When the 1,000-billion Mark note came out, few bothered to collect the change when they spent it. By November 1923, with one dollar equal to one trillion Marks, the breakdown was complete. The currency had lost meaning [Paper Money, by ”Adam Smith,” 1981].
In my English adolescence I knew an elderly couple of Silesian Jews, the ”Kellermans,” who had themselves been adolescents in Germany when hyperinflation hit. They had lurid tales about it: kitchen cabinets stuffed full of banknotes to pay for the family’s bread and cheese, cigarettes in widespread use as an alternative currency, and so on.
How fortunate we are to live in this time and place, under governments far too wise, responsible, and incorruptible to let such misfortunes fall upon us!
Isaacson makes clear what I had always supposed: that Musk is an Aspergery low-empathy geek. The geekiness comes, however, with massive strength of will: unshakable faith in his own vision, relentless drive, defiance—often angry defiance—of all risk and negativity.
Listening to Isaacson’s very detailed account of Musk’s work schedule I found myself alternately wondering: (a) When does the guy ever sleep? and (b) How on earth do his employees put up with him?
By way of illustration: Fall of 2008 was a low point for Musk. The first three attempts by his company SpaceX to launch their first rocket, the Falcon 1, had all failed. Both SpaceX and also Musk’s electric-car company Tesla were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Most of us would have quit at that point, but Musk was determined on a fourth launch attempt, in the teeth of skepticism not only from investors but also from his own engineers.
That fourth attempt, at the end of September 2008, was a success. Fifteen years later, in my November 25th edition of The Economist [SpaceX tests Starship, and prepares to face down Amazon] I read this:
In the 21 years since it was founded, SpaceX, a rocketry firm set up by Elon Musk, has become the world’s space superpower. Its cheap, reusable Falcon 9 rocket dominates the launch industry. Thanks mostly to its Starlink satellite-internet business, the firm sends more mass into orbit each year than every other company and country on Earth combined.
It has bigger ambitions still. November 18th saw the second test flight of its Starship rocket, the biggest ever built. The first test, in April, ended with a damaged launchpad and a rocket that self-destructed after trouble with several of the first stage’s 33 engines and the failure of its second stage to separate properly.
The second launch was a big improvement. A new water-dampening system stopped the rocket from wrecking the rebuilt launch pad. All the first stage’s engines stayed lit. A new ”hot staging” separation system, which required the second stage to begin firing its engines while still attached to the first, seemed to perform well … The firm had hoped the first stage might fly itself back to sea level for a landing test, but it blew up shortly after separation. The second stage, meanwhile, reached an altitude of 148km before some kind of malfunction activated its own self-destruct system.
Such fireworks are par for the course. Unlike its older rivals, SpaceX puts its faith in ”iterative design”—trying often and learning from the failures, rather than trying to foresee every problem in advance. The lower stages of its Falcon 9 rockets crashed and burned many times before the firm mastered the art of landing and re-using them, something that had not been done before. These days, with more than 250 successful missions, the Falcon 9 is the most reliable rocket ever made. One of its boosters has flown 18 times.
Elon Musk’s Starlink business could soon be competing with Jeff Bezos’s Kuiper.— The Economist (@TheEconomist) November 23, 2023
Learn how SpaceX is preparing to face down Amazon https://t.co/6IOJrwYFnm 👇
Like ’em or not, Aspergery low-empathy geeks form a disproportionately large subset of those who make big and important things happen. Let’s be thankful for them.
Someone had posted on Twitter that people who think ”Hitler was right” should speak up. Among the responses was a different user who tweeted: ”Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.”
Musk, who of course owns Twitter (which is now called X) responded personally to that latter tweet (”Xeet”? whatever). Wrote Musk: ”You have said the actual truth.”
That of course generated shrieking and rending of garments all over. Big-name companies—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Coca-Cola—were pulling their advertising from Twitter.
Musk had to back off, tweeting four days later that:
This past week, there were hundreds of bogus media stories claiming that I am antisemitic.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I wish only the best for humanity and a prosperous and exciting future for all.
At month end he went on a much-publicized trip to Israel.
The first thing to be said about this is that Musk had a point. Jews have been exceptionally prominent among those advocating for multiculturalism in majority-white nations. The poster gal here is of course Barbara Lerner Spectre, who, in a video clip much circulated since it was first posted ten years ago, delivered herself of the opinion that:
I think there’s a resurgence of antisemitism because at this point in time Europe has not yet learned how to be multicultural, and I think we’re going to be part of the throes of that transformation, which must take place.
Europe is not going to be the monolithic … uh … uh … societies that they once were in the last century. Jews are going to be at the center of that.
It’s a huge transformation for Europe to make. They are now going into a multicultural mode and Jews will be resented because of our leading role. But without that leading role and without that transformation Europe will not survive.
Ms. Spectre was being exceptionally outspoken there; but a lot of Jews would have been nodding agreement.
It’s not hard to figure why. As I myself wrote twenty years ago:
If the Jews learned anything from the twentieth century, it was surely the peril inherent in being the only identifiable minority in a society that is otherwise ethnically homogeneous. That thoughtful Jewish-Americans should seek to avoid this fate is understandable.
So I see Musk’s point. It was, however, dumb of him—Aspergerically dumb—to voice his opinion in public. Now, with half a dozen major businesses to supervise and eleven children surely needing some, at least, of his attention, he has to waste many, many hours of time extricating himself from the Jew Thing quicksand—a fate that any public person should, er, seek to avoid.
To the degree—which, I’ll allow, is not much of a degree—that I count as a public person, I’ve mostly stayed away from the Jew Thing. Aside from that 2003 review and the aforementioned ”Kellermans” piece I’d posted two years earlier, I’ve written nothing of any length about it.
My model here is the wise and good Jared Taylor, who brushes aside all attempts to engage him with what antisemitic cranks refer to coyly as ”the JQ” with the response: ”They look white to me.” (Although to be perfectly fair all round, as one interviewer pointed out to Jared, that’s only strictly true of European Jews.)
It’s just not worth the time and trouble, as Elon Musk is finding out. It also brings a lot of wince-inducing emails to your inbox.
The commonest style of those emails is a sort of whiny victimology: We poor Gentiles, always being pushed around helplessly by those cunning, arrogant Jews! What will become of us? Boo hoo, boo hoo… (All right, I’m exaggerating a bit; but that’s the vibe I get.) That kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.
If the whiners are right then 97 per cent of the U.S. population is dancing to the tune of the other 3 per cent. I still feel about that assertion the same way I felt back in the 2003 review I just linked to, in which I wrote:
If that is true, the only thing to say is the one Shakespeare’s Bianca would have said: ”The more fool they.”
A lesson from the Stoics. Writing about conspiracy theories in my August Diary last year I said:
I’ll confess that I’m temperamentally resistant to elaborate conspiracy theories and strongly partial to believing that most things are what they seem to be.
The other day I got an email comment from a reader expressing skepticism about that. This followed some observations in my November 24th podcast about the cases of Derek Chauvin and the Brunswick Three, who are serving multiple-decade prison sentences for the deaths of, respectively, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
My emailer’s point was that the two things were in contradiction. If I am indeed ”strongly partial to believing that most things are what they seem to be” and temperamentally averse to more complex contrarian explanations, then why am I myself contrarian in the Floyd and Arbery cases? If it was plain to judges and juries that the defendants in those two cases committed racist murders, then why don’t I concur?
OK, but was guilt really plain to those juries, or did they just fear for the safety of themselves and their families? If guilt was plain, was that a consequence of indoctrination to which I, growing up long ago in another country, had not been exposed?
In 1938 Nikolai Bukharin, a member of the Soviet Central Committee under Stalin, was tried, found guilty, and shot for conspiring to overthrow the USSR. He even confessed his guilt. (The case inspired a prize-winning novel by Arthur Koestler.)
Was Bukharin actually guilty? Of course not; but I’d guess that most Soviet citizens at the time thought he was. For twenty years they had been fed with inflammatory fantasies about counter-revolution and ”enemies of the people,” just as the American public has for decades likewise been nourished with colorful tales of wicked, ugly low-class white people persecuting and murdering helpless photogenic blacks.
There were no juries at the Soviet show trials. If there had been, though, I bet Bukharin’s jury would have found him guilty with clean consciences.
And yes, persons of my temperament, ”strongly partial to believing that most things are what they seem to be,” can be fooled when authorities we hold in respect go rogue on us. Here’s an illustrative episode from Chapter 28 of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s subject here is the Stoics.
In theory of knowledge, in spite of Plato, they accepted perception; the deceptiveness of the senses, they held, was really false judgement, and could be avoided by a little care. A Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, an immediate disciple of Zeno, was once invited to dinner by King Ptolemy, who, having heard of this doctrine, offered him a pomegranate made of wax. The philosopher proceeded to try to eat it, whereupon the king laughed at him. He replied that he had felt no certainty of its being a real pomegranate, but had thought it unlikely that anything inedible would be supplied at the royal table. In this answer he appealed to a Stoic distinction, between those things which can be known with certainty on the basis of perception, and those which, on this basis, are only probable. On the whole, this doctrine was sane and scientific.
I wasn’t fooled by the Floyd/Arbery verdicts because I don’t hold the legal/judicial system in much respect. After the show trials of January 6th demonstrators and Donald Trump, and the ongoing lawfare against VDARE.com, why on Earth would I?
A teeny but incredibly dense blob of undifferentiated raw energy suddenly exploded, expanding across billions of years to generate all the stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and superclusters we now see, and the Periodic Table of elements they are made from.
The expansion will slow and stop, though, and then go into reverse, the whole cosmos collapsing back into another teeny undifferentiated blob. So went the theory.
Is identitarianism following some analogous trajectory? I read Steve Sailer’s November 15th column about the current push for black women architects just after I had noted in my November 10th podcast how black women had ascended to the top of the identity totem pole.
Here’s my cosmological analogy. We started the modern age with white Christian European men prominent in everything. Then in the twentieth century women and blacks began to assert themselves, followed by Muslims and homosexuals… leading to today’s multiracial, multisexual, multifaith LGBTQIA2S++ menagerie—an explosion of identities.
The high demand for black women in positions of importance and the corresponding disappearance of white men from those positions, as they have already disappeared from TV commercials, suggests that the menagerie is being culled.
Joe Biden, on the 2020 campaign trail, promised that, if given the opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, he would name a black woman. He subsequently did so.
Shall some future President, ten or twenty years from now, deplore the lack of representation on the Court of disabled black Hispanic two-spirit Zoroastrian transsexuals? Shall the sphere of public prominence have collapsed down to only include persons of such infinitesimally finely defined identity while we of more coarse-grained self-descriptions are kept firmly on the sidelines? I guess we’ll find out.
Turchin on AI. Now we’re all talking about AI, Artificial Intelligence. Among the more interesting articles I’ve seen on the topic was this one from Peter Turchin, the guy who put the phrase ”elite overproduction” into general circulation. It was posted at his own website, November 20th.
The title is: ”When A.I. Comes for the Elites.” Sample:
There are many signs of growing popular discontent. But history teaches us that revolutions are not made by the ”masses.” Popular immiseration and resulting discontent needs to be channeled against the governing regime, and this requires organization by breakaway elites, so-called ”counter-elites.” Without such leaders and organization, non-elite workers have been reduced to voting for populist, anti-systemic politicians, like Donald Trump …
What about the future? The rise of intelligent machines will undermine social stability in a far greater way than previous technological shifts, because now A.I. threatens elite workers—those with advanced degrees. But highly educated people tend to acquire skills and social connections that enable them to organize effectively and challenge the existing power structures. Overproduction of youth with advanced degrees has been the main force driving revolutions from the Springtime of Nations in 1848 to the Arab Spring of 2011.
It’s a good penetrating piece. I recommend it to your attention.
Derb’s AI nightmare. My own personal AI nightmare is not of a worldwide takeover by the smart machines, bending us to their will or just exterminating us. I am much more bothered by the nearer-term, more mundane possibility that AI will—already does, in fact—make difficult things in dangerous areas much easier to accomplish.
The words of that biotech expert quoted in Mustafa Suleyman’s The Coming Wave haunt my nightmares:
Very soon, perhaps already, a hobbyist tinkering with synthetic biology in his garage could kill a billion of us.
At Thanksgiving I was reading online something—something that, naturally, I forgot to bookmark—about North America as the Pilgrims found it. There had been European visitors to Massachusetts before the Pilgrims showed up. They had noted the teeming demographic vigor of the natives, the landscape swarming with people.
Those earlier visitors had, however, brought European diseases with them. By the time the Pilgrims arrived some huge proportion of the natives had died from smallpox and other afflictions. The devastation was apparent to the colonists.
That brought to mind other things I’ve read, both fiction and non-fiction. The fiction was of course George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, which made a great impression on me around age fourteen.
Among the nonfiction was Charles Mann’s 1491. From Chapter 3:
[Inca ruler] Wayna Qhapaq died in the first smallpox epidemic. The virus struck Tawantinsuyu [i.e., the Inca Empire] again in 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. Each time the consequences were beyond the imagination of our fortunate age. ”They died by scores and hundreds,” recalled one eyewitness to the 1565 outbreak. ”Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the fields or piled up in the houses or huts … The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach. They escaped the foul disease, but only to be wasted by famine.” In addition, Tawantinsuyu was invaded by other European pestilences, to which the Indians were equally susceptible. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza in 1558 (together with smallpox), diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618 all flensed the remains of Inka culture. Taken as a whole, [20th-century anthropologist Henry F.] Dobyns thought, the epidemics must have killed nine out of ten of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu.
So no: It’s not the prospect of an all-seeing, all-powerful Skynet that disturbs my peace of mind. It’s that biotech hobbyist in his garage, tinkering with pathogen genomes. Spare us, Dear Lord.
Will AI make us mentally flabby? Leaving aside malign effects, either deliberate or accidental, will AI—even a friendly, your-personal-assistant kind of AI—enstupidate us? When we no longer need to exercise our mental faculties by proving theorems, solving engineering problems, or learning foreign languages, will our minds get flabby and obese?
The probable answer is: Not universally, although there will be a considerable increase in mental flabbiness and obesity.
That, at any rate, is what I’d deduce from the physical parallel. When machines took over most manual labor there was surely a falling-off in general physical fitness. There was also, however, push-back against that trend. People worked out, joined gyms, engaged in sports.
If my own mental faculties were not so flabby I’d do a deep dive into historical statistics (supposing such statistics exist) to find out whether physical flabbiness was indeed rarer before the Industrial Revolution. It would make sense that it was, though.
But today, when we no longer need to work our muscles to earn a wage, many of us work them anyway, often just for the pleasure of it. Perhaps that will happen with our minds, too. Computers have been better than humans at playing chess for a quarter of a century now, yet people still enjoy playing chess.
I wonder what will happen to foreign-language learning when instant and accurate machine translation arrives, which it hasn’t yet. Some people find pleasure in mastering a language, or so I am told. For most of us, though, it’s a tiresome chore. I’ll guess that academic departments of foreign-language learning will see a steep decline in applicants.
I’m told there are vanishingly few jobs in German studies this year. Two of them, meanwhile, focus on themes of identity and social justice.
Pittsburgh: ”We seek a candidate with expertise in Diversity Studies as they pertain to the German-speaking world, with a particular focus on gender and sexuality.”
Dartmouth: ”Preferred areas of expertise are Environmental Humanities, Black German Studies, or both. Topics of emphasis might include, but are not limited to: Ecocriticism, Migration and Diaspora Studies, Black Ecologies, Anthropocene Studies, Animal Studies, Queer Studies, and/or Posthumanism.”
Ecocriticism, black ecologies, queer studies. I really can’t recommend anyone get a PhD in German any time soon.
Goodnight, Henry. Having begun this month’s Diary with a segment on German history, I thought that segment you just read, closing with John Sailer’s tweet about academic German studies, would make the Diary pleasantly symmetrical. (Math Corner not counted.)
The Germanic Muse was not quite finished with me, though. On the penultimate day of November Henry Kissinger died at age 100. Like the ”Kellermans” of my youth, Kissinger was German-born (although Bavarian, not Silesian).
My entire personal engagement with Kissinger consisted of (1) failing to share a lecture stage with him in 2001, and (2) being across the table from him a few years later at a private dinner where he was the invited speaker.
Some of my acquaintances have strong opinions about—I mean against—Kissinger. I’ve heard them all and don’t need reminding. I can’t agree with them, however. I have been constitutionally incapable of agreeing with them since that dinner.
I didn’t take notes and the memory is imprecise; but the essence of our encounter, witnessed by the dozen or so others present, was as follows.
Kissinger had been asked something or other about China’s internal politics, a topic that I myself had been giving close attention to. He gave a brief but sensible answer, then turned back to the food on his plate.
I thought I would offer some opinions of my own, and did so. Kissinger listened attentively. When I was through he nodded acknowledgment, smiled at me across the table, and said, with no detectable irony, something like: ”That is an excellent analysis. Thank you!”
I damn near swooned, and glowed with pride for days afterwards. My opinions about Chinese politics were praised by HENRY KISSINGER! And he THANKED me!!
You don’t forget things like that. I won’t hear a word against the man. Rest in peace, Henry (if you’ll excuse the familiarity).
And for bragging rights of the minor sort, thanks also to that dinner I can boast to my Chinese friends that I have shaken hands at one remove with Mao Tse-tung. (Come to think of it, I can boast the same in regard to Chiang Kai-shek… but that’s a story for another time.)
Brainteaser. Here’s an easy one from the category ”oldies but goodies.” I’ve actually lifted it from the November 2023 issue of Math Horizons.
Find all whole numbers a and b that satisfy the equation
a (a + 1) (a + 2) = b² + 4.