Departments

Xerxes

The xerxes is my private unit of chronometry. One xerxes separates year A and year B such that every adult alive in year A is dead by year B. The xerxes, is only an approximation. It excludes outliers—the lapse of a xerxes does not wait on the expiration of the world's last living; it excludes anyone whose very survival is newsworthy. A xerxes is concluded once you can look at a picture or a list of names and be confident that all the faces and all the names you see belong to dead men. Setting adulthood at 15 and lifespan at three score and ten, and affording a margin of safety of 1/3, a xerxes rounds down to a period of 70 years.

The xerxes implies another unit, the half-xerxes. The half-xerxes separates year A and year B such that half of all people alive in year B were not yet adults in year A. I set the half-xerxes, with less certainty, at 35 years—with less certainty because wars, plagues, and baby booms too easily throw it off. (Otherwise we could more elegantly rely on the half-xerxes as our primary unit.)

Nothing happens only when it happens. Everything memorable recurs in memory until memory is extinguished. And when that memory is a shared one, like the memories enforced by disaster and strife, it establishes, among those who remember, a secret language of allusions and reminders with power beyond ordinary language. The consequences of this language, even at dark removes, are still in truth the consequences of that event. Thus in order to judge an event, we must look at it three times: first, contemporaneously, so we can judge what it means when everyone remembers it; second, from a half-xerxes, so we can judge what it means once most people no longer remember it; and third, from a xerxes, so we can judge what it means once no one remembers it. And until the third look all judgments remain provisional.

Consider the world wars. Given the double carnage of the trenches and the Spanish Flu, it is plausible to mark a half-xerxes between the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII. And though a connection is difficult to assert it is suggestive that the Soviet Union, instituted in reaction to WWI, collapsed a xerxes after it. In Russia and Europe, where WWII was bloodiest, the half-xerxes of that war perhaps came in 1968. In the US it took the full 35 years, until 1980 and the collapse of the "liberal consensus." (On this pattern I intend to keep my eyes open in 2015, when the xerxes of WWII concludes.)

I take the name of this unit from a story in Herodotus. Xerxes the Persian, king of kings, looked over his army of a million men, the greatest army the world had ever seen, absolutely loyal to him, he the greatest ruler the world had ever known—a million men aimed under his command to the ruin and conquest of obstreperous Greece. But as he sat and saw on his hillside throne, something gave way in his mind. Some inward support, rotted out with secret melancholy, broke and let him fall. Xerxes looked at a million strong, proud, fearless men; but Xerxes saw only time and decay and death. Xerxes (a poor calculator) thought that in a hundred years not one of these men would be alive; and thinking so, Xerxes, king of kings, before his army of a million men—Xerxes wept.

Fable of the Wasp and the Caterpillar

The caterpillar had only been chewing though leaves, chewing and crawling as he had for his whole short life. Chewing and crawling – these were the only things he knew.

Then he felt something he had never felt before. There was a weight on him. He could not move. His legs were frozen. A feeling ran through him, chill and warmth at once, something slipping in between all the segments of his long narrow body. Then the weight was gone. Still he could not move.

Once he could move again he returned to chewing and crawling, for these were the only things he knew. But the leaves tasted strange to him now. They did not satisfy him. Day by day their taste faded, yet day by day he hungered more. He ate and ate until his skin grew tight, but still he was not satisfied. Once, at the end of a leaf, his hunger was so frenzied that he tried to eat the stem. He cried out in desperation and despair.

At his cry the other caterpillars came to ask him what was wrong. He looked at the other caterpillars, fat and happy, slow, stupid crawlers and slow, patient eaters, and burning heat rose in him. He screamed at them and cursed them. “Chew and crawl! Crawl and chew! Leaf after leaf, all the same! Wake up. This is not all there is. This can’t be all there is. You’re all the same! You all want me to be just like you, nothing, to be nothing, to do nothing, just blend in, just hide, just pretend not to exist.”

They stared at him with blank, hurt stares. Their fat bodies waved and jiggled on their little legs. He hated them the more for being hurt by his hate.

“You’re all disgusting. You’re all pathetic. You’re just holding me back with your stupid crawling and your stupid chewing. I won’t do this anymore. I’m leaving. Nobody follow me.”

He left and nobody followed him.

His days were all his own now. He spent them chewing and crawling, but now he could chew and crawl in his own way. He wasn’t like them anymore. Something had happened to him. Something had touched him and set him apart. He had been chosen for something – chosen, him! So all alone he chewed and crawled and waited for the thing to come, waited for his destiny to arrive, the grand destiny he knew was prepared for him.

Sometimes at first he would stop, stop and scream at no one in particular, just to scream out the rage that filled him at all the fat stupid caterpillars and all their stupid chewing and stupid crawling. But now, even as his thinning body began to swell again, his rage was softening. Instead of desperation he felt clarity, and instead of rage, he felt pity. He had been chosen, he knew, but he had not just been chosen – he had been elevated. He was above them in every way. He would look down on the caterpillars to watch their slow mindless chewing and crawling. Sometimes he would laugh, sometimes cry. There was so much more, yet they couldn’t see it. They were so small, so trapped, so limited. He, he alone, was free.

He could feel his destiny coming. It was close now. Chewing and crawling lost their interest for him. In deep shadow his body burned from an inner sun. He paused in long meditative reveries. He could feel the imminence of some great change. He would meet it with acceptance and gratitude, thankful to have been the one chosen, thankful to be the one who woke up. He no longer slept. His dreams and his waking sight fused until it seemed that everything he saw contained everything he could see. The moment was closer now. The moment was here. The clarity, the clarity hurt. The heat, the heat, he seemed to melt. He could not move but he was moving – there was movement – something moved – something stretched and twisted – something gave way –

Sometime later, in jewel colors still slick with caterpillar-stuff, a wasp took flight.

Moral: The God reveals but not as a Reward.

Severity

Severity apes wisdom. It looks as wisdom looks, it acts as wisdom acts. But severity is no more a kind of wisdom than fool's gold is a kind of gold. Severity is to wisdom as pedantry is to intelligence. Any quality of mind or dedication of energies that can achieve intelligence can also incur pedantry. Whoever ends up a pedant has missed becoming intelligent, and whoever ends up intelligent has evaded being a pedant. The same terms holds between whoever ends up severe and whoever ends up wise.

Being a pedant is easier than being intelligent. To continue being a pedant only means repeating what you have done before. To continue being intelligent means judging what you have done before. Severity, in the same way, is easier than wisdom. To continue being severe only requires that you go on denying and refusing. To continue being wise requires that you sometimes deny and sometimes accept, sometimes refuse and sometimes permit, according to the good you can do.

Sometimes you must be severe to be wise. Often you must be severe with yourself, must brace or flense yourself. Rarely you must be severe with others, to awaken or correct them. Severity taints trust (no one hugs a cactus twice): the difference between often and rarely is in the impossibility of resenting your own severity, and the certainty of your severity being resented by others. They will resent your severity even when you owe it to—even when they ask it of you. Sometimes you must be severe to be wise; but the wisdom is in the wisdom, not in the severity.

New ideas

New ideas receive their most complex formulations first. This is most obvious in intellectual domains, where the work that introduces an idea never shows how simple it can be. The first draft, being new, is labored, and being new-fangled, is cautious.

This is less obvious, but still true, in other domains, like mechanics. A late mechanical clock, though compact, looks far more complex than a room-filling medieval clock. But the new idea is not the clock; it is the escapement. The painstaking blacksmith, evaluating materials, working and reworking them, test-fitting and adjusting and re-fitting—his efforts were more complex than the industrial procedures which allowed an escapement to be made by someone who had no idea what one was. Likewise the modern computer looks far more complex, though compact, than the room-filling Cold War computer. But the new idea was not the machine; it was the transistor, and now Shockley's circuit, which took days to build, is printed by the millions in fractions of seconds.

Of course, as an artifact, the industrial clock is far more complex than the medieval, and the post-industrial computer is far more complex than the industrial. But artifacts are not themselves ideas. Indeed the shortest definition of an idea is to distinguish it from the other kinds of constituent thought as the part that gets simpler over time.

Ideas seems to obey a kind of conservation principle, one of complexity. In order for an idea to stand on its own, it must be complex in itself. In order for an idea to be simple, it must be inside in a complex system. This is easy to understand for clocks and computers—as escapements and circuits get simpler, they get smaller and more fragile, and must be embedded in more complex, larger, more robust objects.

But this appearance is misleading. Consider guns: as the idea of propelling a projectile with expanding gas got simpler, guns did get smaller—a path runs from the gun that destroyed Byzantium's walls to the concealable pistol—but they also got bigger—guns have been built to launch payloads into space. Or consider the internal combustion engine, which powers motor scooters as well as container ships.

This conservation principle holds for all sizes of artifacts, and for all degrees of abstraction. Few people understood the phrase the electrodynamics of moving bodies; most people understand the phrase mass warps space. But the simpler formulation implies an entire profession whose job it is to define exactly what is meant by mass, by warps, and by space.

Let me suggest some practical consequencs.

1. By the time an idea has become simple enough to be generally understood it has usually ceased to be independently useful. Sometimes this is tautological: when everyone understands democracy, democracy already exists.

2. Few improvements are due to ideas; most are due to realizations. Someone realizes that step B could be eliminated by an alternative method of step C; someone has the idea that the entire process is wrongheaded. To equate realizations and ideas both neuters useful but limited realizations by turning them into abstractions, and suppresses ideas by simplifying them prematurely. Treating the elimination of step B as an idea is how we get the anti-ideas of management. Losing real ideas among false ones is how once-great company X is bankrupted by startup or foreign competitors whose ideas inevitably turn out to have been screened as babies from company X's torrential bathwater.

3. When an idea is new it may be unclear which part of the initial formulation is the idea. Often you must proceed with no more than a sense that your line of research contains a new idea somewhere in it. And even when the initial formulation is ready for use, use must sometimes be widespread and pratical before the idea stands out.

Consider guns again. A submachine gun is a sort of hybrid of the rifle and the pistol. It uses pistol rounds in a rifle-sized frame. Since the gun is relatively heavy and the rounds are relatively low-powered, a single man can control the recoil when the weapon is fired on automatic. (Assault rifles work the same way, using a special class of rounds intermediate between pistol and rifle.) But the first submachine gun—the Thompson, that is, the tommy gun—was not designed with this idea in mind.

One of its inventors had observed in his time on battleships that under the conditions of high pressure in the firing of a naval gun different metals would stick to one another. He called his observation (after himself) the Blish Principle of Metallic Adhesion and patented it as a way of dissipating recoil. In fact what makes recoil manageable is a heavier gun. But not only were the first Thompsons built with Blish's bits of brass in them, they continued to be built this way until the scale of wartime production eliminated the extra step. The gun had been in service for two decades before the idea behind it became clear.

But enough complications. Surely I have given this idea enough complexity to start on.