Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rasha Limbo and Going the Way of France and Italy

Rasha Limbo

I was listening to the Teaching Company’s lecture series “Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language,” and in Lecture 22: “Languages Sharing the World--Bilingualism,” Professor John McWhorter cites a study in which Russian-Americans were asked to tell how the same sentence might be said by different individuals. The topic of Rush Limbaugh came up during interviews.

The interviewer found that older immigrants who had come to America as adults rendered the sentence “I know another person who listens to Rush Limbaugh” something like this (I am spelling this phonetically with English pronunciation in mind, and I am certainly screwing up some of the words):

Ya zna-you eshch-yo odnovo chyel-o-vyeka kotoree slusha-yet Rasha Limbo.
(Lit.: I know one other fellow who listens to Rush Limbo.)

Second generation Russian-Americans, who were born in the United States would be more apt to say:

Ya zna-you dru-goi chyel-o-vyek ee on slusha-yet TO RUSH LIMBAUGH.
(Lit.: I know another fellow and he listens "to Rush Limbaugh.")

Aside from different word choices, the younger Russian-American also switches to English when he says “to Rush Limbaugh.” The older people said “Rasha” not because they can’t pronounce “Rush” but because Russian nouns are declined like Latin ones and “Rush” in the genitive (possessive standing in for accusative or direct object) or, perhaps, the dative* (indirect object) case becomes “Rash-a.” The younger people don’t want to—or don’t know how to—change the name to another case, so they just switch to English and say “Rush Limbaugh” with the preposition “to” in front of it. (There is no preposition in the pure Russian version because changing the noun to another case implies the meaning “to.”)

It is interesting that Rush Limbaugh is a topic of conversation in the Russian immigrant community, although it is nothing new to listeners of his radio program who might remember that Russian immigrants have called into his program now and then over the twenty-three years that it has been on the airwaves.

Going the Way of France and Italy

When Americans make fun of the French and Italian military it makes me queasy, not because I am particularly attached to or sympathetic to the French and Italians, but because I know enough about history to know how the two nationalities reached their low military reputation and how far they fell, and I know therefore that history—or more properly I should say fate—is fickle enough that the same decline that happened to them could happen to the United States.

In the mid-nineteenth century, France and Italy were respectable military powers—or, rather, parts of Italy were, since Italy was not unified into one nation until the 1860s. Indeed, during the first century of America’s premier military academy, West Point, cadets were thoroughly drilled in French because they were expected to study the strategy of Napoleon Bonaparte in the original language. When France and Prussia went to war in 1870, the world assumed that either the French would win or it would be a stalemate. That the French were massacred is no surprise to us today, but it was for contemporaries –other than some of the Prussians who, of course, anticipated a win. The French have simply never recovered their reputation as a great military power. It has been forgotten and replaced with ignominy.

Similarly, Italy’s reputation as a military power was drained away, never to be regained. Perhaps the key moment came during World War I. The Italians’ commander-in-chief, Luigi Cardona, was a martinet who was good at giving orders but no good at strategy and tactics. He sent armies of brave Italians to their deaths and lost battle after battle. Eventually, the Italian soldiers figured out the obvious: their commander did not know what he was doing and, if he ordered them to march forward, the wisest course was retreat. The shame ought to be on this individual commander, but instead, the lasting shame has been unfairly visited on the whole Italian military and, indeed, the Italian nation.

The lackluster performance of the Italian military under Mussolini during World War II served to worsen an already bad reputation. (This time the excuse was that no one in Italy, arguably including Il Duce himself, was that enthusiastic about entering World War II to begin with, and the conflict turned into a civil war in which Italians may have killed Italians more often than they killed Yanks, Brits or Nazis.)

I can only conclude that we Americans dasn’t be so smug as to assume that the same ignominy could not befall us. It is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think to say that all it might take is another few years of President Barack Obama or his ilk to make the United States another laughingstock in the world ranking of military prestige.

* Profesor McWhorter says it is genitive standing in for accusative, and I should bend to his expertise; it is just that I know Russian is not necessarily one of his languages, and he might be wrong; in which case, my guess that it is dative might be right after all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Now, Back to Libya, Which is Already in Progress

I have been in drone mode, I guess, lulled into assuming that official pronouncements about what is happening and what is supposed to happen in Libya are substantive and not examples par excellence of what George Orwell said all political speech is: intended to give the illusion of solidity to pure wind.

We are told that nobody is going to put European or American “boots on the ground,” but it is obvious now and should have been obvious from the start that there are only two alternatives:

1. That American troops will go to Libya and take out Muammar Gaddafi’s military and then him, or else,

2. Gaddafi will continue to rule Libya until he dies of natural or self-inflicted causes, and that he will exact his vengeance on Europe and America.

There are no other alternatives. Troops will either be used against Gaddafi or we will have to live with his return to Libya’s state-sponsored terrorism of years past—the terrorism that brought you the Lockerbie bombing of twenty-two years ago.

This should have been obvious because it became clear during World War II that air power alone, using conventional bombs, can never bring a country to submission—unless, of course, you use nuclear bombs. At some point you have to send in the troops or else resistance will continue. (In 1928, an Italian military theorist wrote a book entitled “Air Power,” in which he argued that you CAN bring a country to its knees simply by dropping conventional bombs on it. The German Luftwaffe was very impressed by this theory and tried it out on Britain. It didn’t work and has been thoroughly discredited.)

It might seem surprising, given what I have said above, but I am not advocating that we send troops into Libya. I am saying that this is exactly the moment when we might still have a chance to step back from the brink and say, leave Gaddafi alone for the moment. We arguably already missed our moment when we could have eliminated him with surgical precision; every option from now on will just get messier and messier. One benefit to leaving him alone—though not a clean solution since Gaddafi himself will remain a problem—is that the Muslim Brotherhood would not gain power in Libya as they have in Egypt and look to be gaining elsewhere in the Middle East.

You Say Usama and I say Osama

Some might have noticed that Fox News last night called the Dead Head in Islamabad “Usama” instead of “Osama.” Lest anyone read anything into this, “Usama” is just the proper classical Arabic pronunciation and transliteration of bin Laden’s given name. There was no equivalent of “O” in classical Arabic. In Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden grew up, and where the modern dialect of Arabic does have the “O” sound, people probably did call him “Osama.” But the Quran is written in classical Arabic, and that book arguably exercises even more control over the conception of what is “correct” in the minds of Arabic speakers than the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible do over the minds of English speakers. So calling him “Usama” instead of “Osama” is oddly respectful and proper. Of course, if you pronounce it “Usama” instead of “Osama,” it helps you to keep from saying “Obama” when you mean “bin Laden,” which everybody should start doing—saying “bin Laden” instead of “ ’sama” so you don’t say the wrong name.

Thought of the Day on Afghanistan

"The only thing worse than staying in Afghanistan, would be what will happen when we leave."

--former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger

Is that a valid conundrum or an excuse for continuing to do something stupid, like sticking your hand in a bear trap so that the only way to get it out is to risk sticking your other hand in?

Proposed Bumper Sticker

You rid us of Osama bin Laden,
But now, Obama, ban Biden.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Scientific and Technological Advancement Not Promoted by War

According to Wikipedia, the first kidney dialysis machine, or dialyzer, was invented by a Dutch physician during World War II. Since his country was occupied by the Nazis at the time, the good doctor was unable to make a good dialyzer from the materials available to him. Most of his dialysis patients died until 1945, when a woman in a coma caused by kidney failure awoke and was able to live for another seven years.

In 1946, American comic actor John “Rags” Ragland died from kidney failure, three days shy of his forty-first birthday. Whether dialysis was available to him at that time or not, I do not know. His condition was evidently advanced. But I wonder whether or not the new technology might have saved him if it had been developed during peacetime and, so, had been both more available and more advanced. Instead, advancement had not occurred because war trumped the development of this healing invention.

This is simply another example that puts the lie to the common myth that wars cause advances in technology. At the least, such a notion has to be taken with a large grain of salt. Obviously, kidney dialysis was held back by the war, although it is conceivable that if an American doctor instead of a Netherlander had invented it, there might have been more rapid development since American medical researchers might have been able to overcome wartime shortages by arguing that dialysis was important enough to justify additional resource allocation. Those are a lot of “mights,” however. And certain kinds of medicine are more interesting to wartime planners than to the peacetime marketplace. They might not have given the green light to funding non-war-related medicine. War always involves the reallocation of resources by the government, and that is what usually retards advances in technology for peaceful purposes. (It is significant in light of that that early advocates of social engineering through government intervention spoke of their wish to create a peacetime cause as potent as war; people could be made to follow government edicts during war far more easily than during peace.)

Television is a classic example of a technology that did not develop as it might have due to war. Invented by an American in 1927, fully electronic analog television languished in the United States largely for economic and geographical reasons, though for legal reasons as well, but it got off to a start in Britain where conditions were more favorable. By 1939, there were more television sets per capita in England than anywhere else in the world. The BBC unceremoniously ceased television broadcasting, however, when Britain declared war on Germany. In the same year, the Farnsworth Corporation and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) finally settled their patent issues, but the continuing Great Depression and the subsequent entrance of the United States into World War II held back the proliferation of television stations as well as further marketing of television sets until after the war.

One of the main wartime uses of already developed television technology was the manufacture of radar screens, which are essentially like television screens. At the outset of World War II, the British had already built the most advanced radar defense system in the world. The Germans evidently never had a clue as to how significant this was. The British “Chain Home” radar network was largely responsible for defending Britain against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

During the years preceding World war II, British scientists had been studying radar more intensely than most of the world’s radio technology researchers. They even developed a device called the “cavity magnetron.” This was the world’s first microwave device. Key to my point here, the cavity magnetron, like the television screen that became the wartime radar screen, was invented before the war, not during it. It is always the trend during wartime that technology invented before the war is repurposed for war while all peaceful uses are put aside until after the war. So it was with the cavity magnetron. Afraid that Germany would invade Britain and that this microwave device could fall into the wrong hands, Britain gave its two prototype magnetrons to the United States. It is an interesting side note that the conveyance of the device to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was done so secretively that the scientists at MIT who received the device were given very little explanation of what it was and how it worked. One of them finally came up with a clever explanation by analogy. The cavity magnetron is like a whistle: a whistle works by confining air within a space so that it is forced to change frequency; in the same way, the magnetron changes the frequency of radio waves. Out of the work at MIT, a light radar system was developed. Up until this point in time, radar depended on large towers or shore-based installations used by the navy. The Magnetron made possible smaller radar systems that could be placed on board aircraft for the first time. The British and Americans now were able to bomb Germany with radar-equipped planes that did not need to see their targets. They could fly at higher altitudes at night and still destroy strategic enemy sites. It was not until the Germans shot down some of the Allied bombers and reverse-engineered the microwave radar that they were able to use this technology themselves. By then, it was too late for Germany, however.

The technology developed during World War II—from television to radar to rockets to nuclear fission—had been invented before the war. Governments commandeered it and focused on its war applications. It was not until after the war that peaceful uses of these technologies could be realized. It is likely that the marketplace, in the absence of war, would have brought about the peacetime world of advanced technology a decade earlier. For example, the widespread use of television for communication and entertainment that we knew after 1947 would undoubtedly have arrived well before 1945. (It already had in Britain where, by 1939, the BBC was broadcasting news and entertainment on television six hours a day, six hours a week; at the same time, the few American television stations were broadcasting about three days a week and fewer hours a day.) As it was, it is noteworthy that the post-war trend was for the price of a television set to gradually go down in the United States while it gradually went up in Britain. This is because the post-war economy of the United States boomed while the British economy declined. To a large extent, this was a symptom of the fact that the British government, after the war, maintained wartime rationing and prevented a booming recovery like the one that occurred in America. From this we can see that war is not the only thing that retards technological development, but, rather, anything that retards economic growth, as well as anything like war that siphons off resources, will tend to retard technological advancement.