Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Strange Demographics of the Russia-Ukraine War

 In my wallet, I still carry with me the selective service card I received when I turned 18. Since that was in 1997, and the Selective Service Act only allowed for the calling up of men aged 18-25, it's a pretty empty gesture at this point, but I keep it with me as a reminder.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year, there are headlines about how the average age of front line Ukrainian troops is 43. To our American eyes, that suggests a country which has already run out of draftable men aged 18-40, a country in the final stages of defeat, such as Germany in 1945 or the Confederacy in 1865.

Ukraine is indeed facing a manpower shortage, and will need to make some tough decisions if it is going to continue the war. However, the tough decisions are not necessarily the ones we might imagine from our American context, and they're the result of Ukraine's very post-Soviet demographics.

As of now, Ukrainian law only allows for men aged 27 and above to be mobilized for combat duty. A controversial new mobilization law which is being debated would lower that mobilization age to 25. Men aged 18-25, the entire draft age range in the US, have as of yet not been drafted for service at all.

This may seem odd.  Recruiting or conscripting 18-year-olds for military service has been such a staple of US military history that those who walk about the need to avoid some conflict habitually talk in terms of "sending our 18-year-olds off to die". This isn't a matter of picking on the young. Combat is incredibly physically demanding, and young men peak in their ability to simultaneously handle extreme physical activity and ignore their own mortality at the age of 18-20.  I do what I can to stay in shape, but that only makes me that much more aware that at 45 I move lower and get injured more easily than I did 25 years ago.

So why is Ukraine exclusively mobilizing non-prime age men for their army?

The reason is that like the rest of the Soviet world, Ukraine experienced a massive decline in fertility from the mid 1980s on, hitting its lowest point around 2000. 

Strange though it is to think about, 2000 is now 24 years ago, so that period when Ukraine's fertility rate had dropped to just one child per woman was the period when today's 24 year olds were not being born in Ukraine.  Thus, if you look at the number of people of different ages in the Ukrainian population prior to the war, you see the smallest populations in the prime military service age range.

So why is the war being fought by Ukrainian men in their 30s and 40s?  Because there are almost twice as many of them as there are men in their early 20s.  As of 2021, Ukraine had 1.1 million men aged 20-24 and 1.9 million men aged 35-39.

Add to that the fact that if the country is going to rebuild and have another generation of children after the war, that small generation of young men in their late teens and early 20s need to survive to have families and hold jobs. They are quite literally the future of the country.

Of course, young people are always the future of a country.  But in more normal demographic situations, young people are more plentiful. In 1966, when the US drafted 382,010 men aged 18-25 into the army for the Vietnam War, the demographic pyramid was almost exactly an inverse of what Ukraine has now.

Those 1966 draftees represented less than 5% of men of conscription age. If Ukraine were to tap their 20-24 year olds for the 500,000 men their army says they need to mobilize, they would need to mobilize half the Ukrainian men in that age range.

Russia, of course, faces a similar overall demographic problem.  The difference is simply that Russia's population is three times larger.  In grinding trench warfare which has come to resemble WW1 with drones, even with Russian casualties often higher than Ukrainians ones, they simply have more men to send into the meatgrinder.

This is, of course, why Ukraine is so eager to get more and better military aid for the US and the rest of NATO. The American way of war for the last hundred years has been to substitute firepower and technology for bodies. This still doesn't always work. In Vietnam, the US military was successful in inflicting far higher casualties on the North Vietnamese than the US suffered; the problem was that the North Vietnamese were willing to go on suffering those casualties and the US was not.

If Ukraine is going to manage to continue to defend itself with anything like success, without completely giving up their future generations, they will need to employ Western style military technology and tactics to achieve a similarly lopsided casualty ratio.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Music Man

 Last Friday night, my ten-year-old laid his head on the table at dinner and said, "I don't feel well..."

...and a week later, we are dragging ourselves by our elbows out of a feverish slough of mucus and sinus pressure. I've stopped sneezing this morning, but my head feels like a solid block pressing on my eyeballs. Darwin worked from home two days this week, and every moment he wasn't on a call, he crept back into bed. Various children drip around the house. Fortunately, the older teens have been so far immune, but we are in general a house shrouded in tissues.

All this is to explain what's more the norm here than otherwise -- the radio silence. But we have not been idle, oh no. I myself am pleasantly enmeshed in preparations for the The Music Man, which I am directing this spring/summer. 

The Music Man, to my mind, is the Great American Musical. It has catchy, hummable, lyrical tunes, iconic characters (is there a more American antihero than Prof. Harold Hill?), a few big dance numbers, a barbershop quartet, and more period Iowa vernacular than you can shake a stick at. ("...or you'll hear from me 'til who laid the rails!") The authentic turn-of-the-century touches are courtesy of author/composer/librettist Meredith Willson -- note the two l's -- b. 1902, whose keen and fond memories of his small-town Iowan upbringing inform every line of dialogue. 

Meredith Willson is now known mostly for "Meredith Willson's The Music Man" (as we are contractually obliged to credit it in publicity material), but mid-century he was more of a household name, known for his popular radio programs. Willson was a talented musician himself, training at a New York musical conservatory later known as Julliard, and becoming flautist in orchestras led by John Phillips Sousa and Arturo Toscanini. (He said he was known as "Down-Beat Willson" for his habit of slipping into the pit just before the conductor raised his baton.) His classical training, and in particular his ability to write counterpoint, elevates the score of The Music Man above nostalgic Americana kitsch.

The Music Man was eight years and forty revisions in the making. As part of the process of trying to get backing for the show, Willson and his wife, Russian soprano Ralinda (Rini) Zarova, would present an abridged version of the show, with Willson on the piano. Over several years of presentations, Willson honed this pitch, and after the Music Man opened on Broadway, he and Rini recorded an album called ...And Then I Wrote The Music Man, an oral history of the show, with songs. 

What's delightful in listening to a sample of this album is hearing Willson's own interpretation of his songs, and realizing that Robert Preston's iconic performance is modeled on the original. And as Rini sings Marian, you realize that Willson wrote the role for his wife's voice, which warms the cockles of even my cold heart. 

Take and listen, friends! And come see The Music Man, June 21-23.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Reading the Herculaneum Scrolls

This is a really fascinating story, and a good example of the way that AI and be used as a tool for the traditional humanities:
Machine learning tools are being used to turn CAT scans of scrolls entombed in volcanic mudflows in Herculaneum in 79AD into readable images which papyrus experts are then turning into text and philologists are translating.
This first victory consisted of successfully producing readable images of just a dozen columns of text -- a little over 2000 characters -- from one scroll. But it's amazing progress from where things stood a year ago, and the prize for this year will be for producing code that can turn the CAT scan raw data into readable versions of 90% of the first four full scrolls.
If they're able to read all of the 800 intact scrolls they have now, it would be a significant increase in the total available text from the ancient world. And some archeologists believe they haven't yet found the main library of scrolls in the villa from which these come.

My Greek would need a lot of practice before I'd be able to read this previously unavailable text -- a discourse on pleasure by an Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus. Indeed, all the fragments previously read from the scrolls found in this room of the villa are works by Philodemus, leading some researchers to believe that he may have been in residence at the Villa and this may have been his working library (while the larger library in the villa which they believe is still yet to be found might contain a wider range of works.)

But what's fascinatingly modern about this whole thing is that the really cutting edge work doesn't require Greek, it requires Python programming. Teams of interested programmers wrote code to detect the imprint of ink on papyrus from the CAT scan images, and to virtually assemble and unwrap the CAT scan images (which are narrow x-ray image slices through the whole scroll) into images of the sheets of papyrus itself. The mixture of very ancient and very modern here is fascinating. And since the entire project is based on open source principles, if you are a cutting edge Python programmer with an interest in the Ancient world, you can to go the site and click through to GitHub where all the code for the various teams is posted, allowing teams to study each others work as they work on the next round of imaging.