Friday, July 17, 2009

40 years ago...

So as we sit in the midst of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight (I prefer to think of the anniversary, like the mission itself, as a multi-day event, not just this single moment of “The Eagle has landed”), CNN ran the following article:

And incidentally, as I write this, this article has been moved to the prime spot on Read into that exactly what you want to.

The article is a relatively good review of the moon-landing-hoax phenomena. Best of all, it includes a link to the YouTube video of Buzz Aldrin punching a leading conspiracy pusher. You’ve got to love a 72 year old guy who can still lay on one some crank’s chin. Glorious moment.

Anyway, what I find kind of depressing about this whole phenomena isn’t the fact that this amazing piece of history (by the way, I DO believe that we landed on the moon) is being attacked. Fine, go ahead, people, and believe your conspiracies. I can go on at great length about why I think people love conspiracies and so on, and will always recommend Foucault’s Pendulum as a good work about the appeal of such ideas (though the book is kind of a typical Umberto Eco slog at times).

What gets me, about the moon landing conspiracies in particular, is that they so dramatically discount our (humanity’s) ability to do something extraordinary. They are, in other words, profoundly depressing to me.

Most conspiracies, I find, seek to explain titanic events that were actually the result of small actions (e.g. a series of individually minor intelligence failures prevents detection of the attack on Pearl Harbor) as the product of grand and titanic forces (F.D.R. allowed/encouraged the attacks because he needed a way to motivate the American populace). I can get this – we all like someone/thing we can blame. And hanging thousands of lives on a series of minor events just doesn’t have the impact of One Dude Who Did It.

Similar theories about regarding the 9/11 attacks. All of them seem predicated on the idea that No One Could Screw Up That Bad. And they replace the series of minor errors with a Grand Conspiracy.

There is a theme here – an ugly, mundane, chaotic reality is replaced with something dramatic and populated by super-capable heroes or villains.

The moon landing theorists go the other way – and this is what I find so depressing. Instead of a massive, concentrated effort by thousands, pushing technical and human limits, the conspiracy theorists would drag that success down to the level of some 2nd rate work on a sound stage.

It is a sad rejection of the capabilities of humanity to take such an achievement and, in the face of all evidence, reject it.

It is a sad, mediocre mind that can only find a sense of worth by bring others down to their level.

It is a sad commentary that (some) people find it easier to subscribe to a "vision" of mediocrity than to a reality of audacious achievement. Is that number increasing (as the article claims it is) because time is passing and a younger generation (understandably) finds it hard to imagine a world, 40 years gone, where humans could walk on the moon? Or is it increasing out of a gradual settling of goals and visions, a drooping of expectations and efforts from struggling for grand, shared visions to a selfish assumption of ease and entitlement?

Yours, in hope of audacity, that we may remember and recognize what we all (and all of us) are capable of.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Boldly going...or is it going boldly?

Top fifteen things I like about the new Star Trek (and please note that the following list may contain spoilers but will do so somewhat incidentally and is not a plot summary):

15) Has the courage to split the infinitive and go with the original "to boldly go" construction. FYI, I am with that faction of writers and grammarians (probably because I am more writer than grammarian) that accepts that in certain situations a spit infinitive is an entirely acceptable thing to do and may, in fact, have dramatic, narrative, or stylistic advantages (such as here, where "boldly" gets more emphasis by virtue of its placement).

14) Captain Pike shows Kirk up as a girly man. More seriously, I liked the contrast between the old (but somewhat free thinking) commander and the young (and entirely free thinking) commander. Pike is what Kirk will become after he cooks for a few years...and Pike I suspect sees Kirk as what he was like before he'd had a chance to cook himself.

13) No Borg. I was afraid that they'd try to have some Borg backstory going on -- they are a fantastic enemy but are very much a product of the latter instances of the show. And besides, First Contact already did a pretty strong time-travel-Borg themed story (and did it very well).

12) The alternate-history reboot meant that I actually thought some of the principle characters might die. Gone was the easy ability to predict which characters would live and which would die.

11) Speaking of alternate histories, they avoided the "and the boy woke up" conceit and decided to stick with the new history that they created, rather than having some dramatic event result in a bright flash of light and a cut to some scene that made it clear that we were back in the traditional Star Trek history (e.g. Kirk graduating from the Academy with his father proudly looking on).

10) Speaking (more) of alternate histories, I applaud the decision to "reboot" the show. Just as Casino Royal did for the Bond franchise, it is sometimes necessary to clear the decks and start from scratch. The Star Trek timeline had grown so polluted with interpretations, inconsistencies, and conflicts that this was an almost essential move. I know many old school Trekkies were displeased (and I know some of those old school Trekkies who I know were displeased), but (don't take this the wrong way, old school Trekkies) I think there is a degree of curmudgeonly resentment, as if new Trek fans haven't "served their time" dealing with the hideous stretch polyester costumes and Shatner's bizarre speech patterns.

9) Finally breaks the "naval combat" two-dimensionality of the Star Trek space combat scenes. Granted, Star Trek II had the "he only things in two dimensions" moment, but notice that the "descending Enterprise" that ambushes Kahn was settling like some sort of blimp, and not really utilizing the third dimension. Prior to this point, the only true excursion into that wacky third dimension is in the wonderful All Good Things wrap up to The Next Generation when the refitted Enterprise is seen "flying" 90 degrees out of plane to the Klingons.

8) I honestly liked the blue collar villain. I know some weren't as taken, but for starters the guy looks and sounds remarkably like Kevin, one of the trainers at the gym where Erica and I work out (great guy, Kevin). But I really felt for this character -- here he is, some Romulan miner who'd rather just head home, have a few pints of Romulan Ale, and spend time with his family. Instead, an unspeakable tragedy (and a very human-like desire to focus his rage and loss on a single object) drives him mostly-mad and on a quest for vengeance that drives him the rest of the way mad. Quite a change from Christopher Plumber's wonderful Shakespeare-quoting Klingon General to have this plain-talking "Joe the Romulan Miner" character.

7) I was very pleased to see many of the "background" members of the principle cast get stronger stories. E.g. Uhura is now portrayed as a brilliant linguist and Checkov as a math whiz. The Original Show was pioneering for including a black woman and a Russian in the crew. Now we can actually give them some skills. And I thought that Checkov the 17 year old math whiz was actually played relatively well as a 17 year old math whiz -- somewhat geeky but not entirely so. But then again, we live in an age when even geekdom is socially acceptable.

6) I can't possibly express how pleased I am that the Beastie Boy's Sabotage continues to exist in the 23rd century and to serve as an anthem for rebellious midwestern youth.

5) Played with a lot of humor -- and a good balance of action and humor. Star Trek is not an action movie franchise, but it has always incorporated action into the stories. Primarily it has been about ingenuity and clever escapes and the power of friendship and loyalty -- something that is harder to think of and harder to execute than a good shoot-em-up sequence. All was well balanced here. And the humor was, I thought, quite wonderfully played, for Star Trek has always possessed a real wry sense of "eyebrow raising" humor. From the slapstick Dr. Strangelove homage of Kirk's "puffy hands" sequence to the generally well played "signature moment" taglines for each crew member to the dry wit of Spock, the humor was great.

4) No Shatner. 'Nuff said.

3) My favorite moon, Titan, played a significant role. The background shot of Jupiter in that sequence is, I presume, based on a Cassini shot that has often been my little MacBook's desktop background.

2) in their characterization of the original actors. Some, such as Chris Pine's portrayal of Kirk, stopped short of going all the way (e.g. avoided the speech patterns). Others, such as Karl Urban's McCoy ran with the original and gave it some added depth.

1) And the number one thing I liked about the new Star Trek: it breaks the "odd number curse" of the Star Trek films.

Top five things I don't like about the new Star Trek:

5) While most of the "young" characters had a pretty good physical resemblance to their "old" originals (this is starting to sound like the "New Originals" scene in Spinal Tap), Sulu was a pretty wide miss. It turns out (thank you Wikipedia) that John Cho (young Sulu) is Korean-American, which goes some way to explaining the differences of physical build. I'm willing to run with George Takei (old Sulu, if you are ignorant of such things) and his logic that since Sulu was stuck representing for all of Asia in TOS (and, as it would turn out, all of the GLBT community, a group for which I think Takei is one of their finest spokespeople), it was OK to show a little license there.

4) Age, a decade or so of obscurity, and a painkiller habit have not been kind to Winona Ryder.

3) The conceit of having most of the Federation fleet away fighting some action in some other chunk of space, thereby allowing for the convenient crew-of-academy-punks was a little convenient. But, then again, this is Star Trek and such convenient conceits seem to be a integral part of this universe.

2) While I generally really liked the way that the technology was portrayed (generally a little clunkier than in the "later" shows, lots of warning labels, etc., I did think that there were some points where it looked like the bowls of the Enterprise had been converted into a brewery or a winery. I actually seriously think that one scene was shot in a winery, one of those big ones with lots of stainless steel for making low grade white wine.

1) Just one too many of "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a..."


Fifteen points in favor, five against...most of which are moderated to some degree. I'll make it easy and just come out and say that I loved it. A very well balanced film, two hours that passed quickly and have produced a lot of good musing, thinking, and discussion afterwards. Recommended, and worth the theater trip to see it in the full spectacle. I'll be queuing up to buy the BluRay when it comes out!

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Frigate Navy Redux

For the most part, I would like to be clear, I am downright delighted with what Secretary of Defense Robert (not Bill) Gates is doing. He's got a tough job at a tough time and is really taking a big bull by the horns in some of his efforts to reform the defense acquisitions process and push right-now tools out to the warfighters rather than sexy, slow to mature, high ticket programs that make for nice Popular Science covers. As a further footnote, something that he's doing that I think is absolutely brilliant is taking this agenda to the junior offices of the military. There are a lot more Lieutenants or Captains out there getting ready to lead their platoons or companies patrol somewhere in The Suck than there are queuing up for spots to fly an F-22. And while those smaller voices have a lot less individual pull than the Generals at the top, there are a lot of those smaller voices, and as they rotate through staff or Pentagon assignments, those voices start to wield some weight.

But I digress from a point I have not yet started to make.

Picture 8.jpg
This is to be about the Navy, and about naval strategy. One of Gates' favored programs is something called the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS. Undeniably, it is sexy and dramatic vessel. A fast, agile sort of mini-warship, half Cigarette Boat, half special operations watercraft, half guided missile destroyer. It looks (and here is where I get a little mean) great on the cover of Popular Science. The LCS is a ship for the current war -- a fast and agile vessel designed to fight in close in to enemy shores, coping with "popup" threats, supporting SOF types and Marines, and clearing the way for the regular deep water navy. Peel the skin back on one and it reveals as a remarkable amount of empty space -- designed to be filled with mission kits for anti-sumbarine warfare, minehunting, inland strike, or covert operations.

Conceptually, the LCS is clever. It is designed to offer a game changing degree of modularity, and this modularity allows for a striking range of capabilities to fit in a single hull -- without that hull getting so large that it grows unwieldy and incapable of the in-shore mission. And (perhaps more importantly these days) without having to buy enough gear to equip every hull equally. The math, at this point, seems entirely sound -- the chances of needing to simultaneously land a SEAL team, sweep for mines, and hunt submarines are pretty slim. So build a bunch of ships that can't do all of these things at once and just enough gear to go around, one kit per vessel. You cross-deck the sonar arrays depending on which ship is tasked with sub hunting. Cross-deck the minehunting robots to the needed ships, the special ops kit, etc. all as needed.

The modularity carries with it a drawback -- the fact that these modules need to be changed. I mean, what if you do suddenly need to hunt submarines? Fine, go in to port, swap out the launching ramp and the rubber boats, and the gym and barracks for the SEALS. Load aboard the towed array sonar kit. Fly off the MH-60's that were doing the special ops work and land a couple of SH-60's to drop torpedos and do sonar dips. Let the SEALS go drink some beer and bring on board some mine warfare experts. Lather, rinse, and repeat of the mission changes again.

Great plan, provided you have a friendly port nearby. And, with a bit of a flourish, the drawback to the whole LCS falls in to place. It truly is designed for the current war. By which I mean the Persian Gulf -- a place where it is never too far from a friendly port where it can meet up with a tender for supply and conversion between roles. Which also means, of course, that though capable on paper of some fantastic speeds, the LCS' true speed of deployment is limited by the rate at which logistic support can be brought over to resupply and re-role the vessel when needed.

Now modern navy's have always depended on supply lines -- and since the US Navy perfected underway replenishment during and after World War Two, the need for friendly foreign bases has been much reduced. I fear that the LCS will only take us back a stage, back to the era of the coal fired navy when allied ports were needed every few thousand miles, ready to refill the hungry bunkers of those early, inefficient vessels. Commodore Perry, anyone?

I am as optimistic as the next person that the Obama administration's policies will see a return towards the coalition building that dominated the war fighting of the past few decades -- when the US was working as a member (all be it a dominant one) of a team and could, therefore, pretty reliably count on friendly ports for its efforts. But even so, this reliance has its costs and risks. Does the USS Cole bring back any memories?

Or, to bring up a more timely situation, what about Somalia and the shindiggery going on in the waters of East Africa? More on that later.

Much of naval warfare is about maintaining presence. That is the thing, in this globalized world, that navies can do better than any other branch of the services. A ship can, in a way that no other weapon system can, simply be. It can hang out, outside the twelve mile limit and in international waters, just saying a friendly "hi." The sort of "hi" that can carry Tomahawk missiles (and therefore reach just shy of 1,000 nautical miles inland in the latest version), soak up radio and radar signals and send them back home to the NSA boffins, keep track of hostile or suspect shipping. It is the very epitome of "speak softly and carry a big stick," it is the reason the phrase "gunboat diplomacy" has not been replaced with the phrase "uncrewed air vehicle diplomacy." A warship, or a collection of them, can maintain free passage of the sea lanes that carry the overwhelming majority of the world's commerce...or close them off when blockade and embargo is the order of the day.

The United States Navy currently possess the most capable and versatile floating big sticks in the military world -- the largest fleet of (and the largest) air craft carriers in the world. There are also dozens of CG-47 and DDG-51 class cruisers and destroyers, all with exactly the sort of staying power and strike capability that I'm talking about. Boo-ya. Fly Navy.

But these are big assets -- and many are tied up in the odd sort of self-escorting that is the devil of all deployed military operations. The cruisers are busy escorting the carriers, protecting them, tending to them. All of these vessels are also forward deployed, with their unique and amazing capabilities, around countries like North Korea that have a disturbing to just go ballistic one day (pardon the pun) or fighting the couple of active wars in which we are currently embroiled. Not a lot of these high-ticket ships are left to fill in the little cracks in US foreign policy.

Like Somalia.

Picture 13.jpgThere was once a great and noble fleet of Perry class frigates (a different Perry, not the Commodore who opened up Japan), but these little and versatile ships are rapidly disappearing and now less than half of those built remain in US Navy service. Just to give you an idea of the sort of missions that these ships are tasked with, let me relate the history of one particular Perry class frigate, the USS Nicholas, during Gulf War Senior. Now I don't want you to think that I'm disrespecting the contributions of the decks launching strike missions or the cruisers launching Tomahawks. But while these "big guns" stood back and did their deeds from a distance, the Nicholas found herself:

1) recapturing the first piece of Kuwait, an oil platform, and in the process capturing the first Iraqi prisoners of the war.
2) detecting and (in cooperation with a Royal Navy frigate of similar size and their embarked helicopters) sinking about a dozen Iraqi patrol boats.
3) rescuing a downed USAF pilot
4) accidentally being shot at by another USAF pilot (no harm done)
5) destroying several Iraqi laid mines
6) escorting the battleships Missouri and Wisconsin on gunfire missions.

During much of this conflict she was operating 70 miles closer to enemy shores than any other "regular" US Navy vessel. Since then she's kept on with the busy agenda. Read the Wiki page. Oh, and just to brag, ships that share my name have a bit of a history. If you really want a busy naval career, look at the 2nd USS Nicholas (the one I was just writing about was the third).

Now here's where I get to my point -- that list of accomplishments, from Iraq to Bosnia, is a litany you will find on few vessels twice her size. It is an irony of naval history that very often the big ships do not get the big missions.

Picture 11.jpgAs the Perrys fade away, proving too expensive to update and too expensive to crew, the LCS' are supposed to be coming online to fill the gap. Well, the Zumwalt is supposed to be as well -- but did anyone catch the price tag there? $3.3 billion. Yes, and perhaps more. That's the reason the big ships don't do exciting things. They cost too much. The Zumwalt is also easily the ugliest warship that anyone has ever contemplated building. Just say "no" to tumblehome, people.

But the little ships -- the new ones, the LCS -- run the risk of simply creating more trouble by requiring more basing, more supply lines, and more reasons to maintain a presence in the first place. It is just a return to the problem of spending so many of your resources protecting and supporting your resources that we you have no resources left to actually do anything.

Do I have a solution, or am I just a crank?

Actually, I have a solution. At one level, this solution is simply "more Perrys." More medium sized vessels, handy enough to operate in the littorals, large enough to play a role in a deep ocean fight and to help with the escort needs of the 1st class navy (carriers, cruisers, amphibious vessels), affordable enough to be built in quantities sufficient to send them where needed, large enough to be self supporting for a reasonable length of mission. Part of what made the Perrys such versatile vessels was that they were just big enough to take on all sorts of odd adjuncts for their interesting missions. During her Gulf War stint, the Nicholas was carrying a Navy SH-60B helicopter, two Army OH-58D helicopters, an add-on infrared sight system (such things are now common), a kluged together minehunting sonar, and a handful of Navy SEALs to do the dirty work that occasionally came along. It had to have been a crowded ship...but it held up.

Currently US shipbuilding is leaving this size range empty. The overly-small LCS hulls are being built, production slowly ramping up to speed. And the fugly Zumwalts are out there, somewhere, presumably striking fear and nightmares into shipyard workers forced to build them.

So for my solution I am going to turn to the French. Yes, the French. Mocked in American military circles for so many reasons (many of which are undeserved, or at least more reasonable when explored in some depth...e.g. why did the French accumulate such a reputation for capitulation and might have something to do with a reaction to loosing 1.4 million dead and 4.3 million wounded in World War One while pursuing a strategy of "offensive above all else"...but that is a topic for another blog). But they are a nation of increasingly competent engineering -- even if it is occasionally different in art and concept than that produced by this nation.

The French are facing a similar problem, actually, their own need to maintain a sustained global presence. Ever since the days of de Gaulle, France has styled herself as a "mini superpower," wanting all of the trappings and abilities of the United States and the Soviet Union, all be it in miniature. And so France is one of the few countries of Europe that has always sought to maintain a global capability of power projection. This goal has not always been successful and many struggling deployments exposed weaknesses (much as the Falklands campaign exposed in the English).

As touches mid-size naval combatants (which is the point of this now much diverted blog), France had some interesting and moderately successful experiments with not-quite-warships in the form of the Floreal class, an odd sort of mini-frigate with a disproportionally large helicopter hangar (actually a normal size helicopter hangar on a ship that was by conventional measure "too small" to support it). The resulting package was perfect for low-level flag showing, cooperative work, blockading, etc. But it didn't quite have the chutzpa do really rumble with the real warships and only six were built. The Floreal was half of what I'm looking for -- sustained presence and enforcement, but not enough warfighting.

But facing the obsolescence of several other frigate-sized vessels, and an almost dramatically unsuccessful Franco-Enlish alliance to build an anti-aircraft destroyer, the French got together with the Italians (similar needs, if not quite of the same scale) and produced the FREMM. That stands for something, FREMM, presumably in French but possibly in Italian, that roughly means "European Multi-Mission Frigate." I have found, by the way, that French acronyms are often very nearly (and occasionally exactly) opposite the same acronym in English. So perhaps it is actually "Multi Mission European Frigate" and they kept the R from FRigate in there so it wouldn't be named "femm" which would be too close to "femme" for everyone's comfort. I'm not sure.

The first hull of these new ships to be built for the French is to be the Aquitaine which is a truly beautiful word and much easier to say that "FREMM" and so, even if it is harder to type, I will hereafter call these ships the Aquitaine class.

Picture 12.jpgNow for starters, the Aquitaine is beautiful in a way that very few modern warships are. Boxy, yes, but somewhat less so than many of her peers. The long low foredeck gives a nice pointy look, not quite as Cigarette Boat as the LCS, but perhaps more evocative of the WWII era battleships and cruisers with their long gun covered bows. In a Walter Mitty sort of way, I can picture North (or South) Atlantic (or Pacific) seas dashing back as the bow buries itself in a wave, spray flying aft against the pilothouse windows (and of course, there is Commander Nick, cup of coffee in hand, standing on the heaving deck, scanning the horizon...).

Ahem, back to my morning train ride.

And besides, this is about naval strategy and procurement and not about romanticized places-I'd-rather-be...

At this point I am going to consciously avoid the trap of rattling off a catalog of meaningless statistics about what sorts of missiles are tucked where and how many shells the gun can fire in a minute's time. Generally, these are academic details. In nutshell-land, it would break down like this, going from fore to aft:

Gun for protection against aircraft or, even more critically, small/medium sized boats as are so often used by developing nations and terrorists.

Bank of missiles, some anti-aircraft for self protection and some strike for targeting deep inland.

Bundle of anti ship missiles.

A few odd smaller guns for defense against more of the small-random-boat sort of threat.

LOTS of decoys against missiles, torpedos, etc.

A couple of torpedos to deal with sneaky submarines.

A big hanger and helicopter pad for all the wonderful versatility that helicopters bring to medium-sized warships.

Tucked away is a surprisingly competent sonar system, on par with the best in the world. I say "surprising" because anti-submarine warfare is generally out of fashion among the navies of the West -- and has been so ever since the evaporation of the Soviet threat. That sonar is an important part of why I so like the Aquitaine -- a respectful inclusion of anti-submarine capability. Right now, the US Navy is letting much of its ASW capability go. Granted, the big-bad Soviet submarine force is in decay (with a tendency to catch fire, sink, or sit on the stocks for a decade or two half completed) and their new-building programs have tended to produce more ominous news reports than completed submarines.

But there are other threats out there, and in coastal waters a small submarine, such as those that are proliferating in the developing world, can be a potent force of ambush if well handled. And the proliferation of AIP's means that the sustained submerged endurance that was long the sole province of the nuclear navies (US, UK, France, China, Russia, and occasionally India) has spread. So another highly capable ASW hull is a (sorry Martha) Good Thing.

There is the usual complement of radars and a very capable electronic warfare suite (that IS a lot of antennas you see). I'm not barreling into details because the exact make and model of each piece of hardware is frankly boring. The overall picture, the synergy, is what counts. And here is what that synergy is:

A medium sized, versatile warship. One capable of providing world-class anti-sumbarine efforts from deep ocean escort to hunting diesel boats in the shallows. One capable of protecting itself from air threats and of minimally extending that protection to other vessels. One capable of projecting its sphere of influence and observation beyond the horizon (fancy way of saying "carrying a helicopter"). And, uniquely for its size, one capable of projecting the big-stick-factor several hundred miles inland, for the Scalp Naval will have capabilities not too far removed from the well known Tomahawk cruise missile. So take that persistence I've talked about and notch it up one.

An Americanized Aquitaine would obviously show changes. Swap missiles around (out go ASTERS and Scalp Naval, in go ESSMS and TacTom). Fiddle the radars so you have guidance for the ESSMS'. Whatever. Gain a bit here, loose a bit there. I'm not even going to get involved in the holy war that is medium calibre gun selection. Pick your favorite. The US is gravitating towards Swedish 57mm's, the Aquitaine has an Italian 76mm. Personally, there ain't no replacement for displacement (which is NASCAR for "bigger guns are better").

I'd (and this is a controversial one) actually not replacing the Exocet anti ship missiles with their American counterparts (a weapon called Harpoon). I'm actually only aware of a Harpoon being fired in anger twice, once in the 1980's and once in 1991's original Gulf War. Tac-Tom has a nominal moving target capability and I'd rely on that, saving a few bucks of purchase cost, hours of maintenance, and tons of displacement.

The big helicopter deck is a crucial asset -- the no-hanger DDG-51's taught the US Navy to never again build a large combatant without helicopter capabilities. Particularly in today's small-to-medium size wars, the ability to extend the ship's horizon by anything from a few dozen to a hundred miles provides much of the reach necessary for patrolling and enforcement.

This is, in a very real sense, a return to the role of the Frigate as it was two hundred years ago. A ship capable of holding its own in battle, of fighting amongst and supporting the larger vessels when the conflict reaches "large" size. But a ship optimized for cruising, for endurance at sea and for flexibility in employment. A ship that could support a low level conflict off the coast of a nascent African nation (my Somalia riff again) or anywhere else without requiring controversial or vulnerable ports. A ship capable of maintaining a presence, for purposes of force or policy, of acting when necessary in offense or defense, of protecting interests at sea or on land.

Now I'm not insisting that, right now, the DoD slap down 500-600 million US$ for each of thirty or forty of these ships. I'm a blogger, and therefore have little power to actually insist anything. But here's how things stand -- the LCS was supposed to run about $240 million each and is currently about 100% over budget (and swelling). The Aquitaines are supposed to cost $510 million each. Given the lower technical risk of the less "game changing" design, I'd estimate the chances of cost growth on the FREMM project to be a lot less, say 20%. And the LCS bugs will get ironed out until they cost, say, $350 million each. That would allow for building roughly 32 Aquitaine class vessels for the cost of the planned 55 LCS vessels. 32 vessels with much greater staying power, versatility, adaptability, and utility. And 32 vessels that will not hamstring the navy with increased basing requirements, shorter endurances, and yet more vulnerable and expensive supply lines. Furthermore, with sufficient size, crew, endurance, and capability, the Aquitaine would free up some big DDG-51 and CG-47 vessels, allowing them to operate at somewhat reduced tempos or to focus on global crisis states such as North Korea and its nascent ballistic missile capability.

I don't care how this is implemented. The Aquitaine is pretty and presents exactly the sort of blend that I think a vessel of this class needs (the strategic strike role is genius). But I do know what one of the major hurdles will be -- the submarine force. Facing the same threat of "why do we have them" as other cold war naval assets (reference above on decline of Big Red's submarine forces), the sub guys have pointed out three roles for which they are excellently suited: anti-submarine warfare, strategic strike, and special operations. These are all true -- these are excellent roles for a submarine. But the wonderful nuke boats are expensive to operate, a limited asset numerically, but worst of all their ace card, their stealth, denies them the ability to provide presence. But an Americanized Aquitaine would threaten two (actually all three) of these roles and therefore face opposition from the silent service. Well, no good idea ever went unopposed, and if Gates is willing to face down The Admirals and The Generals over some of the other elements of his agenda, perhaps he can fight this one for me. Besides, there are a lot more naval officers who are going to see surface commands (and therefore have a vested interest in a surface navy) than will ever see an undersea command.

The result of all of this?

Not, perhaps a potential game changer, but a solid and adaptable performer. Something perfectly suited to the crucial need for naval presence in times and places of peace, crisis, and war.

A ship that would enable more projection, and less dependance.

A classic frigate for the 21st century.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Linear Feedback Shift Registers and The Playing Card Cipher

So I was looking for a name for my playing card cipher that I described a few days ago. I'd go with that, call it PCC for short, but that is the name of a local market chain and therefore has already been taken.

I'd thought of a few more. Realize, please, that ciphers often have acronym names and, particularly for not-so-serious ones like this, the name involves a degree of punning. Hence the following candidates:

CARD: Cipher Algorithm with Randomized Deck
DECK: Deniable Encryption with Card-based Keystream

Personally, I like DECK. And so DECK it shall be known as. At least for the length of this post.

Now, after writing up the initial description, I thought it might be a good idea to expand on the underlying design and design rational. And, by way of that, to talk a little about stream cipher design.

First off, I know that this is by no means the first attempt to produce a cipher based around playing cards. At the very least "Solitaire," developed by Real Cryptologist and crypto-guru Bruce Schneier got there first.

But I think that my Clever Idea is the use of playing cards as indicators of binary state, therefore enabling the translation of any cipher into playing card form -- it is just a matter of producing one that blends simplicity and security in a way as to produce a reasonable amount of security for a reasonable amount of effort.

For various reasons, when I was putting together DECK this "reasonableness requirement" drove me to focus on stream ciphers. In a nutshell, a stream cipher is one where the cipher mechanism operates independently of the plaintext. The output of this independently running stream then modifies the cipher text one bit (in the case of a binary cipher like mine) at a time. Most older stream ciphers are bit-oriented because they were intended to be implemented in dedicated hardware (military radios, bulk encryption hardware, cell phones). Many newer ones are designed to produce 8-bit bytes, 32-bit words, or other chunks of keystream all at once, as ciphers are increasingly expected to run on general purpose computing systems.

But we're dealing with playing cards and need to keep it simple -- so a bitwise stream cipher it was to be.

The most well understood mechanism of stream cipher design is something called a Linear Feedback Shift Register or LSFR. If you look at DECK, you will see that it has three of them -- each of the three rows of six, seven, and eleven cards constitutes an LSFR.

An LSFR consists of a certain number of registers (each card is a register). An LSFR steps, as described in CARD, by pushing the contents of the register one to the right (from the input side to the output), discarding the rightmost bit, and using a combination of bits in the register's previous state to produce a new input bit going in to the new state.

The input bit is produced by XOR of the contents of several specified bits in the register. If the specified bits are chosen correctly (technically they must be primitive polynomials, which is something I don't really understand, but is something I can look up here or here or here) then your LSFR will produce a sequence of output bits (based, say, on the rightmost bit of the register, the one we "discard" with each shift) that does not repeat for 2^n-1 steps (where, predictably, n is the length of the register).

In other words, a properly designed 6-bit LSFR will produce a unique sequence of bits for 63 steps. A properly designed 7-bit LSFR will produce a unique sequence of bits for 127 steps. And a properly designed 11-bit LSFR will produce a unique combination of bits for 2,047 steps. It also means that there are 2n unique patters that each LSFR can produce.

Now I could simply use an LSFR to produce a sequence of bits -- and indeed this approach can be used when a non-secure cipher is needed (e.g. when randomizing an electrical signal to reduce RFI or for some spread-spectrum transmission techniques). But I want to produce a secure cipher and for that a simple LSFR is not going to work.

Here's why:

A Linear Feedback Shift Register has, unsurprisingly given its name, a linear output. That means that the output of the LSFR depends in a simple and obvious way on the contents of the LSFR. If I had a simple LSFR and I recorded the output for a period of time equal to its length, then I would know what the register contents were at the point I started.

Since an LSFR is also deterministic, that is to say that given the state of the register at any given time it is possible to determine the state of the register at any other time, once you know the register at one point in time any future or past output can be determined.

A simple known-plaintext attack then makes breaking a simple LSFR child's play.

Some complications are needed. One option is to combine a single LFSR with some sort of nonlinear stage to generate the output.

This would mean instead of taking the keystream off the right-hand-edge of the cipher I'd do something more complex. Typically this would involve grabbing not just the end value but several values from within the register and combining them together in a more complex way.

At first this was the approach I pursued.

The original draft of DECK (which may yet see some life in a mildly altered form) was a 24-bit (24-card) LFSR. The reason for 24, by the way, was the purely arbitrary decision that the 16-million possible keys to a 24-bit keyspace would produce enough security for my application.

I then developed a simple non-linear function (by flipping a coin during that epic conference call) that took four input bits from the LFSR and used them to determine a single output bit. I had the idea that which four bits in the LFSR were tapped to feed the non-linear function could be part of the keyspace and therefore increase the complexity of the cipher.

This is inspired by a late-cold-war cipher called KEA that was used in some exportable radio equipment that was sold under various Foreign Military Sales efforts. Exact details of KEA (which I believe stands for "Kinetic Encryption Algorithm) are not known, but the variable-taps-to-non-linear-combiner idea comes from there.

Anyhow, it turned out to be rather more difficult to keep track of those 24 cards, stepping all of them every round, then I expected. And, while I'm sure I'd eventually have memorized it, I kept having to consult a table written on a sticky note ("Stick Together!") to produce the output bit.

This lead to a phase of introspection and review. There is, fortunately, another way to generate a less-guessable output from a LFSR. This involves combining the output of several registers together. Several registers with regular stepping can be mixed by a non-linear function, as is done in the E0 cipher used in Bluetooth devices.

While this might break up the stepping from one titanic effort of 24 cards at a time, I'd still be dealing with some sort of memorized nonlinear function (and the one in E0 is a bear, so I'd have to simplify it a lot for my purposes).

Another approach for adding nonlinearity to cipher consisting of several LFSR's is to step them irregularly but combine them simply. This is done in a lot of simple (and theoretical) bitstream ciphers. Read Applied Cryptography to read about them. This is also the approach taken by A5/1, the much mocked GSM cipher.

A5/1 isn't really mocked so much as it is broken. Which, in cryptanalytic circles, is the same thing. It has several known flaws and a sufficiently small keyspace as to make them practical for exploitation. But before we get all cranky about it, let's remember that A5/1 was developed in 1987 -- 22 years ago, an eternity in cipher years and was, if you buy the conspiracy theories, deliberately kept somewhat weak at the request of European police and security agencies. Though much of that intentional weakening is in the key setup, which is out of scope for this discussion.

Despite this, I've always found A5/1 to be a very pleasing cipher. Let's take a look at it:

Picture 11.jpg

Note that Wikipedia has very much more attractive illustration of A5/1 here but the diagram runs from RIGHT-to-LEFT, the reverse of all of my other descriptions. My brain must work from left-to-right, the opposite of French cryptologists (A5/1 is French). So I found this image, which I pwned, but since I got it from a ppt about breaking A5/1, I don't feel too naughty.

If you think back to the description of DECK, you may already see similarities. Note the three LFSR's: upper, middle, and lower. The plus-in-a-circle stands for XOR, so you may be able to figure out the three feedback lines, one for each register. The upper and bottom are tapped in four places, the central one in two places. The output is generated by simply XOR'ing the rightmost bits of each of the three registers.

None of this is fancy -- and in fact none of it is particularly secure. Where A5/1 gets interesting is how it clocks the three registers. Look at the three center(ish) bits, C1, C2, and C3. Just like DECK, A5/1 clocks whichever registers have the same value as the majority of the center bits. Two or three registers clock.

What drew me to this construction is that 3/4 of the time, only two registers have to clock. So, when it comes time to flip the playing cards, instead of having to deal with 24 of them every round, there is a chance that our DECK-using agent will only have to flip 13, 17 or 18 cards. On average, that means flipping 18 cards. Labor saving!

To get the numbers down, for DECK, I reduced the contents of all three registers. I also changed the feedback polynomials and tapped all three registers at only two places each. Both have a negative security impact, I'm sure, but also simplify the user's job. The fact that the taps for the shorter two registers work out to the last two positions helps. So the only extra number that needs to be memorized is that the long register taps at the 9th and final spots.

So that is, roughly put, the evolution of DECK. All of the other discussion points of developing a good binary language that were mentioned in the original posting apply.

Now I'm still playing with this playing-card-cipher idea. I still hold out some potential for the single-register version. I also have some thoughts about a "short but wide" cipher that uses five bit values for each stage of the shift register, thereby producing enough output to encipher one "letter" worth of information at a time.

I also wonder if there would be a way to mix a couple of techniques to produce "reasonable" security with greater convenience. Perhaps a fixed permutation (shuffling but not flipping) of a set number of bits at a time (probably five) combined with a more simply generated keystream. This might vaguely resemble Phillip Rogaway's OCB block cipher construction which I'm rather partial to (and not just because he's a prof at Davis, my home town). The permutation could be keyed but constant across a given message. Not sure about the security implications of that, or how much additional convenience it would give.

More musings...likely...

It would get away from the genesis of DECK, which was to use playing cards to implement well understood modern cipher techniques. But hey, its all in fun anyway, isn't it?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Playing Card Cipher

UPDATE: I have added an expanded discussion of the thought process behind this cipher and some of the underlying technologies: Linear Feedback Shift Registers and the Playing Card Cipher. Happy reading!

The following post describes a cipher, one with a few unusual properties. First off, it is not intended to be implemented with any of the usual technologies of computers, custom integrated circuits, or even electro-mechanical rotors.

It is intended to be implemented with playing cards.

It was born during an epic conference call (the total call ran to 14 hours, though my role it it lasted just around 12) when I occasionally found myself with little to do but listen and wait for an opportunity to contribute. It proceeded to evolve over several days of tweaking and (I hope) improvement until finally reaching the form I outline below.

In addition to the unusual form of implementation, this cipher was constrained by some equally unique requirements:

1) It should be possible to implement it using the technology of the 17th century.

2) It should require no tools or objects that could arouse suspicion.

3) Ideally, it should be easy to "hide" efforts at using the cipher if discovered

4) It should be possible for a person of slightly above average intelligence, if taught and given opportunity to practice, to implement the cipher from memory.

5) It should possess sufficient security for the times.

Picture 1.jpgThe inspiration was the cryptographic subplots of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and, in particular, the exploits of spy/courtesan Eliza. I'd also recently discovered Sony's very elegant Clefia cipher and found myself in a crypto-mood.

Not being a cryptographer, but rather a fan of cryptography, I chose to base this cipher on a fairly well know and reasonably simple href="">stream cipher. For various technical reasons related to complexity of implementation, I chose a stream cipher rather than the more complex (but potentially more secure) block cipher approach.

My basis was A5/1, the cipher used to encrypt voice channels in GSM telephones. A5/1 is pretty broadly regarded as completely broken, but is well described and gloriously simple. I simplified it more. And, I'd like to mention, broken has very different meanings in 2009 and 1779. Rather than getting into a lot of design theory and the evolution (which I think is rather interesting...) let's dive in to the beast itself.

I will assume that before producing the cipher that the message to be enciphered has been translated into some sort of binary notation. There is some discussion of this later, but it could be as simple as saying that the pattern 00001 = A, 00010 = B, 00011 = C, 00100 = D, etc. at five bits per character.

But now here is now the cipher works...

Throughout the following, I use the notation that face up cards have the binary value of 1 and face down cards the binary value of 0. The entire cipher is, then, implemented using playing cards in place of binary registers.

Lay out three rows of cards.

The uppermost has (in this version of the cipher) six cards, the next seven cards, and the bottom row eleven cards. I find it easy to "right justify" these rows so that the rightmost cards are all aligned vertically. These three rows constitute the shift registers of the cipher. The leftmost card in each row constitutes the "first" position in that shift register and the rightmost the "last." Binary values will migrate from left to right across each shift register. Face up cards represent binary "1" values and face down cards represent binary "2" values. The arrangement of up and down cards constitutes the initial key of the cipher.

With this arrangement, there are 24 cards, equivalent to a keyspace of 24 bits. Paltry by modern security standards, but remember that we are doing this with playing cards! The intent here is to produce a cipher using modern design concepts but that an 18th century spy could have implemented. Note that I do not specify the method of "keying" the cipher. I have some speculations on that later, but suffice it to say that some scheme for inputting the initial pattern of cards is essential -- and that the decoder be able to produce the same initial state.

To the left of each row of cards, place a single card. This card is not actually part of the keyspace, but is used as a mnemonic to store the new first value before it is fed into the register.

It may also be helpful to place a few markers on the layout to facilitate the stepping of the cipher. The actual marker is up to the individual depending on circumstances of availability, epoch, cover story, personal preference, etc. Think poker chip, other card, pretzel, pen, Post-It note, etc (I used matches because they were handy). Each marker should be set above or below the designated card so that it does not interfere with the manipulation of the card. It will also help to have two different types of markers. Use the first kind, which we will call red, to mark the last (right-most) two cards of the upper two rows (cards 5 and 6 of the upper and cards 6 and 7 of the lower) as well as the last and next-to-las (cards 9 and 11) of the last row. Note that in the illustrations I used matches placed below the indicated cards. Then use the second kind of mark, which we will call black, to mark the 3rd, 4th, and 8th cards in the top, middle, and bottom rows respectively. Note that these cards should all lie in a vertical column if the layout was set up as I suggest. Here I simply placed a pair of matches at the top and bottom of this column.

Now begins the process of "stepping" the cipher and generating the output.

The cipher executes through a series of "rounds," each of which produces one bit of output. Each row consists of three phases (this is starting to sound like some German style board game, isn't it?).

Phase One

During the first phase we produce one bit (one binary value) of cipher output.

Look at the last (rightmost) cards. If there is an even number of 1 (face up) cards then the cipher outputs a 0. If there is an odd number of 1 cards, then the cipher outputs a 1. Note that zero is an even number. Technically this mathematical function is called an XOR and is a very big deal in modern cipher design.

This output (called the keystream) will be combined with the plaintext message bit-by-bit using the same function. If the plaintext and the keystream are both 1's or both 0's, then the ciphertext is a 0. If either the plaintext or the keystream is a 1, then the ciphertext is a 1.

Phase Two

Now we need to step the cipher forward to prepare for the next round. Look at each row's red highlighted spaces (5th and 6th, 6th and 7th, or 9th and 11th). Based on the values in these spots, we will select the new first value of that row. The extra cards laid to the left of the cipher spaces will serve as memory aids in this process.

Again, use an XOR. If the two highlighted spaces are both 1 or both 0, the extra card sets to 0. If exactly one of the highlighted spaces is 1, then the extra card sets to 1.

Phase Three

Finally we will actually step the cipher forward. This is the most time-consuming step in the process and actually involves two sub-phases.

In the first sub-phase we decide which rows will step. The result will either be two or three. Look at the black highlighted column. Based on the three cards in this column, either 1's or 0's will have a majority. If 1's have the majority, step whichever rows have 1's in this column. If 0's have the majority, step whichever rows have 0's in this column.

For example, if the top most row has a 0 in the black highlighted column, the middle row has a 1, and the bottom row has a 1, then the bottom two rows would step and the upper row would remain unchanged for this round.

Note that if all three cards are the same then all three rows step.

To actually step each row, simply start with the right most card and set it to the value of the card immediately to its left. This means that the rightmost value is lost and the "new" value is fed in from the extra cards that we set up in step two.

That's it.

That whole process produces one bit of output. It takes (about) five of those to encipher one letter.

Back then, people had a lot more time.

A few notes:

To decipher, simply start with the same initial setup and repeat this process. The beauty of the XOR is that it is self-reversing. XOR plaintext and keystream together to produce cipher text. XOR cipher text with keystream and the plain text magically reappears.

The use of the cards to represent bits by face up/down state removes any dependancy on the particular variety of card deck in use (such things have not always been as standardized as they are today). One could use Tarot cards, for example.

It may be helpful to run the cipher for some time while noting down the output on a piece of paper and then doing the xor to transform the plaintext into the cipher text. I use the extra cards of the deck to store a batch of output, stacking them face up or face down depending on each step's output.

I make no effort to define the method of key setup. Any of several strings of numbers could be used, sourced in any of several ways. Information from a newspaper, translated into binary could be used. It would, in any case, be very advisable to run the cipher a cycle or two to mix in the new key before starting to actually use the output.

I also make no guarantees of security. Let's face it, this was developed based on a flawed and broken cipher with modifications performed by a guy with little mathematical understanding of cryptology beyond the most shallow and conceptual level (that's me). The value here is purely as an exercise, a game, and a period piece.

One of the obvioius sources of tedium in this cipher is the inefficiency of binary for sending information. Versatile, yes, but it takes more than five symbols to represent the same amount of information contained in one english letter. A carefully chosen scheme for representing the text (assuming the message is in text) in binary is therefore important. Obviously ASCII with its irritatingly liesurely 8-bits per character pace is out, since there is no need to represent upper, lower, and a whole host of wacky special symbols.

Instead, since this is for secret communication, pare down to the minimums.

For starters, I suggest a five-bit code that would allow for the sending of 32 characters. Beyond the basic 26, the extras could represent common words or phrases, punctuation, or a shift character to swap to a different binary alphabet for numbers.

Six-bit characters would allow for the representation of all the numbers even more cleanly and then some (probably a short hand for common words and phrases) since it would allow for 64 possible values. Keep in mind that this binary alphabet must be memorizable.

This is a whole separate discussion, but there are countless options for optimizing the encoding process. A Huffman code is another option, of course, but I have not had the opportunity to see how effective of a Huffman code I can build and if it ends up as more effective than the shorthand I propose above.

To conclude, here is a basic example:

I wish to encode the message "GOOD NIGHT."

I encode this message using this simple binary code:

A: 00001
B: 00010
C: 00011
D: 00100
E: 00101
F: 00110
G: 00111
H: 01000
I: 01001
J: 01010
K: 01011
L: 01100
M: 01101
N: 01110
O: 01111
P: 10000
Q: 10001
R: 10010
S: 10011
T: 10100
U: 10101
V: 10110
W: 10111
X: 11000
Y: 11001
Z: 11010
Space: 11011
Period: 11100

I get:

00111 01111 01111 00100 11011 01110 01001 00111 01000 10100

I will key my cipher with the day's close of the Jow Jones Industrials which happened to be 8125.43 today (not bad, by today's standards!). Since that won't give me quite enough digits, I will concatenate it with the absolute value of the day's change, 95.81. I will ignore any 0's or 9's that come up and encode these digits in a simple three-bit binary where:

1: 000
2: 001
3: 010
4: 011
5: 100
6: 101
7: 110
8: 111

This set of digits 8125439581 sets my key as:

111 000 001 100 011 010 100 111 000

I actually have extra, so I won't end up using the last three bits. The rest I put into the cipher, starting at the upper left and loading the three rows from left to right, top to bottom. The starting position is, then:

X 111000
X 0011000
X 11010100111

Note the highlighted spots in the rows.

The first step of the cipher produces a "1" as output since the rightmost spots have two 0's and a 1.

The intermediate phase of this step sets the extra cards (initially shown as X's) to 0, 0, 0.

O 111000
O 0011000
O 11010100111

Since the upper and middle rows both have 1's in the black highlighted space, they step forward, producing this:

0 011100
0 0001100
0 11010100111

The next step produces another 1 for output (which will, either now or later, be XOR'd with the 2nd bit of the plaintext just as the first output was with the 1st bit of the plaintext).

The cipher then advances:

0 001110
0 0000110
0 11010100111

The third step produces another 1 and the cipher advances:

1 001110
1 1000011
0 01101010011

It produces a 0 and advances...

And so on and so on.

Enjoy. Use it -- with due warnings of security. If you are a 17th century secret agent, please let me know. If you find this interesting, please do so as well. I have done much thinking on this topic and hope to do more.

Oh yes, and it needs a name...I'm working on that. Perhaps at the next conference call?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This blog entry was conceived as a review of Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem. I say that because half way through you may think that you've wandered into a discussion of the phenomena known as the "sense of wonder" by science fiction pundits, my own personal thoughts on the motivations that keep us reading a given book, my equally personal thoughts about writing and authorship, and the scientific and philosophical viewpoints of Roger Penrose. Despite this potential perceived digression, this entry remains a discussion of Anathem -- and of the train of emotional and philosophical musings that book set into action.

And this brief introductory paragraph serves, also, as an example of something that Anathem lacked -- perhaps inevitably so. More on that later.

Back to the book. And beware, that spoilers are going to occur. Not plot description spoilers. If you want those, google "Anathem" or just go to the book's Wikipedia page which contains a passable plot summary. My spoilers will be more in the way of indirect references to the events and concepts in the book.

Anathem is a book that I believe all science fiction authors are drawn to, at some point in their careers, write. Some get to it right away, others dance around the topic for decades. For Stephenson, known for his near-term post-cyberpunk and historical fiction, this was not the most obvious direction for his writing to take. But, as I said, it is an almost inevitable draw.

A draw to what?

To first contact.

To the first meeting of two races, peoples, biologies, civilizations, or whatever. Sometimes it is humans and bug-eyed monsters, sometimes long lost worlds, or any of a thousand other variations. But the thought of meeting life from elsewhere is an endemic and driving force among us who read, write, or think about science fiction. The reasons should be obvious, and so not need themselves be explored.

Anathem also reminds me fiercely of one of my absolute personal favorite books, Umberto Eco's masterful The Name of the Rose (if you want a more detailed discussion, and some backstory on my reading tastes, please check out my Desert Island Books post). Some similarities are almost immediately obvious. Both books are set in monasteries (of a sort). Both feature first person narratives written, ostensibly, as journals by monks living within said monasteries-of-a-sort. Both involve sub-plots investigating the relationship between cloistered and secular life. Both possess complex stories with interwoven plots and gradually unfolding layers of mystery. And both possess patient pacing that slowly build from a sedentary opening to a violent climax.

There is something interesting in this pacing, for both books, so methodical and conversational and almost plodding. Some books are page-turners. Each page, each scene, each chapter throws something new and electrifying, drawing you onward and onward toward the finish. But some books require tolerance and devotion to finish. They draw you on more subtly and more provocatively: there may be tedious periods of exposition to endure, plot twists to absorb, obtuse narrative to decipher. What keeps us reading, then?

Remember, I promised you this diversion!

I posit that there are four good reasons that keep us reading a book. There are also some less sophisticated (or less healthy) motivations -- bull-headedness, peer pressure, assignments, etc. But as for the reasons that are worth our discussion:

Excitement: This is perhaps the "simplest" reason. The book is compelling by virtue of what happens. The scenes are graphic and fast paced and transporting, by virtue of the moment-to-moment action, to another time and place. Movies do this easily and do it well, and books can muster the same sense of excitement and urgency when the fur is flying. But what if, as happens in the opening scenes of both Anathem and The Name of the Rose, the excitement just isn't there, replaced with philosophical musing or detailed backstory?

Mystery: We humans, at least those of us who enjoy science fiction, are inevitable lovers of mysteries. We want to know and understand what is going on. If we are faced with an puzzle we want to know the solution. It does not matter if the puzzle is complex (what is up with the machinations of the evil warlord?), simple (who killed the monk?), or very complex (what is the very nature of space-time?), we want an answer. Note -- one of those three is from The Name of the Rose, one from Anathem, and the warlord thing I totally made up. A book that poses a sufficiently interesting mystery -- and keeps us interested and following along with clues on the way -- can maintain interest as surely as one that as a rolling series of smack-down fight scenes. Note that I do not just mean mysteries in the sense of an episode of CSI or Matlock, but also the more general sense of "an unknown" that beckons exploration.

Threat: Once we are invested in a character or characters, we want to know that they are OK. If there is a threat of danger -- of death or injury or banishment or whatever other peril is appropriate -- we will keep reading to make sure that threat passes or is defeated. Naturally, threats and mysteries can interweave -- and good bit of excitement can be built up while illustrating the threat. And should be, since a threat must feel real to the reader, just as it does to the characters. And us fickle readers need reminding, every so often, of what perils are out there.

Sense of Wonder: Finally we get to the somewhat cryptic "sense of wonder." This is a term often used in science fiction and fantasy circles to refer to that wonderful moment in a book (or movie) when the reader/audience suddenly realizes that "It looks like we're not in Kansas any more." And there you have it -- one of cinema's most well known "sense of wonder" moments. Another inevitable classic is "That's no moon, that's a space station." Got it?

"Sense of wonder" moments (which I will henceforth call "moments of wonder") nicely pair with mysteries. Think "Jurassic Park": where are we, what is going on? Cut to Laura Dern's reaction shot (and John Williams' rather cliche score) as she sees the grazing dinosaurs. Sometimes (like Jurassic Park) the moment of wonder hits us with the grace of a sledgehammer. Sometimes it creeps in more gently (if you haven't seen Jacob's Ladder, do so, but do so early in the day in a well lighted room while surrounded by a group of close friends who will accompany you everywhere you go for the next 96 hours).

Sense of wonder is a powerful thing. It is in so many ways the opposite of a mystery -- it is a moment of revelation and often explanation. But if done right it is also a moment that opens up even further moments of mystery and wonder -- and that does so by playing on our sense of curiosity and desire to explore the unknown.

Now back to The Name of the Rose, Anathem, and a third book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clark's wonderful and fantastic (archaic and modern meanings of both words, please) alternative history that truly deserves a review of its own but must be patient and enjoy this brief appearance in a supporting role. All three are books with (depending on your viewpoint) charmingly or lumberingly methodical paces. All three are books that occasionally "go off" on tangents that seem, at the time, of little or no importance. All three rely, then, on some degree of Mystery, Threat, or Sense-of-Wonder to keep the reader going.

The Name of the Rose opens with a mystery -- a dead monk. That alone is interesting and good for a few pages. But when monks continue to die, that mystery deepens. New ones are added as the heroes pursue the responsible party. The inquisition is about to show up, and things are going to get ugly (add Threat). Someone soon tries to eliminate the nosy investigators...more threat... Eco even manages to work in a few Moments-of-Wonder, taking advantage of the 14th century setting. In the end, the sometimes tedious slog through the boring bits proves worth it -- for only by accepting and learning from the philosophical debates and discussions can the motivations behind the crimes truly be understood.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell relies much more on a sense of wonder, of a dreamy floating journey through an alternate and magic-infused England. The book leans on willfully archaic language and a Jane Austen look-and-feel that is interrupted by moments of wonder and magic to propel the reader along like a punt along the Thames (and that really is the image I have in mind). There is also threat -- the brooding malevolence of "The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair" and the foreshadowing of Clark's many footnotes.

Anathem is at least as needing of such invigorating motivations as the other books. Perhaps even more so, since its first 500 pages include a free lesson on physics and metaphysics. Normally, the chance to learn is more than enough to keep me reading. And Stephenson, I want to say clearly and loudly, is a brilliant teacher. If he wrote a non-fiction physics textbook I'd buy it in a second and probably read it twenty times. Some of my favorite moments in The Diamond Age are the allegorical tales from The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Stephenson works analogy as an instructional tool like no one I have ever read, heard, or known (and this is an area in which I am no slouch myself). And the educational moments in Anathem are as fine as any he has ever written.

There are just too many of them.

When setting a book in a monastery, even one located on an alien world, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making every scene a dialog between two characters. That is, after all, a large part of what appears to take place in the cloistered world. Discussion. Teaching. Debate. Musing. You can muse with total focus, muse while pruning grapes, muse while eating, muse while perming penance, muse while participating in rites and rituals. And Anathem pretty much works all of these possible musing-settings.

Until I, for one, was pretty well mused out. Because, you see, these wonderfully clear moments of instruction and debate were not discussing the Earthly science and philosophy that I know. They were discussing that of Arbe, the world on which the book is set. Yes, Stephenson has the audacity to teach cosmology, physics, orbital dynamics, configuration space mathematics, cognitive psychology, and a fair bit of metaphysics all while using about 50% made up words. This is what finally got me to the hands-in-the-air point of frustration. How was I to know if a given passage, which I found interesting, was something that I could bring up in conversation with a reasonably well educated and intelligent person and have a reasonable chance that they'd know what I was talking about?

Now don't get me wrong -- Stephenson wasn't making this shit up. It was all dead-to-right academically derived thinking -- mostly that of fox (and not hedgehog) Roger Penrose. But just enough of it was changed that I knew it was different. So why, I kept asking myself, should I invest the energy necessary to put all of this together when it is only good within the context of this one novel (all be it a long novel)? If I wanted to take any of my knowledge home with me, if I wanted any of that transfer that us adult educators crow about so much, I'd have to build a key translating terms, concepts, and theoreticians between the lingo of Arbe and that of 21st century Earth.

Finally, of course, I did reach the throw-my-hands-up point. I didn't literally throw them up, but I began reading a little faster. I'd go into turbo mode -- skim whole pages at one glance looking to see if things had moved on. If they hadn't, I'd kick it forward another page and repeat until I saw some variety.

This was, I know, a morally reprehensible way of acting. But for someone with a family, a career, a house to take care of, and the crowing distractions of Google and Wikipedia present at every turn, sometimes those precious thirty or forty five minutes on the train or in bed at the end of the day feel so oppressively short that the relentless push of the clock forces us to do things we don't want to. Like skip ahead a few pages. And because of this, I know I must accept some of the blame for what follows. But some of that blame must fold back onto the author. For if the traveler is lost, it may not be that they didn't read the map, but that the map is unreadable.

What Stephenson seems to have expected would keep us going was the Sense of Wonder. Anathem is full of little moments where the differences between Arbe and Earth, and the interesting complexities of Arbe's civilization, show up. Each of these was a little kick in the backside, a boost good for a few more pages. There was also threat, brooding, quiet, indistinct, and all together insufficiently threatening. For the first few hundred pages.

Things do start to stiffen up, a little, as the book moves on but it really isn't until almost page three hundred that we start to get the good payoffs. The possibility of aliens. But we still have to noodle around another two hundred or so for things to get concrete and solid and the threat to, rather slowly, materialize. Namely, that the alines Might Not Be Nice.

By that point, however, things have gotten good and solid and there is less and less time to dawdle around with tedious discussions about science and philosophy using made up words. Instead, we have migrated into a pretty good aliens vs. humans (except that the humans aren't really humans, but rather residents of the planet Arbe, and some of the aliens, as we eventually learn, are humans) story. It kept vaguely reminding me of the old Niven/Pournelle book Footfall.

You know the schtick, an overwhelmingly powerful but aloof force is defeated by the element of surprise and cleverness by scrappy not-quite-humans. It was well implemented, and involved a few clever tricks. An almost excessively detailed deviation into orbital dynamics was part of it. And the quantum fuzziness of the multiple-worlds-theory that was so pervasive an object of discussion throughout the rest of the book kept cropping up and providing a waking-dream level of what-narrative-do-I-trust interest.

It was good, quite good. It was compelling and page turning, devoid of excessive musing and discussion. A great deal of conspiracy, potential conspiracy, and just plain confusion kept every one guessing. And it ended with a gratifying tightness and evenness of pace that is wildly out of character for Stephenson. But it wasn't quite worth the investment that I perceived as expected of me, the reader, through the first few hundred pages.

The interesting thing, in retrospect, is that if I had stuck through it and gotten full value out of Stephenson's education in the first 500 pages, I would have found the payoff in the second half of the book, and in particular over the last 150 pages, much more compelling. Instead of a "decent aliens vs. not-quite-humans story" it would have been a much more clever, tightly woven, and possibly even slightly profound aliens vs. not-quite-humans story.

So there is a lesson here, regarding the path we take when the map is nearly unreadable. Sometimes it is, perhaps, intentionally so, and the wandering journey is part of the experience. So with that said, I look forward to re-reading Anathem the next time I truly have a Great Deal of time to kill. I might pursue the audiobook, since that format is much less conducive to "yeah-whatever" fits of page turning. Audible has one, though it appears to be a full-cast recording and I am rather notorious for disliking full-cast recordings.

It is also interesting to note that my immediate reaction, after finishing Anathem was not to foreswear Stephenson as a tedious hack and to run away from any of the ideas that he was considering. No, instead I went and started googling those scientists, philosophers, and scientist/philosophers that clearly influenced the book. And, on my way out the door the following morning, I grabbed Quicksilver, book one of his vast "Baroque Cycle" trilogy. I'd started Quicksilver some time ago, and recalled liking it, but had put it down (as it turns out, based on a receipt from Bouchon that I found pressed into service as a bookmark, the interrupting factor was returning home after a few days vacation).

As I read through Wikis about Roger Penrose and his ideas I kept having retroactive "moments of wonder" -- points where I would flash back to some element in the fast paced final few hundred pages of Anathem and suddenly get it. Understand how it fit into the tangled web that Stephenson had been weaving over those first 500-700 pages. And that is why I now realize that, had I been more patient and methodical (and had Stephenson thrown me some more breadcrumbs to keep the motivation alive), the whole thing might have been much more worth the wait.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Captain Collected

So I assume you've all been listening to Christian Bale's much publicized rant against the director of photography on the new Terminator movie. I think that, in addition to betraying a certain lack of impulse control, it may indicate a lack of understanding about how movies are made. Let me lay it out for you, Mr. Bale.

You see, there are these things called cameras that you might have heard of. They, together with those bright, glowing objects called lights are under the control of a man called, variously, the cinematographer or director of photography. The important thing to realize, Mr. Bale, is that this is not a live stage play. The audience doesn't see you in all your glory. They see pictures. Pictures that the DP takes. So, you see, it is best to treat him with respect. Unless you want to find your nose hair the best lit and in-focus part of a close up, one day.

Now the DP didn't walk into the shot and spoil a take. He walked around in the background. Perhaps it was a slack-ass move on his part, perhaps he was trying to get the next shot set up so that Mr. Bale wouldn't have to wait or the movie could stay on time or within budget. Who knows.

Today I found another piece of audio. Now you all know that I since the events of US Airways flight 1549, I (along with the rest of the aviation community) have been doing everything possible to hallow Captain Sullenberger and his crew. Well, here is another way to do so: compare temperaments between Capt. Sullenberger and Mr. Bale. Here is an audio recording of the (brief) flight. Don't worry if you don't understand the combination of New York accent and aviation-speak going on for most of the recording. The important parts are clear enough.

Ok, so let's compare Bale with Sullenberger.

One is irritated because some one moved around on set. Now granted, I'm sure this threw off his acting, but you know, it happens all the time that I'm at work and someone comes over and talks to me, throwing off my mojo just when I'm really in the zone.

Now listen to the airplane. They are going to crash. It is not a "we might crash" situation, but a "how bad will we crash?" situation. Will we all freeze/drown in the river? Will we be burned to death in a fireball? Smushed in the impact? Or some sort of more graceful crash?

Do we hear "What the F&*^ are you doing, geese? What are you doing flying in my way? I mean F*&(^, you call yourselves professional?" No. We hear "unable..." repeated over and over.

Someone should take cool lessons, I think. On the other hand, there might be a sort of "Dark Knight" curse. Like Poltergeist had. Or not. Bale could just be a jackass.

Oh, and going back to the airplane, I have a few amusing notes:

I like the guy (he's the tower controller at LGA) who asks for confirmation of which engines failed. What part of "both" don't you understand?

I also wonder if, at some point when the main controller asks "what do you need to land" or some variation, the thought occurred to one of the men in the cockpit "two new engines!"

And even though the controllers get a little confused (briefly talking about flight 1529), it is remarkable that, for all they know, this airplane just ended up a smoking hole in the ground, but they keep shuffling the rest of the airtraffic around.

One final Flight 1549 note -- this incident has been big news in the aviation community. It is rather interesting to think about why. Why do I think everyone is so interested? Because no one died. Since everyone made it off, and the overall tone was one of heroism and miracle, there is no finger pointing going on.

A normal crash investigation is very much of a blame attribution situation. And if there was any serious loss of life or property, then that blame could end up having huge financial and legal consequences. If the NTSB or other investigative agencies report that an engine or aircraft component was substandard, or that maintenance was ill performed, then that report will have obvious influence on the inevitable post-crash legal actions.

But this time, everyone was OK. Some luggage was lost, or at least ended up quite wet, but I don't hear anyone whining about that.

And since the results of the investigation are free of any legal consequence (and therefore there is much, much less of a place for political and industrial pressures to enter into the investigation), those working to understand what happened can focus on understanding what happened. What worked, what didn't, what should be done the same next time and what should be changed.

Besides, it is a hell of a lot less morbid!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Inauguration Day

In this post, I plan to go to school on Barack Obama. Not as in "I'm going to school you, Barack!" but as in "Barack is going to school me..."

First let me apologize for not having a lot of pictures. I may wedge a shot of President Obama (it is fun to say that) or other speakers along the margin. But as this is a blog entry about words, I thought I would keep the focus on the text and the language itself.

I want to spend some time looking at words and how they are used. Words are, after all, the heart of my craft as a writer, teacher, and, in my limited way, public speaker. And so whenever I see someone (or even more pointedly, hear someone) with a gift for the language, I am drawn to their content and their methods. And President (I get to say that again) Obama is clearly one of those people worth looking at.

At one point during the inauguration speech, during the "hawkish" bit, I was wondering if Bush Jr. was sitting thinking, "Man, if I could talk like that, perhaps things would have gone better for me!" The simple fact is that Obama was doing hawk way better than Bush ever could. (If you would like a reminder of how ill-spoken Bush so often was, I direct you to David Letterman's top-ten list).

Now a bit of a thought on the power of words and speeches. Obama's often criticized as an "empty suit" -- a collection of great words but little in the way of concrete plans. That is perhaps true, but only if one listens only to the speeches. The thing is, though, that what is a speech supposed to be? A detailed policy statement? No, that is called a 200 page document that will put even the most caffeinated person to sleep. The point of a speech is to provide what the corporate types call a "high level overview" of the situation. To establish direction. To outline priorities. To communicate vision. And, at a time like this (massive national crappiness), perhaps above all to provide inspiration. These are tasks ill suited to long discussion.

Let us, for instance, look at one of the most hallowed of modern wartime speeches, that of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. It is the fameous "we shall fight on the X, Y, Z" speech. An excerpt:

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Even though large parts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

Now a couple of things are noteworty. There is no discussion of detailed planning and specific detail. To do so in a speech focused on military affairs is obviously ludicrous: "We shall continue to convoy our ships with ever increasing escort through the generosity of the lend-lease program. We shall deploy our forces to fight the enemy in Africa, then in Italy, and finally landing on the beaches of Normandy..."

But this was a speech given to a public teetering between depression and euphoria, staggered that the last British forces had just fled the continent but ecstatic that they had been rescued ("The Miracle at Dunkirk," FYI). It was vital to maintain a sober optimism throughout the nation, to maintain motivation through the privations and exertions that surely were to follow. And so Churchill brought out his best -- not of details and policy, but of consolation, confidence, and motivation.

Ok, that's out of the way. Now everyone who read's Fox News' commentary has been taken care of. By the way, I've realized what bugs me so much about Fox. It isn't their obviously (and frankly, to their credit, rather openly) biased coverage. Rather it is the way they try to bill themselves as some sort of underground alternative coverage with all that "mainstream media" lingo they use when attacking other people's viewpoints. I mean let's get serious. The FOX network isn't some dude with a talk show on AM radio during safe harbor hours or some guy broadcasting with an HF rig from the middle of Montana. It is one of the big four television networks with a carefully calculated strategy of playing to a particular market. Anyway, that's that. Just had to say something.

On to President Obama and his particular moves. For anyone interested, here are transcripts of two recent significant (and quite linked) speeches of his.

Presidential "victory" speech:

Inaugural speech:

Read (or better yet, listen to) both of them. Or just read on if you want to. But my first thought here is a compare and contrast. A commentator (didn't catch the name) on NPR was talking about the comparitively somber tone of the inaugural speech, devoid as it was of the flourishes ("singing" as the commentator kept confusingly putting it) and tricks like the repeating "yes we can" motif used in the victor speech. The acceptance speech is a celebration -- while it acknowledges the challenges ahead, they are as yet distant (months away). This is the time to look back on what has been done, the transformation that this nation has undergone, the progress the world has made, and the remarkable place in history which we all inhabit.

It was, in many ways, an introverted and retrospective speech. When we are successful, we tend to look to ourselves (and those close to us) and say "well done!" We tend to look back on the moments that helped define that success. The crowd is excited, because they have given their time and energy to this cause, and so they deserve time to celebrate. It is their night and it is Barack Obama's night.

The second speech, the inaugural speech, differs in several ways. It is shorter. It is more somber (count the applause -- and notice that there are situations where Obama speaks over the crowd, silencing potential cheers, rather than letting them go or even encouraging them as he did the other night). Personally, I'm not sure somber is exactly the word, though I know it is a descriptor other analysts have used. It is more workmanlike, I suppose. It is a speech used as a tool, much as Churchill would have. It is a speech intended to set a tone and a tenor for the coming four years.

Party time's over, that much is clear. The victory now lies months back and the challenge is immediate. The speech is concise so that it may be quoted, read, and repeated. It is extraverted in as much as it is sending a message OUT from the president to the people of his nation and to the peoples and nations of the world in general. It is forward looking in as much as it seeks to define what will come, and not what has passed. History plays a role, but as a reference to which the challenges of the present and future are compared. "We overcame those, therefore I know we can overcome these" instead of "we overcame those, ain't we grand!"

It is also not a speech by Barack Obama, as the "victory" speech was. It was a speech by the President of the United States, and as such a tool of statescraft carrying messages of cooperation, strength, hope, and threat to people, idiologies (to get a little Huntington-esque), and governments around the world. The difference is subtle but important, and the presence of this shift tells me a lot about Obama's attitude towards his job. The Office of the President may be the most consuming, identity devouring job in the world, but it remains important to separate personal feelings from the necessary decisions of the head of state. We elect our presidents partially because of their values and attitudes, but I at least also hope that they possess a certain professional distance, a degree of cool remove and objective analysis.

This speech was also an attempt to turn the page on an old presidency, years of war, and months of economic decline (feel free to say "years of economic decline" if you want, there is much evidence and argument to support you, but the real hit of the crisis only came to most of us within 2008). The speech turns this page with an admonishment -- a risky move I think. No one likes to be told (even indirectly) that they were irresponsible or careless. But to have your errors pointed out is also to have the path to recovery illuminated.

So setting up the "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some" and "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" as elements of the past enables the confinement of the sources of the current crisis to the pages of history. It sets the present up as a time of self improvement and reconstruction. As the speech progresses, we are told that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unplesant decisions -- that time has surely passed." And finally, "that the ground has shifted..."

This is a speech that, tough as it is, pushes the underlying source problems to the past. The future is to be a time of hard work, but a time of building something new. It is as if we've all just moved into a new house. The previous tenants took lousy care of it, left a lot of problems behind. But it is our house, and we can look at the things those old tenants did and remind ourselves not to do them (not forgetting that those old tenants were, in fact, us). But that was then and this is now and we'd better get started with the work at hand. It'll be a lot of pizzas in on the kitchen floor before the new range gets installed and the upstairs toilet may act funny for a while yet, but it is a grand old house with good bones.

We are the new tenants and we (and this house) will shine again.

Probing the details there are a few more points in the inaugural speech that drew my eye, some linguistic, some stylistic, some politic.

While enunciating the sacrifices of the past, four battles were named. I was struck by the choice: Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sahn.

Revolutionary, Civil, Second World, and Vietnam Wars.

Why these? Battles of the distant past are easy to pick out by name -- armies moved in such a way that set piece contact was almost inevitable. Concord and Gettysburg, of that easily named sort, show the growth of the nation and, as such, are essential inclusions. Normandy, the most recognizable single battlefield of the Second World War, points to one of the true high points of the United States as a world power, wielding economic bounty and military might in the cause of freedom. It is the oldest conflict of which significant numbers of veterans still survive (by the way, did anyone notice the cutaways to the Tuskegee Airmen during the speech? Badass bunch of fliers, and certainly an appropriate group to show!).

But more modern wars are tougher, more controvertial. I was surprised to see Korea skipped (Chosin would have fit nicely in there), but there is always a slippery slope factor that a speech writer must face. Four is a good number, three better, five worse, six untenable, seven obscenely rococo. Selecting a battle from the Vietnam war cast a much wider and more recognizable net than one from Korea would have. It is also a very symbolic move (though one that is perhaps more about the times and the march of history than any particular Obama-ism). The Vietnam War, controversial and regrettable, is now listed alongside some of the greatest times of our history. We have moved on (or at least the years have done so) enough that the errors of the politics and the fight no longer need prevent us from letting those who served stand up and be counted and recognized for what they gave.

Incidentally, I have long maintained that we would never elect a president who served in Vietnam and, I suspect, I will be proven right as Obama's election neatly lets us leapfrog that troublesome period of foreign policy.

More contemporary wars are difficult to identify by battle -- the low casualties of the Gulf War make its inclusion in company with the others rediculous and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diffuse and lacking in the foci of named battles. Besides, they are current and ongoing things, and have therefore not yet earned the full right to be held as hallowed symbols of sacrifice. But to include Khe Sahn is to say that yes, the Vietnam War is now a part of our history. We can move on from it. We can look at the veterans who served there and include them along side those who fought in more nobly held wars.

Much of the speech was pointedly addressed -- and often not to the American public but to "the Muslim world" or "the people of poor nations" or "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror or slaughtering innocents." Again, this is a speech not as much from Barack Obama as it is a speech to This was a message.

Oh, and that phrase "inducing terror or slaughtering innocents" is an interesting one, as is the phrase "far reaching network of violence and hatred." No specific ideology or organization (i.e. Al Qaeda) named. This is an interestingly inclusive act -- in several levels of the word. By not identifying the ends of those called out as our foes, the speech avoids catching supporters (or potential supporters) in an excessively large bursting radius. Instead, it is those who employ a method who are singled out -- and by this approach, the innocent Pakistani villager (caught in the middle of the fight as much as anyone) gets a bye but the Somali pirate gets called to the carpet.

Choice shows up a lot in this speech. First, as that which we failed to do. Second, as an indicator of what we (the people) have done with this election ("hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord"). And finally as what we must do in the future, "choose our better history." The theme of responsibility (choice) continues, and builds, across these three. We shirked choice. Then we chose (well). Now we must choose again (and it will be a hard choice, but we are reminded that it is a choice we have made before).

The phrase "better history" is one of my three favorites in the speech. It implies the existence of multiple histories. One is a history of freedom, ambition, sacrifice, and success. The other is a history of oppression, exploitation, selfishness, and ignorance. Any nation has these dichotomous histories, some even more dramatically divergent than ours. It is all a matter of models, the speech tells us, all a matter of which model we select as our inspiration. And our success in the future is a matter of letting that better vision of the past, those times that we have aspired to and reached our goals, be the one that guides us.

No one who knows me will be surprised that the guy who cheered at the line "We will restore science to its rightful place" is now one of my personal heroes. Now I'm not quite sure what the rightful place Obama envisions is, but I'm hoping that it has something to do with being a place of observation, study, and openness. Science, at least for those of us who care about science, had been a totem for those many things that the Bush administration handled poorly. Few now dispute the allegations of politically based suppression of individuals and findings, hiring pressures and preferences, and other ways in wich the free pursuit of knowledge was tied to maintaining a particular political agenda. This little nod was, to me at least, a nice acknowledgement. And that was, from me, a little rant.

From a political standpoint, the idea that we "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" is a powerful jab. It is a dismissal of the entirely zero-sum, with-me-or-against-me attitude of the past administration. It is instead a look to the complexity of the world, that there are no simple black and white choices and that, as a corollary of that fact, there are better pathways than those reflected by the extremes.

My other favorite phrases? "That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood." Genius. Compare with the standard construction of that phrase, "It is now well understood that we are in the midst of a crisis." Notice the emphasis shift? The former (Barack's) emphasis the crisis, and even more pointedly that we are in the midst of it. The second is comparatively pedantic, emphasizing our clear understanding of the situation. It is from little moments like this, the sort of moments that I aspire to, that brilliant communication is made.

The last favorite turn of phrase is "Men and women, obscure in their labor." This is another deconstructable one. Not "Men and women, laboring obscurely" or "Obscurely laboring men and women." The last one is just horrible, cumbersome. The other option has that icky is-it-a-split-infinitive-or-not thing going on. But it also shifts the men and women into, well, the act of laboring. There they are, busting humps to make a better world. Couldn't they stop and listen? No, too busy laboring. Obscurely. Instead, "obscure in their labor" makes the labor the cause of the obscurity, and therefore the obscurity the most salient fact of these toiling masses.

From all of this speech, as I reread it again and put the finishing touches on this post, there is one particular area that I take home. And, as Churchill inspired the Britons to continue their labor, fight, and bravery, I hope this phrase keeps me and the rest of the country going. It is an antidote to that comfortable urge to settle for second best and to accept standards that fall comfortably within the range of likely outcomes.

Interestingly, it is not a single declarative phrase, a command. Rather, it is a thought attributed to those who would set us up for failure and mediocrity, those who have not noticed "that the ground has shifted beneath them." Those who "question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans." Those who "have forgotten what this country already has done."

And since I refuse to be one of these, I refuse to succumb to the "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights."

Not for me. Not for my future. Not for my daughter.