~ Archive for April 23, 2003 ~

Breaking Up Countries Where Citizens Hate Each Other


The only thing more shocking than the airplane engine control falling apart that happened during the trip south was reading an editorial in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters entitled “Must Iraq Stay Whole”.  This is the first time that I’ve seen any sign in the mass media that anyone else has the same thoughts that occurred to me last year regarding Afghanistan (see the Boston-Alaska-Baja-Boston trip report) and this year regarding countries such as Nigeria and the Sudan (see the Israel essay).

In the old days a good argument for being large would have been that a country could thereby defend itself against aggression by other large countries.  In today’s world, however, where even the most armed-to-the-teeth Third World government can be unseated in a few weeks by the U.S. military, it doesn’t make sense for people who hate each other to live together in one country.

Peters makes the seemingly obvious points that (1) the Kurds hate their Arab conquerors, (2) the Kurds demonstrated during the 1990s that they can govern themselves quite nicely, (3) giving the Kurds their own country would really irritate the Turks, which is just what they deserve for not supporting the U.S. [Peters doesn’t say this but presumably it would be a powerful example to foreign governments if the Turks’ biggest nightmare came true as a consequence of their failure to obey U.S. instructions], and (4) the Sunnis and Shiites Muslims don’t seem to like each other.

Follow-Up (Responses to Comments)

To judge by the volume of comments that this posting elicited it is indeed an issue worthy of debate, which was my main point:  “Why doesn’t this question ever come up in the mass media when it seems so obviously debate-worthy?”

Most of the comments point out that the India -> India/Pakistan/Bangladesh split was a failure in their opinion.  From this we can conclude that splitting up a country into the smaller chunks advocated by anthropologists (the book A Pattern Language recommends that countries be no larger than 2 to 10 million inhabitants, and they are talking about developed countries with good road and communication networks) is not necessarily a complete solution to Islamic violence.  However, nobody mentions the successful splits throughout history:  Czech and Slovak from each other, the U.S. from Britain, the former Soviet republics and satellites from each other, Canada and Australia from Britain.  Nor does anyone mention that one can combine political independence with economic and monetary union, thus combining the efficiencies of a large market with the comfort of knowing that the supreme leader of your country is not supremely distant from your local concerns.  I’m not advocating splitting Afghanistan and Iraq before giving them independence, merely advocating a serious debate on the question.

Dimitri asks a good question: “if a country is punished for that (“a consequence of their failure to obey U.S. instructions”) what remains of the democratic ideals and liberty and rest of BS that U.S. tells us time and time again that it stands for?”  The answer to this would seem to be threefold:  (a) the U.S. must have some reason for maintaining the world’s largest military and the most obvious explanation is that we like to be able to push foreigners around whenever we feel like it, (b) the democratic ideals and liberty are for U.S. citizens only; if we cared about foreigners’ welfare we’d be feeding Africans, preventing malaria, getting medical care to the poor in India, removing generic dictators (e.g., nearly any head of government in Africa or the Arab Middle East) rather than only the ones who insist on thumbing their noses at the U.S. (e.g., Saddam), etc., and (c) our politicians like to lay on the syrup just as thick for foreign audiences as for domestic and the result is a perception of insincerity, i.e., the U.S. could have said “We’re removing Saddam because he doesn’t follow our instructions and because we can” but presumably W and Co. thought that it sounded better to paint Saddam as terrifyingly bad and heavily armed.

Teaching them to become lawyers


This evening we showed our 6.002 students the Ken Burns PBS documentary Empire of the Air.  This was adapted from a book of the same name by Tom Lewis.  Here are the facts that were related in two hours:

Lee De Forest, who did much to publicize the idea of using radio for broadcast rather than point-to-point communication, claimed credit for other peoples’ inventions and, through good luck and great legal talent, managed to prevail in a decades-long lawsuit against Major Edwin Armstrong, the true inventor of most of the important technologies behind radio broadcasting.  De Forest ridiculed America’s entry into World War I and then became a profiteer.  On the cusp of his 60th birthday, De Forest married Wife #4, a beautiful 21-year-old actress who remained devoted to him until his death at age 88.  As an old man, De Forest wrote a book entitled The Father of Radio and unsuccessfully encouraged his wife to write a book entitled I Married a Genius.

Edwin Armstrong worked hard and labored through formal electrical engineering training at Columbia University, the very sort of EE torture that our students are getting in 6.002.  Armstrong developed the circuits that enable using a vacuum tube as a radio transmitter and the superhet receiver, which together made it practical to transmit music and voice over AM radio, rather than Morse code.  A staunch patriot, Armstrong donated a royalty-free license to all of his patents to the U.S. government for use in World War II and served in that war by designing communications systems including that used during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.  Armstrong developed frequency modulation (FM), which was suppressed by David Sarnoff at RCA because it would threaten revenues from his AM radio monopoly and the emerging television.  RCA eventually was forced to use FM for the federally mandated NTSC television system but they refused to pay Armstrong royalties on his patents.  Armstrong committed suicide while embroiled in lawsuits attempting to force RCA to stop infringing.

David Sarnoff had no formal technical training.  Through ruthless business dealings and manipulation of the federal government managed to create and sustain a magnificently profitable enterprise that included the RCA radio and TV manufacturing company and the NBC radio and TV networks.  Though Armstrong’s widow eventually made him pay up a bit for his flagrant infringement of the frequency modulation patents, Sarnoff sailed unscathed through a sea of lives that he wrecked.  He died an old and rich man.

The only people in the drama who made millions without taking tremendous risks, working very hard, and occasionally going bankrupt, were … the lawyers in the patent and regulatory disputes.

What are our students to make of all this?  It can’t be that working hard as an MIT electrical engineering student and contributing useful innovations to society will be rewarded.  If you’re walking your dog in the Harvard Law School Yard four years from now and you run into our 6.002 alumni, tell them “hi” from me.

[The video also made one wonder for whom public television programs are made.  Despite having two hours the show did not attempt to explain even the simplest physics or engineering behind radio or any of the inventions that were the subject of the disputes chronicled.  The biographical and historical information was narrated so slowly that it could have been sped up 3X without approaching the speed of dialog on the Simpsons, which most people seem to have no trouble following.  It seems as though public TV is designed for people whose minds are not quick enough to handle the quick pace and intellectual challenge of commercial TV shows.]

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