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