multi-storied #19: The logic of bombing Russia
Sometimes Always, these days, I accept book-review assignments for selfish reasons. I want to write reviews that are really essays, of the kind published in the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, because they’ll give me the excuse (and the time) to not just read the book under review but also books in the vicinity. Reading, as you know, is a fraught affair today: so many books, so little time, so much other distraction. A reporter recently asked me for a photo of my tsundoku pile of books waiting to be read, as a part of this questionnaire. I was stumped. My pile waits on my Kindle but also swarms all over my bookshelf. As a result, I may have fudged a little, assembling a little tower of books from the books nearest at hand.
Given these constraints, it feels good sometimes to be fed a dose of direction to one’s reading. Working on a review-essay provides just that. For the latest issue of The New Republic, I wrote a piece based on Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future, a biography of the logician John von Neumann. (The site has a metered paywall, but who knows, I may have a pdf…) Which also gave me the excuse to read, over the course of two-and-a-half months:
An older biography by Norman Macrae, John von Neumann The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More
The Martians of Science, an excellent group biography of five Hungarian scientists who changed the 20th century, by Istvan Hargittai, who knew some of these five and who is, amazingly, still with us
William Poundstone’s Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb
Von Neumann’s Can We Survive Technology? [pdf]
Von Neumann’s Defense in Atomic War
Von Neumann’s First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC [pdf]
Journey to the Edge of Reason, a new biography of Kurt Godel, von Neumann’s colleague at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton
(I also rewatched Dr. Strangelove—not really because the good doctor was based in part on von Neumann, but mostly because any excuse to rewatch Dr. Strangelove is welcome.)
These tiny modules of self-assigned study feel like oases in the otherwise-directionless wanderings of my reading. They give me pause, and they put flesh on the bones of my thinking, in the way that college courses used to do. It’s the best way to achieve what I feel is the purpose of these review-essays. A shorter review—750 words in a newspaper’s weekend supplement—might try to serve as a recommendation engine. A review-essay, though, is a welcome invitation to think about the themes and ideas that arise from a longer spell of reading.
In von Neumann’s case, these ideas turned out to deal with the brilliant logic that he prided himself on—and that he brought to bear in his mathematics, his work on the nuclear bomb, his design of computer architecture, and his game theory gambits. Most of this research was conducted in America, where he fled just as Nazism was swallowing Europe.
There was something especially fortuitous about the match made between the United States and von Neumann—a man who fell in love with the country as soon as he set foot on its soil, and whose powers of calculation and synthesis were exactly what American science needed for its monumental new schemes, schemes that promised, in von Neumann’s favored phrase, to “jiggle the planet.”
Von Neumann wanted to deploy logic beyond the schemes of the sciences, though. In devising the principles of game theory—which treats every human situation as a game, to be played in pursuit of a quantifiable win—von Neumann thought they could be applied to market economics but also to nuclear war. Incalculable factors (like the value of civilian lives) stayed out of these models of deterrence and first strike. A full-blown war with the Soviet Union was, he thought, imminent. So he recommended that the US attack first. “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?” he said in 1950. “If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?” It’s difficult to know how seriously he meant this, or whether he was just being provocative; unlike Godel, the other great midcentury logician, von Neumann had a sense of humour. But his devotion to this kind of amoral thinking certainly fed the American century’s faith that theoretical rationalising could be applied to nearly every province of human activity—and especially to the free market, which was cast as a rational, self-correcting, self-optimising place. Even happiness, as von Neumann once wrote to the physicist Stanislaw Ulam, “is an eminently empirical proposition.” He was referring to his own divorce.
Another long piece, published recently in Quartz, holds three months of reporting on mezcal—although alas, it didn’t produce any opportunities to travel to Mexico for first-hand experiences. Last November, my wife pointed me to a tweet about Ulises Rosas, a Mexican biologist who worries that several species of agave (out of which mezcal is made) are vanishing from his country’s landscape. There’s a direct correlation to the mezcal craze that began just over a decade ago:
Bars and mixologists in the West promoted mezcal as an artisanal drink for hipsters, and mezcalerias popped up in big cities to serve mezcal flights. Someone invented the mezcal Negroni. The New Yorker devoted a long piece to mezcal. Celebrities like Bryan Cranston and LeBron James backed their own mezcal brands. Between 2013 and 2017, Mexico’s exports of mezcal nearly quadrupled, to 2.7 million liters a year; in 2019, that figure rose to 5.8 million liters.
The benefits of this boom, to people like Graciela Angeles, whose family runs Mezcal Real Minero, were immediately evident. The costs have only become painfully clear of late:
In a bid to meet the skyrocketing demand for mezcal, producers in Oaxaca and elsewhere are over-harvesting wild agaves. Alfonso Valiente, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, remembers walking for three hours through a part of the state of Sonora, in Mexico’s northwest. “We found three plants. Just three.” Angeles tells of forests being chopped down to plant more agave, and of producers who have to buy agaves and have them trucked in from places 13 hours away. “And in the middle of the night, people steal agaves,” she said. “You could get 35,000 pesos ($1,725) for a ton of agave.” The disappearance of agaves from the wild threatens its landscape’s biodiversity. “Entire ecosystems could collapse,” Valiente said.
More here, including a back-story on how Mexico has been here before—with tequila, the craze for which has effectively wiped the blue agave out of the wild.
By way of solicitation for a new project: if you, or if someone you know, has worked on / with / around undersea Internet cables, could you let me know? You could reply to this email or DM me on Twitter (@samanth_s). Any leads, however cursory, are welcome!