Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for Lord Kelvin

“Still, telegraphy, like many other forms of engineering, retained a certain barnyard, improvised quality until the Year of Our Lord 1858, when the terrifyingly high financial stakes and shockingly formidable technical challenges of the first transatlantic submarine cable brought certain long-simmering conflicts to a rolling boil, incarnated the old and new approaches in the persons of Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and Professor William Thomson, respectively, and brought the conflict between them into the highest possible relief in the form of an inquiry and a scandal that rocked the Victorian world. Thomson came out on top, with a new title and name - Lord Kelvin.” - “Mother Earth Mother Board“ Wired Magazine, December 1996

So in this absolutely fabulous fifty odd-page article in Wired, Neal Stephenson, aka the Hacker Tourist, reviewed the development of intercontinental telegraphy - wiring the world - making the case that the Internet started in the 19th Century as digital technology. I'm not qualified to comment, but it seemed persuasive to me.

He described an electrifying technology war conducted between geek factions trying to figure out transatlantic cable practicality. On the one side there was Wildman Whitehouse, a doctor whose name and personality seemed to belong to a carnival like Ultimate Fighting, and whose solution to long distance telegraphy was to apply more power: the longer the distance, the more power you put into the cable. Then there was this other guy, a Scottish physicist, well OK, he was Northern Irish, William Thomson, who would also go on to be Lord Kelvin and, incidentally and as a result, fabulously rich, who thought Whitehouse’s approach to be doomed, and advanced interesting arguments on why this should be so.

The solution to the conflict was entirely practical: Whitehouse applied more and more power until his cable blew up.

“After the literal burnout of the first transatlantic cable, Wildman Whitehouse and Professor Thomson were grilled by a committee of eminent Victorians who were seriously pissed off at Whitehouse and enthralled with Thomson, even before they heard any testimony - and they heard a lot of testimony.

“Whitehouse disappeared into ignominy. Thomson ended up being knighted and later elevated to a baron by Queen Victoria. He became Lord Kelvin and eventually got an important unit of measurement, an even more important law of physics, and a refrigerator named after him.”

What does this have to do with Afghanistan? There’s a principle at work, which is the failure to recognize an incorrect conclusion when presented with evidence.

The current "thinking" among various influential political theorists with fancy credentials is, as the wonderful Uri Avnery said (A Flash of Lightning, 19 Jun, 2010): "If force doesn't work, use more force." The alternative hypothesis, that maybe force won't work at all, or is in fact the wrong conclusion, and that a an alternative conclusion might lead to another approach to the problem, or even a reformulation of the problem, is a thought that not only does not occur to anyone who gets air time at the United Nations or more obviously in the United States, it's not even thinkable.

I'm not suggesting that the delusional, obnoxious Wildman Whitehouse has anything in common with Generals MacChrystal, Petreaus, Admiral Mullen, or NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen (a name almost as good as Wildman Whitehouse); I’m stating the obvious conclusion that Generals MacChrystal, Petreaus, Admiral Mullen and NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen are just as delusional as Whitehouse, and, left in charge of NATO etc. will continue to apply more and more force to Afghanistan until it, too, is burned to a crisp.

What we need to find is somebody as smart as Lord Kelvin with a different idea, and enough of the rest of us willing to listen.