The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

A Cloud of Possibility

(Rudenkoi/Getty Images)

I  do not surf, but I sometimes read The Surfer’s Journal, which contains beautiful photography beautifully printed and oddball little stories that provide a glimpse into a different world, as with Scott Hulet’s recent travelogue on surfing through cartel country in Sinaloa.

Similarly, I am not currently in the market for a €1 million-plus wristwatch, but I enjoyed Jack Forster’s recently republished Hodinkee essay on an incredibly complicated timepiece made by Vacheron Constantin, a piece of clockwork made with the goal of creating, as Forster puts it, “a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the astronomical cycles that dominate the human world from our perspective as inhabitants of the Earth.” I can just about conceptualize the mechanism by which a mechanical clock tells time, but I do not have the three-dimensional imagination to put together how a wristwatch only 43 millimeters across and not very deep can be built to calculate and display the time, the day and date in a perpetual calendar that never needs correcting, the phases of the moon, the tides, the relative positions of Earth, moon, and sun, the progress of the lunar day and lunar month, the tropical year (the time it physically takes Earth to orbit the sun, as opposed to a “civil year” of 365 days), the changing times of sunrise and sunset and the relative hours of light and darkness of the day, solstices and equinoxes, the “Equation of Time” (“the difference between a mean solar day of 24 hours, and an actual solar day, which thanks to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and the eccentricity of its orbit, can vary by as much as −14 minutes and 15 seconds, to +16 minutes, 25 seconds, at various points during the year,” Forster explains), sidereal time (time as indicated by the stars), and much more, including such relatively mundane calculations as how many hours of power the watch has remaining before it needs winding — this is a mechanical instrument, it bears repeating, not an electronic one. If you are planning on taking your €1 million-plus timepiece on a jet ski, it is reasonably water-resistant.

(The vagueness of the pricing, “more than €1 million,” I noted in an earlier edition: There is an infinity of sums greater than €1 million.)

This is, incredibly enough, not even the most complex watch ever made, having a mere 16 complications vs. 57 for another made by the same company, a pocket watch that, among other things, calculates the date for Yom Kippur on the Hebrew calendar.

These are not objects made with practicality in mind, and practically everything they do could be done as easily with a 99-cent app on your telephone. They are not useful in the sense that surfing is not an efficient means of travel. Mechanical watches and clocks are archaic technology, and like many such outmoded tools, they live on as luxury goods. In fact, it often is the case that the more outdated a piece of technology is, the higher its ranking as a luxury good: Classic cars are for people with a little bit of money, but horses are for people with a lot of money. Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, has been buying up West Texas ranchland.

What is the value of “a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the astronomical cycles that dominate the human world from our perspective as inhabitants of the Earth”? I am generally in the camp of George Mallory, who was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest and famously replied: “Because it’s there.” Dazzling displays of human ingenuity are of interest and value in their own right, as illustrations and reminders of just how it was we dragged ourselves up out of the primordial muck and landed on the moon. Oscar Wilde insisted that “all art is quite useless,” and I mostly agree, though I reject the generally overlooked part of that formulation: “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” I know a surprising number of men whose passion in life is not classic sports cars but classic tractors, and there are few things more useful than a tractor. But why do we admire those little machines that Forster writes about so lucidly? They are, in themselves, only gears and springs and such, and we have grander reifications of human intelligence and ambition than these, if we want them.

A few years ago (the article seems to have disappeared into the mists), I wrote a piece for National Review about orreries, which are little clockwork models of the solar system that were items of fascination in the Middle Ages and still are collected today. A famous early one was built by a man known as Giovanni Dondi dell’Orologio. (Lest you think that agnomen was merely an honorific given to him for his advances in clock design, know that he was the son of Jacopo Dondi dell’Orologio, a doctor, astronomer, and clockmaker of Padua, author of De fluxu atque refluxu maris, an influential work on tides.) Human beings love models: Little boys (and many grown men) play with model railroads, little girls play with dollhouses, adults with modest ambitions may sketch out floorplans of houses they would like to build, adults with less modest ambitions design model cities, and the worst sort draw up plans for model societies, clockwork utopias in which everything is rational and orderly.

Orreries and other complex clockworks speak to something very deep and ancient in us. What was original sin after all but that the idea that we “should be as gods,” and hold the universe in our hands like a machine of our own creation, that we can wind or modify at will — that we can perfect? We cannot perfect ourselves, but we can perfect a trivial bit of machinery, and that gives us the illusion of omnipotence. It’s magic: In the old legend of Roger Bacon’s “Brazen Head,” the line between mechanical engineer and wizard was blurry at best.

The simplest model of the atom could be displayed accurately as a relatively simple piece of clockwork, a very simple orrery-like model in which one spherical body orbits another. But the model is not the real thing, with the electron in orbit around the nucleus like a little solar system but existing in

a form that can only be described as a cloud of probability. The electron possesses both kinetic energy and momentum, yet there is no motion. The cloud is perfectly static. The electron does not “orbit” the proton at all — it surrounds it like a fog. The most critical difference between a real electron and a classical particle is that a real electron does not exist in any one place. All it has is a certain probability of being here as opposed to there, which the illustration shows with darker and lighter colors (darker means more probable). If you decided to catch the electron using some kind of hypothetical scoop, then you could wave your scoop through the probability cloud and an electron might appear inside it — and then again, it might not.

The planners and designers need, for their purposes, a universe that looks like a machine, but the actual universe more closely resembles a cloud. This is true (or so my physics teachers assured me) at the quantum level, and it is true at the social level. A machine universe can be tuned, reconfigured at will, and endlessly engineered. The movements and development of clouds can be projected only in a very general way and managed only in a general way. Some people have a gift for blowing smoke rings, and that is about the best we can do.

A political orientation that accounts for the genuine complexity of human social life (including the physical reality on which our social structures are built) must be modest in its expectations and forgo grand plans to reorganize community life along purportedly rational lines that, properly understood, are not rational at all. Testimony to our hubris is everywhere around us, from the coronavirus epidemic to the failure of our city police departments and the crisis of unfunded liabilities in pensions and entitlement programs.

There is not a single, harmonious mechanical representation of the forces that dominate the human world. The belief that a government (or a nation or a community) can be made into a well-oiled machine compounds the error of believing that any of these things is a machine in the first place.

Words about Words

Q: “If “golf” is not a verb, then how do we get the word “golfer?”

A: Only the Ancient Mariner knows.

Q: Why has the phrase “more importantly” been almost wholly replaced with the incomplete sounding (to me) “more important”? Example: “Capitalism is generally a good thing.  More importantly, it is better than any other system man has come up with throughout history.” If I substitute “more important,” it sounds wrong to my ears.

A: “More important” is usually what you’re looking for, because you are talking about the fact rather than the action; capitalism isn’t superior to socialism in a way that communicates importance, but the fact that capitalism is superior to socialism is important, as the 100 million people who perished under socialist experimentation and brutality in the 20th century attest. As a guide, just ask yourself whether you are looking for the adjective important or the adverb importantly. Anthony Fauci does important things, and Donald Trump does things importantly.

A related issue:

Q: When did it become common practice for people to say, “I feel badly,” rather than “I feel,” as in “I feel bad about the way things worked out.” I regularly grit my teeth when I hear this, particularly from new extended family members. I want to say, “I feel badly” actually means “I am not very good at the action of feeling say, the difference between an orange and a baseball.” Trying in the gentlest way possible to point this out only leads to blank stares. Someone once created a kind of compound term for this kind of peculiar, grandiose, and inflated type of incorrect expression, but I cannot track down the descriptor.

A: I think that one is a straightforward consequence of the fact that we do not educate students in grammar; if you deny them the formal tools of understanding English (such concepts as adjective and adverb) then they cannot think clearly about the language. Maybe the word you are looking for is “bombast,” a much-misused word that some people use to mean highly emotional speech but which actually refers to speech that is artificially formal or elevated in its style, affected in the hope of making a good impression. The textbook example is “thusly,” which apparently was first used as a satirical example of bombast (thus already is an adverb and requires no -ly) but quickly made its way into widespread usage.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Last week, I wrote about stray apostrophes, sometimes used illiterately to make (rather, in an attempt to make) plurals or even present-tense verbs: “Love Trump’s Hate,” the sign read. A reader writes to ask about the case of single proper nouns ending in s. There has long been a convention of using only the apostrophe rather than both the apostrophe and the s in such circumstances; I believe the Associated Press stylebook used to specify it. My own practice is to use apostrophe-s in all circumstances unless there is a strong idiomatic reason to do otherwise, as in “for Jesus’ sake” or “Achilles’ heel.” But “the Court of St. James’s.”

Send your language questions to

Home and Away

Tom Wolfe wrote of “mau-mauing the flak catchers.” And now we are Mao-Maoing them, too, in our little half-assed Cultural Revolution. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Prepare to be outraged.

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In Closing

A little bit from “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”

To sell the poverty program, its backers had to give it the protective coloration of “jobs” and “education,” the Job Corps and Operation Head Start, things like that, things the country as a whole could accept. “Jobs” and “education” were things everybody could agree on. They were part of the free-enterprise ethic. They weren’t uncomfortable subjects like racism and the class structure — and giving the poor the money and the tools to fight City Hall. But from the first that was what the lion’s share of the poverty budget went into. It went into “community organizing,” which was the bureaucratic term for “power to the people,” the term for finding the real leaders of the ghetto and helping them organize the poor.

And how could they find out the identity of these leaders of the people? Simple. In their righteous wrath they would rise up and confront you. It was a beautiful piece of circular reasoning. The real leaders of the ghetto will rise up and confront you . . . Therefore, when somebody rises up in the ghetto and confronts you, then you know he’s a leader of the people. So the poverty program not only encouraged mau-mauing, it practically demanded it. Subconsciously, for administrators in the poverty establishment, public and private, confrontations became a ritual.

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