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Thu, 31 Dec 2009

The End of The Year, The End of The Decade

We're now deep in the final days of 2009, which means not only is another year coming to an end, but the first decade of the twenty-first century is ending as well.

What are we to make of this decade-without-a-name? The first two decades of any century are always awkward to name, having no commonly accepted shorthand way of referring to them: the "twenties" through the "nineties" come easily enough, but the only thing I've ever heard for the first decade is the "oughts", and to my knowledge there's no good shorthand for the second decade (nn10 through nn19) at all.

Still, despite the awkward nomenclature, it has been a rather eventful ten years. Then again, is there ever a decade that can honestly be classified as uneventful? Perhaps in the era of pre-history, things happened on such a limited scale or at so slow a pace that, to us, what the emerging homo sapiens of the day would find exciting would appear to us to be rather dull. No doubt the tempo of life took on a more accelerated pace once people started settling together in large numbers, and (especially) writing things down. For any individual, the days and years that make up a decade usually tend to blur one into the other, but we at least have the ability to consult the records of what went on to help jog our memories. (This also explains the special attractiveness of keeping a personal diary, to help one record the personal highs and lows that rarely if ever would make the history books.)

So here is a personal and idiosyncratic look back at the last ten years (in no particular order), highlighting some of the events and ideas that I think will have some lasting impact on all of us in the decades ahead.

September 11, 2001

America was dumb, fat, and happy. We were the unchallenged, single, global superpower. We had fought the rival superpower, the USSR, over the decades of the Cold War, and had forced them to resign without a direct shot fired in anger at each other. Granted there were a few close calls (the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and any number of wars by proxy), but we had emerged essentially unscathed and intact. The last major attacks on American territory were in the opening days of World War II, nearly sixty years before -- and before that, you pretty much had to go back to the War of 1812 for a major foreign attack on American soil. The oceans to our East and West, and docile neighbors to our North and South, did much to reinforce our collective sense of security and safety.

And, on a warm and sunny September morning in 2001, that all changed.

Now I will not go so far as to say that the events of 9/11 resulted in permanent, inalienable changes to our country and our way of life. After all, Pearl Harbor was an attack of similar magnitude, yet as the years and generations passed over the ensuing decades, it was relegated to a factoid in the history books, noted mostly as the event which precipitated direct American involvement in World War II. The number of casualties that day is rarely mentioned, no doubt drowned out by the ever-increasing death tolls as the war progressed.

But the attacks that day on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the foiled attack on Washington were different in many important ways. First of all, the strike was not a direct military attack. Instead, a political movement associated with no particular country used civilian transport against us, turning commercial jet liners into vengeance weapons. Second, the 9/11 attacks had a global audience. At Pearl Harbor, there were wire service reports, and film footage the next day, but by and large the on-the-spot reporting belonged to radio. But now, network and cable news channels beamed live pictures of the events to the entire globe within minutes of the the first plane striking the North Tower. People around the world could watch the attacks and their aftermath unfold more of less in real time. Hearing or reading about a momentous event is one thing -- but witnessing it happen is quite another.

And from the events of that autumn day, a great many other actions sprung forth, most with consequences we still do not fully understand or appreciate. We used 9/11 as the basis for undertaking wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which continue to this day, continuing to sap our blood and treasure (see below). Security involving transportation and infrastructure has been stepped up, but sometimes in seemingly silly ways or in a knee-jerk, after-the-fact manner which doesn't really add much to our true security. The President used the excuse of the "war on terror" to make an unprecedented grab for executive power and to force laws of borderline constitutionality like the Patriot Act down the throat of Congress.

But most of all, September 11th was the end of our age of innocence. For the first time in two decades of working in Manhattan, I suddenly realized that working in New York City meant that I had a non-zero chance of being killed in a similar terrorist attack. Before then, the thought literally never entered my mind. In an absolute sense the risk to me individually was probably quite small -- but I did find myself thinking about it, mentally toting up the pluses and minuses of working in the city, and finally accepting the infinitesimal additional risk as a nominal additional cost of working in a great city. I am many, many times more likely to be killed driving to work in my car every day than I am likely to be victim of a terrorist attack. I don't think about the former, but I can't help being reminded about the latter.

Afghanistan and Iraq

A long and discouraging history of attempts by empires and nations to conquer and control the region we now call Afghanistan did not stop the United States from going in there just a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, with the aim of rousting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from their strongholds there. And while the initial military operations against them were quite successful in removing the Taliban from effective control of the country, some notable intelligence failures allowed the senior Al-Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden, to escape over the boarder into the mountains of western Pakistan.

With the Taliban suppressed, the US brokered the creation of the current Afghan central government, something of a novelty for a country for which the notion of a central government was always something that existed more in spirit than in substance. Still, we pressed ahead with the creation of an ostensible democracy in a country that had never really known one, which mainly served to set the stage for low-level civil wars between the various Afghan regions, tribes, warlords, and factions. The Taliban bided their time, then reemerged several years later to challenge the military for control of large swaths of the country. The US's nation-building policy seems to be largely ineffective. And our troops continue to be wounded and killed.

The rationale for invading Iraq was much the same. While not in hot pursuit of terrorists, we asserted that Saddam Hussein was developing those now-infamous weapons of mass destruction and needed to be stopped. With an ostensible UN mandate, we sent in the troops and quickly overran the outgunned Iraqi armed forces. We even captured Saddam himself, put him on trial, and had him quickly executed. Like in Afghanistan, we set about to remake Iraq in our democratic image, installing a similarly weak coalition government which has been only modestly effective in maintaining order and governing the country. And like in Afghanistan, we are now firmly engaged in an expensive attempt at nation building. And like in Afghanistan, our troops in Iraq continue to be wounded and killed.

Looking back in hindsight, it seems clear that President Kennedy was to a great extent almost bullied into increasing American involvement in Vietnam from a few thousand advisors to tens of thousands of ground troops in order to appear strong and tough to his political opponents at home and to our adversaries abroad. I think that a few decades down the road, we will be making similar pronouncements on our motives for invading Afghanistan and Iraq -- misguided attempts to solve certain specific problems in ways that did not leave us with a manageable way to get out.

iPod and iTunes

Who would have thought it? Apple, the ultimate techno-geek computer company, made an abrupt change in direction early in the decade with the announcement of the iPod, a portable music player, and shortly thereafter, iTunes, an online music store and associated software which was tightly integrated with the iPod, allowing users to manage their collections of music.

There were portable music players before the iPod of course (remember the Walkman?). But these were all relatively limited in the sense that it would be difficult if not impossible to use one for more than a few albums -- the most that could fit on the Walkman's cassette tape. Likewise, portable CD-players were fine if a bit bulky, and again you couldn't take your collection with you. That was the beauty of the iPod -- with its internal hard drive, it had enough capacity to hold hours and hours and hours of music. With a little judicious management of your playlists in the iTunes software, you could create collections of music to suit your situation, temperament, or company.

iTunes was just as big a game-changer. Up to that point, the content providers were struggling hard to control the distribution media and channels. If you wanted a particular song, well, you had to buy the CD it came on, even if that was all you wanted. It was the natural extension of buying vinyl LP records (a "mini-CD" format for singles which would have been analogous to 45 RPM records never caught on, mostly due to a lack of player hardware).

But now with iTunes you could buy songs individually, in whatever combinations suited you. If you wanted to buy the entire album you could do that too, but it was your choice. Almost single-handedly, iTunes became the Internet's first truly successful large-scale pay-for-content site. It turned the content provider's business model on its head, and blazed the way for other forms of distributed media that the studios and their minions could not directly control -- look at Radiohead's 2007 experiment with "pay what you like" for their album In Rainbows. As one of the band members put it, "We had the software, and we had the server, so we figured, why not use it?"

Information wants to be free, but I'm willing to pay a modest price for specific content I want. iTunes and the iPod made that a viable business model.

Political Polarization

Back in the 1980's, an interesting pair of politicians dominated the scene in Washington, DC. Ronald Reagan had just been elected President, and Tip O'Neil was the Speaker of the House. Reagan was just about as conservative as they came, from the California wing of the Republican Party. O'Neil was the quintessential liberal Democrat, a veteran of the Boston political hothouse of which the Kennedys were the most prominent product. Given their respective positions in the government, and their polar opposite views of politics, it was inevitable that the two would go at each other hammer and tongs over any number of contentious issues. Yet, at the end of the political day, these two men were also close friends, two old Irish pols who knew not only how to work the levers of the political machine, but also how to toss a couple back and share their common experiences. They were wide enough to know that politics was a job, and was nothing personal.

The past decade has seen an almost complete breakdown of the notions of respect and civility in the broad American political scene. To my reckoning, the poisoning of the well actually began at the end of the 1990's, with the Republican firestorm that peaked with the impeachment and trial of President Clinton. Say what you will about Clinton's innocence or guilt, the aftermath of the impeachment left Democrats and Republicans at each other's political throats, each ready to pounce on the slightest misstep made by the other side. President Bush managed to parlay overwhelming bipartisan support in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks into a miasma of upset and anger over the way the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were being managed. I don't think Bush was a particularly good President, and I think some of his policies and actions were just this close to crossing over the boarder into unconstitutionality, but I also have to say that I was appalled by the savagery of some of the attacks on him from the left. All sense of proportionality and propriety seemed lost.

The final manifestations of this extreme polarization are now evident following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. From the "birthers" who insist that Obama is not an American citizen, to Congressman Joe Wilson jumping up to interrupt Obama's State of the Union speech with the shouted accusation, "You lie!", it seems like nowadays nearly all constraints are loosed when it comes to political opposition.

Whatever happened to the old saying, "You may not respect the man, but you have to respect the office"? Tip O'Neil and Ronald Reagan can only be looking down at us with sorrow over how low things have sunken.

Lost In Space

So far the twenty-first century has not been overly kind to NASA. Even more than usual, the space agency has had its share of ups and downs (no pun intended). The first priority for NASA for much of this decade has been the ongoing work on the International Space Station (and the end is not yet). One shuttle flight after another ferried supplies, construction materials, and crews back and forth to the burgeoning station. The only real interregnum, of course, was the final flight of the shuttle Columbia in early 2003, which ended with the orbiter's destruction upon reentry. The loss of a second shuttle in flight was a critical factor in NASA's decision to retire the shuttle fleet in 2010, relying on Russion Soyuz spacecraft to service the station until the new Constellation program flew with a new Orion spacecraft later in the decade.

But as has happened many times before, NASA's dreams exceed its grasp. In real terms, NASA's budget has been steadily declining over the past decade. Earlier this year, a commission headed by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, concluded that there simply would not be enough money in the current or projected NASA budgets to be able to maintain Constellation program as currently defined -- meaning that with the shuttles about to go into retirement, the United States will be without a manned space vehicle for many years, and will have no realistic plans for developing one any time soon.

Watch out for those taikonauts!

Global Warming

The worst kinds of dangers are those you can barely perceive. A heart attack is painful and obvious, whereas adult-onset diabetes creeps up on you slowly over a long period of time, almost always with no obvious symptoms until you are firmly in its grip. Plane crashes are awful spectaculars and kill dozens or hundreds of people at a time, but the car accident that kills one or two people is often overlooked, even though in aggregate many times more people are killed in cars each year than in airplanes. (Driving your car is probably one of the riskiest things all of us do on a regular basis, without thinking twice about it.)

Global warming is a real phenomenon. The science is about as solid as any scientific theory can be. The data are there. The evidence is quiet and subtle and diffuse and often far away. That is part of why the problem seems so hard to solve -- because to some it does not seem to be a problem at all. And that is the danger -- failure to respond will almost certainly have catastrophic consequences.

But how do you get someone to respond to something as far away as shrinking icecaps at the poles? Glaciers retreating at an unprecedented pace? Shifting habitats for plants and animals? Changes in ocean salinity or current flows? Unless you happen to be an Inuit trying to cope with the sea ice changes, or a resident of the Tuvalu Islands who is in danger of literally losing their homes beneath the waves (there goes the ".tv" Internet domain!) global warming is something that, for the most part, doesn't affect our quiet everyday lives...

...yet. The real problem is that doing something about global warming will involve trying to change the course down which we are already well and goodly launched. We can't wait until the worst problems are staring us in the face to decide that we should do something -- no more than the Titanic could abruptly steer out of the way of the iceberg looming in its path. Taking immediate action now will help us avoid the worst over the coming years and decades, but even then there are no guarantees about how things will turn out. Sadly for my children and grandchildren, I fear things will inevitably get worse before there's any hope of them getting better. Arguments now that the problem is not real (or at least not bad enough to warrant immediate action) have to be seen for what they are: political disputes ("It'll cost too much", "It's not worth it", "We could be spending the money on better things", and so on ad nauseam.)

In many ways the "debate" over global warming reminds me of the gambler who wrote to the mathematician Blaise Pascal This person had already asked Pascal's advice about various games of chance and the best strategies for playing them, which Pascal analyzed mathematically and concretely. This time, the question was somewhat different from rolls of dice or the turn of a card: was there a God? More specifically, did it make sense to live a good life with the expectation of being rewarded by God with an eternity in heaven, or to indulge in all one's passions, pleasures, and urges without regard to morality or any kind of afterlife consequences? Pascal considered it and responded as any good mathematician would.

Suppose there is no God, but you decide to live a good life anyway, denying yourself immoral pleasures; once you die, that's it. Under those circumstances, Pascal reasoned, you would have "wasted" your threescore and ten here, and should count it as a "loss". If there is a God but you give in to your sybaritic desires, you "win" for your life here (again, say 70 years), but you wind up spending eternity broiling in hellfire: a virtually infinite "loss". You can figure out the other combinations -- one way -70, another outcome +70, a third minus infinity, and the fourth. plus infinity. Mathematically, Pascal responded, the maximum long term gain would come from assuming there is a God and living your life accordingly.

I just hope we as a species have a similar collective measure of insight, and live a virtuous life with respect to solving the problems of global warming. It's that "minus infinity" outcome, all to easy to fall into, that scares me.

In good times and in bad, markets up or down, in times of war or peace or in between, the events of a year and a decade mold and shape us, sometimes in blunt and obvious ways, sometimes quietly and subtly. I wish everyone all the best in the new year and the new decade-without-a-name.

Posted Dec 31, 2009 at 22:56 UTC, 3353 words,  [/richPermalink