Here's glory for you

Mark Ungar of San Francisco provides a nice knock-down argument in today's Chronicle for the real meaning of Merry Christmas:
I assume, when I say "Merry Christmas," that whomever I direct the greeting to will understand that what I actually mean is: "Have a happy year-end period, regardless of which ancient tradition of marking the winter solstice you have inherited from your ancestral culture, and enjoy your chosen rituals of togetherness and renewal in which our similarities -- not our differences -- are celebrated. I am not a Christian, nor do I assume you are one, nor do I hope to convert you to Christianity -- but I still wish you a happy year-end period and confer such blessings upon you as a compassionate heart can offer."
But what do you expect of someone who boldly uses whomever correctly?

Listen carefully

Zac passes on a Yahoo story that looks as if it would be awfully embarrassing to Bush. To be sure, Bush is not embarrassed by flagrant lies; but remember, he's wounded, and the rats are edging in, looking for a good meal and a bit of payback to the predator that they didn't dare challenge for a few years; so the rules may be changing.

(I am here shamelessly stealing from what I put in a comment to Zac's posting. Hope this doesn't violate any traditional blogiquette.)

Read the story, and see the series of flagrant lies. Then read those damning quotes again with an analytical eye.

"Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order,"

"When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so,..."

" the way, everything you hear about requires court order, requires there to be permission from a FISA court, for example,"

"any action that takes place by law enforcement requires a court order,..."

"Law enforcement officers need a federal judge's permission to wiretap a foreign terrorist's phone,..."

Y'know, when I started copying out these quotes, I thought I was going to make a real cute and satirical point, and by the time I finished, I had convinced myself (almost, anyway) that it's no goddam accident of rhetoric, but quite deliberate. Turn up the volume and listen again:

talking about wiretap
talking about chasing down
that you hear about
action ... by law enforcement
Law enforcement officers need

And you will hear the subtext:
However, the ones we are not talking about, because they are not done by law enforcement officers but by the Omnipotence, who does not answer to law or the Constitution--well, you don't hear us talking about them, do you?

Nattering nabobs will claim that Dubya doesn't have the brains to plan all this careful wording (agreed) or to stay on script like this -- here, I'm not so sure. The weasel wording is just too perfect.

So you think you're a wingnut

or that you've seen wingnuts in blogs. Well, let me tell you something. You don't even know what a nutcase is. But if you want to, I suggest you visit Wikipedia to find the real thing.

You will come away humbled. If you want to know the unifying theme and the identity of that other person in the picture at the top, look at the last item in the list -- quite a reasonable one, in many ways -- of good guys. Then you will understand that list of beast-men, cultists, fascists, and colonialists.

One for your iPod(tm)

Isn't wonderful how much free information you can get on the Internets(tm)? Here, for instance, is the obscure page that answers two questions that millions of readers have asked:

The question is, I think, easier to figure out than that for 42. Here, anyway, is proper credit.

In fact, three questions are answered:

. Yes, you will be able to speak of van Leeuwenhoek without sounding like an idiot.

. No, there is no uniform pronunciation from one end of the kingdom to the other; pronunciations vary no less than that of, say, Shakespeare does when you cross the Pond.

. No, you will never never be able to speak of Huygens recognizably no matter how many times you listen to the file.

Welcome to the Islamic Virtue Party

So, Bradford Plumer took the test to see which party he agrees with in the upcoming Iraq election. Turned out to be the Iraqi Communist Party, but we knew that all along about these lefty bloggers, right? My turn.

Hmm, it really is hard to answer some of the questions, as one doesn't know what they really imply. As a commenter asked, what are the competencies of the Prime Minister under the constitution? So one hits the "neutral" button many times when one probably has in reality a strong position.

Still, I am a bit surprised to find myself in the Islamic Virtue Party (I wasn't kidding) if only 52% worth. Actually I disagree with them a lot (well, 48% worth), but they are the best fit for me relative to all the others. Sort of like Democrats, I guess. Also, there may be nuances. When we both disagree with "Muslim clerics should not have the right to be members of the Constitutional Court", I have the unpleasant feeling that they would still disagree if the words ex officio were inserted; slightly different notions of liberty, that is.

Looking again, I see could also join the Iraqi National Accord. Probably wouldn't like it any better.

Do symbols matter?

And could their context and history make a difference? I'm led to such profound questions by an observation that NTodd made about what to light up as a Christmas decoration. But mainly by the fourth comment on that posting, signed by Ereshkigal, which makes a remarkable, if implicit, nomination for a Lifetime Acheivement Award in Insensitivity:
I live in a predominately African-American section of an (almost) Southern city.

A white family of Clueless Christians who live a couple of blocks from me light up a huge wooden cross on their lawn each year right after Thanksgiving.

Originally, they lighted it with hundreds of flickering votive candles, but now they use little flickering Christmas lights.

It's been a continuing source of discussion among the rest of the neighbors.

Fawlty Towers interval

It's great how us young folks can just pop open the laptop and go blogging when John Cleese starts the segue into the fundraising pitch and we're in for 10 or 15 minutes of the excruciating price we pay for public TV, and I'm certainly not referring to the money.

F. T. is a subject of polite disagreement around here, though. Not that anyone fails to find it impossibly funny, of course; but some of us can watch it and some cannot. If the interactions of Mr and Mrs Fawlty are just too painful, that's pretty much it for watching the show. As it happens, I can put up with that. But the sequences they just showed before the break reminded me that I have my limits. The Nazi episode is fine with me, and the Corpse; but the Gourmet Night episode begins to strike too close to home. The Beating of the Car, in particular. Which raises an interesting question, which someone like Shakespear's sister with millions of commenters should pose: which bit of Fawlty Towers is just too much for you?

Flay Otters. time to get back to the show.

... back again.

The Sensible One Around Here suggests that we can just buy the freakin tape of this Fawlty Towers Retrospective and see it sometime without the dumb breaks. But I persist in watching it.

One wishes they would not feel the need to put in the little patronising (you can tell from the s that the a is short there) bits explaining what and where Devon is, and like that. But I suppose Americans need these things, and I'm just being unrealistic. I mean, is it necessary to explain that Mr Johnson (I think I have the name right) is obviously Fawlty's social inferior as shown by his dress and accent? Yes, I suppose it is.

Speaking of which, how bout dem accents? John Cleese is John Cleese, and that's enough. But Prunella Scales has that marvelous lower middle class affected accent (as I'm told it is). The aforementioned Mr Johnson has his unaffected lower accent. And of course, Manuel!

You know, it was rather a long time before I found out that Connie Booth did her extremely good American accent (not in F. T., of course) by nature and not by hard study; I suppose the English perceived that instantly; but even they, I think, must respect her accent when she was doing Polly.

Teribly funny show. Doesn't look as if they'll have much of a closer after the final membership break, but one must hang around to see. Meanwhile, off to read more blogs while they talk on and on.

A serious evil

Tom Harper, speaking of the Cheney administration being put on the defensive, notes that Murtha is going to be swiftboated, and "...millions of gullible Americans will probably think he burned his draft card during the Vietnam war and his hobbies include torturing fetuses..."

My thanks for the reminder of something we too easily forget: the Republicans recognize that there are some groups whom it is just plain wrong to torture.

Something humorous, but lingering

with either boiling oil or melted lead.

But since I can't administer the proper retribution to spambots, I'm reduced to installing the clever Turing keyword test on comments.

Set the goddam increment bit!

Despite the title, no deep technoid stuff here. If you've read this far, read on. This is too good to be true, almost:

By now everyone has heard about the worm that Sony put on a bunch of its plain audio CDs, which installs itself invisibly in the Windows kernel via some nice security hole that Microsoft left for such purposes. And everyone has heard how within a couple of days of the announcement some malware writers had started circulating stuff that exploited the Sony exploit to get their own evil stuff into Windows in a way that's next to impossible to delete.

Hmm, I said no technoid stuff, didn't I? Gimme a break; the press handles stories like this every day.

All right, the code that Sony installs on your XP system, designed to protect their copyright prevent you from exercising legitimate rights under copyright law is a copyright violation! Thanks to Rachel for this one. There is code in Sony's little production that's identical to code in LAME, an open-source mp3 encoder.

Open source? Doesn't that mean it's OK to use the code? Yes; everyone is free to use it in accord with the terms of the license under which it's distributed. That's the Gnu Lesser General Public License, and it requires, as they clearly explain in their documentation, that you must give them due credit, provide a link back to their website, and make your modifications to their code available under the GNU license. Want to guess how much of this Sony has done?

It appears that if copyright law is worth anything, Sony, having simply lifted the code without any compliance with license terms, is subject to a nasty lawsuit. To be sure, Gnu's GPL has not yet been tested in court. When do we start? Where's the signup sheet for backers for legal expenses?

Speaking of GPL: Thirty-some years ago, I worked for a company called Information Systems Design, which at one point was involved in one of the first publicized cases of theft of software, and the first application of a new California law on theft of trade secrets. We were the good guys, of course. A competitor who couldn't solve a problem that one of our guys had figured out took a simpler approach: steal our code. We found out; the cops and the Santa Clara County D.A. were quite happy to take on the first test case for the new criminal law; they got a warrant and staged a raid, with technical ssistance from us.

I'd love to tell the full tale, including the first broad search warrant to search all of a computer installation's magnetic storage, and how the story suddenly broke into international fame through a headline in the Chronicle; but I'm too lazy right now. And this isn't supposed to get tech-heavy.

But one thing we had to prove in court, naturally, was that the code they had was actually stolen from us and wasn't an independent solution to the same problem. (The LAME people will have the same problem, which they can easily solve because there is plenty of stuff visible on Sony's CDs which resembles their code in ways that can't possibly be coincidental.) So the competitor's code was examined by the author of our code, to look for excessive resemblances, of which he found plenty. One example that got into the court records concerned a line from which he had at an early stage omitted an essential asterisk, causing the code not to work properly. Finding the error, he had gone back and fixed it. And as he did so, Greg Lutz (who used his initials GPL on his code submissions -- how's that for uncanny?) added this comment.


Oddly enough, the same comment appeared verbatim in the other guys' code. The perp copped a plea, and we won our lawsuit.

Kansas? Again?

Kansas puts us in touch with the eternal verities. Like, what goes around comes around.. Like, if you put a stupid topical joke on your website and never update anything, after a while it's topical again.

Are seven syllables really enough?

Dadahead has a post on Andy Rooney and Don Imus talking about "black" and "African American". I have no real problem with his conclusions, and no idea of defending R & I; but there's more to be said.

First off, people are in fact trying to tell me (along with Rooney and Imus) how I ought to use my native language. Many people object to being told that kind of thing. They are wrong; but not quite completely wrong.

People have a right, within some limits, to decide what they are to be called. When Clive Staples Lewis, aged 7 or so, declares that from now on he is Jack, the members of his family go along with it; and for the rest of his life he is Jack to all his friends. (Sure beats Clive, even though he was not named after the imperialist.)

And if an identifiable group makes a collective decision on what it's to be called -- you know it's identifiable because it is identified by some name or other -- that decision is to be heeded, other things being equal or nearly so. There will be objections at this point that "collective decision" is impossible and oxymoronic. Strictly speaking, yes, it's impossible, but I know one when I see one.

I saw one in the 1960s. When I learned the English language, the word Negro was used in my part of the world by decent people , by which I mean people who were not overtly racist, did not want to be racist, and did not like racism, however far they may have been from the impossible dream of really being free from racism. There were other words, to be sure.

One word was not used, and that's that. (It's rather an open secret that the word is used in ceratin contexts by members of the group. That's their privilege. This annoys a lot of stupid whiny honkies -- I claim the privilege of using that term -- but to hell with them.)

There was "colored". I'm not quite sure what was wrong with it, but it was not what one used. I think it seemed rather patronizing and euphemistic. Euphemistic? You mean there's something wrong with being [black/Negro/colored]? Of course not; it sounds as if the speaker thinks there's something wrong with it: that's the patronizing part. But I don't insist on the point.

There was also "black". Sounded a bit dubious. Makes one think of Little Black Sambo. And let's please not get into whether Sambo must have been Indian if he dealt with tigers, if only because that will remind us to start fighting about the terminology for the descendants of the the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, exluding Eskimos, oooooops, Inuit. Anyway, it didn't sound right to me.

And then in the '60s there was a rather sudden collective decision, I know one when I see one, to make a change. From then on, the word was to be "Black". Jules Feiffer did a typically funny sarcastic treatment of Black, and it was right, but in the long run irrelevant. And it seemed to me that rather a lot of the older generation of Negroes did not like the new name much more than I did, but they saw which way things were going, and fighting about it was not what they needed, and they swallowed their discomfort. (I could be all wrong about that, and I certainly have no authority here, but so it seemed to me at the time.)

And I went along, of course, because people have a right to choose what they are called, within some limits of reason, and all the more so when they've been taking inconceivable amounts of shit for hundreds of years. And by golly, pretty soon Black sounded right. And in not too many years, Negro actually sounded a bit embarrassing.

And now we come to "African American", with or without a hyphen. Someone is telling me that I ought to change my vocabulary again, and I am to decide whether to do it this time.

To begin with, I've already changed once, by request. Are names to be changed every so often, with the season's fashions? Right, that's an old guy's sort of argument, and the young and flexible people may well want to make the change immediately. (They, of course, would be making it for the first time.) And it's a small sort of request to make of one's friends and family; if my cousin, whose legal birth-certificate name I had almost forgotten at one time, told me that her first name was changing again from the one that I've used almost all our lives, it would change, blood being thicker than water. But it takes a bit more presumption to keep shaping the vocabulary of millions of strangers.

And just who is telling me? I do not sense the consensus that I did 40 years go, or anything like it. I could be wrong, but I don't see it.

And I am expected to change a good solid forceful one-syllable English word to a nasty heptasyllabic compound, no more sensible or meaningful than the thoroughly inaccurate "black". I don't see the purpose. Or rather, I do see the political purpose, and I disagree with it.

Dadahead says that "African American" signals that you are trying to be sensitive about these things, and that's true and good. He says that it offends no one; in effect, that it's neutral. I disagree on that. Aha! I found something to disagree with, justifying the existence of this posting.

The Poetry Corner

Grand Moff Texan is rising to new poetic heights in response to the current pony-fest. With a bit of formatting for clarification:
This is what's left of the right. [Already a good line!]
They're willing to sneak around and slit throats in the night,
but they don't have the guts for a straight up fight.

Can they draw a goose, too?

Again, bottleofblog sends me to an important story, this on the chilling letter from the Number 2 man in Al Qaeda.

Bottle, after guaranteeing that the reader of the letter will remain so unchilled as practically to be sweaty, comments on the remarkable number of number-2 men Al Qaeda has.

I'm mainly reminded of Robert Benchley.

This letter is so chilling, says the story, because of how "calm, clear, and well argued" it is. Isn't it remarkable? A senior leader at Al Qaeda can write a letter clearly! And "Isn't It Remarkable?" was the title of the essay Benchley wrote when he encountered a picture captioned "Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose from Pharoah Akhenaten's Palace, Drawn 3300 Years Ago." Benchley asked why it was remarkable: "Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose so that it looked like a goose?"

Benchley's sobering essay (or chilling?) should be read, for balance, along with his "Lucky World!" which begins, "When you come to think of it, the wonder is not that there are so many jammed automobile fenders, bad motion pictures, sore throats, divorces and wars, but that there aren't more of them." Both are in My Ten Years in a Quandary, Harper & Bros, 1936 (lots of reprints, cheap at abebooks.

Another hero gone

Vivian Jones; R. I. P. Thanks to bottleofblog. Apologies for pointing people to so much bad language lately; but bottle's caption to her picture should be in textbooks to illustrate the distinction between indecorous and disrespectful.

Paradise Lost, the Movie

No, really.
Or should that be John Milton's Paradise Lost as with Frankenstein?
But what you must not miss is the comments. Unless (spoiler) you just don't care about David Mamet.

Hoping Tom Lehrer saw the item

Great news. There is now a proper explanation for short gamma-ray bursts. In case you missed out, these are short bursts of high-energy radiation from somewhere in the sky, which satellite devices started picking up several years ago; the atmosphere blocks the gamma radiation from getting down here. While it's flashing ("short" means less than two seconds), a burst is as bright as 100 quadrillion Suns.

BTW, this is the second time in a couple of days that I've seen a number like "100,000 trillion". What gives? Thousand million and million million have passed pretty well out of the language, especially since England decided to join Germany and the USA in defining billion and trillion, eliminating a possible ambiguity. Can it be that the reader isn't expected to know what a quadrillion is? Answer, I suppose: Until recently, trillions were something a person just hadn't heard of, except perhaps in the number of miles in a light-year; the latter was usually called six million million miles when I first heard the number, fifty-some years ago (finding the locution annoying even then). What with GDPs and national debts and national budgets, not to mention big amounts of money denominated in Yen, trillions are now considered familiar enough to use, but it will be a few years before even the US war budget hits a quadrillion Yen.

Oh, right, you want to know what does cause these things. Colliding neutron stars, according to the paper coming out today in Nature. (Subscription required, of course.) There's a mind-blowing thought. Also, a good name for a rock group.

It has been known for some time that these big explosions were a long way off. Good thing. If one happened in our galaxy, and the beam of gamma radiation happened to point our way, it could knock out the ozone layer completely, causing us all to be fried with short-wave unltraviolet from our friendly neighborhood Sun. Unlikely, however, so "don't buy gamma ray burst insurance," says Edward "Rocky" Kolb of Fermilab.

No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance,
Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go.

Not Fine, thank you

Magnificent is better than Important. We no longer do Fine.
--Overheard at Christies: the official hermeneutics of the titles given to auctions.

He lies like an eyewitness

The late Professor Bergen Evans of Northwestern University wrote two debunking books in the 1950s, The Natural History of Nonsense and The Spoor of Spooks, both of which will repay reading after 50 years. Too early for von Daeniken and spoon bending, but those are kind of out of date by now anyway, aren't they? But astrology and psi powers and misconceptions of history and law go on forever; and Evans will show you how little change there is in Things of Permanent Value like these.

When speaking of law and evidence, Evans cites a saying that he says is common among police and lawyers: "He lies like an eyewitness." Unless I am getting it all wrong (impossible, as I'm getting the information from The Guardian), we have a truly classic case concerning the man recentlly executed in London for the crime of Looking As If You Might Be Muslim.

(Now I'm the one that's lying. The soldier who was on stakeout classified him as White when he saw him leave the building. In a picture in The Observer today (21 Aug, but I can't find it on the website) he looks as Muslim or Asian (not to say African, which the actual suspect was) as I do. But at the time we thought that was part of his crime.)

We all knew how he was wearing unreasonably bulky clothes in warm weather; it looked as if there were wires and things sticking out of the clothes; he ran into the station pursued by numerous heavily-armed police and jumped the barrier, as the cops also did, sensibly enough; and so on.

I suspect, from a conversation or two, that the English, with their tradition of law-abiding police, do not fully grasp the distinction between running away from a real policeman wearing a friendly Bobby-helmet and running from a couple of armed goons, looking like anybody else or worse, who may or may not identify themselves verbally as being on the payroll of a police organization and may or not be speaking the truth. There will be plenty more opportunities to learn; September 11 has changed everything. But in the July accounts of the matter, there was no mistaking that these guys were Government; at least, if you are used to a country in which large gangs of heavily armed men are not the norm.

This week we learned that that story was a lie from beginning to end. One bit was related to the truth: after walking calmly into the station and stopping to pick up a free newspaper, he ran for the train. To be sure, we know that no Englishman would do that, but he was, alas, an Illegal Alien who didn't know better. Right.

All Americans understand this: the story was the standard set of police lies to cover up a criminal dereliction of duty. Well, all Americans who aren't complete drooling idiots. Nothing new here, except that this was maybe beyond the expected American norm for police malfeasance. And maybe that gives us an excuse, along with a general trust in British legal institutions, for our believing the whole story and interpreting the incident in terms of it.

But wait! Here comes the surprise: it was not a police fabrication. It was the eyewitness account of one Christopher Wells (along with one or two others), who was right there on the train and saw it all with completely unbiased eyes. (You'll have to read down to near the end of the story to find this.)

The officials in London are thinking hard about the case, and may come up with better solutions to operational control of these dangerous operations, and even to a problem which they had quite brilliantly kept irrelevant for a copule of centuries, how to manage trigger-happy cops. The rest of us can relearn a lesson about eyewitness accounts rendered by whatever self-aggrandizing fabulist may have happened to be on the site.

Oh, and Mr. Wells should call some Yank talk-radio site, which will surely be glad to give him a hero's tour of Red-State America.

The very last Terry Schiavo item

One should let the poor woman die and rest. Yes. And that is done.

But the case--is that laid to rest? Not yet: Governor Voodoo-Medicine so loved it that he brought it back for one more bow as a zombie. Now you've seen the news stories about how his Attorney General has dropped the case, and that's all. Isn't it?

Do you really think you can bury one of the Undead without bothering to put the stake through its heart? Out of boredom and perhaps even decency, the respectable media are trying to do that. But maybe the thing will stay buried longer if people see what the AG said. Thanks to JRH (and thanks to Shakespeare's Sister for pointing me to his blog), you can read the handwriting on the stake.

I'd take exception to JRH's description of the tone, which he says sounds like a lecture. The affect of the piece (as we 18th-century music types like to say) is not pure academic exposition; it is exasperation. Here you can find out how, if you are a lawyer holding a responsible office, speaking with dignity and coherence and full backing of evidence, you pronounce B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.


Kevin Drum made a very decent and reasonable suggestion that all the blogosphere should lay off the politicking, the "political point scoring over the London attacks. Just for a day." Other good people followed.

Dadahead thinks otherwise, that politics is not a parlor game, but a matter of life and death. He's right. Of course the Right came out running in all directions and screaming political obscenities, and that would make it harder to behave oneself; but that's not the point.
'Politics' is, for most of us, simply the practice of critically analyzing the most important issues of our time. Asking us to put aside politics for the day is tantamount to calling for a moratorium on rational thought.

Which, of course, is precisely what the Right would like, and precisely what they got in the aftermath of 9/11.
It's not too early, though, to think about what one will do the next time. Here is a modest proposwal that would show respect for the dead and for the living. For one day, anyway: No gloating; no invective; no demonstrating how your favorite irrelevant issue is proved by the day's unpleasant events; no clever jokes, please.

The rules naturally do not apply so strictly to those who are there and suffering. And the one about jokes doesn't apply at all to Londoners, God bless 'em, who, it's said, were coming up with jokes two hours after the bombs went off.

Back here where nobody's getting hurt, Debra Saunders, our own aspiring Michelle Malkin clone, really rose to the occasion. Read it yourself if you're a masochist. Her general idea is that if the people who bomb Planned Parenthood offices and murder doctors were to do something this bad to us, we Liberals would can all this dumb civil liberties stuff and understanding-the-reasons, and we'd go and hang us some Christians from the nearest lamppost. At least, that's what's implied by her knowledge that we'd have the sense to go out and kill somebody who's somehow vaguely or tenuously or fictitiously connected with the crime, the way she wants to do and George does. Perhaps she's mistaken.

So you can tell, the day is over. Now I want to ask anyone who has the stomach to follow these things: did someone, somewhere on the Right, say anything decent yesterday? There is a sort of Anglophilia that's obligatory in the respectable Right, after all; so, was anyone at the National Review, or a Boston brahmin who speaks only to Cabots or possibly to God, or a pillar of the Eastern prep schools, or any of the people who love Winston Churchill not only for saving civilization but for trying to preserve the Empire in India and upholding the Gold Standard, moved to express himself about England, and London, even before thinking what a good time it would be to buy on the market's downtick or writing about how it all proved that Liberals are evil?

Lefties who have no use for aristocracy or empire were moved to express themselves about the sceptered isle with Shakespeare's help, or on their own (see below). Surely some Righties did the same; I'd be glad to hear about it.

Meanwhile, are the terrorists getting it wrong? New York is not the first place to choose if you want to imtimidate people or drive them to despair. Lots of media action, but quite disappointing effects as to toppling New York. Or London! The Blitz (42,000 dead) and the past 30 years of terrorism from their own archipelago: a great prospect for demoralization and chaos there.

And I can't write Madrilenos without hearing:
Madrid, qué bien resistes,
Madrid, qué bien resistes,
Madrid, qué bien resistes,
mamita mía,
los bombardeos.
los bombardeos.

De las bombas se ríen,
de las bombas se ríen,
de las bombas se ríen,
mamita mía,
los madrileños.
los madrileños.

Well, they didn't laugh at the bombs in Madrid; but there's something about these cities that's hard to beat down. (Text is from "Los Cuatro Generales", song from the Spanis Civil War.)

Something rather different

Would someone like to recommend a blog-consolidator other than Bloglines? I am damn well sick of seeing their freakin Bloglines Plumber. If they can't afford a backup system or just can't make their software work for two or three days at a time, I'm willing to pay [gasp] for someone who can do it.

Exploding flypaper

In case it's not immediately obvious, the title refers to the Flypaper Theory, under which we're drawing the enemy into Iraq where we wipe them out and keep them from attacking us here at home (sorry about that, Iraqis, but at least we're safe).

The best I can say to the horror is what Billmon said over at This Modern World:
"We are all New Yorkers, we are all Madrilenos, we are all Baghdadis. But I was a Londoner from the time I learned how to read. I know it shouldn't make any difference, but it does."

Meanwhile, the discontent of the American people with the war was leading, even before the failure of the great Presidential bucking-up speech and its lukewarm reception by the soldiers, to more speculation about Vietnam. I was reading in the last 24 hours about the historical parallels, and how the Tipping Point for public opinion (not policy, of course) was reached suddenly with the Tet Offensive: the enemy made a hugely successful attack which the public knew was simply impossible because we had been making such progress; and the game was up. Later, the authorities managed to prove the TO was a failure; an exercise in irrelevancy that's a candidate for Guinness.

The Iraqi insurgents, or resistance, certainly can't duplicate such an offensive now, as the commentators were saying. So the Tipping Point will be reached more gradually.

Or something.

Le quatre juillet. Please rise and sing the Marseillaise

Everyone knows how France financed our Revolution, which could not possibly have succeeded without money to buy esssential supplies, particularly gunpowder.

When I say everyone, I mean, of course, at least half a dozen people in each state. Each of the larger Blue states.

But I had failed to notice, till I read a review of Lavoisier in the Year One by Madison Smartt Bell, who it was that provided that gunpowder. After some embarrassments in the Seven Years' War (which we call the French and Indian War), France decided to expand its gunpowder-making facilities by applying the latest Enlightenment science. The new production came on-line in time to supply the Americans, thanks to its director : Antoine Lavoisier.

Well, this republic, at least, had need of savants; and on this day we should thank him of whom (according to the apocryphal story) the French one decided it had no need.

Nations, of course, never do good things for entirely pure motives. France did not support our revolution out of devotion to Enlightenment ideals of Liberty, whether those of Locke or of Voltaire et al; nor out of fondness for the British colonists, their recent enemies on the North American continent where the French empire suffered such a disastrous loss. It wanted to weaken the British, that's all. Nor need we overlook that the money provided for purchase of powder went right back to France to buy powder, setting the classic pattern for 20th-century American foreign aid.

Then, as to repaying our debt to France (people really did use that phrase once upon a time), the United States did not come running to save European civilization in 1914 and 1939, but held out, as our English friends never tire of telling us, for years in the First war, and until the other guys declared war on us in the Second.

But, T. S. Eliot or none, there is something to be said for eventually doing the right thing if your reasons aren't entirely wrong. Some people who were also France did love Liberty; and the US got around to doing some damn fine things in Europe when it got around to it. (Shall we just forget Versailles? No one comes out a winner there. Well, maybe John Maynard Keynes.)

Jacques Chirac is said to have had very naughty profit-seeking motives in 2002-2003; but in fact the French made a serious effort to stop our government from pursuing a disastrous military adventure based entirely on the most dubious grounds, except for those grounds that were not even dubious. They failed; had their hearts been pure enough to give them the strength of ten, they still would have failed; but they seriously tried. Today I'll raise a toast to them; maybe I'll save the Marseillaise till the 14th when I run a video of Casablanca.

A master of meiosis

Lord Peter Wimsey, sensing that a break is needed in the growing tension among the group in his parlor, calls for liquid refreshment all around, even though it's still morning. Offering some sherry to Miss Twitterton, he quiets her protestations about taking a drink at that time by assuring her, "you will find it as mild as your own parsnip wine."

The new-wedded lord then gives a glass to Lady Peter, who has also sampled that lady's parsnip wine, and who comments, sotto voce, "You are a master of meiosis."

In case any of the rabid evolutionists should stop by, let me note that meiosis is "a figure of speech by which the impression is intentionally conveyed that a thing is less in size, importance,etc., that it really is"; also, a synonym for litotes. And the meaning goes a long way back before biology latched onto it. (Cf. ellipsis, parable, and hyperbole.)

In other news, Russia and China had a friendly summit meeting and issued a friendly communiqué decrying monopoly and domination in world politics and calling for an end to "attempts to divide nations into leaders and those being led." This, coming from Russia and China, is as hilarious as is the idea of long-term cooperation between those two imperial powers. But hey, a politician's gotta do what a politician's gotta do.

The hilarity dies down when you contemplate the specific issues on which they pledge cooperation against unnamed hegemonists' evil interference: Chechnya and Taiwan.

But the commentators bring the fun back. At the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, Andrei Kortunov tells us that the statement means that Russia and China "don't quite believe the sincerity of the second Bush administration's attempts to break its image of being a proponent of unilateral actions and decisions." As if that weren't enough, he adds that "This may be connected with the unilateral actions of Washington in the Middle East, its latest decisions on increasing its defense budget and some others."

A master of meiosis.

Requiem for an airhead

Bill Kaysing, who originated the hoax that the Moon landings were a hoax, is dead. Has been for months, but it was just announced. The Bad Astronomy blog has a report that has an interesting take: in addition to being a gentleman who observes de mortuis nil nisi bonum, the BABlogger finds that that abominable bit of work has had good side effects in getting many people interested in the reality of the Apollo program.

Read the comments, too. It's a bit of a shock to see how many people testify to their own birth or rebirth of interest thanks to Kaysing et al. Even more of a hoot: when a comment finally treats the old fraud as roughly as he deserves, it's by a Canadian! Sorry about the stereotyping, and happy Canada Day; Porlock Senior didn't take out Canadian citizenship for nothing.

The truth about blogging

You've probably seen this already, but if not, Leiter Reports now has the real story on blogs, persuasion, and invective.

I cling to the hope that it may be right not to agree 100% with his view. There is always the chance that some person who isn't already a partisan might drop by and possibly be persuaded. Or maybe not, in blogs. More likely in newsgroups, and I'm well aware of what I'm saying when I say that.

Thomas Jefferson and C. S. Lewis both wrote of the uncertain nature of persuasion; and they were talking about the reactions of reasonable people. I think John Locke did also, though I doubt I could ever find the quote.

But hey, as long as persuasion is such a completely uncertain business, why not just blast away at the idiots and criminals and not worry about wounding the feelings of innocents who happen by? There are hard questions and easy questions, as Leiter says. So off I go to indulge my current favorite guilty pleasure, the Rude Pundit.

Update: Been hearing enough lately about how Baghdad is just like Houston? Oops, I wouldn't want someone to read a hidden attack on Houston into that; we pundits just mean Baghdad has this crime rate that's not so bad compared to this or that US city. Now, with a tip of the hat to Leiter again, read what the United States government says about vehicular travel in Iraq.

Look down, look down

and see my pretty little blog formatted decently again. Thanks to Zachary for getting me off dead center.


that lonesome road, and you'll find my text.

Blogspot seems to have mucked up something. I'm not the only one whose text has suddenly been forced down below the sidebar. Meanwhile I need to keep assigning new dates to this silly text to keep it on top.

Reader, if you require a foreign policy disaster,

look about you, or to the South.

Latin America: our own backyard. Latin America: an official exclusive United States sphere of influence for 180 years. Latin America--

Without Denis DeKat's pointer, how long would it have been before I knew how stunningly the boggle-headed klunks in charge of telling the rest of the world what to do have been screwing up in that obscure little backwater of the modern world?(Less than 90 miles from home!) Read it and barf. Then cheer. They are simply losing this one, and there's no army available to invade anybody about it.

But seriously, folks

RangelMD, an actual physician, not just playing one on TV or in the Senate, gives us this:

"I'd like to close this evening speaking more as a physician than as a United States Senator and really speak to my involvement as a physician and -- and as a Senator and as leader in the United States Senate in what has been a fascinating course of events for us over the last 48 hours."
As someone who identified themselves and emphasized their role as a physician Dr. Frist broke several ethical rules that March day. He claimed to make a diagnosis on a patient without directly examining her or reading her medical records. He did not make or keep any formal patient record of his medical evaluation of this case. He gave his professional opinion on a patient who resides in a state where he has no license to practice medicine. He misused his professional opinion (as officially entered into the Congressional record) and abused and misrepresented his stature as a licensed physician for the purposes of influencing a major legislative body during debate on pending legislation.
Read the rest for his case that Frist needs to lose his medical license.

If that gets you down, cheer up with the comments at Orac, where I picked this up. Sorry, I have to quote one comment here, from Ron Sullivan: "I did not have diagnosis with that woman."

The Hitler Zombie

"When you compare your opponent to Hitler, you demean your opponent, you demean yourself, and you demean Hitler."
--Jon Stewart

Today Orac defends his position on the brain-eating Hitler zombie. You don't have to have read the post he's defending, much less disagree with the point Durbin was trying to make (Orac doesn't), in order to benefit from reading it.

Nor is there any real need to parse that sentence and figure out who is on which side.

I wonder if the zombie is related to the worm in the brain, discovered by Richard Mitchell in Less Than Words Can Say, which devours the part of the brain that governs the use of the active voice, and thereby causes a move into administrative jobs. How do you analyze a zombie's DNA?

How to write a spoof

Yesterday's ruminations by the head of the CYACIA remind me to look for historical precedent. Before getting to the point, here are the history and the generalities.

Mark Twain wrote a number of outrageous hoaxes, or satires, depending on how you take them. In his early days in Nevada, he reported a bloody multiple murder that shocked everyone in town, since they didn't notice details such as that the man who murdered his family was a well-known bachelor. And there was the Petrified Man, described in great detail, with some obvious impossibilities in the geography, and the small matter that he was petrified in the position of thumbing his nose.

Then, later, there was a wonderfully stuffy and humorless British review of A Tramp Abroad, which the discerning reader (like, ahem, me at age 16) could see was written by Twain himself. (I think it was an utterly Twainish deadpan "This is surely an exaggeration" that provided what we now call the Tipping Point.) It got a lot of attention, including some from smart people who told Twain that it was a fake, and he had been taken in. They had a hard time accepting the obvious truth when told about it.

Anyway, Twain always played fair, sorta, putting in something outrageous enough to make it clear that the whole thing was false, provided you were paying attention. That was the problem with the massacre, as Twain later perceived it: it was so lurid and shocking that no one had his brain turned on while reading it.

The recent creationist manifesto might be real, and it might be a hoax to expose the profound ignorance of a supposed expert on the creationist side. By the Mark Twain rules, it ought to be a fake, but you can't be sure when you don't know anything about the author: this kind of thing is perfectly possible among sincere creationists, as you can see from the PhD who expressed herself as unsure that it was for real, but was favorably inclined.

So, Porter Goss of the CYA says that he knows where Bin Laden is. Then, to make sure we understand in what sense he is saying that, he adds in true Mark Twain fashion that we can't just go in and get him because of "our sense of international obligation, fair play."

Emergency alert

If you haven't already got in on this one, don't delay. It is now just about 5 AM in England, where this absolutely fabulous idiot lives. (You want the deranged protest item, not the Mallard Fillmore wannabe comic.) Pretty soon he'll get up and find the (188 and climbing) comments that nice polite people have made about the intellect of a commentator on American politics who thinks that Fred Phelps is a commie pacifist leftist. And probably the stuff will be removed, hence the hurry.

Tip of the hat to Pharyngula.

Helping the war effort

Jesus' General has organized an effort to support our troops by supplying reinforcements, now that Army recruiting is way down, from the ranks of the highly educated and patriotic Young Republicans. For some reason or other, he has adopted a logo of a Yellow Elephant.

They now have the first report from one of the special operatives. I do recommend looking at it. The Young Repugnants' level of politicial seriousness and sophistication, let alone their patriotism, must be seen to be believed. (Oh, and if the YR correspondence turns out to be a hoax, it's a far better and nastier one than the creationist maybe-hoax I just wrote up.)

Any sufficiently advanced technology... indistinguishable from black magic -- so said Arthur C. Clarke. I think it's a lot less profound, and a lot less true, than lots of other people do. Much better is

"Any sufficiently advanced parody is indistinguishable from creationism."

That's Stuart Weinstein in a comment at Panda's Thumb on a truly awful farrago of creationist pseudo-science.

I think, and it would be interesting to hear whether I'm right, that a person with no great science background would see from the tone of the thing that it's not to be taken seriously. What's sobering is that the lady who presents this anonymously contributed theory claims to have a PhD in molecular biology. What do they teach the children in school these days? In my day, let me tell you, you couldn't get a BA in biology from a self-respecting school without knowing enough elementary physics to spot at least a few of the howlers in the piece.

It's suggested that she is a hoaxer, but evidence is presented to the contrary. Probably the piece isn't her work but was sent to her as she says. The jury is out on whether the thing is a hoax, but I'm confident that Alan Sokal didn't write it. The science nonsense in his famous hoax was much more subtle.

By the way, if you don't see what's so mind-blowingly bad about the so-called science, there's nothing wrong with you, assuming you don't claim to have any kind of science degree or to be doing any kind of science whatever. People have different interests and different specialties. Still, from my own limited knowledge of the Humanities, let me ask how you would react to an essay proving that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare's plays, written by someone who confuses Ben Jonson with Samuel Johnson and believes that the Metaphysical Poets were friends of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The problems of compassion

Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, is often depicted in Tibetan tradition as having eleven (11) heads. Three stacks of three, facing forward and left and right, another one on top, and another, different, one atop that.

Here's the reason: He reflected on the fact that no matter how many creatures he helped, there would always be more. He reflected on it till his head exploded.

Just thought you'd like to know.

But his spritual father Amitabha Buddha took the ten pieces and fashioned ten heads, then gave him one of his own to keep the whole thing straight.

However, when Avalokiteshvara got to China, he had only one head, and he's called Guanyin, and he's female.

I am not making any of this up.

Sometimes you can learn a lot by just watching. One of the things I've watched is the new Tibet exhibit at the Asian Art Museum here.

They hate our freedom

From Lance Mannion:
You know what they like to say about the terrorists? "They hate us for our freedom."

Well, that's why the Right hates the Left these days. We aren't as afraid as they are.

They hate us for our freedom from fear.

I'm not kidding!

Any blog that has a picture of the Campanile in its header has to be looked at. Even if the author has a bit of trouble spelling it and even if he describes himself as moderate. After all, what's moderation in Berkeley?

And without Bounded Rationality I might never have found the true story, science news category, that's better than the story that's too good to be true. So here it is, not the physiological basis of the conscience, but the physiological basis of sarcasm.


The Wall Street Journal ran a story the other day (May 26, 2005) about what various companies, but particularly FedEx, are doing in cooperation with investigations into potential terrorist actions and other things. I shall attempt to report the main points here, without comment or evaluation.

To save verbiage, I'll use a couple of words in a special sense. Demand: to call for information in a way backed by legal sanctions, as in a warrant issued by authority of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or by such other authority as the Executive or Legislative branch may from time to time invent. Request: to call for information on other grounds, such as friendliness to law enforcement or a possible quid pro quo.

FedEx takes its cooperation very seriously. It has a special computer link to Homeland Security, via which its employees are encouraged to send information on suspicious activities. The program for information gathering is based on the TIPS program which was proposed by John Ashcroft in 2002 but was not put in place.

Fedex responds freely to requests for information. It shares its database on international shipments with Customs and the Border Patrol, not merely upon request, but by simply granting access to the databases. The information includes credit card data, which the government normally has some difficulty getting; in fact, it can't ask for such information except in connection with a criminal investigation.

Sending a package by FedEx involves a contract that gives the company the right to inspect the contents at its sole discretion. In cases of suspicious activity, it uses this power in cooperation with Federal authorities, who lack such authority on their own.

FedEx also has a privately owned police force, formally recognized as a police force by the state of Tennessee, which takes part in regional security planning. It is FedEx policy to look for two-way sharing of information with the government.

The Journal also summarizes the policies of several other organizations.

The United States Postal Service is forbidden by law to open first-class mail (including, I suppose, Priority Mail, which is the same thing for packages) or to divulge shipping or payment information without a proper warrant or court order. Current USPS policy, so far as is known, is to comply with the law.

United Parcel Service likewise provides information only in response to a demand made according to law or regulations.

America On-Line maintains a hot line for law-enforcement requests for subscriber information. It also gives advice on how to word subpoenas.

Western Union cooperates fully in providing information about overseas money transfers.

OnStar, the General Motors emergency system, which necessarily knows where its customers are, considers such data to be confidential; it releases the data only in response to a warrant.

That about wraps up the summary. The conclusions you draw are your own. It may be worth your while to seek out the details in the paper, which is available right now in any public library in America.

Upon rereading the Evil Overlord List

Like, it's not exactly new. But perhaps Peter's List is more conprehensive than the one I filed from rec.humor.funny, so I had never run into a version that contained this advice. Or maybe it's just that John Bolton is in the news these days.
55. The deformed mutants and odd-ball psychotics will have their place in my Legions of Terror. However before I send them out on important covert missions that require tact and subtlety, I will first see if there is anyone else equally qualified who would attract less attention.

Sunday morning

Apologia: Parts of the following may sound rather like the work of a Christian. I make no such claim, but I have read some writers who were able to show that the theology has a deep and disturbing logic to it; I write in the spirit of pursuing that logic, without insisting on the truth or falsity of its premises.

The Chron these days seems to arranging an orderly spin-off of its Sunday morning political section ("Insight") to the Hoover Institute. Today they lead off with some guy, non-Hoover I admit, and his road to Damascus on which he finally perceives the evil of the Left in that they refuse to have unquestioning faith in the Iraq elections. Advance work has been in progress for some time under Debra Saunders, the Chron's own home-grown Buckley, who actually gets something right occasionally, just to keep us off guard.

Today Saunders really doesn't like the Sith movie. OK, I don't expect to like it either, should I ever see it. Regardless, I might as well glance at what she says, which might not be just another "Ooooh, anti-Bush propaganda" rant; and it isn't; not wholly.

I wonder if she'll hear from the Christian activists about this column. It seems the series went wrong at the end of Episode VI, where Darth Vader turns. He was a terrible, terrible man, and here he just turns around and repents. She seems to have something against the very notion of repentance and redemption. True, in the last minutes of this action-packed adventure movie, we don't get any theological complexity; more to the point, we don't see any Purgatory or any such process of suffering for Vader's sins; but I'm not sure where God granted us the right to see everything that goes on. (Can Saunders really tame the wild bull?) She could argue, though, that this was a long long time ago, before the Incarnation, so he can't really have been redeemed by the Redeemer. Unless you allow, like Mark Twain and C. S. Lewis, that the Redeemer may have decided to act in other times and places than this one -- without even telling us about it, how arrogant!

I've often wondered about those who think that people must go to Hell if they lived in a time and place where they couldn't hear of Jesus: how do they account for Moses and the prophets rising up to go the other way? And those Hebrew worthies supposedly were saved even though they (not to mention Saints Peter and Paul) seem to have had no sufficiently clear understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, without which no man can be saved. (Saint Athanasius made a little misprint there: he meant to say no theologian can be saved.)

A little background here. This morning I came to kitchen carrying the Sunday papers, to find that the sun was streaming into the room through the green leaves outside, it was warm and pleasant, and before going downstairs Ms Four Sigma had laid the table nicely and put suitable Sunday-morning music on. I entered, in fact, to hear Jeffrey Thomas (tenor and conductor) singing "Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken, dass wir sterben muessen." "Oh Lord, teach us to remember that we must die." Such a sense of timing, she has. (The text is from Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit, one of my great favorites; see below.)

So, after making the tea and reading a bit into the paper, I've got into Saunders's column, and I'm thinking about her objection to instant redemption, and at that point the music has gone on to: "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein." "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise." Now there's timing!

For those of you who came to Bible school late: When Jesus is being crucified between two criminals, one of them asks Jesus to remember him to his Father; the above is what Jesus says to him. Quick work, that redemption stuff. Dorothy L. Sayers added an interesting and very plausible twist to the story: in her version, the thief (a brigand, ruffian, and insurgent) doesn't really Believe; he just sees that this harmless oddity hasn't done anything to call down judicial murder on himself, and the other brigand is bitterly taunting the man, so this one takes pity and says something humane and humoring, even in his agony: it's an act of Charity, rather than belief, and is immediately rewarded. (The Man Born To Be King, 11th play, scene 2, sequence 4; see below.)

Judas, of course, was not redeemed. He regretted but couldn't repent and humble himself: threw the money back at the high priests, hanged himself, and wound up being munched by Satan for eternity. But could he, in some in-principle sense, have repented and confessed and been saved? Where are the limits of salvation? Well, he would have to be a different person. And if he were a different person, he wouldn't -- but hey, I thought we were all corrupt, and not just a little bit. So it's sort of a hard debate to settle. But I like, again, Sayers's take:

"...Is God merciful? Can He forgive? . . . What help is that? -- Jesus would forgive. If I crawled to the gallows' foot and asked his pardon, he would forgive me -- and my soul would writhe forever under the torment of that forgiveness." And he went and hanged himself. (The Man Born To Be King, 10th play, scene 2.) Much scarier, for my money, than a story of someone who is simply so bad terrible evil that really we don't have to worry about him.


The German is from the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God's time is the best time of all) by J.S. Bach, BWV 106, performed by American Bach Soloists on Koch 3-7164-2 H1. Fantastic recording. If you can't find it, be sure to go to ABS's website and politely request that they reissue it. (Full disclosure: "that we reissue it.") The CD also has BWV 152 and 161. At least "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" (Walk on the road of faith) is a less gloomy subject. Not that Bach was capable of being really gloomy in his music; that, according our grievously missed friend Laurette Goldberg, is why the French have never quite been able to take him seriously. But I digress.

The Man Born To Be King by Dorothy L. Sayers, was a cycle of radio plays, presented on BBC in 1943 or so, in which Bible characters were made to talk and act like human beings. Highly controversial in its time, surprise. Still in print, ISBN 0-89870-307-7

Toast freedom. Or fry it

When the inventor of Freedom Fries turns apostate, as Zac tells us, things have come to a pretty pass.

This just in, May 28: The same Walter Jones (R-N.C.) was one of the five Republicans who voted for the resolution by our own Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The total was 300 - 128, which the Independent-Journal calls "only" 128. Well, they're entitled to their opinions.

Empathetic nerves

Some things are too good to be true, and are still true. What Eisenhower said about mucking with Social Security qualifies well enough, but that's the current Internet Meme, so it can be left to everybody else. Here's another one.

When you're about to do something, certain nerve cells in the brain region called Broca's area will fire; different ones for different actions. No surprise here. Something obviously has to happen in the brain to start off an action.

About ten years ago, it was found that when you watch someone make that same action, some of these same nerve cells fire. Naturally, they're now called mirror neurons. (Neuron, nerve cell, nerve, I can now use them interchangeably if you don't mind.) This is cool: it's a physical basis for empathy, for experiencing what someone else is experiencing; by extension, for why your skin crawls when the tarantula shows up on the pillow next to James Bond.

It gets better: a monkey, watching the action of picking something up, has the same reaction in the corresponding bit of its brain. In fact, that's where the effect was found first.

Broca's area also generates actions in the production of speech. And listening to speech -- back to human subjects now -- starts activity in mirror neurons that are involved in producing speech.

But that's just the beginning. A person might pick up a cup, for instance, in order to drink out of it, or to clear up the table, or for no apparent reason; video clips can set up context that implies one action or another. When you watch the video, the person's intention at the time of starting to pick up the cup affects the set of mirror neurons that fire in your brain. More neurons fire for drinking than for cleaning up; more for cleaning up than for the action with no context.

This is getting almost spooky. Here you have some nerves doing the primitive function of getting a muscular action going, really unintellectual and mechanical; and the way they fire depends on your instant interpretation of what is intended.

And this is where reality goes berserk: monkeys' brains work this way too. Train a monkey to respond to certain cues either by picking up a piece of food and eating it or by picking it up and putting it in a container. Then show it a video of a human hand starting to pick up the food, with one of those cues present. The nerves' response depends on what the person is about to do with the fruit.

To me, this is no less wonderful than Hieronymus Bosch action figures.

All this and more is in an article in the News Focus section of the 13 May 2005 issue of Science; no point giving a link, since you need a membership to read it, and if you have that, you can surely find the item easily. The original work on the monkeys' reaction to people's intentions is in the 26 April issue.

[I wanted to title this The Physiological Bases of the Conscience, to tickle the Lord Peter Wimsey fans; but write a headline like that, and it will look like Science Stuff, which is as attractive to potential readers as publishing a book with footnotes and equations. It's already bad enough to have a blog with no pictures or conversations. So one makes it less obvsiously Science by using a friendly term like empathy, while inserting a quasi-pun with "sympathetic nervous system" that only biology freaks will perceive. BTW did you know that empathy is not in the original edition of the OED? For the adjective, empathic is a bit older and therefore better, but empathetic is acceptable.]

The Asterix figurines were not for sale

at the giant London toy store (you know the one), so we went away empty-handed. But that was 12 years ago, and the world goes forward:
I won't say what this is because it would be a spoiler, but OMG, as they say.

It's real. Look at the National Gallery link. Guess what will be filling my suitcase this August.

Another chatty posting

But first the news.

Twice in the last few days the newspapers have shown Bush in Moscow, reviewing the troops with Putin. It's a fine thing to be there celebrating V-E Day 60 with the people who did most of the work in Europe. Not so fine, of course, to do a heroic Admission of Our Errors by saying, We have sinned, too, when the Commie president whose work I am trying to undo conspired to let you guys oppress Europe for fifty years. Pfaugh.

But the thing that struck me was that the pictures keep showing people goose-stepping in the foreground. I know it's a tradition in the Russian army, but there are some traditions that are more honored in the breach than in th'observance. So, today's Orwell quote:
One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is "Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me", like the bully who makes faces at his victim. ... Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.
--"The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius", 1941; p. 297 in the Everyman Essays
Looking up the reference, by the way, I found a fine brief essay on the subject, this time about North Korea.

Progressing toward the lighter side, there's a headline I like almost as well as the one about al-Sadr's new pledge.
Chili finger woman has rooting section at arraignment
Finally, what the young man said in a discussion of housekeeping practices. (For the SF-centric: think Castro.) "I live in West Hollywood, Mom. I have to have a dirty bathroom so people will know I'm not gay."

A random literary musing

The Well at the World's End is surely the best title in English literature; in fact, perfect. It's so good that you hardly have to read the book. Unfortunately, I have taken that fact to heart and have never read the book. Some day—but one is a little afraid that that will spoil the effect when one finds out that the book isn't quite so perfect. Still, when I finally dared to reread Till We Have Faces, it turned out to have lost nothing in the intervening ten years or so; it was even better in places, with a good deal of new material that wasn't there the first time, so far as I remembered.

[Warning: These are the musings of someone who read a novel just last month, or was it the month before? I just had a whim to write a chatty, blog-type item. Now I've worked it off.]

The Herod Prize

I do not believe, as many do, that religion is a malign influence on intellect and morals. On the historical evidence, it would seem to be morally neutral, like physics or evolutionary biology. (Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. --Tom Lehrer) But some days test my faith in this position.

Today's news hook is the confirmation that the current small polio outbreak in Indonesia is due to the same strain that's circulating in Nigeria and nearby areas. (Nearby is a big term in a place the size of Africa.) We shall now examine how this relates to the King Herod Memorial Prize for Massacre of Innocents. Naturally, we'll start with a huge digression.

The late Pope John Paul II was an indubitably great man. His political importance was huge, even when stripped of recent exaggerations. He was a man of powerful intellect and deep convictions. He was a man of peace, so far as is possible at all for a public person. He loved humanity, and a very large part of humanity loved him with good reason. But there were flaws; and de mortuis nil nisi bonum doesn't really apply to anyone who was a major world power for decades and continued as one right up to the end.

Some hostility has been expressed towards John Paul because in the name of his pro-life doctrine he killed, and is still killing, hundreds of thousands of babies in Africa. One of the implications of being pro-life is that you love fetuses and zygotes and maybe gametes, and need to preserve them; so no birth control. Condoms are for birth control, so they're bad. And if they are needed as part of the containment of AIDS, an epidemic that in Africa has reached a level quite unthinkably awful, then it's necessary to believe that they don't really stop the virus at all. This faith-based scientific initiative is one important contributor to the congenital AIDS that is killing small children in Africa in large numbers, probably millions in the long term. Assessing just how many of those deaths are the Church's fault is something I'll leave to the American trial lawyers.

That's the quantitative half of the Herod Prize. But if you want to reward real evil, you need to take account of malice and sheer nastiness. On this, the late Pope and his successor the former theological Rottweiler simply aren't in the running. For the qualitative champion among faith-based initiatives, we need to go to Africa itself.

Following the extermination of smallpox, there has been an effort to do the same to other epidemic diseases, polio in particular. If you achieve a brief period in which no one in the world has polio, it's gone. It will never appear again unless it escapes from a laboratory. This campaign has been going well, though it has been very difficult. You need to get to places that are not well connected to the rest of the world: places that are, to be blunt, poor and oppressed and ignorant. You need to bring vaccine, which is hard to transport where there's no refrigeration, to any place that has an outbreak; and then you persuade people to be vaccinated en masse. And in Africa you do this through a maze of civil and uncivil wars. To the degree that these are the legacy of imperialism, it's a special duty of Westerners to carry out the effort.

Which brings us at last to Nigeria. (For the lighter side of that tragic nation's most famous export, see the 419 blog.) A few years ago, a number of imams in the outback discovered that polio vaccine is not intended to improve Africans' health; it is a White man's plot to make you sick and exterminate Black people and especially Muslims. They have been quite successful in stopping the vaccination campaigns in some places where polio is still endemic. Recently, the disease has been getting out of hand, and spreading into more of Africa where it had been eliminated before.

The viciousness of this faith-based science initiative, and of the [13-letter plural of 12-letter obscenity omitted] who have spread it, is breathtaking. (Andrew Rilstone deprecates the use of the word evil, but my faith in that position is often shaken.) The qualitative Herod prize goes to them, hands down.

And now their pet disease has hopped out of Africa, all the way to Indonesia. They must be really proud of the gift that they've sent to their fellow Muslims. And it could be something big, a competitor for the quant prize. But no! The world's largest Islamic nation seems to have no use for cruel medieval obscurantist fanatics. There will be no major polio problem in Indonesia because, through all its recent troubles, that nation has maintained its polio vaccinations and has the means and the will to keep on. I will not wish the lunatic-fringe imams better luck next time.

Democracy advances apace

Very fine column today by Robert Scheer on what used to be called The Lessons of Vietnam. I know that to most readers on the Internet the Vietnam war is a remoter piece of history than the Spanish Civil War was when I was a kid; but it has a certain relevance.

Meanwhile, the inexorable advance of democracy in the Middle East continues. Kuwait, which was saved for freedom and love by the Senior Bush in a war for which the balance of positive and negative arguments had some positives that actually weren't lies, is having elections, in which women can't run.

Years since we liberated (no scare quotes here) Kuwait from Saddam Hussein: 15.
Percentage of Kuwaiti population eligible to vote: 15.

This just in, from Basra: not relevant to anything, you understand; I just like the sentence: "Under pressure, al-Sadr's office issued a statement promising not to attack any more picnics."

Further update: Once the upcoming elections were safely in hand, in male hands, the legislature did finally pass a liberalization of the rules for later elections. This is a good thing. It will be even better when it actually happens; after all, as Islam insists in a principle that ought to have wider acceptance, only Allah knows what the future holds. Meanwhile, the 15 and 15 still stand.

But Iraq is totally different, you see

Sometimes moss-backed old institutions can be useful. Even the Press. Even the United States Senate.

A couple of weeks ago, a modern, dynamic institution, the special commission appointed to study how the Administration could have got it so wrong abut the Weapons of Mass Destruction, delivered its formal report. Sure enough, wouldn't you know, the government got it wrong. But the commission pointed out that they had no good evidence that anyone in the government had pressured any analysts to come up with these wrong answers to advance the plans to attack Iraq.

Within a week of that, the U. S. Senate was releasing, and the Press was publishing, full details on the ways in which John Bolton pressured the intelligence analysts whose conclusions about Cuban nasty-weapons projects weren't strong enough for him. (Or incorrect enough, of course)

Good thing nobody notices these things. Could be dangerous.

Another damned, thick, square book

Calloo, callay! It arrived the other day, shipping from free because I ordered it with another book and got the total over 50 dollars: 1,369 pages of the collected essays of George Orwell. In fact, an almost cubical book. A good solid Everyman edition too, properly hard bound, with no ample margins but with good type on good paper (plus a Free Bonus of a built-in bookmark). A striking contrast to the crummy paper and fuzzy type that Hodder & Staughton used to realize its quite admirable project of reissuing the entire corpus of Lord Peter Wimsey in freshly typeset editions that in most cases are low in typos and sometimes even have corrections for textual corruptions that had crept in over the years; but after all, those are just trade-paperback mysteries and not worthy of the treatment that Harper Collins gave to C. S. Lewis.

My Extremely Significant Other (I call her my little four-sigma) is not impressed by Orwell, because (I think) he lacks the Poetic Muse, hanging out instead with the Political Muse. But that's fine with me. I expect to become insufferable with my masses of quotes from him. Just for the moment, though:

"Is there anyone who has written so much as a love letter in which he felt that he had said exactly what he intended? ... He gets an idea, begins trying to express it, and then, in the frightful mess of words that generally results, a pattern begins to form itself more or less accidentally. It is not by any means the pattern he wants, but it is at any rate not vulgar or disagreeable; it is "good art". He takes it, because "good art" is a more or less mysterious gift from heaven, and it seems a pity to waste it when it presents itself. Is not anyone with any degree of mental honesty conscious of telling lies all day long, both in talking and writing, simply because lies will fall into artistic shape when truth will not?
-- "New Words", April 1940(?), p. 263

Mental instability

This is a terrible thing, and not suitable for frivolous bloggery. But judge for yourself:

Sergeant Hasan Akbar attacked other soldiers in his unit, the 101st Airborne, in March 2003, just before the division was to be sent to Iraq. He killed two and wounded others, and has now been convicted of premeditated murder. These statements are undisputed.

There is dispute over the state of his sanity, and the correctness of the verdict. And here's what caught my attention. His defense attorney, Major Dan Brookhart, said that (quoting the news story here) "the prosecution's depiction of Akbar as a cold-blooded killer ignored the fact that the defendant was sufficiently mentally ill -- though not insane -- to be confused and fearful about the impending invasion of Iraq."

How crazy can you get?

Horse: I'm not dead yet

Feeling much better, are you? All right then, WHAP.

A couple of weeks ago a couple of commission reports came out, on intelligence gathering and Abu Ghraib and all that. At one point the advice was given, that if some emergency required exceptional methods of interrogation, such things should be undertaken only by decision of the highest authorities, not by local commanders.

Well and good, but the learned commissioners omitted one significant thing: Torture is illegal, here and now, under the law of the United States, under all circumstances.

It's understandable that hardly anyone picked up on this fact from my previous posting on the Presidential policy for these matters. ("Just say no to torture") After all, it was imbedded in a document that some might think facetious, insisting as it does on the President of the United States as an upholder of the law. Perhaps if I had been more straightforward, they might have picked up on this point of law. Well, no, I suppose not.

Despite the fact that there are only three people in the world who understand this (as Eddington said, Who's the other one?) it's not really difficult. As one-two-three may be a bit of an intellectual strain for the highest level of our goverment, here it is, as simple as One Two:

  1. "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." -- Constitution of the United States of America, Article VI, clause 2. The italics are all mine, but you may borrow them if you like.
  2. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." -- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Article 2, paragraph 2; ratified October 21, 1994 by procedures specified in the United States Constitution.


Yesterday the California state legislature moved slightly forward with respect to a bill legalizing assisted suicide. But that's not the story.

(But I have to point out to Someone that it's no longer true that no one knows or cares about anything Oregon does. No doubt it's just because California has taken up the issue, but international newspapers now use the phrase "Netherlands and Oregon.")

The Chronicle mentions that a respectable poll showed 70% of the population supporting the bill; this is said to improve its chances.

It also notes that there is opposition to the bill within the Democratic Party (notoriously the home of Godless immorality). This opposition "signals that the measure may have a difficult time getting support from a broader bloc of moderate Democrats..."

And there you have it, folks. To be a moderate means to be prudently just on the edge of the 30%. If you stray too far, setting foot directly in the 70% majority, you are some kind of extremist.

A word from the enemy

Today there's a piece on the Op-Ed page of the San Francisco Chronicle by Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was commander of the military police organization that was in charge of Abu Ghraib. She has been suspended from command duties, and is the only Important person to have suffered any kind of disciplinary action in that affair.

Evil, evil, evil.

Easier to say than Scapegoat, scapegoat, scapegoat. (Three spondees in a row will never make a good rallying cry.) Which is the more accurate? Maybe one should read her statement.

Definitely one should read her statement. Allow for the fact that this career military officer is, in effect, fighting for her life. Then see what she's saying.

One sample: "Army Reserve Spc. Charles Graner Jr., tagged as the likely ringleader, was not so astute or familiar with the Arab culture to devise the humiliating acts and techniques demonstrated in the photographs." Never thought of that, myself; nor can I recall anyone else saying it. She goes on, "It is unlikely any military person designed or directed these photographs, because soldiers are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and can face prosecution." I can't say how true that is; she may be biased in favor of the military; on the other hand, she knows a lot more about the military than I do. But which is a likelier suspect: the military, which does have some kind of code and is run largely by people with great pride in traditions of Duty, Honor, Country; or private contractors who officially and explicitly are accountable to no one in the world except the unaccountable secret bureaucracy that hired them?

Duhh, you knew that last part. But when you've read the rest of what she said, you will have an idea of why she was selected as Lord High Substitute to suffer for the sins of the people who were responsible.

I'm very sorry, but

So the Congress has stepped up to its Constitutional duty to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case. About time. How long were they going to allow it to go on obstructing interstate commerce?

Ethnic compliment

The current legal scandal around here is the sworn statement made by a retired local prosecutor. He says that he conspired with a judge to keep Jews and Black women off juries in capital cases, because they'd never vote to send someone to the gas chamber.

Congratulations to Jews and Black women everywhere. Such a nice compliment, if hardly an unexpected one.

Note added later: The judge in the case that brought all this on has ruled that the ex-prosecutor's claim is BS.

Maybe there is a God

Among the various keep-healthy newsletters and ads for newsletters that land in the mailbox is one called Bottom Line Health. I'm almost ready to subscribe, given the news they announce today. It seems there is yet another risk factor for heart attacks, according to several studies, including one at Duke University, so it must be true:

People who interrupt conversations are seven (7) times more likely to develop heart disease.

Walking robots. Home-grown gamma bursts.

I like these video clips, but mainly for the back story, which you can't get unless you're a member, which is far from cheap unless you're associated with some fine institution of higher learning. Or you could hie yourself down the nearest good library and look in the 18 February 2005 issue of Science(vol. 307, pp. 1082-1085).

What's going on here: Naturally, people want to build bipedal robots that look and walk like robots. The best so far is Honda's ASIMO robot, which can kick a ball and climb stairs. The trouble with that whole line of robot development, though, is that it takes large amounts of computing power, very accurate and fast sensors to monitor things like the angles of all joints, and effectors that are fast and precise and strong. The quality of components you could get in a carbon-based system just wouldn't do it. They also use a great deal of energy. So how do we do it?

These robots attack the problem from the other end. ("It is better to begin at the wrong end than never to begin at all"—C. S. Lewis) They are descended from purely mechanical devices with clever arrangements of springs and weights, which could walk down a ramp under gravity power. It was not clear that such machines could be adapted to walk under their own power on level ground; the videos show that it can be done. By the way, if the MIT machine reminds you of a biped that's not human, know that its ramp-walking ancestor wore a penguin suit.

These three critters have a very limited number of sensors and effectors (such as a pneumatic device that extends the ankle joint at the right time). The MIT machine actually learns to walk by varying its operation with each step and looking at the feedback. All of them walk with about the same energy efficiency as a human being, which is about ten times better than a robot such as ASIMO.

It's reaonable to suppose, as the authors do, that these machines cast light on the mechanisms of human walking. I especially like their point that "simulations used in the development of the Delft robot showed that the swift swing-leg motion not only increased fore-aft stability but also increased lateral stability. Indeed, the physical robot was not able to balance laterally without sufficient fore-aft swing-leg action." Aha! Neither can I. Pipe in mouth—hat on head—umbrella tucked under arm—lean forward sharply—WALK! That's how Monsieur Hulot did it; that's how I do it (less the pipe); I'm looking forward the next robot, The Ambulator Très Ingénieux.

By the way, you can now get a pair of DVDs with "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle" and a weird early short about a proto-Hulot rural postman. Highest recommendation.

I see in one footnote that the ASIMO robot weighs 510 Newtons and can walk about 1.6 kilometer per hour. Now I know that a scientific journal can't use a phrase like "1 mile an hour"; but Newtons? Well, you see, a mass of one kilogram exerts a force of 9.8 Newtons on the surface of the earth. So we scientists express weight, which is a force, in Newtons rather than kilograms. We all know about a billionth of a goat, a trillionth of a boo, and a trillion bulls (nanogoat; picoboo; terabull), but this gives a new meaning to fig newton.

Meanwhile, distant supergiant black holes keep giving out hiccoughs that produce gamma-ray bursts of quite ludicrous amounts of energy, like billlions of Suns, to be picked up by the appropriate instruments on satellites. And now the satellites are picking a new style of burst, as reported in the same issue.
(Science vol. 307, pp. 1085-1088 with summary article, both online articles by subscription only)

These new bursts are shorter (1 millisecond) and have higher average photon energy (a few MeV) than any previously known. Satellite instruments have detected them coming, not from black holes, but from the most mysterious object in the solar system, Earth. Of course, the total energy of one of these is a good deal smaller than the light of even a million Suns.

They seem to be produced by sprites or something similar. (Sprites? Puck wielding gamma rays? Is Oberon working on WMDs to unseat Jove?) Above big thunderstorms there are sometimes red flashes extending as high as 90 km, known as sprites. They may involve bursts of high-energy electrons, which could generate gamma radiation. The gamma bursts are definitely correlated with thunderstorms, anyway. Ex Gaia semper aliquid novi, no?