shown before that it is prepared to make pre-emptive strikes in its national self-interest, in the Six Day War in 1967 and with its bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981. Leaders in Iran might well think Israel is a threat.

And even if Israel is not a threat to Iran the US plainly is. Hardly a week goes by that the Bush-Cheney team does not issue a threat or send a carrier to the waters off Iran. Putting the lunatic Ahmadinejad aside, Iran has legitimate cause for concern. Waltz asserts that it would in fact be strange if Iran did not want to develop nuclear weapons.

So, accepting that Iran is en route to becoming a nuclear power whether we like it or not, and recognizing that there is some merit in Iran's position, we can take on board Waltz's contention that, realistically, it does not matter.

Cheer up my brothers,
Live in the sunshine.
We'll understand it,
All by and by.

("Farther Along," - traditional American hymn)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Interview with Gavin Newsom at Davos

This is a short video from Always On of a high-spirited interview at Davos with Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco and an old friend, in which the interviewer claims Gavin is responsible for Kerry losing the election to Bush. Click on either link below.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Effects of Origami on Psychopathic Killers

The New Yorker has an admirable tradition of publishing articles on subjects which at first seem uninteresting or unimportant, or both, but which in the hands of artful writers become interesting, at least, and important, often. Such is the category into which an article in the February 19 & 26, 2007, issue, entitled "The Origami Lab," and written by one Susan Orlean falls. (Susan is apparently a specialist in the arcane -- she is currently writing a book on -- ready? -- Rin Tin Tin.)

This article is ostensibly about a fascinating character named Robert J. Lang. He has a Ph.D. in applied physics from Caltech -- credential enough in my book. In the Internet collapse of 2000 he bailed out of a normal tech job in (or near) Silicon Valley. He had been doing Origami since the age of six and now became one of the first full time professional Origami scientist/artists. You see above a sample of what he can do. See his brilliant website for more. It is worth the trip.

At Lang's level Origami is no longer about paper hats and paper airplanes (which is about where I left off). It is about advanced mathematics, very special papers and the use of industrial laser cutters to crease paper into complex folds. For example, look at his crease pattern for a dragonfly:

And here is his dragonfly:
Now you do it.

Lang has developed his Origami skills to such an extent that he has been commissioned by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (sanitized from its toxic former name the "Lawrence Radiation Laboratory," which is how it was known when I grew up in Berkeley in the 50's), for example, to plan how to fold a telescope with a hundred meter diameter lens so that it could packed into a rocket and fired into space. Wow!

The story of Lang's development and his achievements is beautifully told in the Orlean article. Fascinating though it is, it is not the point of this blog.

At one point in Orlean's article, near the end, we read that an unnamed "mental-health professional" presented a paper at a 1991 conference on "Origami in Education and Therapy" in which she asserted that her "most rewarding of experiences was that of observing the effect that Origami had on psychopathic killers."

I will pause while your mind boggles, as did mine when I read this. Having surfaced this astounding observation by a "mental-health professional" Orlean drops the subject and moves on to a humdrum account of a meeting of the West Coast Origami Guild in Orange County. You can skip over this part of the article.

Excuse me, Susan, but what effect did Origami have upon psychopathic killers? You owe us.

What about Ted Bundy (at least 30 murders)?

Or Jeffrey Dahmer (17 murders)?

Were they, or others like them, driven to serial murder by the maddening frustration of finding themselves unable to make proper Origami storks? Did they plan their murder sprees while maniacally folding paper into obscene or violent shapes? Did they torture their victims by forcing them to fold paper? Or, once in captivity, did they become immediately becalmed by the pacifying pleasure of partitioned paper? Did they lose all interest in murder and transfer their savage impulses to folded paper? While sitting on death row at the Florida State Prison did Bundy make Origami models of Old Sparky?

It is gross, I admit. But some mental-health professional has written of the "effects of Origami on psychopathic killers," and Susan Orlean has quoted her, but we are left to wonder.

Postscript: A Case in Point -- perhaps

Charles Ng, P- 46001,
San Quentin State Prison

I am indebted to Robert J. Lang himself for a reference to at least one psychopathic killer who does origami -- Charles Ng. Ng was one of two perpetrators of the Motherlode Murders in the foothills of California in the 1980's. He and his partner, Leonard Lake, were thought to have committed upwards of 25 murders in which they kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused, videotaped and murdered 26 or more people, the exact number remains unknown. Lake ultimately did the decent thing and killed himself. Ng fled to Canada, was apprehended and returned to California where he was finally convicted of 11 murders and sentenced to death.

Ng now resides on death row at San Quentin. You see him above. You see him below as he looked then. A Canadian group opposed to the death penalty, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which offers free web pages to death row prisoners, has taken up Ng's cause and provided him with a web page. We learn therein that Ng does indeed do origami because he says that he does.

His text makes interesting if slightly demented reading. He characterizes himself as a victim of injustice: "My case, from inception to verdict, has been both a travesty and outrage of mistreatments and miscarriage of justice." He flirts with the spectre of racial persecution (or is it a macabre form of racial pride?)-- "I am currently the only Chinese prisoner" on death row, then lapses into New Age sentimentality: "To me, art is a universal emotional expression of all cultures, and wildlife art a spiritual reference for all things wild and free; and a way for me to immortalize my love and intimacy to those who are dear and special to me...." Perhaps, Charles. But then there is the matter of those videotapes where you are shown debasing young women. "In captivity, Brenda was seen on tape tied to a chair, pleading for her life as her husband, son, friend Stapley, and others watched in horror. The Asian untied her and she was forced to strip naked before being put in leg-irons and sexually abused by both Lake and the Oriental." Here, apparently, origami is a way for the psychopathic killer to say, "see, I fold paper, I cannot be all bad...."


Most of you probably begin by having no idea what "smirting" means. I was also in the dark until last week when I read a (an?) hilarious article in the Munich daily tabloid Abendzeitung. The starting point of the article was a report on Germany's painful and embarrassingly slow progress toward creating non-smoking areas in daily public life, especially in restaurants, where smoking still runs rampant -- even in designated "no smoking" sections of restaurants, as I discovered recently at the Osteria in Munich.

The Abendzeitung reported on the Irish experience. Ireland has, of course, banned smoking entirely in pubs and restaurants. And that has led to a fascinating new phenomenon: men and women, especially younger men and women, must get up from their restaurant tables or their pub stools and step outside to smoke. And so they do, in all kinds of weather, and with generally good cheer, as I observed on a recent trip to Dublin. While outside they naturally congregate. While thus standing together they not only smoke, but the natural camaraderie of the oppressed clicks in, and they flirt! Why not? What a perfect opportunity to make contact with someone you would not dare approach inside the pub. Hence, the delightful new word "smirting." The perceptive Irish have realized that the dreaded smoking ban has created a huge new opportunity to score.

So far, so good. Now the story gets ugly. What does the hapless non-smoker, left sitting alone at the table inside the restaurant, do when all the action is taking place outside? He or she cannot just walk out and try to pass as a smoker. That is lame and bound to fail. The hard core outside the door will recognize and reject a poseur. So what does he or she do? He or she takes up smoking, that's what! And what does the well-intentioned, health-conscious smoker who knows he or she should quit do? Forget it, step outside, light up and connect!

Who would have thought?