Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Brass Cannon

“… the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity’s imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of conscious choice. Finally, he subscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.”
Raymond Aron, L’Opium Des Intellectuals p. 292

The Brass Cannon

The Brass Cannon. …Such a simple title, for such a big concept.

In the lengthy novel, the title object suddenly appears in the middle, is seen only for a paragraph, yet the shadow remains to the final page.

The setting is an age when transport is so expensive that you generally bring only the clothes on your back. Hence the young viewpoint character is quietly amazed at the behavior of his traveling companion, his old professor. The prof doesn’t know if he will arrive alive, or, instead, suffer a heart attack from the escape of Earth’s vicious gravity. Yet, next to his body, Professor Bernardo de da Paz places a little brass cannon that he purchased on Earth.

I sometimes wonder what would have been the affect if, on coffee tables scattered over America, that title had been there since the mid1960’s, glaring in mute accusation. The title of another novel from the same author, Stranger in a Strange Land, had been on the table at the house of the “idealistic” organizers of the tragic Kent State riot. “…Four dead in O-hi-o.” At the time I remember a few students quoting Mao: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (or rifle or cannon)

The idealistic title The Brass Cannon, chosen by Robert Heinlein was, alas, changed by the editor, who apparently thought fans of sf wouldn’t recognize it as science fiction. (Idiot!) As for the actual title, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it’s such a mouthful that I can’t bring myself to be critical of anyone who “disrespects” the book by calling it “Moon.”

An earlier version of Professor de la Paz would be the town doctor in Heinlein’s 1949  Red Planet subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars. Like the Lunar doctor of philosophy, the Martian doctor of medicine was also a philosopher of simple things beyond the “biggies” like democracy and revolution. Once he reminisced about what television sets were originally intended for: His grandfather had witnessed TV sets in bars being used to show wrestling matches. I thought of this when the big expensive HD TV’s first came out: too expensive to be seen anywhere but in bars.

Another memorable line of the doctor’s, because he had been involved in local politics back on Earth, was (from memory) “Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft.”

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps graft is as practical as a cannon. When my hometown of Calgary, Alberta was considering a “number of bags” limit on weekly garbage collection, an alderman disparaged the idea saying, “People will come out with bags the size of (the town of) Cochrane.” Money and practicality, not idealism, was again the deciding issue when City Hall considered the idea of changing all the residential speed limits from 50 kilometers per hour to 40 kph. I don’t recall whether the morality of subverting the integrity, the honest calculations, of the professionals of road engineering was even mentioned. What I do recall is that changing all those signs would cost one or more million dollars, and that, anyway, many drivers practically ignore their speedometers. The idea was dropped.

I enjoy driving. When I go cruising along in the good old U.S. of A. I am mindful of how, for an awake citizenry, the Constitution is a practical force: Hence I drive the “Military and Interstate Highway System” often shortened to “the interstate,” a road that needed the plea of “military” use to get around the law, written generations before Hitler’s autobahn, against ever building any such road systems in the US.

After opening the sunroof and singing “Do you know the way to San Jose?” I might try a 1960’s advertising jingle from the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth:
You can eat them on the run; eat them just for fun,
Eat them when you have a party,
When you want a snack, you can eat them from the pack,
Or warm and crispy, good and hearty,
Pop tarts, great new treat,
New-ew-ew from Kellog's,
Pop tarts.

Except they weren’t new.

And they weren’t from Kellog's.

Whoever had first started producing the tarts has gone the way of all unpersons.

Kellog's saw, copied, and then, to quote a confederate cavalry officer, got there “first-est with the most-est.” Maybe that’s not fair, not ideal, but that’s how things work in this world of Saturday morning tarts and toy cannons. As my friend, a religious fundamentalist small-business owner put it, “As long as you are within the letter of the law you are morally OK.” The executives at Enron did break the law, and were prosecuted. The men on Wall Street who plunged our entire planet into a recession didn’t, and weren’t.

It should come as no surprise that what happens within a practical democratic nation also happens between groups of nations. When I was with NATO I often went mountaineering in Switzerland. Along the mountain roads, quite blatantly, were inset rusty brown tank traps, still operational, these being a big part of the reason why Hitler’s autobahns were never extended into Switzerland. The point is not that the Swiss diplomats would sing songs of peace, in sweet harmony, with their cultured German counterparts, but, rather, the Swiss could give a sober accounting of the tank traps, steel cannons and so forth. It must have taken several days of diplomatic meetings to recite the entire military inventory.

As for the earliest brass or iron cannons, according to legend they often were inscribed with: “The final argument of kings.”

Any colony, whether on Mars or Luna, that builds their own cannons to enable them to safely open up their minds to be able to think, and then to argue “in favor of revolt,” is a colony that includes “dirty traitors” against the king. Unless they succeed. Then the former colony includes “founding fathers.” And the new state receives diplomatic recognition.

(Here in town a college stand up comic noticed that many a young student has had his father give recognition to having one’s “own roof.” He asked: What’s so magical about a roof?)

Sometimes cannons are set along the coast. My brother’s university dormitory, at UBC, “Fort Camp,” was an old barracks for the shore defense gunners. (Against the Japanese) Back in the old days of sailing ships the distance a shore cannon could project force was 3 miles. It is most assuredly not coincidence that for so many years the legal International Limit for territorial waters was also 3 miles.

Meanwhile, from the age of sail and on through the steam age, one of the best navies has always been the Royal Navy. I remember as a youth, back when the limit was usually 3 or 12 (depending on the country) miles, reading a British navy book where all of the ship-to-ship missiles, and all of the ship to shore missiles, had a range of 200 miles. While I was reading the book, world diplomats were meeting to discuss extending the International Limit.

I like cannons, and in writing this all too brief essay I don’t mean to discourage the idealism of any young students at Kent State or UBC. If the mass of men and women, unlike you and me, don’t voluntarily restrain themselves unless they are forced to, well, "it’s no biggie." In my own lifetime I have cherished seeing a goodly spreading of democracy and the furthering of international cooperation. For me, knowing the Rules of Human Behavior is like having rules for the writing of sonnets: it just makes things more fun. The Rules mean that good laws, whether in Calgary or internationally, will be practical, enforceable, and suggest a side effect of graft. “A force in motion continues until it meets an opposite motion.”

It all starts with taking people as they are: They mean well, of course, and, like my dear religious friend, they need forces both judicial and physical, even brass cannons, to help guide them to stay safely on the road. From a distance I can watch generations of people passing by as they keep trudging along the low road to morality.

The high road, lost in the misty uplands, is only for the angels.


“In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.”

Raymond Aron, Les Dernieres Annees Du Siecle (The Last Years of the Century), p. 68

Sean Crawford
Calgary, at the ending of
The first decade of the second millennium

 ~ The man quoted above would be pleased to know that the European Union, instead of  an individual, was awarded the 2012 nobel peace prize

~The two quotes are from James Clive’s essay on Raymond Aron, from pages 32 and 39, quoted in Cultural Amnesia. ( a really exciting book)

~William Shakespeare did not invent the phrase “pot calling the kettle black” but he used the concept in one of his comedies, and he used a “cannon equivalent” in (I think) the comedy Twelfth Night. In Will’s day there was a problem with cannons: as they aged they weakened, and you never knew if one was going to burst into dangerous shards. So I laughed when a character retorted, “That was ill shot with elder cannon.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reading and Rushing


CM: In The Laws of Simplicity you added a story about an insightful conversation you had with a former professor that seemed unrelated to the rest of the book. Why did you add it? 
JM: The whole point of that one page is that I believe that every moment you are alive you can learn something very deep. Whether you’re in a cab, or in a locker room, or you’re getting your tea, there's something that's always there that can move you. But you will never know it unless you're listening. So the point of that page was to say that I was listening that day.

…How exciting. You can’t rush listening.
The interviewer, CM, is Color Magazine on the Internet; (with writer Michael Chin) the person interviewed is Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda.


I was inspired to go to Amazon where they have the cover of Maeda’s book and a gizmo for “click to see inside.” So I did. Apparently the locker room story I hoped for wasn’t there: only a few pages were shown, and then the entire index. Call me a computer nerd, for I proceeded to read the index. Call me an old nerd, for I can remember sitting in the cinema for the ending credits of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Beuler appears in a bathrobe, gets milk from the fridge, and then turns to the audience and says, “Are you still here?” Well, Beuler's line appears after Maeda's index… and then comes the story! I’m glad I didn’t rush.

It was well before the Christmas rush, back in mid-November, that I flew back to my home town and got to see to a part of the terminal that, since the rise of cross-border (global reach) terrorism, I don’t ever get to see: the arrivals area. You may have seen on TV how ritzy US airports have a futuristic moving sidewalk. Our little cow town airport has one as well—sweet—with a silver railing on each side. It’s amusing how the railings start in the middle of nowhere and end in the middle of nowhere. The broad hall stretches onwards, regardless. Of course most people didn’t bother using the conveyer belt. At last the arriving pedestrians would walk into the public part of the terminal where they can wait at the carousel for the baggage to start arriving. It’s a long wait.

Although I’m a healthy middle-aged man the sci-fi nerd in me couldn’t resist the treat of a moving sidewalk. Besides, I deserved the pampering of a temporary rest for my legs. What amused me, and even irked me, was watching a few younger healthy people on the belt walk past me. Why? We had already passed the washrooms. By saving a few seconds they might lay eyes on, or telephone, their Aunt Zelda a few seconds earlier, but then they would also have to wait a few seconds longer with the rest of us at the carousel. What were they thinking? Perhaps they had never stopped to think…of how there is a difference between being smartly efficient and foolishly rushing.

I know efficiency. As a college student I could, when I wished, sit furthest from the classroom door yet be the first packed up and out of the room. It was a choice. As soldiers, in the land of the quick and the dead, we all had to be so very, very efficient. Not now. 

I learned another way of life when I was with NATO and took some leave, along with Corporal Burton, to stay with a retired British couple in Switzerland. The wife used to run guns to the Blacks in South Africa; the husband used to do high-level talks around Lake Geneva. Obviously they had once required a high level of efficiency. Now they were retired, but… Burton pointed out to me that although they would savor their last bite of crumpet they would also be going out the door at the precise second they said they would. They had chosen to have efficiency, yes, but without any panic or rushing. I can’t imagine them on a moving sidewalk saying,” Excuse me… excuse me… “ and brushing past innocent strangers.

While on holiday one or two people brushed past me on the long-g-g escalators for the Sky Train. It has robot-controlled cars, being built for the World Exposition of 1986 where the theme was “Transportation.” Cool. These poor folks—not how I imagined the future to be—rushed past me at mid-day, during leisure time, not rush hour. All I could do was stand to one side and reflect how some people had never thought through the engineering principle that a moving stairway, costing thousands of dollars, can save energy or time—but not both. If they hadn’t “thought” then maybe they were mere creatures of instinct, not self aware, merely cogs in a transportation machine.


It feels queer to reflect that over two thousand years ago a father wearing a toga took his son to the forum and advised the boy, “Gentlemen don’t run in public.” I think we have somehow, down the years, lost a touch of grace.

As for the exciting question that opened this essay, it was the very last question of the interview. It’s queer to think that a lot of readers would have missed any question answered that far down the web page. Such a pity. What Maeda said about “listening” surely applies to being present as you are reading.  “…But you will never know it unless you’re listening. So the whole point of that page is that I was listening that day.”

…Upon reflection, I just can’t call myself a computer nerd anymore. That’s because, reminiscent of my (November 2010) Fluffy Social Media essay, I can’t identify with those people. Not anymore. Based on their own reports, through their various web comments, they don’t “listen” when they read. So many believe in “skimming” everything they read on the web. Why? Don’t they realize that for the good stuff if you “scan” then you only get the words, not the music?

Or have they never learned the Greek value of “seeking out the good?” Too many computer guys who think they are surfing are only rushing. Such a sad way of life. Not like the true surfers, balanced on the pacific rollers, who have to "be here now." 

One guy thought he would brighten Roger Ebert’s journal by commenting that Ebert’s essays were the only things on the net he doesn’t skim. As it happens, Ebert is an avid reader, of both books and the web. He even puts international guest essays and reviews on his web site. And so I doubt he was totally pleased at a compliment that seemingly endorsed skimming.

If I seem more irked than amused it is because I know people could raise their consciousness and "change their life." But of course it’s their life and I "accept them as they are…" yet, as it happens, I’m still going through the “five stages of loss” because I have only just this month realized how so many computer nerds won’t “listen.” For now: anger. My acceptance stage is still to come. In the meantime I can chuckle at how the Greeks, in a bare forum, sans electronics, managed to think better than some of us so-called nerds.

For now, all I can do is lead by example. It was by using thought... that I changed my sartorial way of life. One day I resolved to buy only half as much but pay twice as much. Maybe the same thought could be applied to my life when reading on the computer, but this I haven’t quite worked out yet. (Or if I have, I’m too shy to share)

All I can say, for now, is I can’t imagine Ebert rushing when he reads, and so neither will I. Nope. I want my life to include a little grace.


Here's the interview with John Maeda. May you read it, not skim it; may you read it slowly enough to feel awe at the world that Maeda offers.

Sean Crawford
December 2010