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July 25, 2012
It Can't Work That Way

Every time some lunatic cracks and pulls out a gun, someone explains, again, that having crazy people wandering the streets is a bad idea. I worked for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, for fourteen years as their IT chief. They're the ones who represent the other side of this tragedy, the families and victims of mental illness. While I wasn't directly involved with their advocacy efforts, when you work for a place like that for as long as I did, you end up learning a lot, like why the state-managed system the article's author advocates was dismantled.

His point that people under 40 have become desensitized to mentally ill people in public is true, as far as it goes. What he neglects to talk about is how people over 40 should have very, very bad memories of what was found in the late 60s when a close look was taken at state-managed mental health institutions. Here's a hint: the institution portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a really, really nice one.

People were warehoused at best, with brutality and humiliation extremely common. It was his exposes of the conditions at Staten Island's Willowbrook State School that brought a young, and unknown, Geraldo Rivera national fame and a Peabody award. Everywhere anyone looked people would find chronically underfunded, almost criminally unsupervised institutions filled with over-medicated and neglected mental patients. In the heady days of the late 60s and early 70s, the inescapable and, in light of the facts at the time, completely understandable solution was to set these people free.

What's worse is that, when the state is provided with the hammer of involuntary commitment, a whole new set of people start looking like nails. Local political machines are legion and when a hard-headed mule of a person showed up and demanded to know... anything... about how a city, county, or even state was run the mere threat of institutionalization was plenty enough to silence them. Locking up the ones who didn't back down took care of the rest. And it did happen, all the time.

Was it taken too far, trading abandonment in a hole with abandonment on the street? Yes. With the exuberance and naivety so tragically typical of progressive causes in the 60s and 70s, the old system was destroyed without any serious thought for what should replace it, and there was absolutely no follow-up when the inevitable unintended consequences started picking up guns and shooting people. It is no coincidence that NAMI, originally formed by family members desperate to find some other solution to the problems their children represented, was formed less than ten years after aggressive de-institutionalization started.

Finding those alternate solutions has not been easy, but there has been great progress made. Medications have improved and will continue to do so. Educational programs for family members, law enforcement officers, and "consumers," NAMI-speak for those who have mental illness, are both popular and effective. I watched from a particularly high seat as tireless advocacy changed the popular perception of mental illness from something not to be discussed, something to be feared, into the more humane and realistic idea of another set of diseases, something that can be treated.

Unfortunately these efforts are ongoing. The hard truth is that, until mental illness and addiction can be cured outright, incidents like the tragedy in Colorado are simply another price we pay for a truly free society. We can and should try whatever we can to prevent them, but these must be new ideas. Institutionalization was tried and it failed. There's no going back there this time.

Via Instapundit.

Posted by scott at 09:50 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
April 23, 2012
The Constitution, for Dictators

So you want to become dictator of the most powerful nation on the planet? That's a great idea! Let's take a look at that with which you must put up:

  1. It is illegal to rule by decree. You cannot simply "make it so." The military will not abide it. You must use laws.
  2. Laws are created by two mobs, a small one made up of the rich and pliable, and a large one made up of the rich and unpredictable.
  3. The mobs are intensely jealous of each other, and inside each mob there's another division of jealousy and power struggle.
  4. The mobs are responsible for giving you the money you need to do anything.
  5. The membership of the mobs changes regularly. The entire membership of the larger mob can change completely every two years.
  6. A squad of twelve completely unaccountable old people can invalidate any law at any time. They can only be replaced when they die.
  7. Most of the power your position has gained since the place was set up comes from an uneasy set of agreements between the two mobs and the old people. The old people in particular could at any moment severely restrict your powers, and those of the mobs, at any time.

But wait! There's more!

Every single citizen is able to:

  1. With very broad limitations, publish as many copies of whatever seditious nonsense they can dream up whenever they want, join cults, and bother you with demands any time they please.
  2. With very broad limitations, own as many guns as they please.

As dictator, you cannot:

  1. Put troops in the houses of malcontents to keep an eye on them.
  2. Shoot troublemakers on the spot.
  3. Toss malcontents into prison until they rot and/or agree with your decrees.
  4. Try citizens secretly using a group of your buddies to ensure the correct outcome.
  5. Separate them from their money by decree or secret trial.
  6. Torture people
  7. Set their bail so high nobody can pay it.

Even worse:

  1. If a custom or tradition of the people suddenly becomes inconvenient, you can't do anything about it even if it's not specifically protected.
  2. If you think up a new way to gain control of the people, you can't automatically use it just because it's not specifically prohibited.

And that was just to start. Later on, it was decided you can't:

  1. Talk your dictator friend in the next country into suing troublemakers.
  2. Enslave anyone
  3. Exclude the ignorant, troublesome, or revolutionary using easy-to-spot differences.
  4. Exclude women
  5. Rule as dictator for more than ten years at a time.

No, really, that's what you have to put up with if you want to be the dictator of the most powerful country in the world. Really! No, it's actually not a brand-new country, it's the oldest continuously-functioning one currently in existence. It is! I am not making that up! How am I supposed to know how they keep it all from descending into chaos?

No, the last time countries run by "real" dictators tried to cause them trouble they enabled a DIFFERENT dictatorship to help them defeat one, and then nuked the other one. Yes, really! Using these very rules, they managed to stay together until that last dictator died and the system he ran collapsed. It took fifty years! Do you really think I'm smart enough to make something like that up?

Yes, it's possible to use terror to cause them trouble, but they hunted the last guy who managed to pull that off for ten years before they found him, and shot him dead inside a compound built for him by the friends of a different dictator, not even one mile away from the military academy of that dictator's army.

Yeah, ok, I see your point. I don't think it would be very much fun being a dictator of that place, either.

This is what we do. This is what we are. This is how most of the rest of the world's leaders, hell most of the rest of the world's men, see us. We are an impossible contradiction and a threat to their stability. We give up to our own leaders only what we want them to have. We can, and will, take it back.

Posted by scott at 02:37 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
March 06, 2012
Sound and Vision

Every time I think something will finally knock the CD off its audio gold-standard throne, someone comes along and sets me straight. Again. In a nutshell: the human ear imposes real, well-researched, concrete limits on what can and cannot be heard. These limits were known when the CD standard was designed, and said standard more than encompassed them. All later "improvements" can't do any better because the ear hasn't changed. That's the first part of the article. The second part is a (probably vain) attempt to hammer down all the usual fanboy arguments against these simple facts.

This was all done to death thirty years ago when the price of CD players descended to a level most audiophiles could afford, not coincidentally right around the time I got into the audiophile hobby. Being the impressionable youngster I was I took all of that science very seriously, bought the cheapest CD player seen up to that point ($189 Emerson single-disk in 1985), and never looked back. I dabbled a bit with SACD but set it aside when I realized I'd never see those disks in the bargain bin and I'm one of those old codgers who refuses to pay $20 for what used to cost $8.

With success comes means, and I now have the means to have a comparatively high-zoot hi-fi rig. What surprises me most is I can now hear the difference between a good engineer and a bad one. Some of my disks, a few of which I've owned for more than twenty-five years, sound genuinely marvelous. Others grate with clearly audible artifacts, compressed sound, and poor spectrum balance. But these represent choices, good and bad, of the people who made the music, not the people who made the playback gear. As the article notes, the only real improvements we'll hear are those created by careful engineers skilled in their craft.

And that's the bottom line.

Posted by scott at 07:03 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
March 01, 2012
Heil Fashion!

Those kooky Asians are at it again, this time turning Hitler into a cartoon. All those folks who say Americans are arrogant, ignorant, and insensitive to other cultures are pleased to be sitting down and shutting up now. I'm all for making fun of Hitler, because it would've driven him mad in real life and I just like to think about that sort of torture. On the other hand, turning him into a toy or a cartoon with no conception of the reality of the man strikes me as dangerous. If we treated nuclear weapons as toys we would likely stop thinking of them as terrible. Hitler may be dead, but his ideas are very much alive and they are still a malignant threat to the world perhaps even more than Teller's deadly toys.

If this gets a bunch of ignorant Thai twits to learn about one of the most evil men in history, I guess it actually will serve a purpose. It also helps put paid to the idea that all brown people are virtuous victims to evil round-eyed white men forever and ever, which is a nice bonus. Unfortunately it comes uncomfortably close to painting a cartoon face on the Auschwitz gate.

I'm thinking it can be turned into a teaching opportunity for Israel and Thailand, but only if that opportunity is seized. I'm hoping the Israeli ambassador is deft enough to do some grabbing.

Posted by scott at 11:56 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
February 21, 2012
Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

After who knows how many decades, people are starting to realize STEM degrees are a biatch because that's the way the faculty wants it. I was outraged in a way only a teenager can be when I found this out in college, but the problem is deeper. In my opinion, it goes all the way to primary school.

I am a software engineer, by what I see around me a damned good one, but I have no formal training. As a kid I learned very rapidly that math was very hard and nobody, but nobody, knew how to teach it to me. The public school system had no time for an obviously bright and well-off white kid when it was inundated with obviously troubled and poor black and white ones (this was the rural South.) What other options existed were incredibly limited in the time when and the place where I grew up.

Because of this, by the time I reached college, I was not equipped in any way to learn the genuinely difficult concepts required to get a STEM degree. I know, because I tried and failed at them, too.

I think the article plainly shows that STEM colleges, being the very definition of the ivory tower, simply don't understand that kids aren't being taught to learn hard things from the earliest of ages. Witness their obvious surprise that students fail at STEM degrees in droves.

It also explains why such colleges still, to this day, set up courses with either an implicit or sometimes explicit goal not of teaching, but of weeding. "There's nothing wrong with the course, there's nothing wrong with the material, so there's something wrong with the students. We must get rid of the ones with no future." Yes, that's very helpful.

Changing that attitude will help, if it can be done. But much more important is to do something about primary education in America. STEM degrees will always be difficult because the subject matter is difficult. But if a child grows up learning difficult things they will have the tools at hand to do the job. The existing public structure, which quite openly is more about supporting teachers and especially administrators than it is about teaching students, is not, has not, and will not ever be up to the task.

I have my own ideas about what will work. I've taken as many steps to implement them in my own life as I can. You'll have different ones, no less valid in your situation. We can both be certain that very few of them are being tried, much less considered, by the local school district. Some can't be tried, too many simply won't be tried.

We need to change that.

Posted by scott at 10:59 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
January 11, 2012
Monuments of Collapse

A huge investment bank has discovered something anthropologists have known for decades: a society is never in more trouble than when it is building something triumphant. My old college adviser talked a lot about this. Cross-culturally, without fail, when people get busy building huge monuments their society is just moments from collapse.

In the old days, the collapse would be total. Human societies simply weren't wealthy enough to weather a real crisis, and so the world is chock full of abandoned giant statues, titanic temple complexes, and monstrous cities. Hell, even cultures without the wheel got into the act. The cultures which built these magnificent monuments are now gone, some so completely destroyed we have no clue as to what they might have really been like.

Nowadays, rich beyond any sane person's wildest dreams compared to our ancestors, we're able to consistently survive such overreach. This has allowed us to learn from each crisis, and build institutions which make a repeat of any one of them unlikely if not impossible. Being humans, this has not stopped us from trying, sometimes very hard, to trigger a civilization-collapsing crisis. We came dangerously close to it in the 20th century. But we didn't, and we've learned, and thanks to Gutenberg and all his technological descendants, we don't forget things like we used to.

But that's not to say our urges have gone away. We are not fundamentally different than our ancestors, and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to hysterical, unsustainable, gloriously doomed ideas. Which is why I've always taken massive monuments, especially those funded from public treasuries, not as the signal triumphs our all-too-credulous media make them out to be, but as harbingers of doom. Certainly not of a scale to extinguish a civilization, but definitely enough to bring a government, corporation, or state to its knees.

Keep that in mind, next time you see one of those wondrous Gulf housing projects, hear about some ridiculously large public works project, or watch an unprecedentedly huge statue being raised. The people who create these triumphs are taking money away from people doing good, honest work to build a tower tall enough to touch the face of God.

The fate of such a tower is, and always has been, instructive.

Posted by scott at 12:02 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 18, 2011
Massive Indignation!

A well-known progressive website has "suddenly" discovered what everyone else seems to have known about for a very long time. Ok, folks, be prepared to gasp in horror. Thinkprogress has found out banks charge fees to use other banks' ATM machines. And some of those fees are expensive! And they hurt "its most vulnerable customers!"

Bank of America has charged fees like this for at least fifteen years. I know because that's how long I've had my accounts with them. And all the ATMs I've ever used charge fees when using a non-customer account. Sometimes the fee is expensive.

That's why I avoid it whenever possible by only using Bank of America ATMs. There's one right down the road from my house, and for a long time there was another just down the street from my workplace. Then it's completely free, and always has been. I'm just about dead certain the "victim" at the start of the article knows where at least one Bank of America ATM is somewhere. It may not be convenient, and it may be quite difficult to reach, but it's out there somewhere and you'd think someone who's counting every damned penny would know that and use it.

Banks have been quietly raising fees because, as has been covered here and elsewhere, they need to cover losses imposed when federal legislation capped the fees they could charge for business transactions. And just how many times does a PIN number have to be wrong before a fee is charged?

And then, right on time, comes a call for using the state's iron fist: "big banks are ... acting as middlemen for what should be publicly provided services." Worked that out for himself, he did, what "should" and "should not" be. Because the state does such a stellar job administering all the other publicly provided services. You know, like the DMV, the Post Office and, hey, the unemployment office too! They're awesome!

So, let's spin the bottle the other way: state unemployment offices are trying to help make benefits easier to access and more resistant to fraud. They contract with a bank to provide pre-paid ATM cards which can be used free of charge with that bank's ATMs. It costs money to provide this service, so the bank charges the state a fee. Since banks are for-profit institutions, they will be making a little more money than it actually costs to do the job.

ATMs are, at heart, boxes full of money left unattended for long periods of time in locations that aren't always very secure. It's expensive to make them tough enough to resist Jimmy McCrowbar, and when Jonny McTowWinch comes along they get destroyed. You have to pay two guys with shotguns and an armored truck enough to make it worth risking a confrontation with Billy McGlockNine to keep them filled with cash. None of this is free, and some of it is dangerous. Hence the most convenient ATMs are also the ones which charge the highest fees.

But, of course, none of this makes any difference to a stalwart progressive or liberal. Because Ms. Unemployed's choices are constrained, it means she has no choice at all. Only the power of the state can rescue her from this death by a thousand cuts! And so, as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the power of the state must be used to force justice to be done.

Because, you know, it's worked so very well so far.

Posted by scott at 01:33 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 15, 2011
Timespan

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With due respect, this note misses the point. Religion is, and always shall be, fundamental to the human mystery. Those who deny it, in my experience, do so with what is unmistakably religious fervor. By doing so they close the circle and confirm the fact in their denial of it.

By archeological evidence, our species first spent their time figuring out the tools needed to survive the harsh reality of a high-maintenance body in a creature fit only to live on the margins. Immediately after doing that, humanity spent almost all the rest of its history (depending on where you start counting, at least 35,000 years) trying to figure out what being human actually meant. This was, in other words, considered the most important thing humans could do once they'd worked out how not to starve or get eaten.

In this our species has succeeded about seven times*, creating the enduring and fantastically sophisticated constructs now known as religions. One of these, Zoroastrianism, has survived for a significant percentage of the history of civilization, and all but one have functioned without interruption for more than two thousand years. Two *thousand* years. Compared to these achievements, which are it must be remembered the distillation of the human experience across a span of time almost literally incomprehensible to a modern mind, the few centuries of secular humanism and the industrial revolution are but a blip on the radar screen, the half-second tick on a timeline that literally fades out into the dawn of history.

Make no mistake, these secular achievements are considerable. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say we are living in the best times ever experienced in human history. But these achievements have come at a staggering cost, one which was levied precisely and exclusively by humans who chose to turn their backs on the religions of their fathers. Atheists and humanists who revile the slaughters perpetrated by the great belief systems they repudiate must do so by completely ignoring the mounds of corpses created by their own. Corpses, it must be pointed out, who's numbers dwarf the count of the living AND the dead of those earlier times, and who's stink was smelled by people still alive today. It is to their discredit they are able to do it so very easily.

Worse still, it is obvious to just about everyone how fragile our modern world really is, and nobody's sure how long, or even if, it will endure. The secular structures those without faith take such pride in can only function, can only EXIST, in the tropical rainforests of prosperity we quite suddenly find ourselves living in today. When genuine chaos, the kind that sees barbarians prizing the bronze off the roof of the Senate, threatens, they will fail, and in their failing will see the extinction of those who hold them.

Systems of belief, religions, endure because THEY WORK. They preserve, in mighty detail, how to survive and prosper in the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable. When these systems were being worked out, the result of failure was not a smelly tent in a gigantic city, it was oblivion. They struggle today precisely because they were created when prosperity was an ephemeral wisp, something the king enjoyed on the mountaintop until death claimed him and chaos ran riot again. They are only slowly, and very suspiciously, coming around to the idea that the world we live in today, a world literally without precedence in its wealth and, most importantly, endurance, might actually represent how things will be for a long time to come.

But, when an institution's memory spans millennia, such prosperity is still suspiciously swift, violent, and terrifyingly ephemeral. Those who leave the fold in their rush to embrace it have completely and repeatedly failed to bring about the Utopia their secular leaders promised, with results that lead to torture, starvation, and death in all too chilling a frequency. Religions have, will, and should bide their time and preserve their traditions, which have withstood a test of time far beyond anything recently faced.

*Anyone else wonder if religion started as a joke, then someone took it way too seriously?*

The observation is as droll as it is puerile, and compares favorably with graffiti decorating the various ruins of the last great civilization which decided to turn away from the faith of their fathers and turn living men into gods. The experience, and fate, of the Principate, more commonly known as the (pre-Christian) Roman Empire, is instructive.

---
* In rough order of origin: Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam.

Posted by scott at 12:42 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 04, 2011
Puppet Occupiers

Leave it to The Nation to spend, what, five thousand words or so sympathizing with a guy who can't get a job with his $35,000 degree in puppetry. Yes, puppetry. While useful in a, "no, really, they are all a bunch of dreamy losers" way, the article also proves a second point.

A key to understanding progressives is getting your head around their belief that constraining someone's choices is the same thing as having no choices at all. While you and I may see this guy's unemployment as the logical result of his bad decisions, progressives see it as an example of the corrupt system. His lack of work is caused by corporate greed sucking away the money and the morals required to pay this guy to do exactly as he pleases. From that point of view it's quite logical to take the next step. If immoral corporations and greedy rich people are what really stand in the way of his $250,000 a year puppeteer job, then let's use the power of the state to take that money and force them to do the right thing with it.

As with so many other progressive and liberal ideas, even if they got what they wanted it wouldn't work. If the past experiments with socialism have proven anything, it's that when you take money from people who make it and give it to people who don't, the people making the money will stop. Which leads us to another leitmotif of the left: human nature is changeable. The reason all those other experiments failed had nothing to do with the fact the ideas are wrong. No, sir, they failed because the people involved weren't smart enough, talented enough, or strong enough to follow them through to success. We aren't them, so this time will be different. It's perfectly fine to try the same social recipe again. It will work because we know it will!

The problem for them is the horse has truly left the barn. After 2006, and especially after 2008, Democrats held all the cards required to implement as much of a progressive agenda as they dared. We're standing in the middle of that "success," and every poll I've seen is showing not just defeat for them, but outright debacle. Nobody knows yet who the Republican nominee will be but it doesn't matter much. The Republican president who replaces Obama will have, as he did, super majorities in both sides of Congress. Even better, unlike Democrats, when Republicans get put in charge Stuff Gets Done. True, sometimes it's not the right stuff, but the Democrats have made such a spectacular mess of things the cleanup effort should keep the social conservatives too busy to cause too much trouble.

The US is a coiled spring right now. Everything I've read is about how businesses are sitting on huge piles of cash, too afraid of or constrained by the current administration to do anything with it. Put the right people in charge and the whole thing will come undone with a mighty "SPROING!" I definitely won't be worrying about the occupiers then, because they'll all have jobs.

Who knows, if the economy grows fast and far enough, that guy might even get to do puppetry in one.

Via Instapundit.

Posted by scott at 08:59 AM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
October 31, 2011
Dead in the Ice

Remember all those poor, drowned polar bears? You know, the ones that swam their little hearts out and then simply had to shuffle off their mortal coils from sheer exhaustion? Yeah, about those polar bears. Every time I think the greens have finally proven their point, someone else on their team coughs up the ball.

Me, I disagree with their cures, not their diagnoses, but every time some "settled" science ends up being a glorified bird watcher poring over blobs on pictures and calling them dead bears, I end up doubting the whole enterprise just that much more. Not "denying," that wonderfully offensive term which somehow seeks to relate the lump on Chicken Little's head to the mass graves of Auschwitz, just doubting. Not that it makes a difference to them.

What things like this prove to me most of all is the green movement, at heart, has nothing to do with the environment. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

Via Instapundit.

Posted by scott at 09:22 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
October 25, 2011
Cold-Hearted Dragon

The Guardian is featuring this excellent commentary on the toddler tragedy in China. When it first came up, I was immediately reminded of the Kitty Genovese case, and I think the incidents have more in common than would at first appear.

At root, the problem is not Chinese, or American, or Italian, or New Yorker, or any of those things. It's human nature in general. We care for those we know, and won't for those we don't. This social construct works quite well when the mobility of society is low. Unfortunately this reflexive nature breaks down when mobility is high.

This is not new at all, and goes a long way toward explaining why, for instance, immigrant communities tend to have high crime. They don't know the people around them, and have no incentive to play by their rules. It also explains why native communities tend to ostracize these selfsame immigrants: they don't play by our rules, so why should we treat them with respect?

It's not completely clear what the solution ultimately is. Attempts to force the issue via laws doesn't work, all too often violently. Trying to brow-beat everyone into getting along by respecting "diversity" fails just as badly. It's likely there simply is no easy solution, and each society will have to figure it out on its own. Unfortunately that means stabbed women will continue to bleed out in the stairwells of full apartment buildings, and toddlers will continue to slowly die in crowded streets.

But if we keep talking about it, if we all keep trying, if we all remember, maybe fewer of them will the next time. Maybe one day, none of them will.

Posted by scott at 03:08 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
October 10, 2011
Occupying Hypothesis

Observations:

  • No celebrities have unexpectedly dropped dead.
  • Greece refuses to implode on a schedule.
  • The Republican candidates have all showed up, the hot one faded fast, the rest learned that, when the pin is pulled, Mr. Media is Not Your Friend.
  • It's the middle part of the college semester, when assignments are light, mid-terms are over, and finals are in the far distance.
  • It's an "Indian summer."

Hypothesis: The "occupying" movements are a perfect storm of bored students, unemployed hippies, nice weather, and a slow news cycle. Nothing more, nothing less.

Prediction: The "occupying" movement will fade rapidly as the primary season heats up, the weather turns cold, and finals start to rear their ugly heads.

Experiment: Wait for: a) the first day with a high below 50 in New York and Boston, b) a celebrity to suddenly keel over from a colorful drug overdose, c) a pretty white girl to become imperiled, or d) the Iowa caucus and/or New Hampshire primary to happen.

We'll see!

Posted by scott at 03:57 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
October 01, 2011
Manifesto, 2011

I'm a Republican, but a specific sort. I don't care who you sleep with, as long as they're not a child, and you're not doing it on my lawn. I don't care who you worship, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, and you're not doing it on my lawn. I do care when you decide my lawn is too big, and take it from me to give to someone who isn't even supposed to be here. I am a member of the tea party, and am damned tired of apologizing for it.

Posted by scott at 10:19 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 27, 2011
Little Girls, Little Women, Small Minds

Another day, another entry in the angst-ridden annals of postmodern feminism. In a time when women are represented more prominently and in more diverse roles than ever before, what do they complain about? Jasmine is hot. Girls want to be pretty. They like teasing boys and sometimes do dumb things in the attempt. Parents must keep an eye on their girls, because you never know what they might be getting into, especially on that filthy internet.

Note that when the author actually digs down past all the angst and talks to the girls, they seem to have it figured out just fine. They seem more than a little annoyed at being constantly reminded that pretty isn't all that there is.

The paternalism is as striking as it is unremarked. We all better watch out, because without government controls our daughters will grow up to be sluts. Without more regulation their "body image" may deteriorate into bones and cuts. Without Big Sister peering over our shoulders, these little, helpless girls will turn into mindless consumer slaves, staring doe-eyed at the latest couture they're too fat to fit in.

It's been a long time since I've seen almost everything that's irritating about modern feminism piled into a single article. How about a different spin: girls like being pretty. They enjoy playing dress-up. Sex is everywhere but so what? I got news for you sparky, sex is everywhere. The things a girl in rural China is exposed to growing up on a farm with a single-room house would put what shows up in a Lancome ad to shame.

Being the owner of an '03 Little Girl, I have more than a little interest in this sort of thing but really, why the fear about sexuality? That's supposed to be the pervue of religious fundamentalists, people so completely committed to a blinkered view of human nature they absolutely refuse to acknowledge any alternatives. Oh, wait...

Here's a thought: stop fear-mongering about Disney and how much TV kids watch. Stop worrying whether my kid will wander across porn on the internet. Stop using it all as an excuse to let government intrude even further into my job as a parent. I'm busy enough as it is. Butt out.

Posted by scott at 09:32 AM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
September 22, 2011
They Can Lose, but They Can't be Beaten

Pity the poor Dems. After one of the worst drubbings in recent history, they really might, really might, get it all back next year. And it's not their fault, oh no! It's because the Republicans now, mysteriously, control the state legislatures. It's because the economy now, mysteriously, remains in the tank. It's because the unemployment rate now, mysteriously, won't drop below 9 percent. At no point does it ever seem to occur to the author that things are this way because Democrats are in charge. Things are this way because their ideas don't work. Things are this way because their policies have failed. He can't bring himself to admit they're all getting ready to be tossed out on their keisters because we couldn't do it all at once last year.

Their failings are mysterious. Things don't work because of bad luck, previous history, evil forces, bad mojo, take your pick. That the other side might be winning because they're just better at all of this, well... that's just crazy talk there!

Posted by scott at 03:24 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 14, 2011
Tax the Poor, Eat the Rich

And now we confront another sacred cow of the left: it's expensive to be poor in America. And in truth it is, for specific kinds of poor people. Which sorts? Even the author can't get around who we're really talking about:

[T]hese are people who’ve messed up their relationship with a bank. They’ve bounced so many checks that no bank wants them as a customer. Or they’ve racked up so many fees they have dug too expensive a hole from which to escape.

There are also the "[R]oughly 50 million Americans [who] have a credit score below 600."

Of course, to the liberal mind, people who's choices are constrained have no real choice at all. This is held to be true even if the constraints are imposed by that person's own behavior. That's right, folks, if someone is poor it is the fault of society at large, not the poor wretch who kites the check. And, since we're society, it of course becomes our responsibility to fix it.

Because this person could only choose from a constrained set of (mostly bad) choices, the proper course is not to educate them in how to choose the best from a bad lot, but to somehow open up their range of choices to ensure they have the same opportunities as everyone else.

So, well, what's the problem? Isn't maximizing opportunity a noble, obviously good goal? Well yes, except the noble principle hides the hard facts. At no real point is any consideration given as to how best to go about implementing this principle. It completely ignores that such an implementation must be made through people, often the same people who are already predisposed to make bad decisions no matter how many options are open to them.

But it's worse than that. By removing personal responsibility from the equation, we dehumanize the very person we want to help. This is not a problem faced by a person, it's a problem imposed by society. This person has no chance to help themselves, they must depend on the power of the state instead. And therein lies one of the darkest unconsidered evils of modern liberalism and the progressives who practice it... dependency.

By starting out with the first, seemingly noble, principle that a constrained choice is no choice at all, we are logically and inexorably drawn to solutions which cannot help but create dependency. This, most of all, is one of the great tragedies of the left: that obviously good ideals lead directly, and unavoidably, to bad consequences.

But, because the liberal combines good principles with unexamined consequences, those of us who try to point out the problems aren't seen as wrong, we're seen as evil. Precisely because these principles are so obviously good, anyone who disagrees must either be incredibly stupid or deviously malignant.

So, instead of an article which tries to examine why poor people do dumb things, we get instead a litany of statistics that make it sound very bad to be poor with only the slightest nod to the fact that these expenses occurr not because of constraints, but because of bad behavior. The litany of vicious comments that follow anyone who dares point this out in the comments of that article merely underline the point.

Let me go on record here, and I'm sure this won't surprise the left side of the peanut gallery one bit: I'm glad these fees exist. I support them! They provide clear and obvious incentives to people who don't often have a good education or particularly good impulse control to change their behavior. It forces them, in other words, to clean up their damned act, and punishes those who refuse to do so.

The left side will, of course, shriek about how heartless and cruel such a belief is, but that's just how they roll. Never once will they consider the cruelty of their own "assistance" which, no matter how well intentioned, quite explicitly perpetuates the cycle they so heartfully claim to be trying to break.

But I'm not heartless, although by this time I'm sure those on the left are already convinced if I'm not it must be so small even the Grinch would cluck in disapproval. No, I do think people like this need help, but a very different kind of help. My basic principles are choice is choice, and behavior is the responsibility first and last of the individual making the choices. Education and redemption are my watchwords. Teach them, so that they may learn from their mistakes. Forgive them, so that the consequences of those mistakes are not utterly permanent. Work hard to ensure that when some doors close others must open, and restrain or punish those who would lock them instead.

Then, and only then, will the cycle truly be broken. Then, and only then, will free people properly learn what it means to be free. Then, and only then, will the sins of the father be taken from the son.

Posted by scott at 12:24 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
August 30, 2011
A Holy Slow News Day

Observation: a fringe group of former Catholics who actually got excommunicated by Pope John Paul II deny, among many things, the Church's acceptance of the heliocentric solar system. Headline: A few Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong.

Exactly why the LA Times decided to re-run the July 9 Chicago Tribune article last weekend isn't very clear to me. I think perhaps the first time around the breathless horror of the occasional secular blogger wasn't quite enough. Certainly the re-run has shaken another loose marble free.

The Wikipedia article doesn't mention this particular item explicitly. It does mention quite clearly these guys are reactionaries out of communion with the Church, and some were even schismatics.

In other words, they're so far out there the Church not only gave them the boot, it explicitly said a few of them were literally going to hell if they didn't wise up and get with the program. While the four who got excommunicated were let back in a few years ago, contrary to our first breathless blogger that does not mean the Church accepts what they teach in the least bit. It just means the priests have backed down to the point the Church doesn't think they're going to hell anymore.

Look, I appreciate a good "ZOMG! Look at what the wackos are saying now!" article as much as the next guy. It would just be nice to see, say, PETA's board of directors or Earth First!'s president held up in the same spotlight.

So, yeah, all you guys who scoff when Christians start talking about the MSM mistreating them? Here's a case in point.

And hell, I'm not a Christian. "I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

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May 25, 2011
How Charming

Well-known radical lefty Peter Fonda has decided to become relevant again by implying he's training his kids to be snipers to go after Obama. I know it's a crime to directly threaten a US president, one that, as many a wacko blogger or overeager Facebook poster has found out, the Secret Service prosecutes vigorously. I'm not sure if this counts, but I'd be happy if the Feds took him aside for a conversation or two even if it doesn't.

I don't agree with Obama's policies, so I want him out of office. I don't want him dead. Hell, I don't want him to have a sprained ankle. In spite of what the left side of the peanut gallery regularly brays about, this is the default reaction of my side. We think they're wrong, not evil, and react (and plan) accordingly. Unfortunately the left side long ago realized the only people who could appose their unbelievably obvious good and correct agenda must be evil or stupid, and they too plan accordingly. If the lessons learned from the sixties and seventies taught us anything at all, they should've taught this.

Woe betide us, that they did not.

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May 18, 2011
Oh Noes!!! The Chinese are Coming!!!

Another year, another "Someone funny-looking is going to own the whole country!!!" op-ed. The last time I remember this was when the Japanese were buying anything not nailed down in the late 80s, but I think this is a meme that's been around a long time, using Arabs and probably even Brits as the bogeymen in earlier times. Let's look at it a different way.

We are asking foreigners to give us money because we're such great folks. We'll give them a little extra, but only a little, when it's time to pay them back. Remarkably, foreigners are willing to do just that. We then take the money, which is after all simply a notion printed with green ink, and buy actual things from those selfsame foreigners.

The author's second-hand analogy of a rich farmer selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage really doesn't apply. A group of Chinese businessmen can't exactly repossess Warner Brothers or Caterpillar or Trump Towers if we really don't want them to. All they have are deeds, IOUs, and titles. We have their stuff and their cash.

Which is not to say that the national debt is harmless, or a good thing. This is a tropical rainforest economy... it's rich and it's diverse, but it's also maintained in a fragile equilibrium. When we do dumb things like let idiots buy mansions or put Democrats in charge of the government it makes those foreigners less likely to hand us money just because we ask for it. It makes them more likely to ask for a lot more extra when it comes time to pay it back.

The debt is a serious thing, but we're working on it. Putting grownups in charge of the House and then holding their feet to the fire every time they threaten to backslide likely has already done a great deal of good in calming Mr. Chang the Chinese Banker. Once we get back the Senate and the White House next year we'll be able to undo the rest of the damage Pelosi & Co. have caused.

It won't be simple, it won't be quiet, and it won't be easy, but it will be fixed. In the meantime, claiming this situation will have us signing over our children to a Chinese textile plant is simply absurd.

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November 03, 2010
Two Year Prediction Check

So, while not all of my predictions came true in exactly the order I thought they would, I got pretty close with a lot of them:

41 [Republican Senate] seats [in 2004] means the more radical stuff ... must be modified... 40 seats? Then it'll be down to the media and the Democrats' own incompetence. Not a pretty picture.
...
And that's when the people will turn on him. Just as in '94, idealistic Americans who simply wanted change will suddenly realize ... the Democrats really are going to raise taxes, are going to go soft on defense, and are going to try socialized medicine and an expansion of the welfare state.
...
And that's where my side comes in... In the Clinton years, the Democrats were such utter f-ups they went from holding all the cards to being completely out of power at the next election ... Will it be that fast? If we can't hold them back in the Senate, it's a dead certainty, but the mess will be a lot bigger when we get there.
...
[After Obama takes office] we'll get ... perhaps two years of truly odious attempts to turn the US into New France, followed by our regular (and seemingly preferred) two-party gridlock to take us into the next Presidential cycle.

So, my predictions after a two year course correction?

The economy will now come roaring back. The MSM has been too fascinated with the looming Republican Eschaton to talk much about it, but the financial press has regularly noted corporate profits are up, but instead of expanding they've been sitting on the cash because nobody knew what ridiculous stunt the Democrats would pull next. Now that businesses know all that nonsense is over, they'll begin to expand again.

This will mean that, like Clinton before him, Obama will be in the fortunate position of simply standing on the platform when the train pulls in. The MSM will, of course, hold triumphs in Obama's honor, throw flower pedals in his path, and compose pangyrics to him that'd make Sidonius blush. I think a saint's life will not be too far behind.

So, in other words and in my opinion, barring actions of the Obama administration itself, his second term is now a lock. But there, as they say, is the rub. Clinton is rightly recognized as a, if not the, supreme politician of the 20th century. He was willing to tack wherever the winds blew him, and when they blew right he sailed along with them, and in truth did most of his best work then.

Obama is not Clinton. He has what I believe is a deserved reputation for arrogance, is committed to an ideology that's much further to the left than Clinton's ever was, and has mostly surrounded himself with like-minded friends at best, and combative toadies at worst. If he continues to spin his wheels to the left, or attempts even more egregious (and, at this stage, likely illegal) stunts to get his agenda forced through, then he may not see the end of this term.

To his advantage, he does not have to apologize for Pelosi and Reid anymore. Will it be enough? We'll see...

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September 27, 2010
Tarkin's Paradox

To wit: "the more you tighten your grip, the more things slip through your fingers." I think the events cited in the article are concrete examples of the growing influence of military leaders with wacky ideas, but I also agree with the first article's assertion that such muscle-flexing is counterproductive to Chinese success.

The fundamental failure of the 19th century was Germany's inability to peacefully integrate itself into the world's economy. This led directly to the two spectacular bloodbaths of the 20th century. Today world leaders, especially in the US, have managed to successfully channel China's inevitable rise to great power status peacefully. Is this, however, simply a repeat of Germany's first thirty years? The dates (1870s to 1910s vs 1970s to 2010s) are rather forbidding, but there are some very important differences this time around.

One, Germany's rise occurred when the world was largely controlled by various forms of dictatorship. This meant that foolish men were routinely allowed solo access to the levers of state power. China is not a dictatorship in the conventional sense of the term... it is an oligarchy with a comparatively diffuse power base. The military forms an important part, but it is not the only part. The country is certainly not beholden to the whims of just one man.

Two, the United States, even when run by Democrats, is fully engaged with China and has a clear understanding of the need for China to be both peaceful and prosperous. We will not, as we did a century ago, stand by as a formerly peaceful power transforms itself into a military blunderbuss.

Three, the unexpected (and in the eyes of established powers, undesired) rise of a great power is not unprecedented, as it was in the 1870s. The world has seen this happen several times now, and the consequences of each of those failures has informed the next attempt. Germany was an utter disaster for a huge part of the world. The mistakes made with Japan also led to apocalypse, but one that affected a region instead of a globe. The Soviet Union was a malignancy that literally threatened all of civilization, but that's all it ever really did, and with extremely careful management and more than a few mis-steps, that threat did go away. The world is getting better at this.

Four, India is rising at the same time, and right next door. The near-simultaneous rise of two nations with a common border to great power status actually is unprecedented in world history, but (so far) this seems to be acting as a stabilizing counter-weight. In other words, always remember China is much more concerned about the billion-plus brown people just to the south than they are the about round-eyed barbarians across the sea.

Five, nukes. The existence of nuclear weapons was and is, especially early in the Cold War, instrumental in maintaining world peace. Leaders are allowed to make war because the people directly beneath them see the opportunity for massive gains at no real personal risk. Nuclear weapons change this equation, forcing even the men who worked for Stalin to see that allowing unfettered aggression would result in very real, very personal risks to themselves and those around them. It's fun to drop matches in a barrel filled with gasoline if you can do it from far away. It's not so much fun when everyone who has matches is standing in the stuff up to their waist.

All of this makes me cautiously optimistic that the world can continue to manage China's expansion. Can we jigger it all up anyway? Are you kidding? This is the country that gave Democrats complete control of two thirds of the government. We're capable of screwing anything up. That said, I think we still have a very, very good chance of herding China along into its rightful, and most importantly peaceful, place at the head of an Asian balance of power.

Via Instapundit.

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November 16, 2009
God's Prosperity

Is so-called "mega-church Christianity" actually to blame for the recent economic problems, or is it the harbinger of a new, working faith?

So, the question before us is, did Christianity actually cause the recent market crash? Despite the deliciously incindiary title, what we find inside is instead another tired retread of "Blame the Bourgies".

That's right, folks, it's not *necessarily* Christians in general who are at fault. Rather, it is instead the particular type of uneducated Christian who has held on to hope, worked hard, took risks, and refused to believe that faith and success cannot go hand-in-hand who are ultimately to blame. It's a lament as old as Robespierre, for the same reasons, if not (for now) the same consequences.

The author's relief that the brilliant success stories so thick on the ground were currently quite a bit less-than-successful is almost palpable. After all, the one thing a good secular humanist, quite firmly holding Marx's left hand, cannot abide is working class success, with, of all things, faith at its heart. So we are treated, at the end, with the ill-disguised confusion of a person quite firmly convinced these are people being exploited while not quite being able to put a finger on exactly why they seem so enthusiastic about it.

What I think is far more interesting, and completely unremarked at any point in the article, is what a real departure this is for Christian doctrine. Jesus's core message is, at heart, one of radical egalatarianism. You don't give what you can, he says many times, you give everything you've got, and then some, and then ask if there's anything more you can give while you're at it. It worked in that time, and for most of the rest of history, because the world was so steeped in death, injustice, and misery for such a very long time. It was only through the radical repudiation of such unending horror, literally turning one's back on the world and trusting everything to God, that one could find hope in the middle of such despair.

The truly strange part is so many people did. Then again, what other choice did they have?

The modern way of life, with its wealth, safety, and plenty, is so utterly different most people literally cannot imagine it. Those who do not have to imagine it because they're sitting in it are legendary in the lengths to which they will go to escape the old world to enter ours.

The world changed, and, to an organization with an institutional memory measured in millenia, with breathtaking suddenness. Christianity's legendary adaptability, which had served it so well when its adherents were being used to light Nero's garden or feed the occasional Norse tree, had grown brittle. It could not cope with such a fundamental transformation, one that not only refused to stop but sped up seemingly out of spite. Its failure led to the rise of endless doctrines shriekingly cold yet strikingly seductive, covered in the blood of billions.

But, while down, it would seem Christianity isn't actually out. It may very well be that these oft-derided mega-churches, with their treacly tales of independence and hope, are in fact the wave of the future. If the are, it will be because THEY WORK.

In the market of ideas only ivory tower academics and their well off minions have the luxury of sneering at the masses while simultaneously refusing to DIS-believe in doctrines that at best consign those masses to beggary at the hands of the state, and at worse all too frequently to a mass grave at the hands of that state's police. The rest of us are too busy making our own way, and too practical to really trust someone who WANTS to sell his house for a Jackson Pollock original.

Instead it would seem a very large number of Americans, and most importantly of all those who are quite new at BEING Americans, have decided on a third way, one which combines enough of the faith of their fathers to be recognizable, yet which openly acknowledges and embraces those aspects of the modern world which have proven to work over the centuries: faith in yourself, in your ability to relieve your own suffering, in the desirability of this goal and its comforts, while still grounding you in the humble humility of a peasant's love.

It can, will, and does work. But only if we let it.

Lest you think your friendly neighborhood crank has finally fallen off the right side of the world, I feel it important to point out I'm not only not a Christian, I'm a card-carrying secular Buddhist who occasionally gets yelled at for teaching my heathen faith to my daughter. I just think these people deserve more, and better, than they've gotten from main stream media.

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May 29, 2009
Yeah, Good Luck with That

Headline says it all: Abbas wants US to push out Netanyahu. This being the Jerusalem Post, the headline is the result of a moderately negative spin in the article, but only a moderate one. The full text reveals the characteristically juvenile attitude that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular have had about Israel is alive and well. Unfortunately the administration currently in the White House shows every sign of being arrogant enough and dumb enough to actually try this strategy.

The thing is, it won't work. Netanyahu has a broad coalition and, from what I've read, is quite popular in Israel at the moment. If I could pick one political personality in Israel least likely to respond to a Rahm Emanuel - style political dogfight, I couldn't do any better than ol' Bibi. The result will needlessly strain our relationship with the only functioning democracy in the region whilst encouraging bad behavior and unrealistic expectations in yet another generation of Palestinians.

The right of return has been a dead issue for almost as long as it has been an issue. Israelis know exactly what will happen to their country if hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were suddenly given the "right" to reclaim land and property lost some six decades ago. They simply won't do it. Any plan which insists on it is taken seriously only by people with no real interest in peace, and others so naive as to almost seem from a different planet.

Which is not going to stop them from trying, of course, especially with the reception they seem to have received from the current administration.

More's the pity.

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May 26, 2009
When Bolsheviks Attack

It's been awhile since I've seen as sly a leftist attack on free markets and liberty as this one. I doubt the author really means it that explicitly, but I calls 'em as I sees 'em, and ridiculing hyper-expensive one-offs as bourgeois excess has been a staple of the left for more than a century.

Let's put it another way. Far from showcasing things "you shouldn't buy," I think this site shows just how industrious entrepreneurs can be in their efforts to separate the rich from their money. When I see things like this I don't view it from the consumer's perspective, a place I'm not likely to ever see, but instead from the producer's, which is a place I most definitely could be, some day. The reason most such things are expensive is because it takes a lot of talented people a long time to produce them, and each time someone very very rich buys one they become less rich while everyone involved in their production becomes more wealthy.

It's also important to understand that the producers of such amazingly expensive baubles live an extremely precarious life. The audience for such items can be counted in the low dozens, world-wide, and what appeals to, say, a hip-hop artist looking to cash their first royalty check today may not appeal to them tomorrow. It may be very glamorous to cater to such people, but it's not very smart.

In a market economy with a thriving middle class, the smart producer seeks to maximize the appeal of his or her product by making it affordable to as many people as possible. People like you and me. There are just so many more of us. An entrepreneur who caters to the Paris Hiltons of the world will never ever be richer than one who caters to the Joe and Jane Sixpacks of it. And so they do, and so we are the ones who benefit.

The hyper-rich have had their needs met since the beginning of time, and they always will. Attempts to "rectify" this "injustice" only serve to make the rich more clever about how they hide their money, and unlike you and me the rich can hire smart people to do this for them. The end result only makes it harder for smart entrepreneurs to reach the rest of us.

The danger is that, if we allow our governments to make it hard enough in a misguided attempt at "justice", smart entrepreneurs will stop trying.

Posted by scott at 07:12 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
May 12, 2009
Of Course, We All Know Rich People and Corporations are Bad

The good news: The Obama administration is acting exactly as they said they would, and as the majority of the American people want them to act.

The bad news: The Obama administration is acting exactly as they said they would, and as the majority of the American people want them to act.

Populism is all well and good, until it's realized the corporations being attacked are the ones that employ you, and the rich people being soaked are the ones who's bank accounts provide your loans. What I see, and what almost none of the rest of you seem to understand, is that rich people are the only sort of people who absolutely can, and therefore will, take their money to a place it won't be sucked away to finance "economic justice." Big corporations are the only ones who can, and therefore will, close up and move shop to do the same. Then it'll be the rest of us who'll be left holding the bag.

If the past is any guide, it'll take three to five years for the destruction these policies will wreak to become impossible to ignore. And no, I don't think it'll be the end of the world, or the end of the nation, or even the end of Our Way of Life. Watergate was a much bigger disaster than the Bush administration, and Republicans managed to recover from that to rescue us from the last Democratic super-majority, back in 1980. I'm sure they'll be able to swoop in again to save us from this one. Eventually.

Which will, of course, simply re-set the alarm. Whenever there are enough voters with no memory of what happens when progressives are given power, who forget economic justice is incompatible with personal liberty, and who actually listen to people who've never done a real day's work in their life, it's just about inevitable the Democrats will be there to ride their naivete back to power. Which merely serves to give the wheel another turn.

It's all about keeping the bicycle balanced, I suppose.

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March 04, 2009
Gloves Off, Let's Dance

Rush Limbaugh makes one impassioned gloves-off speech and the entire media circus seems to have suddenly swirled around him. What the main stream media has forgotten is what we all, me included, have forgotten... conservatism in general and Republicans in particular surged back to power precisely because pundits like Limbaugh said what we wanted to say, to people we wanted to say it to, in a way we've always wanted to say it. The frothing, rabid response just made it that much more entertaining.

Why did we forget it? Because for the past fourteen years, and especially for the past eight, our conservative op-ed writers have held themselves back. They knew that no matter how rotten the Republicans got, it was nothing compared to what the Democrats could pull. If they were quiet enough, circumspect enough, played ball just enough, maybe people like Limbaugh could slowly guide the party back to core principles without letting the teenagers and their college professors a shot at the wheel.

Well, that didn't work, but in failure were sowed the seeds of success. Because now there's nothing holding them back. It took a few months to get started, but an engine has come roaring back to life. Unfettered by the worry that noting the emperor had no clothes might lead the masses to put beggar in rags in charge, the entire arsenal is now being unleashed. It's now easy for Limbaugh and those like him to be both funny, right, and consistent, and they seem to be setting to it with gusto.

A certain admiral once quipped if given the opportunity he could run rampant for six months, but after that defeat was inevitable. It would appear this time around a different admiral only had three.

Hat tip: Instapundit.

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February 24, 2009
When Libertarianism Attacks

To paraphrase a favorite movie line, Recycling: I don't think that word means what you think it means. The comments, in my opinion at least, reveal quite starkly the main problems I have with "green" ideas: to wit, the common assumption that human labor is free, and that recycling resources is always "better" than simply expending them.

It's all well and good for you to spend all your free time in a victory garden, mulching your family's waste with the kitchen trash, but quite frankly I really would rather pay someone to take it all away. Likewise, it may make a person feel quite at one with the environment to spend all that time sorting paper, plastic, and metal, but when it all ends up costing significantly more than it would otherwise I'm sorry but I will have to question its utility. And opt out, where I can.

It's not that I'm opposed to green initiatives, it's that so very often their costs are never considered, or actively hidden in all the feel-good propaganda, and then forced on me via government regulation or tax policy. Recycle? Sure... form a company that makes a profit doing it, and make it worth my while, and I'll be happy to sign up. Can't do that? State the price and let me decide if I want to support your green charity. It's when both of those fail, and the advocates in their failure try to turn the barrel of government's gun on me that I start to have a problem.

"Ah," says they, "you'll be happy to fiddle while Rome burns then, will you?" Show me the smoke. Show me the fire. Then, once more, ask me to support your cause.

"But you're unreasonable! The evidence won't convince you! There's an emergency and we must do something about it! Now!" Well, I'm terribly sorry about that then. Would you like me to line up against the wall now, or would you rather me wait until you've collected a few more of my friends?

Want your environmental initiatives to last? Turn them into markets. Let someone make a buck off it. Let someone make as many bucks as they can from it, and ten years from now the efficiencies will astound you. Let the price of scarce commodities drive solutions to their access, and ten years from now they'll all be cheaper than they are now.

But that's not good enough, now is it? That's not what we really want! It won't happen fast enough! It relies on commoners, and they're too stupid to do the right thing! It won't let the people who really know what they're doing to impose the policies we know are required to resolve the crisis!

Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say. Ah, well. Do they still hand out blindfolds and cigarettes for these things?

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November 05, 2008
The Day After

Congratulations to Barack Obama and the Democratic party on their convincing victory in this election. Here's to hoping you do a much, much better job than I expect you to.

My prediction? It all hangs on the Senate now. 41 seats means the more radical stuff... his tax plan, his health care plan, his environmental plan, and his foreign policy agenda, must be modified or they're dead on arrival. 40 seats? Then it'll be down to the media and the Democrats' own incompetence. Not a pretty picture.

I expect in the next few months a gush of hope and happiness not seen probably since Kennedy took office in 1960. It'll be one treacly special after another right up to the inauguration and just a little beyond. And hey, I'm more a student of history than I am a partisan, and because of that I will actually be quite proud that black children now have the South Lawn as their back yard. Dr. King's dream has come true.

But I'm also a realist, and I've watched this particular game played since the mid-70s. The media will turn on him first, because a happy and harmonious government doesn't sell, but a $500 haircut on the tarmac of LAX certainly does.

Then his own party will turn on him. Obama himself may be centrist, but his party absolutely is not. Their ecstasy will be their undoing, and they will immediately try to enact a whole raft of radical legislation the country quite plainly will not want.

And that's when the people will turn on him. Just as in '94, idealistic Americans who simply wanted change will suddenly realize these people really did mean what they said. They will realize the Democrats really are going to raise taxes, are going to go soft on defense, and are going to try socialized medicine and an expansion of the welfare state.

And that's where my side comes in. As it has in the past, this time in the wilderness will serve to strengthen and focus the Republican party. The party holding the White House always loses seats in off-year elections, so the Democrats' ability to genuinely screw things up will be curtailed in 2010, by how much will be largely determined by how badly they screw up in the two years previous. In the Clinton years, the Democrats were such utter f-ups they went from holding all the cards to being completely out of power at the next election, and this bunch promises to be much better at dropping it all in the pot than that bunch was.

Will it be that fast? If we can't hold them back in the Senate, it's a dead certainty, but the mess will be a lot bigger when we get there. If we are able to protect them from their worst excesses even a gradual erosion will be fine, because that'll mean a Republican president in 2012 will have a small, resentful, but not utterly intractable Democratic majority in Congress to deal with, and, if we must wait until 2016 that same Republican president will have a small, organized, and energized Republican majority with which to govern. Not too shabby, eh?

In a funny sort of way, I'm actually rather glad Obama made it. Had McCain won, the Democrats would've fallen much deeper into the radical left's grasp, and would most likely have paralyzed the country at precisely the time reasoned action is required. The desire for revenge would've simply overridden any real attempt to govern. 1948 - 1952 all over again, the Democrats only needing to find a single issue and their own McCarthy to run with it to truly unleash chaos.

Instead we'll get 6 months of obnoxious leftist gloating, perhaps two years of truly odious attempts to turn the US into New France, followed by our regular (and seemingly preferred) two-party gridlock to take us into the next Presidential cycle. Balancing this will be the fun we'll have watching patently naive people with a penchant for petulant chaos come to realize that it really is a lot more complicated than it looked from the outside, the country really wasn't held hostage by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, and we all by and large don't want what they think we do.

The wailing at this "betrayal" will be sweet, sweet music indeed.

Posted by scott at 09:48 AM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
September 18, 2008
Well, at Least He's Up Front About it

Your Democratic presidential ticket at work:

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden said Thursday that paying more in taxes is the patriotic thing to do for wealthier Americans.

The fact that nobody else thinks paying taxes is patriotic, and the increase will happen to the people who are both more likely and more able to move all their money to places that won't be taxed at all seems quite lost on Mr. Biden. Come to think of it, the fact that most of you probably nodded your head and thought, "what's so unfair?" while you read the article means the point is probably lost on you too.

Taxes are a strange sort of product, one which we are forced to purchase or face being thrown in jail. If given the chance, people who do not feel they are getting their money's worth on a purchase will not purchase it. Since that's not possible in this case, those people, being able to afford things like tax lawyers and accountants familiar with, say, Swiss banking law, will instead hide their money so it can't be taxed at all. The end result? Raising taxes on wealthy people causes them to pay less than they would otherwise.

It. Doesn't. Work. It never has, and it never will. All the soft-headed wishing, pleading, wheedling, and whining in the world will never get around the simple fact that people are only willing to pay what they themselves consider their fair share. Forcing them to pay more does not in fact result in them paying more. It simply raises the incentive for them to hide what they do not wish to pay.

It doesn't work for us. We can't afford the attorneys and accountants necessary to build a neat little hidey-hole in some exotic tropical location for us. They can. They will. Only the hopelessly naive or recklessly ignorant would think otherwise.

In other words, progressives and Democrats.

See you in November!

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August 03, 2007
Zimbabwe Update

As predicted, Mugabe's sale-prices-on-command approach to countering inflation is a shattering failure. Constraining prices by legislative fiat always fails, no matter what. Any time you hear about a politician proposing a price control to "help" someone run, do not walk, to the nearest available voting booth and toss him or her out as quickly as possible. Were it to happen at the national level, it would have the nice indirect effect of tossing out all of the more egregious members of the Democratic party, perhaps the thin wedge needed to get me to consider voting for one of them.

The regime is now Stalinist in everything but name, so the next step will be for them to start shooting people. It took, what, a few weeks for the economy to shrivel and die? I'd give them another week, a month at the most, before we start reading stories about executions for the treasonous sabotage of the enlightened leader's economic plan. And those will be the lucky ones. The way regimes like this treat the children of their "enemies" is simply too horrible to detail.

Will that be what finally causes the people to bring down the government? No, probably not. Sadly, history shows the only way regimes like these fall is if their leader starts screwing around with his neighboring countries, or he dies. The army will be far too busy murdering the country's middle class and business sectors to cause its neighbors any grief, and, like Castro, Mugabe shows no signs of having the decency to just hurry up and die already.

Oh don't worry, it can't happen here. The progressives did their almighty best to take US apart in the 70s and (thanks to the timely intervention of Mr. Reagan) failed. They're nowhere near as powerful now as they were then. But those of you who support things like higher corporate taxes or more regulation to achieve economic "fairness" should take a long, hard look at Zimbabwe. What Venus is to global warming, Zimbabwe is to economic policy.

Via Instapundit.

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May 21, 2007
Chicken Little at the Plow

Witness Marxist deterministic theory at its finest, at work in paleoanthropology. The idea that agriculture was a devastating discovery for humanity's overall well-being was most definitely the popular line of thinking twenty years ago. It was constantly harped on when I was getting my degree in college (at exactly the same time the article was written.)

Being a dumb, idealistic teenager, I simply accepted this as fact. We were happy hunter-gatherers in the past, and through some unclear chain of events all got trapped into this nasty, brutish, and short lifestyle known as agriculture. Yet even then I had the inklings of doubt... if agriculture was such an obviously awful way of life, why did people choose to live that way instead of the, according to my professors at any rate, obviously better hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

In truth, I still don't know the answer, but the searching for it is most likely one of the earliest events that lead me away from the milquetoast progressive beliefs I once held to the somewhat crunchier small-L libertarian ones I hold today. Agriculture may have caused very visible health problems for its adherents, but it most definitely provided some advantages, and very real ones at that. If it didn't, do you really think the hunter-gatherer lifestyle would've been shoved to the margins more than ten thousand years ago?

Nowadays, being better versed in Marxism than I once was, it's pretty obvious to me why the thought that agriculture was worse than hunting and gathering was so popular at that place and that time. Marxist theories of anthropology were still dominant theoretical forces, given less-red names like "cultural materialism." With the Berlin Wall still sturdy and strong, it was much easier to practice the time-honored academic tradition of holding a belief contradicted by everything around you.

Twenty years later, with Communism completely discredited, markets and freedom ascending, and the West's (in particular the United States's) utterly unreasonable inability to collapse and die on schedule still an embarrassing problem, I wonder if anything's changed over in theory-land? Certainly in Diamond's own later works one must scratch much deeper to get at the Red underneath.

Then again, considering how popular Communism's masonic children Environmentalism and Anti-globalization are, I can't help but think that the bloody, murderous bitch is still with us. There are no fools quite like old fools, and as long as they have people very young, stupid, or ignorant to talk to they will still get a hearing.

It's times like these I think, should immortality ever become reality, the one non-negotiable disqualification for treatment should be whether or not the candidate holds tenure.

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April 11, 2007
The Robin Hood Within

Scientists keep finding more and more proof that we are hard-wired for egalitarianism. I sometimes wonder if the acceptance of market economics has been such an incredibly slow, painful, and always belittled process precisely because it cuts against this deeply rooted need we all seem to have to make sure everyone gets a share.

Like our hard-wired dietary preferences, these seemingly hard-wired social preferences simply don't "scale up" very well. While they obviously work when they involve very small groups, egalitarianism sets up precisely the wrong set of incentives required to make large, complex societies grow and prosper over time. For that growth to arrive, and stay, history has proven quite conclusively you need free markets, private property, and a strong rule of law.

Unfortunately the successful application of these conditions inevitably results in income disparity, often very large income disparity, which as noted above rattles the cage of our inner chimp something fierce. To me, this neatly explains humanity's constant, tragic, and utterly intransigent fascination with experiments in large-scale egalitarianism such as Christianity, Islam, and Communism. Even when each of these systems has proven completely (and, in the case of Communism, murderously) incapable of bringing real wealth to the masses, large swathes of us simply refuse to admit their failure.

We create societies so wealthy our poor drive to demonstrations because they're eating themselves to death, and people support them. Mass graves yawn open at the foot of every communist government ever created, and people still wave red flags. Fanatics state flatly their purpose is to dismantle and destroy the economic systems that have put the stars within our reach, and people promptly give them the money to do so.

It's almost enough to make one despair. But, as with our predilection for booze and donuts, many, perhaps even most, of us are now able to resist. It's taken some fifteen thousand years for us to create stable complex societies, but we seem now to have done so. There have been mighty setbacks, but the keys uncovered by Adam Smith and John Locke seem to have finally freed us of the chains we wrapped ourselves in for so long.

Was it fair? Of course it wasn't fair, that's the point. Harnessing greed and balancing ambition is how this game is played. Oppress these natural urges, and nothing moves. Let them run wild, and murderous totalitarianism always emerges. Deny they exist at all and the entire race ends up buried in a mass grave with a red flag fluttering atop it.

We are busy creatures, with large hearts and quick minds. Give us a lever, and a reason to try, and we will by God move the world. Take away that reason, and then try to guilt or force or frighten us into action, and we won't even bother picking the thing up. It really is that simple.

Which is not to say it's obvious, as anyone attending an anti-globalization rally, environmental protest, or Democratic fundraiser will plainly see. We must be careful to make sure our brethren drunk on the milk of their Utopian dreams aren't allowed to borrow or steal the keys to our free-market systems, but it is a care we seem able to take.

It won't stop them from trying, of course. After all, it's an urge we're hard-wired to feel. But as long as we pay attention, they'll fail.

You awake yet?

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February 13, 2007
And the Command Economy Goes, "Stumble, Stumble, Crash"

Mike J. gets a perceptive no-prize for bringing us this comparatively even-handed look at all the other problems Iran is facing. The payoff for me (emphasis added):

To curb demand, which has been driven in part by subsidies that keep the domestic pump price at a mere 35 cents a gallon, the government plans to begin rationing gasoline in March, a measure so unpopular, and potentially explosive, that rationing plans have been put off several times in the past.

This single paragraph tells me volumes about what is going on in Iran, and consulting everyone's favorite on-line encyclopedia confirms it: Iran runs on a socialist-style command economy. As with all such social redistribution systems, the regime traded long-term growth and stability for short-term gains in "equality and fairness*," with the predictable result of an unresponsive, inefficient economy incapable of real long-term growth.

In other words, they made sure a peasant's lot was immediately improved by the revolution by taking shortcuts that would completely sabotage the pathways that would let that peasant's children progress and prosper. Like all progressive/liberal economic policy makers, they never thought past stage one and are now paying the price.

Unfortunately, history only provides one way out that actually works... implementation of broad and pervasive free-market reforms. I say unfortunately because, to date anyway, such implementations have always brought about chaos and instability in the short term. In all but one case (China, and only so far, and only because they were willing to crack some heads), this has ultimately resulted in the overthrow of the implementing regime. Not a nice thing to mull over if you're in charge of a population quite famous for its propensity to riot when things don't break their way.

So, will the imams do what needs to be done, with the understanding that history treats even the most egregious implementers quite well once they've gone? It's impossible to say. However, it does, to me, indicate that sanctions have a lot of traction left in them. Over time, economies based on state controls rot like a termite-infested house, and once they become sufficiently rotten it doesn't take a lot of knocking to bring them down.

Sanctions have historically proven to knock rather softly, but if the underlying wood is rotten enough, a tap may be all it takes.

~ If he hears, he'll knock all day ~

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* Take from the rich, give to the poor, soak whoever makes more than a hardscrabble farmer with taxes and make sure no business is allowed to function without massive government oversight. In short, "we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us."

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August 01, 2006
Human Nature vs. Mother Nature

Problem: What was once considered prime real estate has lately proven to be nothing more than a giant hurricane magnet.

Obvious solution: Don't live there, move away, build somewhere else.

Actual solution: Piss and moan until one level of government or another can make everyone else pay for your fancy condo or beach-front business:

In recent months, Florida's insurance crisis has mushroomed, spreading quickly from homeowners unable to cope with soaring rates to businesses facing policy cancellations, dwindling coverage and out-of-this-world costs if they can find insurance at all.
...
We brought together a group of lawmakers, a regulator, insurance agents and business and consumer leaders, including Marks, for a roundtable discussion on the crisis, its impact and possible solutions.

Florida already regulates what insurance companies can charge for a particular policy. You know, Florida, the place that's been hit by, what, five major hurricanes in the past three years? The result was typical, shortages. The surprised reaction was also unsurprising, "You're a a bunch of greedy awful corporations taking advantage of us little guys! We won't let you charge what you think it'll take to cover your costs and make a profit. This is what you can charge! Ha! Take that! Wait! Wait! Come back! Hey, Mr. Congressman, pass a tax or something so we can have our condo/beach business back!"

People will only live where it's affordable. But they want to live wherever they please. When markets are allowed to work, the cost of building or living in a hurricane zone, flood plain, fault line, or tornado alley rapidly exceeds what most people can afford, and so the population in those areas falls all by itself. Unfortunately, human nature means people do whatever they can to distort and control those markets so they can build expensive things in the paths of forces which will readily destroy them. They'll then use the levers of government to make us pay to rebuild it all again. And again. And again.

And that's when we all lose.

Profits are not greed. They're a measure of how efficient it is to do something. The prices they generate provide a powerful and effective method of modifying human behavior so it becomes less wasteful over time. Mistaking profits for greed and then trying to legislate your way out of a problem allows people to ignore the obvious and continue their wasteful ways.

The popular response is not to trust the market, it's to legislate some more. After all, it's working so well right now. That it doesn't work, never has worked, and never will work is immaterial. It's not our approach that's the problem, it's that we haven't found the right set of rules, or the people are too stupid to follow them. Pass some more laws! Put the kulaks against the wall! It'll eventually get better! Keep trying!

It's not greed. It's a direct and extremely effective measure of the price of doing business somewhere. The kind of people who ignore this are the kind of people who'll live in a hurricane zone.

Sometimes I think they get what they deserve.

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January 02, 2006
Congress Critique

While this article on "what went wrong?" last year is about Bush vs. the Congress, it really could be about any president since Watergate. The gridlock we've all come to know and loathe is of course far from new, but its origins are more recent, and more reasonable, than you'd probably first imagine.

Before Watergate, probably to combat the very things this article talks about, Congress had gradually structured itself so that most of its power was concentrated in the hands of just a few committee chairs. Presidents who really wanted something done met with perhaps 15 or so men (they were always men) and if he could get them to agree to it, it got done.

The zenith of this arrangement was during the Johnson administration. Between 1964 and 1968 perhaps the most powerful congressman (and senator) of the modern era was placed in charge of the presidency with a then-unprecedented electoral majority. Lyndon Johnson knew how the institution worked, knew the men who worked it, and knew exactly what was needed to get something, anything, done. The result was an era of Democratic power and unity not seen before or since.

Largely because of the disastrous excesses this concentration of power created in the Johnson and later Nixon administrations, Congress reformed itself in 1974 (the so-called "Watergate baby" era). The intent was to shatter the control of the comittee chairs and de-centralize decision making in the hopes of making the institution more representative of and compliant to the people. As with most attempts to change powerful structures, they succeeded, but at a cost they didn't foresee.

Instead of de-centralizing the power of committees, the reforms instead created dozens of sub-committees with weaker but still powerful chairmen. The "surface area" of power increased, allowing many more places for lobbyists and special interests groups to corrode the ability of the institution to act in a sensible and consistent manner. That is, when it could act at all, since much of the traditional gridlock of what we now experience as the federal government is traced directly to these reforms.

This is not to say the reforms were bad. After all, they were put in place to stop debacles on the scale of Vietnam, Watergate, and the "stagflation" of the early 70s from ever happening again, and at this they have succeeded reasonably well*. It does, however, mean that people have far less to fear from one party holding "all the cards", and far less to hope for splitting that power between the two parties.

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* Those who equate the experiences of 2001-2005 to 1968-1974 either have an axe to grind or aren't paying attention.

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December 01, 2005
Politics, Economics, and Reality

Earlier this year much was made of pharmacists who refused, on moral grounds, to dispense various sorts of birth control. While the vast majority of commentators were wailing and rending their shirts over this "unfair and worrying" development, I decided to sit by and wait for the other shoe to drop.

Thud:

Walgreen Co. said it has put four Illinois pharmacists in the St. Louis area on unpaid leave for refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception in violation of a state rule.

The four cited religious or moral objections to filling prescriptions for the morning-after pill and "have said they would like to maintain their right to refuse to dispense, and in Illinois that is not an option," Walgreen spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce said.

Illinois must not be an "employ at will" state, or Walgreens must not have its policies in order. In both Virginia and Arkansas, these people would've been shown the door simply because they weren't doing the described job, that of filling prescriptions. Why they weren't doing it would be immaterial. Yes, there most definitely would've been lawsuits (perhaps another reason for the legislation), but they would be unwinnable.

This is why it's so important to let market forces do their work whenever possible. This is why people who think businessmen and their profit are evil are simply out of their minds. Customers want safe forms of contraception, and are willing to pay much more than it costs to produce them. Pharmacists who let their politics get in the way of someone else's business cut into those profits, providing strong, efficient, and effective incentives for said pharmacists to either change their ways or stop being pharmacists, voluntarily or otherwise.

Europe is praised for its worker-friendly environment, but in, say, France, pharmacists who refuse to do their job are effectively immune to the consequences, protected by thick layers of government regulation and ubiquitous unions. Labor unions in our own country are often praised for sticking up for the "little guy", but in a case like this the pharmacists would again be protected by labor contracts and arbitration. Meanwhile, someone who doesn't want to become a parent waits, held hostage by forces beyond their control.

Standing up for your principles is commendable. A pharmacist can decide on religious grounds that all medicine is bad and refuse to hand out anything but sugar pills, and that's fine by me. Fine by me, that is, as long as the market that wants these medicines is allowed to thunder past or even over them to get what it wants.

A final note: Standing up for your principles also means being prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. Doing so with dignity and honor is what heroes are all about. Suing someone because you don't like the aftermath doesn't make you a hero, it makes you a whiney bitch.

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October 03, 2005
Social Science

Sparked by the comment:

You know, the more I've learned about Adolf Hitler, the less he resembles any sort of conservative, and the more he resembles the far left. He was a vegitarian, an atheist, an intellectual, an artist, a revolutionary, and dreamed of a return to a past utopia when people (or Arayans, at any rate) were truly free. The classification of him, and other reactionaries, as conservative smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

He wasn't far left, he was most definitely far right. What he has in common with your list of "hard lefties" is he was a socialist. Before WWII, there were two kinds of socialism... right and left. The right-wing socialists wanted power to coalesce into the hands of a strong central state, controlled by a select and elite group of people who would keep the common folk's (technically, the proletariat's) best interests in mind while governing without their input.

Left-wing socialists see the state as an oppressive construct foisted on the proletariat, and wish to destroy it thereby allowing power to be wielded by the people themselves as expressed through various theoretically self-forming collectives.

The right wing of socialism is commonly considered to have been destroyed by WWII. Left-wing socialists were conceded the field and have run amok and essentially unopposed since then. Never the brightest bulbs in the bunch, these utopians, when given access to the levers of power, were directly responsible for the abattoirs of the late 20th century.

In my own opinion, right-wing socialism was not destroyed but was instead forced underground. To me, the various governments of continental Europe and Japan, most especially those of Germany, France, and Japan, very strongly represent models of right-wing socialism. True, they have been softened a bit with a veneer of democracy, but close observers of these societies will always comment that power is wielded most often by unelected bureaucrats with only a vague understanding of what the people of their countries really want.

The reason why we do not clearly understand this distinction is to me obvious. Now utterly dominated by nihilistic left-wing socialists, the "soft sciences" of western academia have renamed right-wing socialism "fascism" because it is a) a poorly defined term into which everything bad about the right can be dumped and b) it removes a real and to them dangerous stigma to their hallowed and cherished leftist brand of socialism.

If the 20th century has proven anything it is that socialism of any sort, be it right, left, or the newly minted Islamic kind, is easily the greatest danger to humanity that has ever existed. Hyperbole? Hardly. Societies ruled by the various forms of socialism have probably killed more people in the past century than were killed at the hands of Christians in the previous two thousand. A papal legate may have consigned thousands of innocents to the flames with his comment, "let God sort them out", but this is nothing compared to the millions who have been starved, gassed, beaten, shot or simply worked to death by the likes of those who have substituted the state or some vague secular ideal in His place.

This all has a great deal to do with why I fear our current crop of religious "righties" far less than I do our current crop of secular "lefties." A right-winger may secretly want to force you into a church and consign the most unreasonable of your friends to the flames because they can’t keep their mouths shut and their pants zipped, but it takes a left-winger to starve your entire town to death in a camp for thinking the wrong thing.

Hanging onto a set of discredited beliefs like socialism is one thing. Humanity’s capability for delusion in the quest for radical egalitarianism long predates the plea of, “can’t we just all get along?” It’s something different altogether to be so myopic as to cover up the tendency of those beliefs toward genocide just to give them “one more try.” That those on the left continue to do so, and in such a garishly naïve fashion, is why I fear them.

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September 14, 2005
Fallout

We'll be taking a photo-blog break so I can make two predictions in this post-Katrina world:

Death toll: less than 1200. If I were to put an exact number on it, 853. That's for everywhere, not just NO.

New Orleans dry again: less than 2 weeks from today.

Political histrionics, duly regurgitated by our credulous "the Democrats deserve another break today" MSM, always add at least two zeros to any disaster number. Likewise, initial estimates are exciting but always wrong (remember five years to put out the Gulf War fires? 35,000 dead at the WTC?). It may have taken them a day to fix the first pump, but the lessons learned usually mean it'll only take three hours to fix the next, and half that for the one after it, and so on.

The hysterical tantrums thrown (and still being thrown) by the New Orleans and Louisiana administrations had to me just a whiff of ass-covering even before the storm completely blew through. Once the truth about city and state ineptitude began to be made fully clear, that whiff turned into a rancid reek. Democratic spinmeisters and their MSM lackeys are going through heroic efforts to pin the blame on the federal government (which, we should all remember, can't even move letters from one place to another in less than three days), if they try hard enough, they may even obscure the truth, at least for awhile.

Unfortunately Katrina came at the wrong time in the election cycle for this strategy to work well as a road back to power. Had a category-4 hurricane drowned hundreds of Democratic constituents on national TV in the September before a national election the entire liberal-left establishment would (rightly) need to wear underwear protection to keep their ecstasy from becoming a wardrobe problem. As it stands now there will be plenty of time for ponderous federal machinery to slowly and for the most part effectively clank into place to provide relief. There will also be plenty of time for even the most gung-ho Democratic apologists in the media to get bored and start asking what really happened to all those buses.

Anyone actually paying attention can already tell they won't like the answer one bit.

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September 06, 2005
Versus

This was something even I had completely missed in all the hyperventilated coverage over New Orleans. Why haven't we heard similar histrionic coverage about Mississippi? They were the ones who got bullseyed by the hurricane, not Louisiana. Why aren't we hearing about even more disastrous incompetence there?:

The buildings in New Orleans are still standing; the Gulf Coast of Mississippi basically has been scrubbed, like God took out a pencil eraser and just erased it.
...
I really don't like to find fault at times like this, but one thing that was missing was a quick recognition that in such a situation the potential for civil collapse is nearly 100%. Once the weather settles, you need to immediately declare marshal law and send in the MPs. That's basically what Haley Barbour did in Mississippi - there were a few early problems but very quickly the MPs were patrolling what was left of Biloxi and Gulfport and keeping a lid on things. Back on Tuesday when I put on the news and we all saw Kathleen Blanco bursting into tears, I knew that was the wrong message and would bring trouble. Louisiana and New Orleans basically have those touchy-feely, "I'm okay, you're okay" soft-leftie types in charge. Their education took a few days and has been expensive.

Actually, I don't chalk up this blind spot in the MSM's coverage to any sort of political bias. "If it bleeds, it leads" has been and always will be a bulwark of popular media. Devastated but otherwise quiet streets patrolled by competently-lead troops just don't have the same sass as corpses floating down Borboun street and boat-borne shootouts below the Pontchartrain levee, don't ya know?

There's also the "hammer" problem*. Since the national media have taken over the story, they see it as a national problem which needs a national solution. I really believe it has simply never ocurred to them to ask why state and local authorities, the people who must be on the ball in the first three days of any crisis of this magnitude, have so publicly dropped it in such a spectacularly disastrous fashion. We hear constantly about Bush administration failures without anyone even once asking why, for example, a city with a comprehensive and well-regarded public transportation system (as New Orleans has had for decades) had apparently no plan whatever to use it as an evacuation tool. Or why the governor, who is explicitly responsible for commanding national guard troops within state borders, was quite patently unable to do so effectively within any sort of reasonable timeframe.

Disasters aren't just federal problems. As much as the "controls everything, must control everything, proper to control everything" popular center-left perception of the federal government is, there are normally at least three other types of government authority out there to assist: state, county/parish, and municipal. When properly run, they will be both faster and more effective than anything a ponderous national entity can manage, especially in the short term. When they're mismanaged and poorly run? Well, the other thing I continue to find amazing is how the MSM seems to have turned a blind eye to Louisiana's and New Orleans's well known and deserved reputations as the most corrupt and poorly managed governments in the country.

I think the contrast with Mississippi is indeed quite instructive, and the comment "So I hope you're Watching Mississippi. Highly recommended - we may have found our next President out of this (you heard it here first)" quite intriguing indeed. Nice to see a state better known for keeping Arkansas off the bottom of most lists getting things right when it really counted.

Via Jason, who also has several good articles you should check out before you ask the "obvious" questions here.

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* "When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Often mis-interpreted by those who have never held one.

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September 01, 2005
Paging Mr. S.H. Ortage, White Courtesy Phone Please

Actually, I'm surprised it's taken this long for a politician to decide he's an expert in market economics:

Citing credible evidence of price gouging, Governor Sonny Perdue Wednesday afternoon signed an executive order authorizing state sanctions against gas retailers who gouge consumers.

Perdue said he does not believe there is an energy emergency and that the state will not tolerate citizens being fooled by exorbitant gas prices.

"Does not believe", in spite of widespread credible reports of, you know, a giant hurricane ripping through a central refinery location. So now instead of people who really must have fuel to function, folks who drive ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, public-transport busses, and the like being able to get gas while those who don't require it do without for awhile, we get hoarders and shortages.

The press are already reporting huge lines at gas stations in that area, all the while never making the connection that, due to the artificially lowered price and a market panic, everyone in the metro Atlanta area has decided to fill up every single car, motorcycle, lawnmower, and gas-guzzling SUV they own along with every can, jar, and bucket they stuff inside them with gasoline. Regular supplies couldn't keep up with such a sudden spike in demand, let alone those strained by destruction and panic, so shortages are inevitable. In cases like this price spikes are the only way to bring sense to the masses in a way that still ensures a supply is there for those who really need it.

Some price spikes does not equate to an entire city's worth of gas stations setting their prices that high all at once. In a competitive market, if the price is too high at one station you go to one with a lower price. If there really isn't a drop in supplies, if the guy down the street really is just profiteering, then your cheap station won't run out. If it does, you go find the next-less-expensive station, and then the next, and then the next, until it's just too expensive and you walk, buy a bike, take a bus, carpool with the guy who owns a hybrid, or just stay at home and fix dinner instead of going out tonight. What happens then? Why, due to high prices reducing demand, supplies catch up, prices go down, and everything goes back to normal. This is how it's supposed to work. This is the only way it ever works.

But since nobody in America really likes walking or biking or riding a bus or carpooling, they find the nearest reporter and start raising hell about how they "must drive" and "can't survive" and "won't get paid" if they can't fill up their car. Reporters, being the "critical thinking is hard" types they are, will then dutifully report this to the politicians, who, being the "like my job" sorts they are, will obligingly jigger up some laws that hold the price down. Which causes hoarding. Which creates shortages. And around the wheel goes again.

Well, that is unless you're an ambulance driver, or a cop, or a bus getting ready to carry a hundred people who can't pay what gas already costs. Instead of doing their job they'll be sitting in a line with the rest of the grumbling masses, waiting on the next gas shipment to arrive.

"Hell with you! Do you have any idea how fat the profits everyone is making on this are? The oil companies are swimming in cash!"

Do you think they're sticking that money under a matress somewhere? Digging a hole in their back yard and burying it? Hiding it under rocks? Listen up sparky. Yes they're making huge profits, and then they're taking those huge profits and dumping them in banks. Our banks. Money follows supply-and-demand curves just like gasoline, and when there's lots of it the cost of lending it out to other people, people who need it to do things that make even more money, goes way down. They in turn can build more things cheaper, or build fewer things with more risk, creating jobs and opportunities and even more cash, which goes right back into the banks, who then lend it out again. And around that wheel goes.

Let's put it another way. Do you think the ability to get a great mortgage or a near-zero interest car loan or a zero interest credit card is an accident?

Posted by scott at 09:51 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 29, 2005
Boomtime, eh?

Fark (of all places) linked up this detailed look at recent developments surrounding the Alberta oil sands. Now that oil prices have gone far beyond the $40 per barrel price generally seen as required to make the sands profitable, the region is experiencing a gigantic development boom. The potential windfall of billions of dollars in profits are creating fault lines throughout Canadian politics, and could change any number of international axes of power.

In other words, the system is working... higher prices are causing alternative sources of energy to be exploited. This will (eventually) increase supplies, causing prices to decline. That is, if the markets are allowed to work. As mentioned in the article, Canada's eastern liberal elite have once before instituted controls on the development of oil resources for their own purposes, and they're already making noises they will have no problems doing so again. Such bureaucratic meddling is perhaps the only thing gauranteed to prevent the efficient utilization of any resource, and with the mountains of cash this resource can bring in, meddling attempts are pretty much inevitable.

Will exploitation of the oil sands mean the return of cheap oil? Well, it'll certainly mean the return of cheaper oil, which may be enough to bail China out of the jam in which its energy subsidies have placed it. This is probably the most desirable result, since it will allow India's, China's, and the US's economies to continue expanding without a major financial disruption. Canada will become the surprise superpower of the 21st century, with stunned canuks in an enviable position of being able to dictate terms at will to both OPEC and the industrialized world.

But if it doesn't, the subsequent economic collapse will certainly send oil prices crashing well below the $40 per barrel price Canada needs to keep the oil sands profitable, causing an entire industry there to implode. Seething resentment over meddlesome government bungling could finally trigger a rupture that splits the country apart. Governments of oil-rich states, grown fat on monstrous profits, will suddenly be saddled with expensive, inefficient welfare states and constituents unwilling to accept any deprivation. The Middle East will almost certainly wither on the vine, and Hugo Chavez will be lucky to make it to Cuba before a mob hangs his body by its ankles in the capital's square.

It is a very fine line indeed that the various players are walking on right now, and anyone who thinks they know where it'll all end isn't paying attention. Welcome to interesting times!

Posted by scott at 08:49 AM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
August 23, 2005
Oriental Oil Imbroglio

While it may seem that the great dragon of China is able to shrug off the super-high oil prices that are percieved to be strangling everyone else, the truth is actually quite different:

The chaos created by sudden fuel shortages in Guangdong Province continues ... The official reason for the shortages proffered by the central government, laughably, concerned last week’s typhoon that hit the province. Additional speculation for the shortages blamed market distortions due to price controls, alas this was only partly correct. Finally, the Hong Kong media got it right yesterday, the real reasons for the shortages have been common knowledge in Guangzhou for several weeks...

While the author cites warring oil companies turning off the taps in a conspiracy to corner China's burgeoning petroleum market, the actual reason is right there... price controls. This explains a lot about what's going on in the oil markets right now. When prices go up, what's supposed to happen is that demand goes down. In the market-driven economies of the west, that's exactly what's happening. This then results in a stabilization of prices, eventually leading to a reduction of price as things regain equilibrium.

But China's throwing a wrench into the works. By instituting price controls, China has allowed demand to grow at a rate completely disconnected from the reality of oil supplies. High prices should cause factories, farm equipment, cars, and power plants to become more efficient just to stay in business, causing them to use less oil, stopping and then eventually reversing price hikes. But since the Chinese government is shielding its industries from this effect there is no incentive to improve, no reason to become more efficient. Wasteful tractors, inefficient power plants, and gas-guzzling cars are allowed to continue operating, even faster, because there's no reason for them not to.

However, the "ain't no such thing as a free lunch" principle is finally starting to take hold. Someone's been left holding the bag on this, eating this price difference, and it would appear to be the oil companies. The inevitable result of any attempt to artificially control prices is a shortage, and now that these oil companies have cut off the taps all sorts of hell may start breaking loose. Because you see most people don't understand why market forces, even ones that seem to hurt people, are a long-term good. They instead focus on the short-term evil of shortages, long lines at gas stations, brown-outs at home, and crops left to rot in fields because there's no fuel for the tractor.

These are the times when democracy shines, and therein lies a deep and perhaps insoluble problem for the current Chinese government. When western nations tried to have it both ways by controlling oil prices in the face of real scarcity back in the 1970s, the resulting economic chaos simply caused voters to boot out the engineers of the disaster and bring in others who could fix it. In some places these fixers were then booted out in turn*, but there was no social revolution, no dismantling of an entire country, no civil wars.

China doesn't have this safety valve. Worse still, the communist party leadership has made the common error of assuming it is the country, and therefore its leaders cannot get their heads around China existing without them. If they can't get ahead of this oil crisis, and quickly, Very Bad Things will start to happen. If they can't get the oil companies to play ball, economic collapse is right around the corner. If they can't get the populace to accept higher prices, social revolution is right behind it.

And therein lies the rub... it seems clear the populace won't accept higher prices, and China's Byzantine bureaucracy and endemic corruption mean their oil companies may not have to play ball. And even if they do, oil prices aren't going to drop just because the Chinese government wants them to, so getting the oil companies to come around will merely delay the crisis, not avert it. When irresistible forces start flitting around immovable objects, reality has a way of clubbing those who refuse to see. If the Chinese government doesn't do something to reign in demand, I'm expecting that club to hit them right between the eyes.

I've often said we're sitting on an oil price bubble that merely needs a pinprick to burst. China's economy collapsing into a heap would fit the bill nicely. Unfortunately their governmental structures are so rigid and inflexible, social revolution would almost inevitably follow. Considering China holds an enormous amount of the US's debt, this would definitely cause "interesting times" for just about everyone.

But that's another story...

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* Westerners are no better at seeing long-term good versus short-term evil, and I can vividly remember the anger most people felt as jobs were lost, farms were foreclosed, and businesses went under during the early 80s. Reagan lost most of his congressional power base in the 1982 elections because of this, and I'm still amazed Margaret Thatcher stayed in power at roughly the same time.

Posted by scott at 10:03 AM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
July 08, 2005
Hotelconomics

Welcome, one and all, to the Land of Fuzzy Thinking and Emotional Do-Goodism. This lovely land looks very much like our own, except shortages are not expected to cause price increases:

Hundreds of commuters spent Thursday night stranded in London and some have accused hoteliers of cashing in on the crisis in the capital.

Prices at a number of London's hotels increased by more than double on Thursday night, the BBC has learned.

They most definitely should have doubled, and for very good reasons. Every hotel in the district experienced an unexpected, and unbudgeted, business surge. All existing staff had to stay on and work double shifts (with overtime bonuses). Extra staff had to be called in on top of them to maintain service. Restaurants had to order "rush" supplies to ensure meals could be served. Utility consumption, from electricity to water to even internet access, spiked upward in a completely unpredictable way. Simple custodial and maid services had to have been strained, requiring yet more extra people to contain the rush.

But even if none of that happened and this was a simple price spike, that's the way it's supposed to work. When demand increases and supply remains the same, in a free market the price goes up. People are simply willing to pay more for something that's scarce.

The alternative? Well, in the Land of Fuzzy Thinking, extra hotel rooms certainly would have been whirled out of thin air in an instant, to be given away to maintain our Emotional Do-Goodism image. In the real world, simple human nature pokes a stick in the eye of this lovely leftist liberal ideal, because when the price of something is low, people consume more of it. People who could have made alternative arrangements (no matter how inconvenient) to get home would have checked into a room instead. Those who may have been willing to add some room mates to split the costs would have instead taken a single room. Some may even have declared a holiday for themselves and stayed much longer than they needed to.

The result? Those who couldn't make alternative arrangements no matter what, who would've been quite willing to more efficiently use the space by adding more people, or who just needed a place to sleep for a few hours would simply have had no place to go.

Because, unlike the Land of Fuzzy Thinking, there is no magic hotel fairy around to wave a wand and create rooms out of thin air. No matter how cruel it may sound to the Emotional Do-Gooders who only visit our cold real world on occasion, the simple fact is there is supply, and there is demand. To the crushing and continual disappointment of leftists and liberals around the world no amount of control, regulation, command, or even wishful thinking will change this. Trying anyway (as the good citizens of tLoFT always do) doesn't magically make the situation better, it makes it worse.

Not that this will change anything. When confronted with the simple reality of, well, reality, when their fuzzy yellow nerf-like naivete is squashed flat under the steam roller of human nature, the citizens of the Land of Fuzzy Thinking, as all good leftists and liberals tend to do, will simply simper and cry. "Oh waily waily waily!!!" they'll say, "the evil capitalists and conservatives are having their way with us!!! Exploitation! Profiteering! Such is what happens when greed overtakes compassion! Shame on them! Waily waily waily!!!"

They disappoint me, but they do not surprise me. Just as increased consumption in the face of lower prices is a fact of human nature, so is whining about something we want but can't get. I can only hope common sense takes over and the people bitching about paying double for their hotel room realize that there are others who paid a far higher price that day.

Go home. Get some rest. Hug the ones you love, and keep in mind that if money is your problem, that's no real problem at all.

Posted by scott at 09:45 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
June 13, 2005
Aftermath

So, what did we learn this afternoon?

  • As much as it'll roll the eyes of many of those closest to me... as with OJ, we learned that America has most definitely progressed. The money of a rich (well, formerly at any rate) black man now buys the same amount of innocence as that of a rich white man*.
  • Regardless of the media circus, regardless of common sense, "Joe and Jane Sixpack" really do take "beyond a reasonable doubt" seriously.
  • Those on the left who think "trust the people" is eye-roll-worthy hyperbole should drop to their knees now and thank whatever it is they worship that they live in this country. You know, in case they ever get accused of something they didn't actually do. Or at least, didn't hurt anyone in the doing.
  • The people of California, after a decade, still have not realized they must Clean House. Start from the lowliest elected official they can get their hands on and boot them over the horizon, then work their way up. Make sure whomever is put in their place knows the reason they have their job is to boot those the people couldn't directly affect over the horizon. Maybe, maybe then The People's Republic of California will stop being a law enforcement laughing stock.

Do I think Jackson did it? Like OJ, the answer is simple... oh hell yes. I read The Smoking Gun. Fourteen-year-olds don't come up with that kind of detail.

Do I think they proved it beyond a reasonable doubt? Again, as with OJ, oh hell no. California prosecutors, per historical precedent, chose to worship the cult of wealth and personality in their own special way and in the process allowed who knows how many real bad guys to walk. California citizens, swirled into the same narcissistic maelstrom, seem to keep re-electing these incompetents just to make sure their state's name stays in the papers. Of course, they then wonder cow-eyed at their monstrous state deficits.

The rest of us simply shake our heads and ponder how we can feel both sickened and heartened at the same time. Micheal Jackson is quite obviously someone who, were it not for obscene wealth, would have been given over to "Bubba the Love Machine" behind bars years ago. And yet he walks free, because in spite of the power and wealth of a state twelve people could not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt he did what he almost certainly did.

Remeber folks, we're not looking for a perfect system. The world is infested with humanity, and anyone who even dreams of "perfect" justice is either hopelesly naive, an unapologetic card-carrying member of the liberal left (redundant I know), or selling something.

The rest of us, well... on a viceral level and in spite of the fact that I know it's irrational, it sometimes becomes difficult trusting family with my child. I think it takes a suspiciously naive person to allow their near-terminally-ill child to sleep alone in the bed of a man who spends millions of dollars every year to convince himself he's still eleven years old.

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* As destructive as that sentiment may seem, this is why they cheered ten years ago. If you don't think it matters, you're either white or not paying attention.

Posted by scott at 07:45 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
May 20, 2005
Speaking of Economics

It's actually quite a bit more complicated than "China is stealing American jobs":

China is not the only trading partner of the United States and Europe, but, listening to politicians in the past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking it was. In reality, China supplies about one-seventh of American imports and a tenth of European ones.
...
Moreover, those shares are increasing because Americans and Europeans want them to.
...
Now, the United States and EU want to turn the clock back by imposing new restrictions on Chinese textiles. In general, the World Trade Organization has been sympathetic to such measures when they were strictly temporary and used to protect industries in transition. There is no such excuse this time; the United States and EU had a decade to prepare, and anyone could have predicted China's actions when the agreement expired.
...
China keeps the yuan trading within an extremely narrow range by buying billions of dollars worth of American securities. It supplies financing for businesses and the government, making up for the low saving rate in the United States. Again, consumers in the United States benefit - they can keep spending.

In spite of this, as the article notes, protectionism does seem to be on the march, and I agree it bodes well for no one.

"But they're taking our jobs! My friends just lost theirs to foreign competition!"

Quite so, but this is happening because we are making it happen. American regulations and unionized labor have artificially inflated labor costs and made it impossible for our native textile industry, to take one example, to produce clothing and make a profit.

"That's because the other places cheat! Look how they live! These Americans have families! Mortgages! Bills to pay! It's not fair!"

Again, good points. However, there are many definitions of "fair". True, it certainly doesn't seem "fair" for a forty-year-old textile worker to lose their high-paying job because their company can't compete with cheap imports. But it also doesn't seem very "fair" that an entire nation of 280 million people should be forced to pay billions of dollars more for clothing every year just so a few thousand of their fellows can keep their jobs.

What should happen is consumers are given a choice... cheap, reasonably well-made clothing from China (or India, or Vietnam, or wherever), or more expensive, reasonably well-made clothing from the US. The chips (or dollars, if you will) then will fall where they may... if you want to save US jobs, you buy US clothing. If you want to save money, you buy the cheapest thing you can find.

What is going to happen (if Western regulators get their way) is we will be forced to pay more for our clothing than we otherwise would to ensure inefficient factories, poor management, and overpriced unionized labor are able to seem to be competitive. But at least they'll get to keep their jobs, no?

Notice too this burden of higher prices will inevitably fall disproportionately on the poor. I can now in fact afford to pay an extra $5 for a shirt, and probably not even notice it. But there was a time not too long ago when $5 was to me the difference between making my rent or bouncing a check, and I know there are tens of thousands of people across the country to whom $5 is still "real money". The simple fact is that opposition to free trade and globalism, the two great lietmotifs of the left, does not protect the poor, it merely redirects cash from one set of rich people to another.

"Oh, I see it now. What you're saying is we should just toss all these people to the curb simply because they can't compete! How typically neocon of you!"

No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that protectionism as a response to competition does not work, is in fact counter-productive, and hurts far more people than it would ever help. This does not mean we should simply "toss people to the curb", rather we should re-define our strategies for helping them. Make it easier and cheaper to get a good education. Reform regulations and business law to make it simpler and cheaper for anyone to start and run their own business. Keep taxes low so people can keep more of what they make. Ensure capital markets are strong, rich, and healthy so that the very rich (all over the world) deposit their money in our banks, allowing them in turn to lend it out to anyone with a dream and a willingness to work for it. Provide opportunities, don't guarantee results.

Does this mean people will fail? Of course it will. One of the defining features of capitalism is that there are winners and losers. But by ensuring such loss does not automatically exclude future opportunity, we give everyone the chance to keep trying until they finally get it right.

Protectionism is the bastion of utopian idealists, ivory-tower socialists, and cynical special interests. It always creates far more problems than it ever solves. Far better to give people the tools to succeed and the opportunity to use them. Only by allowing them to fail can we ever hope to see them succeed.

Posted by scott at 10:53 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
May 11, 2005
Getting Over it

Nope, we're still not over it:

An apparent airspace violation over Washington on Wednesday prompted evacuations of the White House and the U.S. Capitol as military fighter jets scrambled to intercept an unidentified aircraft.
...
Former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw said he heard two F-16 jets and saw them circle a single-engine airplane and fire warning flares. The jets then seemed to direct the small aircraft away from the downtown Washington area, Shaw said.

Yup, they rushed people out of the Capitol because of a Cessna. It's been nearly five years, and we're still on a hair trigger.

Those of you outside the US who wait for the time we'll "get over it" have got a lot to learn. I can still remember as a child how obsessed this country was over the likelihood of a sneak attack on a harbor or town, and at that point Pearl Harbor was more than three decades in the past. Other countries may be used to people blowing them up for no clear reason, but we're not, and that will never change.

Does that make us better than anyone else? No. We should get over it. It's been nearly four years, al Quaeda is smashed, Saddam is sitting in a prison, Syria is afraid of sneezing too loudly, and Iran is building nukes because they think they're the only thing left proven to make the US behave itself. With democracy dawning and fascism finally setting over the horizon, we should be well and truly done with jumping at shadows.

Will we get over it? Nope. We're Americans. Most of us really do believe we're the inheritors of the power and glory of republican Rome coupled with the temperance and tenacity of imperial Britain. In a very real sense they are our parents, and reinforced from both sides is the subconscious but no less real belief that We Cannot Fail. As a nation we are simply unable to accept it. Not unwilling, unable. Such cultures do not react well when defeat comes calling.

Rome was shamed and humiliated by Carthage and the Romans did not rest until salt had been sewn into the earth of that city's foundations. Britain threw away a century of careful balancing and precipitated apocalypse over her fear of a Germanic Napoleon. Japan paid the price of nuclear eschaton for her successful humiliation of the most powerful Western culture in history.

In a world where entire cities can be incinerated at the touch of a button, such a brittle pride can be a risky asset. But, in spite of the contrary wailing of soft-headed twenty-somethings and their "old hippies never die they just smoke away" socialist mentors, we are not republican Rome. In spite of the fevered delusions of exploitation and socialist utopia the Democratic Underground hold so dear, we are not imperial Britain. The world may fear our power and detest our wealth, to be honest sometimes we do as well, but its people do themselves a disservice if they think we can be deconstructed as someone else's dim reflection. We will not be seen through a glass, and darkly.

We are instead Americans, as unique and unprecedented as any other people in the world. At our best, we cherish success, reward nobility, protect helplessness, and destroy evil. Since we are still human, at our worst we are quite capable of envying success, undercutting nobility, exploiting helplessness, and encouraging evil. If you were to pick any one thing out that makes Americans different, it is perhaps that, for the most part, we do not cede credit to or place blame on anyone else for our extremes, even when perhaps we should.

We will not "get over it" any time soon, not at all. A nation rich, powerful, and almost gloriously naive about the existence of evil in this world experienced the largest single-day loss of life in an attack since Antietam. Not simply killed, and not soldiers at all, but instead regular citizens murdered in spectacular fashion on national television using the very tools and monuments of our power to do the deed.

The rest of the world treated this country very much as a pretty girl who'd been raped, "Yes, it was a terrible thing, and yes, they were evil men, but really dear, look at the way you dress, the way you act. Don't you think you deserved it, just a little bit?" Even worse was the significant number of our own citizens who snuffled a bit, winced at the pain of still-bleeding wounds, and then slowly nodded in agreement.

But most of us, most of us knew the truth. We knew the world should be safe enough that anyone, no matter how beautiful or flamboyant, should be able to walk down a street stark naked and not worry about being raped. The world miscalculated when it thought America would simply walk away from such an egregious wound. That the barbaric perpetrators, fiery old men who have forever attempted to crush liberty and freedom, should do so is unsurprising. That the rest of the world should do so, merely disappointing. This didn't happen to you. It happened to us. What differentiates us from you is we have the power and the will to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. If that means we jump every time a Cessna gets lost or reach for a gun whenever some tinpot loon starts blowing off steam, so be it.

Because we will not fail.

Posted by scott at 02:03 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
May 05, 2005
When PC Means "Political Classroom"

Poor textbooks are nothing new, not exclusive to the United States, and are actually the symptom of a much bigger problem than bad science.

While this article on just how dumb American school textbooks are makes a lot of noise about how awful things are now, I can state quite categorically this is nothing new. People were making the same "horrible discovery" of politically correct groupthink about the textbooks we used in High School 20 years ago, and they were actually much better than drivel used in the late '60s and early '70s. To this day I'm mildly surprised to read a history book that says something good about Western civilization without immediately qualifying it with something horrible.

But it's not just the US. Japan's version of PC-as-education (the whole "Pearl Harbor was a strike against Western imperialism that resulted in Japan's vicitmization with atomic weaponry" theme) regularly gets it into hot water with its neighbors. We won't even start about what a classroom in Egypt, India, or Russia is stocked with.

The bottom line is when you politicize something it will be politics, not rationality or scientific veracity or even basic common sense, that will rule the day. Government is run by whatever set of busybodies happen to be ascendent in any particular region at any particular time, and those busybodies will be the ones who set the agendas for the schools. And don't get all huffy about fundamentalist wackos teaching kids about Noah and the ark. For every loon you show me trying to wedge Genesis into a science text book I will quite easily show you a loon trying to wedge Paul Erlich into the same space.

Is there a solution? It's hard to say. There have been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of experiments in "good" public schooling in the roughly century-and-a-half it has existed. Unfortunately, such experiments are far more contingent on how effective they are as a lever to drive a wedge of political belief around than they are on how well they teach Alan and Betty to read. Hence the ones that actually get a shot nearly always fail, sometimes disastrously, while others that make immenent sense but are essentially a-political are never tried at all.

Higher education is even worse, since tenure has largely sheltered dinosaurs whose political beliefs (socialism, post-modernism, environmentalism, nihilism, fundamentalism, etc.) have elsewhere succumbed to the gigantic asteroid impact of the 20th century. Keep in mind we actually pay extra to allow these fossils-in-the-making to "educate" our children.

In the end I think, as with anything government touches, the best we can hope for is not "best-practice", but rather "least-worst", and even that will come only through constant struggle. This is not as depressing as it may at first sound. America has been muddling through with a least-worst school system for the past 150 years, and we've done pretty well over the long haul.

But it doesn't mean we should stop trying. The loons may twirl to the right or to the left as they bark madly in the night, but make no mistake, they are out there.

And they'll take our children if we let them.

Posted by scott at 02:53 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
February 23, 2005
Honor Kills

Ward Churchill and his ilk would simply ignore such savagery in their quest to pillory their own "tiny Eichmanns", but we won't:

Suddenly, the woman in the backseat of the Buick opened the door and stepped out. Her abbaya was unfastened. Her scarf and veil were gone. She had long, thick, black hair. She was a young Saudi woman, maybe seventeen or eighteen. She reached up to the sky and she cried, "Momma! Momma!" Blue nylon cord dangled from her wrists. The white-haired driver got out again and scrambled back around the front of the car. In a futile effort to resist, the young woman sprawled out on the road, stretching her arms out in front of her on the baking summer asphalt. The man pulled her arms behind her back and deftly tied them to her ankles. Then he opened the trunk of the Buick, lifted her up, and dropped her in. He closed the trunk, made a U-turn at the intersection, and disappeared into the sunlit afternoon. It was over in the time it takes a traffic light to change from red to green.

Oh it gets worse, it gets much worse.

There are those on the left who would say, "that's right, that's what it's like, and the Bush administration is beavering away as hard as they can to bring it here." The sentiment would be funny if it weren't so delusional; the utter lack of historical perspective it demonstrates is as breathtaking as it is depressingly common.

Honor killing on this scale and with this much acceptance simply never existed in the west. Yes, the Julian marriage laws of the early Roman empire legalized almost exactly this, but those were considered radical even in their day. Augustus did not have his daughter's throat cut when Julia was found in a brothel, he banished her instead.

Christianity itself abolished the legal framework that allowed such things to take place in the setting sun of the empire's power. The conquering tsunami of Germanic tribes, for whom women were comparatively powerful partners, swept away the widespread cultural acceptance of such practices just a few centuries later.

In the patrilineal agrarian societies of medieval and early modern Europe, adultery was treated as a deadly serious crime because it threatened the power and stability of society, not the ephemeral honor of a single family. Even in the heart of puritan America death for infidelity was a penalty meted by a judge and jury, not the whims or delusions of a single man. And this was only after marriage. One of the hallmarks of peasant life in the pre-industrial west, from Charlemagne to Thomas Jefferson, was the freewheeling permissiveness allowed to young people of both sexes. Virginity itself was important only to heads of state who relied on blood for power. Unintended pregnancies resulted in a quick marriage, not a quick death.

The rise of the machine age simply accelerated the trends. By eliminating physical strength and endurance as a requirement for productive labor, industrial societies willing to forego "traditional" women's roles suddenly found their pool of labor doubled, essentially for free. As their importance to the economic well-being of society increased, women successfully demanded more of the benefits, now "rights", of what they were helping to create.

This is not to say it was easy. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Fredrick Douglas's words are as relevant for women as they are for blacks. They may not have everything they want, but women in the west have indeed come a long way.

So to even imply a conservative western government has any relation at all to a pre-modern pastoral culture is ludicrous. Our society cannot be pulled back into a Dark Age of disposable women because such a dark age never existed. The requirements of industrialization alone guarantees any attempt to destroy half a country's labor force will remain the dark fantasies of cranks who scream at children on their lawn. Conservatives are famous for their love of business, and making women unhappy in the modern world is very, very bad for business.

Which is, of course, cold comfort to those unfortunate enough to be born in one of the last remaining honor cultures in the world. Christianity's radical challenge to the Mediterranean honor system succeeded, but at the cost of an apocalypse that lasted a thousand years, an eschaton in slow motion that got far, far worse before it ever got better. Islam's radical challenge to its own cultural systems failed from the start, its seeds of egalitarianism and equality never allowed to fully blossom in the sandy soil of its birthplace.

It's not clear if secular modernity will destroy the Christian culture which birthed it as totally as Christianity did to its own ancient pagan roots. What is clear is that this new leviathan can no longer ignore the mewling, half-born thing that once overmatched it, even threatened its existence so long ago. Letting them sort it out themselves is an option that died in the rubble of tall towers and low-slung offices. Yet those who dispair of the comparatively secular Iraq ever getting it right should gasp in horror at the magnitude of the job that would be required for Saudi Arabia. Those who believe the Saudis should have come first should join Socrates in admitting the only thing they know well is that they know nothing at all.

Regardless, this particular die has been cast, this particular Rubicon crossed and far behind us. What lies ahead is anyone's guess, and a guess is all it would be. But as someone who now literally cannot imagine the horrific ignorance and hatred required to draw a knife across the throat of his own daughter over honor, I can say I am grateful that we are at least trying to stop it, and not just with words but with our own blood, tears, and treasure. It took nearly two thousand years for westerners to stop leaving little baby girls to wail their life away in remote fields. It will take more than our own generation to get a different culture to stop.

But every journey, however difficult, begins with a first step. I, for one, am glad we have finally started walking.

"Which is all well and good, but you aren't asking the real question, you arrogant hypocrite. What happened to "not with my daughter?" Really, would you send her to die for this?"

"You ask the wrong question my friend. Olivia will be a grown woman and will make the decision to serve her country on her own. Children should never die before their parents, but death comes for us all. If hers should come fighting to stop old men from stuffing helpless girls into trunks, to stop the unmarked graves from piling up in the desert, to stop fathers from teaching daughters the noise their sister's throat makes when it's cut, I would call that sacrifice meaningful.

The real question should be, why don't you?"

Original article via Silflay.

Posted by scott at 01:28 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
February 14, 2005
The Bloggers Themselves

The inevitable authoritarian backlash is happening:

Take Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the World Editors Forum, the organization for editors within the World Association of Newspapers, please. Mourning Jordan's decision to step down, Pecquerie likened bloggers to the "sons of Senator McCarthy" and "scalps' hunters."

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review Daily Web site, blasted Jordan's Internet critics in an e-mail to New York University professor Jay Rosen's blog PressThink... : "The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail."

The article goes on at length about the mainstream media's reaction, as does this Jeff Jarvis piece and this Instapundit article. What I find most remarkable is how similar this reaction to an empowered public is to the reaction of another set of American elites to a similarly empowered public more than two centuries before.

In The People Themselves, Larry D. Kramer explores how early generations of Americans viewed their constitution and the government it created. It was the founding fathers's intent and expectation that the people, given the ability to elect their own representatives, would do so and then quietly allow their (presumably) enlightened government to go about its business governing in peace. The people would later assemble in an orderly fashion at regular intervals to express their approval or disapproval of that government in, and only in, the ballot box.

That was the ideal. The reality was, as usual, quite different. The people were patently not content to allow their "enlightened rulers" (who far too often made thieves and vagabonds look good) to go about the business of governing undisturbed. To the American elite's growing horror, it became apparent the people expected a direct and constant voice in the way their country was run. To the Virginia gentleman-farmer or the Boston lawyer, such an expectation was akin to letting the lunatics run the asylum, but by then it was too late. Whether intentional or not, the people of America were given the tools to run their own country, and they proceeded to do so with great gusto.

Then, rich businessmen and powerful planters were horrified that the people thought they could run their own country. Now, rich media moguls and powerful editors are horrified that the people think they can run their own news services.

By reducing the cost of regime change from violent rebellion to voting, the founding fathers made a marketplace for ideas possible. The chaotic mess that followed could only be loved by bomb-throwers like Thomas Jefferson (and even his affection for change lasted only so long as he was not its target). However the result would become, all too often in spite of itself, the most powerful nation the world has ever known.

By reducing the cost of publishing and distribution to nearly nil, blogs have unleashed many of the same forces on our new monolithic elite, the mainstream media. Document forgeries and public cases of foot-in-mouth disease that once were treated with a wink and a nod by those "on the inside" are now treated with deadly seriousness by those who are not. Asking whether or not these outsiders should, or could, or are even remotely qualified to do so misses the point. The people themselves are again empowered to choose what they do or do not believe is important on their own, without a patronizing filter that all too often blindly serves its own naked self-interest.

The result will be, as always, a chaotic mess that is a horror to anyone who actually knows, or rather thinks they know, how the system is supposed to work. As such once-empowered voices sink screaming into the seething ocean of the people, their ideas will have to compete on their merits instead of their laurels. Apocalypse and eschaton will be their final cries, to no avail, because once given a power the people seldom return it.

If history is any guide, the people will eventually use it well. And those who try to cross them will do so at their peril.

Posted by scott at 01:19 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
February 07, 2005
47th Sign of the Apocalypse

Optimistic news from Iraq in the Washington Post this morning:

With a hero who gave his life for the elections, a revived national anthem blaring from car stereos and a greater willingness to help police, the public mood appears to be moving more clearly against the insurgency in Iraq, political and security officials said.

In the week since national elections, police officers and Iraqi National Guardsmen said they have received more tips from the public, resulting in more arrests and greater effectiveness in their efforts to weaken the violent insurgency rocking the country.

One of the biggest mistakes we made in Vietnam was not allowing elections to take place in 1954 after the fall of Dien Bien Fu. Yes, it would have meant the entire country becoming communist and yes, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected president. However, hindsight being what it is, it seems extremely likely Vietnam would have become a freer, more open society (as it is today) perhaps thirty years earlier. The difference would have been 65,000 Americans and at least five times that many Vietnamese would still be around.

Of course, we didn't know then what we know now, so while it's easy to point out our forefather's mistakes, we should be careful not to blame them for being unable to predict the future. They paid a terrible price in blood, tears, and treasure for their pride and ignorance. Some of those bills are still being paid off to this day.

But, far more important, it seems there really were positive lessons that came out of Vietnam, not the least of which seems to be let the people decide, and sooner rather than later. Trust them. Give them a chance. They may take that chance and waste it, but they may also grab it with both hands and use it to run down the sun. You'll only learn if you let them.

As with any human endeavor that really matters, there's no guarantee either way. But, should they succeed (and I think they will, eventually), not only will it pay profound tribute to the lives lost in the current conflict, I think it will also honor a different set, once thought wasted for naught in distant jungles so long ago.

Or, perhaps not...

"You've done a man's job, sir. I guess you're through, huh?"
"Finished."
"It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?"

Posted by scott at 12:58 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
January 17, 2005
Aiding and Abetting?

Been meaning to link this soldier's critique of war coverage in Iraq, not just because it gets the message out about what's going on over there, but also because with its very existence it tells us even more about what is going on.

The first indications that something was going seriously wrong in Vietnam started to be noticed about two years into our "advisory" role in that conflict. Around 1963 young reporters like Niel Sheehan and David Halberstam started getting interviews from battlefield commanders like then-Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann that directly contradicted the far rosier accounts coming from Saigon and being reported without question in the mainstream media. In the days before e-mail, blogs, and other "alternative" news sources, it was comparatively easy to mute these dissonant voices, and so poor leadership, poor tactics, and misguided policies were allow to continue for years.

Fast forward four decades. Technology has made it possible for even the lowliest grunt to "get the word out" about what is going on literally minutes after it happens. Like printing presses in centuries past, this technology means higher authorities aren't able to shut down these alternative views. They come too fast, and from too many places.

So, with this technology, what are we hearing two years into this conflict? From reporters trapped in the green zone, trying not to repeat the mistakes of their all-too-approving editorial ancestors and unable to see the manipulation they're being subjected to, we get utter and complete negativity. From soldiers on the front lines, who actually see what's going on, who fight, bleed, and die for this cause, we get... cautious optimism. Profound disappointment that their own message doesn't seem to be "getting out". Even approval of how the leadership is carrying on the broader strategies of the war.

The polar opposites of then and now are striking. Before, mainstream media blared nothing but over-positive and under-critical reports; soldiers unable to be heard any other way leaked stories of what was actually happening that when reported threatened the careers of everyone involved, and were simply not believed. Today, that same media provides an uncritical megaphone to any voice that says we are failing, while success is relegated to obscure journals and small websites, barely to be heard at all.

It is conventional wisdom amongst those "in the know" that after Tet in 1968 the only thing standing in the way of US victory in Vietnam was the (now completely converted) mainstream media. Were it not for their now unrelenting negativity, the thinking goes, Vietnam would be a free-market democracy. Yet many of the same people who "know" about Vietnam, because of what that very same media is telling them now, also "know" we are failing in Iraq, and any story or opinion to the contrary is treated with suspicion if not outright contempt.

I have no certainty about what's going on over there. I've read a dozen books about the middle east, perhaps half again that many about Vietnam, the accounts in my local papers and the stories of soldiers and Iraqis on their blogs, and I have no certainty. I do, however, have hope for success.

I find it curious but not particularly surprising that those who have done none of these things are certain only of failure.

Posted by scott at 11:38 AM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
November 08, 2004
Son of Uncomfortable Truths

  1. If you think America is becoming a fascist state you don't know a damned thing about either one.
  2. If you think the government can legislate away our constitutional rights you don't know a damned thing about how this country was created.
  3. The Americans who told the rest of us to "f--- off" when they didn't get what they wanted would've been in charge if they had.
  4. "MoveOn" is not a name, it's an action.
  5. The people who claim they're moving to Canada because of the election are the same people who were too lazy to vote.
  6. Faith is not fanaticism.
  7. Many people can't tell the difference.
  8. The rest of us are glad they lost.
  9. The ultimate beneficiary of legalized gay marriage will be divorce lawyers.
  10. Should abortion be legal? Should it be used as birth control?
  11. A comfortable majority of us say "yes" to the first and "no" to the second.
  12. Most women reading this have known someone who's said "yes" to both.
  13. The correct question is, "are the lives of thousands of American children worth the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children?"
  14. Anyone who is certain about the answer is insane.
  15. Anyone scandalized by a war based on lies doesn't know a lot about the American Revolution.
  16. Or the Civil War.
  17. Or World War One.
  18. Or World War Two.
  19. Or any damned war for that matter.
  20. After 228 years of continuous existence, it's hard to argue that America's system isn't the best in the world.
  21. Just ask the homeless guy on the Metro grate beside the White House.
  22. A European berating an American for their country's imperialism is like Joan Rivers flipping out over someone else's nose job.
  23. An Arab blaming colonialism for their problems is like a farmer trying to claim hail damage for a rusted-out pickup truck.
  24. Anyone who thinks that Jews are ultimately to blame should be taken for a long walk off a short pier.
  25. If that were to actually happen continental Europe would suddenly wonder where all their politicians had gone.
  26. And Israel's settler problem would consist of finding enough of them.
  27. Thinking this election's outcome was determined by morality only proves it really is possible to forget the unforgettable.
  28. If you're not made uncomfortable by at least one item on this list you're not paying attention.

Next...

Posted by scott at 03:48 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 02, 2004
The Price of Freedom

Pat gets a discount no-prize for bringing us this NYT piece about what might be the final decline of the US textile industry:

For many years, textile and clothing factories in the mill towns of the Carolinas - originally drawn from New York and New England decades ago by the prospect of inexpensive nonunion workers - have been closing one after another as the industry migrated abroad in search of ever-cheaper labor. Now, this gradual loss may be about to turn into a rout.

On Jan. 1, the global system of country-by-country quotas regulating the $495 billion international trade in textiles and apparel is scheduled to be eliminated.

The article goes into great, predictable, detail about how a small innocent Southern town is being decimated by foreign competition and government neglect. Which is, on the face of it, sincerely tragic and rather difficult for a free marketeer to argue against. Until you re-phrase the question:

Should we all be forced to pay six billion dollars more for our clothes to ensure a few thousand people get to keep their jobs?

There are some of you out there who will respond with a raucous "yes!" Who would be quite willing to pay a premium for a "made in USA" tag. To which I say "more power to you!" It's your money, it should be your choice, and if you decide to help these people with your dollars then great, that's the way it's supposed to work.

But the cold hard truth is we're not doing it. To this day I can sing "Look for the Union Label", a jingle to a commercial run thirty years ago in an attempt to get people to "buy American" textiles. It didn't work then, and it's not working now. No matter what smoke and mirrors main stream media and union organizers try to distract us with, the bottom line is it's not the government's fault the textile industry is in free fall. It's ours.

Our penance? Being forced to do our patriotic duty. That's right folks, they're not asking you to "buy American", they're telling you. That is, ultimately, what quotas and trade barriers are all about. Taking choice out of our hands and putting it in the hands of those who think (sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not) they know better than we do. Technocratic stasis at its purest.

Noble as saving jobs for rural, poorly educated citizens is, where does it stop? If we save the textile industry, why can't we save the auto industry? The dairy farmers? The steel mills? The bell hops? The travel agents? And who decides which industries get protection, and which ones don't? I may personally be able to afford an extra $4 per shirt, but for a lot of people $4 can make the difference between being clothed and going naked.

To which, of course, technocrats intone the world over "We are the Ones Who will Decide Who Should Pay More and Who Should Pay Less." The truly sad thing is many of you actually believe them. So instead of a free market in which we get to decide who stays and who goes, we end up with a cabal of elite who do whatever they please while ensuring the "rabble" (i.e. you and me) bear the brunt of their decisions about what is fair and what is not.

America has one of the most efficient, mobile, and educated workforces in the world. We work more hours and produce more per hour than any other country on the planet. Sophisticated companies producing sophisticated products are constantly building factories in this country because increasingly wealthy consumers around the world are demanding sophisticated products with phenomenal quality and unsurpassed capabilities that can only be built here. As the world gets wealthier, our supernaturally capable mousetraps are causing them to pave a path to our door.

"Well, that's all well and good Scott", I can hear you say, "but that doesn't hide the fact that textile jobs are still moving overseas. You're just blowing smoke, because obviously we can't compete there, and perhaps anywhere else."

To which I say, to be blunt, bullshit. There's no reason our textile industry can't leverage our superior infrastructure, work ethic, technology, and educated workforce to carve giant chunks out of the hides of anyone who tries to take us on.

Well, no reason except one:

Current trade adjustment assistance, largely aimed at training workers for new jobs, was denounced by factory owners and union officials in this region as too little and too difficult. (emphasis added)

Anyone outside a union who's ever had to deal with one will be the first to tell you about the insanity organized labor imposes on a business. My dad to this day can regale you with tales of bolts on spacecraft that went untightened because union regulations specified only a certain person could turn the wrench. No matter what their (admittedly powerful) emotional appeal, modern labor unions wrap a noose around the neck of any industry that touches them. They may protect, for a time, but when the trap door of competition is opened instead of bouncing on the ground below, coming up bruised but otherwise fine, all a hapless worker will hear is a sickening "snap".

To be honest, I don't think it's fair that someone who's dedicated their lives to a company should suddenly be facing destitution just because the company bosses made stupid decisions. That's why I support easier access to higher education, tort reform and lower taxes to make selling houses more profitable, even loopy things like moving subsidies to make it cheaper to go from one end of this country to the other in search of a job. But I do not think we should all be punished with higher prices just because factory managers and the leadership of the unionized workers refuse to face reality.

I don't say these things as some sort of pseudo-academic who's never had to face these decisions myself. I would still be in Arkansas in a radically different situation if, fifteen years ago, I had been able to find work there. The sad truth is nothing I could do was of value in Arkansas, so after wrenching and horribly disruptive events in my life I ended up (ultimately) in Northern Virginia, where I could send out twenty resumes and get five replies back per week.

If I'd had the opportunity to avoid it all, would I? Without knowing what I do now, facing those risks with no guarantee, absolutely, I would have done anything to avoid it. Am I, my family, my city, my state, my country better off because I couldn't?

The work I do now, that I never dreamed of doing fifteen years ago, helps other people. Helps them keep their family members from killing themselves. Helps others stop the demons from talking them into slashing themselves with razors. Helps them eat a pill instead of a bullet. Helps me raise a family, and buy a house, and pay my taxes.

Yes, it was terrible. Yes, there was pain. No, it wasn't fair. But am I now better off?

What do you think?

Posted by scott at 06:48 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
October 20, 2004
Questions Needing Answers

Beldar articulates a series of questions I've been struggling to convey for months now to my peanut gallery friends, not the least of which is:

Are you being realistic when you think that President Kerry is going to defeat the terrorists and the peace-at-any-price wing of the Democratic Party?

(Emphasis original)

The impression I get from most of my friends (from either side) is that they seem to see the presidency as a sort of disguised dictatorship. Sure, there's this congress over there causing trouble and there's these supreme court people dressing funny and making weird decisions, but the man sitting in the Oval Office is where the real action is. Right?

Wrong. The structure of our government makes our president one of the weakest heads of state of any modern country. He can't do anything, anything, without the approval of someone else. He can't introduce legislation without someone else's help. He can't make treaties without someone else's OK. He can't even hire his own staff without a green light from other people. It's the ultimate "mother may I?" position.

Even aside from that structural weakness, the job itself has been utterly impossible for one person to manage, even from the very beginning. From Washington to Jackson to Grant to Johnson to Bush the ultimate success or failure of a presidency lies not in the man, but in the people around him.

Let's take another tack for a second. We are a nation of 280 million people, and, as the old commercial jingle goes, "no two are quite the same". A large number of us are completely unreasonable when it comes to things we care about. You literally can't talk us out of certain things, and sometimes one set will completely conflict with the other. It's a country of titanic complexity, with trillions of data points making it up. If a president really were the ultimate "person in charge" in the manner most of my friends seem to think, he'd have to hold all that in his head and balance it all against itself and then come out with an answer.

It can't be done, which is why people who excoriate candidates based on their perceived intelligence are missing the point. You can't know everything about this job, it's utterly useless to even try. It would be worse than trying to drink from a fire hose. It would be like trying to drink from a fire hose that's connected to a pump at the bottom of the ocean.

Which is why a president has a "cabinet". It's these people, who advise the president and carry out his instructions, who are critically important. Even they are not where the real power resides. That lies several layers deeper, in the inscrutable beuracracies that fill the nooks and crannies of the government itself. But the secretaries are in control, however nominally, and it is they who set the tone, they who hire and fire, and they who control what the president even sees, let alone decides on.

When it all works properly, when the people the president surrounds himself with can get questions answered correctly, the presidency can indeed be a powerful force, and the country can succeed because of it. But when it doesn't, that power curdles and curls in on itself, and dangerous forces are unleashed that can, and have, threatened to pull the entire place down.

This is why it's more important for a president to be decisive than it is for him to be knowledgeable. This is why ideology matters. This is why parties count. Because a candidate can be as neutral as he or she wants, but a president must pick from the faithful for his advisors.

With one notable exception, I happen to agree with all of Bush's picks. I think the people around him have done a bang-up job, all things considered. This is one of the reasons I support him for re-election. I appose Kerry because I think he'll surround himself with the wrong people with the wrong ideas, and that this will be bad for the country. You can (usually do) disagree. But in the disagreeing, you don't seem to be paying attention to what your candidate really stands for. You're not missing the forest because of all the trees, you're deciding a single tree is the forest.

And, to be blunt, I think far too many of you have decided you're standing in a hardwood forest because of a single oak tree some enterprising farmers have planted in their piney woods.

Original essay via On the Third Hand.

Posted by scott at 11:21 AM | Comments (10) | eMail this entry!
October 13, 2004
The First Crack in the Dam?

I've always thought music was too expensive at $12.99, and utterly outrageous at $18.99 (where most of the weird stuff I buy is). Which is why I have a killer stereo system but haven't bought new music for it in, what, something like 15 years now. $10.00 is more my speed, $8.00 would be even better. Well, guess what, I have a powerful friend on my side now:

Along with other giant retailers such as Best Buy and Target, Wal-Mart willingly loses money selling CDs for less than $10 (they buy most hit CDs from distributors for around $12) ... Wal-Mart is tired of losing money on cheap CDs. It wants to keep selling them for less than $10 -- $9.72, to be exact -- but it wants the record industry to lower the prices at which it purchases them ... According to music-industry sources, Wal-Mart executives hinted that they could reduce Wal-Mart's CD stock and replace it with more lucrative DVDs and video games [if the labels did not comply].

The article's full of a lot of whining and crying about how terrible it is to do business with Wal Mart, that they're mean and don't care about profit margins and will squeeze you for every half cent you have. Which is all completely true, but there's a reason:

"The labels price things based on what they believe they can get -- a pricing philosophy a lot of industries have," [Gary Severson, Wal-Mart's senior vice president and general merchandise manager in charge of the chain's entertainment section] says. "But we like to price things as cheaply as we possibly can, rather than charge as much as we can get. It's a big difference in philosophy, and we try to help other people see that."

Essentially, Wal Mart has figured out there's a price point out there when it comes to music. Large numbers of people (like me) will not pay even $13 for a CD, but will have no problem paying $9.72. Wal Mart wants to sell music to these people, and make money doing it. Record execs could care less. They’re already making all the money they want. Well, as long as nobody challenges the RIAA lawsuits and the DMCA is never repealed, that is.

Unfortunately, what Wal Mart wants, Wal Mart gets, and so I expect to be visiting our local one soon. What keeps the label execs up nights is that once one retailer gets what they want, the others will demand it too. It's a slippery slope, and they're grabbing grass right now.

Oh there will definitely be a down side to it. Once Wal Mart and the rest force the industry into a $10 per disc model, all those tiny little bands so cherished on the edges of the market will disappear with a "pop". The music industry's business model is coming apart at the seams, and instead of innovating and finding a new one, the people at the top are using lawsuits to try and hold the line. It's not working, and when the shakeout comes, and as long as the markets are free it will come, it will be very, very ugly.

But only for a short while. People make music by and large because they love to make music. People listen to it because they love listening to it. The market's not going away, it's just changing. In spite of apocalyptic predictions, the demise of the current music market will not represent the destruction of western civilization as we know it. Yes, a lot of people will lose (are losing) their jobs, good people who just picked the wrong industry at the wrong time. But, contrary to industry propaganda, it won't result in "McMusic" (bland, boring, and bad for you).

Technology is making it possible for anyone to build a fantastic recording studio in their basement. With a little technical skill and a credit card or two, it's now possible for any artist to be their own record label. The Internet destroys distribution and advertising costs, and the rise of iMusic and its competitors drives down the cost (and therefore risk) to any new act that just wants to be heard. If someone ever figures out how to burn CDs on demand for $1 a disc, Wal Mart won't be carrying 5,000 titles, they'll be carrying 5 million.

To these people, these artists, these innovators, the labels are all roaring dinosaurs, dangerous, heavy, stupid, and vicious, serving only to impede and stymie them. Wal Mart's insistence on a profit-making $9.77 CD may in fact be the asteroid that finally smashes their dominance, heralding apocalypse and ruin. But when the smoke finally clears, we will not be left with sterile wilderness, we will instead be confronted by an explosion of creativity, a jungle of variety, with a diversity literally unthinkable to us today. It will be painful, but in the end it will be very, very good.

And we'll be paying less than $9.72 a disc for it.

Posted by scott at 09:15 AM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
October 08, 2004
The Playdough Effect

Offshoring. The very name strikes fear into the tech community. We have to protect those jobs! Keep them from going overseas! Taxes! Tariffs! Quotas! Whatever it takes, do something to stop it!

The emotional response, yes, but unfortunately the wrong one. because if you do that, then this becomes impossible:

Kathy Brittain White has a dream. She figures if U.S. CIOs will ship programming jobs to India to save money, maybe they'll ship them to rural Arkansas instead. So White's company, Rural Sourcing, is setting up outsourcing centers in places in the U.S. where the cost of living is low -- not as low as in Bangalore, but low enough to compete with the total cost of offshoring.

Because that's the other side of the offshoring equation, the one big media ignores and big labor tries to hide. While third world labor is cheaper than US labor, often by orders of magnitude, it's nowhere near as efficient as US labor. The United States has one of (I'm pretty sure it's the) most efficient labor forces in the world. We're expensive, but we get the job done right, the first time, and almost faster than you can complete the specification. It doesn't much matter if you only pay Haji $3 a day to make your widgets when it takes him two days to make one that's any good. Far better to pay Jane $18 an hour and have her turn out fifty perfect ones in a day.

Companies are often wooed by the siren song of cheap labor only to find their ship foundering on the rocks of terrible quality control, uneven and unreliable infrastructure, rapacious government officials, unstable regimes, horrible customer service, and endless export and treaty problems. These are the hidden costs of outsourcing, and they can be huge, even ruinous. We don't hear about them much because "new widget factory opens in Pacoima" is nowhere near as sexy a headline as "little brown people steal jobs from the US." Even worse, the fact that the new widget factory probably won't be a union shop means a tightly organized force will be actively working against anyone ever hearing about the possibility.

In this particular case, not only do I think it will work, I think it will work well. Tech sector jobs in places like Virginia, California, and Washington state are located in places with spectacular costs of living. I can buy a house twice as big as mine for half the price in Arkansas, and that's only the beginning. From cars to crackers and asparagus to zucchini, nearly everything is cheaper in the South.

It won't just be people moving there either. A strong work ethic and a deep suspicion of organized labor equal a work force that will be and stay at the top of the heap in productivity and efficiency. And these aren't McJobs either... they're good, well-paying, solid work for anyone with the brains and the will to learn them.

I always wondered what, if anything, would become of the sad little shuttered factories that dot my old home town of Dumas, Arkansas (pop. 5800) like dried tree stumps in an empty field. I couldn't be more thrilled if, fifteen years from now, they were replaced by clean, efficient tech centers.

None of this would be possible without free markets and free trade. The rich upper-middle-class "haves" would ensure no government program would ever threaten their cushy jobs, no matter how many "have-not" lower-class single mothers would be helped out of trailer parks half way across the country. Companies having no incentive to take the risk or pay the expense of training a new work force would never even dream of moving anywhere else. Without the ability to charge a price she considered fair Ms. White would have no reason to even think of a program like this, and no government official in Washington DC could ever hope to determine that price for her.

No, markets are not pretty. They're not always fair. But they work. People will lose, but people will also win. Rigging the game with technocratic barriers, doing things like "putting the environment and labor first", or raising taxes on people who know how to make money to give it to people who don't, just keep folks from even trying.

I want to try. I'm just glad that, for now at least, I live in a country that wants to let me.

Posted by scott at 03:55 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
September 29, 2004
Going to the Mat

Tim Worstall linked up this most excellent article by Brad DeLong that very nicely explains why free trade is the real solution to global poverty, and how the left's quest for "fairness" and distaste for "exploitation" merely propagate what they want to stop:

Seth Stevenson thinks that those who do not buy the coir mats are morally superior to Debbie and the rest of us: they are not complicit in the exploitation of Third World labor. But there is another way of looking at it ... Suppose that Seth Stevenson, on his bicycle ride, were to stop by a couple of empty huts, run into them, steal the looms, and then smash their looms to pieces on the beach and dance in front of the resulting bonfire. Then the villagers could no longer make coir mats. They would have to find something else to do--something else that is worse than making mats. Such a theft-and-bonfire would have the same effect on the people of Desperately Poor Village as... as... drying up demand for their products by urging First World consumers to adopt a higher standard of morality and eschew the products of Third World labor, no?

One of the biggest problems I have with the traditional liberal agenda regarding economics is their quixotic quest for that ever-elusive "fairness". It's not "fair" a peasant in India makes less than an autoworker in Detroit. It's not "fair" Bill Gates is worth billions of dollars while a mother of four with an eighth grade education can't find a job. It's not "fair" someone gets paid $3 a week to make doormats that I pay $26.99 for.

To which I can only reply, "what is fair?" How can someone, anyone sitting in their own air-conditioned home instant messaging their friend in California on their own computer while watching their brand-new plasma TV determine what is or is not fair for an Indian peasant in Kerala? How can any politician sitting in his office on Capitol Hill surrounded by pretty, well-scrubbed staffers hope to untangle the forces and incentives that created a single mother of four with no education? How can anyone so utterly ignorant of the spectacularly different conditions of each single person living in poverty think they can help create legislation to fix all of them?

They can't. I can't. You can't. The only people who can are the people themselves. The worker knows how much their labor is worth to them, and the employer knows how much they will be able to pay for that labor. Both base their calculations on hundreds of variables, and in a competitive market most of those (on both sides) will be secret. Do-gooder outsiders with little or no understanding of basic economics, let alone the unique stories behind each and every person in a village, can't even be trusted not to offend anyone, let alone offer any real help.

It's so baldly obvious it's no wonder technocrats and stasists do their best to ignore it: In a country with free markets, stable governments, evenly enforced rules of law, in which information is allowed to flow freely, exploitation is impossible.

A peasant works for 50 cents a day because he knows it only costs 25 cents a day for him to live. An educated peasant also knows to save that extra 25 cents a day, and will do so because his stable government won't take it away or murder him to get it. That same peasant can then one day use his savings to open a store selling mats, secure in the knowledge his landlord will be prevented from arbitrarily raising his rent because of his secure contract. This now successful businessman then learns through his newspaper that there is high demand for mats in the next province, and opens another store there, and then another, and then another. The peasant is now a wealthy man, even though at one point he was being "exploited" making a mere 50 cents a day.

Once we accept this axiom for the truth that it is, our policies change. Create incentives for people to use their own knowledge to succeed. Work for consistent and understandable laws, and try to make sure they're enforced evenly so that people aren't holding the hand of someone who's holding them down. Allow the free flow of information, capital, people, and ideas so that they can learn about opportunities and move wherever they may be. Educate them well so that they'll recognize those opportunities when they come.

All of which is, of course, anathema to the technocratic left. People are poor because they are exploited, and only by taking money from those who have made it and giving it to those who didn't can we right the situation. Jobs are lost because greedy corporations wish only to maximize their profits, and only by protecting these businesses from even greedier foreign competitors can the situation be salvaged. Laws are used to oppress the common man, and only by disrupting them through "empowerment" and endless lawsuits can wrongs be righted.

Common sense, of course. Unfortunately utterly wrong as well. Like energy maneuvers in air combat, to really succeed in providing prosperity we must sometimes do things that point the nose away from the target. Trust people, give them the tools to figure it out amongst themselves, and provide the opportunity for them to do so, and prosperity will happen faster than you can possibly imagine. Try to control them, to force them to fit into your idea of fairness, and you will create people who depend on your fairness just to survive. Prosperity becomes something that must be taken, not shared.

Which is, I suppose, what most political leaders want... an appreciating constituency completely dependent on the largess of their leader. It even works, as long as the leader is wise, never makes a mistake, and never dies. For myself, I don't want to be dependent on anyone. I should be allowed to succeed or fail by my own devices, and reap the rewards of my success without them being taken from me, and deal with the consequences of my failure without them being "cushioned" for me at someone else's expense.

I don’t want to rely on anyone but myself. Why does anyone want anything else?

Posted by scott at 10:23 AM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
September 21, 2004
Going Up

Slashdot linked up this summary of recent developments in space elevator technology. It's still just a lot of talk, but it's a lot of talk coming from many more people and it's a whole lot more serious than it used to be.

It's also nice to see people actually debating private sector funding. In the past, a project of this scope would have only been an occasion for a bunch of lobbyists to huddle and try to find a way of prying the money out of the government. NASA stands out as a shining example of the limitations and inefficiencies of that method.

It would seem now is the first time in history we are wealthy enough to buy (if nothing else as part of a company) our own spacecraft. Risky? Absolutely. But the first group to field a system for lofting things into orbit at $1 per pound will effectively have a license to print money, and the efficiencies provided to all will literally transform the way we live. NASA couldn't be replaced in 1982 because nobody knew how to make money in space. Today, that is no longer a problem, and so privatization is much more than just a buzzword.

Stasists and technocrats around the country will be saying things like "this is too important to let the markets handle", which is of course merely an elitist shorthand for "this is too important to me to let the markets handle." Only the power of government can simply take money away from people and spend it on a project someone else thinks is a good cause. "It's my dream, and the only reason you don't see it is you're stupid, greedy, or ignorant. Give me your money anyway." The whole point of representational government is to give the people who have money a voice in the way it is spent. But the mechanisms aren't pretty, and even when they work they do so only poorly.

Far better to have people willingly come together and spend their own money reaching for the stars. Only then can the people providing the money be sure the people spending it are doing so wisely, and remove them easily if they are not. Only then can setbacks be seen as mere obstacles to be overcome, and not opportunities to prove the entire effort folly. Only then can we be certain what is finally accomplished can stand on its own, last beyond our years, and not simply be seen as a pinnacle, one small step, on a path never to be walked again.

Posted by scott at 03:32 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
September 15, 2004
Health Care, Health Cost

Nearly everyone who says "health care needs to be reformed" usually follows it up with "we should have a system more like Canada's." This is, as usual, simply because most people really don't know much about Canada's system:

Canada often boasts its universal health care program shows it is more caring than the United States, but the system is creaking alarmingly, with long wait lists for treatment, and shortages of cash and doctors.

Ok, once more, and slowly... this is not unique. All forms of socialized or government-controlled medicine inevitably experience shortages and poor service. All of them. Without exception.

The reason is simple, yet vast numbers of people (including many who read this site) don't seem to understand it... of all the different methods of allocating scarce resources with alternative uses, government has been proven time and again, for thousands of years, to be the worst agent available. Not just a bad agent, the worst.

There are a huge number of "things" that make up the ultimate cost of, say, a medication, or a doctor's time and expertise, or a hospital stay. Because of this, it's effectively impossible for any third party to accurately "set" or "control" the price of (or access to) any one of them, let alone all of them.

Of course, this doesn't stop technocrats from trying, or from discontented citizens from trying to make them. The results are as inevitable as they are depressingly predictable. People consume more when the price is low, so setting an artificial ceiling on how much can be charged for something results in greater consumption of that something than would otherwise be the case. Conversely, people do not produce as much (or at all) when the price they receive for something is below what it costs them to make it, and so production drops. This leads to a simple and incontrovertible axiom:

When price controls are instituted on a good or service, shortages will always follow.

What's worse are the incentives price controls set up. Since profits on goods and services are typically fixed in most price control schemes (when they're allowed at all), there is no incentive to reduce costs. Why improve a dilapidated hospital when you're guaranteed a profit running it as it is now? Innovation is at least stifled, if not halted outright. Why attempt creating a daring new drug when you can't recoup your costs? Quality of service falls, sometimes dangerously. Why should anyone go to the considerable effort of becoming a doctor when your fixed compensation comes nowhere close to the cost?

The ugly truth is that, as perhaps the only free market medical system remaining on the planet, the United States is effectively subsidizing the rest of the world's medicine. Canada's system (and everywhere else governments set the price of things medical) functions as well as it does only because international companies are able to transfer the costs of their artificial and inefficient systems to our free markets, making health care more expensive for us than it otherwise would be. They have access to new and innovative drugs, machines, and procedures only because the United States allows companies and doctors to cover their risk in whatever manner they see fit. The prices of all forms of medical care fall only because the United States provides choice and competition, which pressures providers to become more efficient lest they fail completely.

Is our system perfect? Hardly. If you can't afford a car you can walk or ride a bicycle. If you can't afford a specific cancer drug you die. The simple and inhuman finality of this equation puts a unique spin on markets dealing in human medicine, and creates different pressures and incentives, ones that even cold-hearted economists can't deal with comfortably. Markets in general are always messy, sometimes dangerous, and never a good place for the sick, unlucky, or stupid. As with democracies, they are not the best solution to the problem, they are simply the least worst solution that humanity has found. And as with any human construction, there is always room for improvement.

But anyone who thinks government is the solution simply because Canadians pay less for Viagra than we do is not paying attention.

Posted by scott at 02:53 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 02, 2004
Too Much Information (Welcome to My World VIII)

Power outages are so much fun. Our network has had essentially nothing invested in it for the past three years, in spite of near continuous growth in the overall organization. Well, essentially nothing, except for the quarter-million dollar website that the previous Executive Director thought was far more important than, like, ensuring everyone got paid. Which is why he isn't by us anymore.

At any rate, by now the network compares favorably to Enterprise at the beginning of ST III... it can fake being a real network, as long as you don't bang on it too hard. Even then, as long as I'm in engineering, you can still bang on it a bit, as long as you ignore the screams coming from my office.

But when the extra-helpful folks from Virginia Power & Light dropped a large branch on some power lines while trying to clear them, the network got far more than just a solid thump. With a loud "BANG!!!", power dropped to the entire building, and most of the rest of the block. Four days from our annual convention. In an office full of excitable social-work majors. It was such a lovely evening.

The next morning was spent re-lighting various electronic pilot lights. Even then, the shambling mound of bailing wire and ductape that is my network had nooks and crannies of darkness that required someone else stumbling over the furniture to find. So the rest of the day was spent finding these poor lost souls, throwing the breakers required, and leading them to safety.

Which brings us to the point of the post. My organization serves people who, on the best of days, can be rather fragile of mood and quirky of personality. Having a severe illness can turn you into an object of compassion, but it can also turn you into a gold-plated pain in the ass.

So I definitely rolled my eyes a bit when the operator told me QLZ was on the phone. Nice guy, as long as you were willing to follow the lines of his hypercubed personality:

Me: "Hello, QLZ"

QLZ: "Hello, Scott, how are you?"

Me: "Oh, fine, just fine... how are you?"

QLZ: "Well, turns out I have cancer."

For once, someone else got to listen to my train of thought derail and skid into a nearby oil refinery.

QLZ: "Yeah, kidney cancer. But that's not why I'm calling. I can't get [a trivial section of an infrequently used website] to work... what's up with that?"

It's times like that I realize why I'm there. Most of these folks are even less clueful than a Kerry campaign staffer confronted by a Swift boat veteran. One of them left a brand new computer in its box because he literally couldn't figure out how to get it out.

But dammit, it isn't their fault. Their brains went south on them, usually just as they were beginning "real" life. Their heads get caught in Doom3 sometimes, but they can't hit save, can't just push away from it when it gets too much. The pills that pop them out of that horror don't fix it, they just tone it down enough for them to hear over hell and rejoin the human race. But even then, some of them can't escape.

Which is why, pain in the ass or no, I did what I was supposed to. I fixed his dinky little problem, and wished him a nice day.

I made a goddamned difference.

How many of you have today?

Posted by scott at 08:12 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
August 11, 2004
Dealership Koan

A woman walks into the shop area of the dealership. "My car is broken, it won't start, it doesn't run right, and it never has."

"Did it make any specific noises? Smell funny? Have any vibrations?" the tech asked.

After a long, blank look, the woman says, "I don't know. I don't remember. All I know is it's broken and it's been that way a long time."

The tech calls up her record, which has entries like, "no gas in tank", "oil not changed for 12,000 miles", and "no air in tires." So the tech asked, "Well, was it working right after we fixed it the last three times?"

Another long, blank look. "I don't remember. But it is definitely broken now and has been for awhile."

The tech glances over the woman's shoulder and sees the car sitting quietly in the parking lot, with nothing obvious wrong with it. "It'll probably take a day to diagnose it. I'll let you know how much it will be when we find out what's wrong."

An aggrieved look comes over the woman's face. In a tone that strongly suggests the tech should not speak this way to people obviously injured by the incompetence of the tech and his staff, she says "I just don't understand why my car causes me such trouble." Then, switching subtly to an "I-know-damned-well-you're-screwing-with-me" tone, she says "My husband's an executive at an airline and he says cars shouldn't act this way."

Idea shamelessly stolen from IFOC.

Posted by scott at 10:09 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 09, 2004
Beyond Stage One

You'd think with this kind of intro, this New York Times bit (free reg, blah blah) would've gotten more attention:

The overall income Americans reported to the government shrank for two consecutive years after the Internet stock market bubble burst in 2000, the first time that has effectively happened since the modern tax system was introduced during World War II.

I mean, of course that happened. Everyone knows the economy went into the tank as soon as Bush showed up. So why isn't this story getting more play? Maybe because:

new information shows that [the recession's] effect on Americans' incomes, particularly those at the upper end of the spectrum, was much more severe. (emphasis added)

Well, that's well and good, but Bush's tax cuts are really to blame, right? Wrong:

To some extent, taxes fell more than incomes because of tax cuts championed by President Bush and approved by Congress in 2001. But ... the major tax rate reductions for highly paid Americans did not take effect until 2003
...
At the same time many of those whose incomes fell the most - those reporting $200,000 to $10 million in income - paid at the highest rates, which meant that the drain on revenues was even greater when their incomes shrank.

This isn't Fox News people, it's the Great Gray Lady herself reporting it. Maybe now some of you will actually believe the people who own most of the wealth really are paying most of the taxes? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?

Didn't think so.

And, really, have any of you thought about what will actually happen if all those tax cuts get rolled back? Sure, revenue will increase, substantially even, at first. But what happens after that?

Wealthy people, people who are already paying most of the tax burden, will suddenly have strong incentives to move their money elsewhere. And, unlike you and me, rich people have the knowledge and ability to do so. Over time, tax revenues will begin to drop. Fine, at least some of you will say, we'll make it illegal for them to move their money out, change the laws and get rid of all those tax loopholes and shelters.

Here we delve into the world of science fiction, because (thank God) it's not 1967 (or 1993), and the Democrats do not have control of Congress. But let's just indulge ourselves and say that, in a fit of moonbat madness, laws really are passed preventing people from moving their wealth out of the country. Tax revenues will stop falling, at least at first. But what happens after that?

Such laws simply move the problem one step back. Instead of moving their wealth out of the country, rich people will start moving themselves out of the country. Tax revenues will continue to fall, and the deficit will baloon again, and there won't be any rich people to raise taxes on this time, because they'll have all moved to Barbados. All because nobody thought past stage one of their best and brightest plan.

This is all so intensely obvious and well-attributed I am completely flummoxed when people refuse to believe it. Well educated people who I otherwise deeply respect will take a scientist at their word when they say, "evolution is fact" but will refuse to believe an economist when they say, "taking less profit on more items will always earn more money than when you take more profit on fewer items."

Far too often we focus on the desired goals and deplorable results of a program instead of the incentives they create. We celebrate the creation of a "great society", and fifteen years later deplore the welfare state. We cheer the concept of "equal opportunity", and twenty years later decry quotas. Others crow about universal health care, and then ignore the people who die of cancer because they were forced to wait fifteen months for chemotherapy.

Unlike the other side's opinion of my own beliefs, I really do think liberals and lefties have the best of intentions. Free health care, free education, free access, all and more are wonderful concepts, beautiful ideas, that speak well of their humanity.

Unfortunately we don't live in a world that allows any of those things to succeed. Your ideas may be noble, but they will fail. There's a reason the further to the political left you go, the higher the contempt for the "common man" becomes. When an idea, program, or policy requires going against human nature, failure is inevitable. When that happens it's far easier to blame the mass's intransigence instead of one's own cherished beliefs.

Markets are messy, but they work, because they compliment human nature. Democracies are messy, but they work, for the same reason. Science, the cherished last fallback of the stasist technocrat, works only because it weds the human desire to learn and explore with the equally human desire to doubt and discredit.

I don't hate the left or their beliefs, even though most of them certainly seem to hate me and mine. Instead, I feel compassion, because they're simply good people who, even with overwhelming evidence, categorically refuse to recognize simple facts. They don't believe it.

And that is why they fail.

Posted by scott at 03:45 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 05, 2004
Nanny State on the Road

WaPo today carried yet another billboard in the "we know better than you do" saga of interventionist America:

Safety advocates say the government has failed to keep up with the trend [of car makers emphasizing performance over safety]. The Governors Highway Safety Association, an alliance of state officials, says federal regulators ignore speed safety in favor of promoting seat belts and discouraging drunken driving.

But the section continues with an absolutely classic case of an exclusion fallacy:

"We're at an all-time high for seat belt use, and fatalities continue to increase," association spokesman Jonathan Adkins said.

To his credit, even the reporter didn't let this one go completely without note:

There were 43,220 fatalities on U.S. roads last year, the highest number since 1990 and the second straight year of increasing deaths ... The rate of deaths per miles traveled stayed unchanged, because people also drove more than ever. [emphasis added]

The counterpoint is almost uselessly vague. Which "last" year was it (turns out "Last year" was probably 2002, since the 2003 information hasn't been published yet)? Over how long a period have the rate of deaths per mile (DPM) been unchanged? Did the fatality rate drop at all during the 90s? By how much? How does that compare with the DPM rate?

You'll never get a straight answer to these questions out of "safety advocate" organizations because to do so would be to completely undercut their entire reason for existing. The DPM rate is a far more useful statistic in judging highway danger. Overall fatality spikes can always be correlated with improvements in economic conditions, lowering gas prices, cheaper cars, and whatever else causes more people to drive more often. Yet the DPM rate has always gone down because cars, roads, and drivers are all improving.

When causes are looked at objectively, two statistics will immediately jump out... alcohol and inattentiveness. To this day, drunks account for nearly half of all traffic fatalities. Drivers not paying attention or falling asleep account for nearly a quarter of the remainder. Neither would be affected by a "slow the f--- down" campaign, yet addressing them would drop the highway fatality rate by nearly 75%.

But you won't hear these people talking about that, because it denies them the ability to disapprove of everyone else and try to get government to "do something about it". Third parties who think they "know better" than everyone else have been trying to steer our government around for as long as its existed. They actually managed to do it from 1933-1980, with predictably disastrous results*. Now, thankfully, they're mostly reduced to whining and bloviating about whatever toothpick they've chosen to stick in their own ear.

Speed may kill, but only if you get in an accident. Which one would you rather prevent?

------------
* Yeah, I know, "we seem to have done all right from 1941-1945". Hell, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Posted by scott at 09:07 AM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
July 24, 2004
Are power ballads the death of a musical genre?

As I'm listening to the current schlock on the radio, I'm thinking back to the late 80's and early 90's. At that point, we'd gone from good rock-n-roll music and had started to get into the power ballads from the hair metal bands. Then, rock died, we got a plethora of boy bands, and grunge hit. In thinking about this, I came up with a theory - as soon as a genre of music gets to be uber-cool, it gets invaded by wussies who write power ballads. Then, that type gets a huge boost in the ratings and dies off a few years later.

To illustrate, here's a progression of bands that I want you to consider: Jethro Tull, Foghat, AC-DC, and the like give way to Journey and their cohorts. What happens? Hard rock basically dies off (in an interesting subnote - this does give rise to millions of mullets...)

Then, after a bit of weak music hangs around for a bit, we start to get the harder bands of the 80's - Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Anthrax, and the like. The kids in shop class rejoice as they have hard anti-social music that they can annoy old folks with. Then what happens? Hair metal - Ratt, Poison, Dokken, and others. While they were mostly hard music (sex, drugs and rock-n-roll), they started down the path of wussie music. Remember 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn'? Probably Poison's biggest hit. That opened Pandora's box. Then you got Warrant, Nelson, and Richard Marx. Need I remind you that this was one of the darkest moments in musical history?!? Coinciding with this was the explosion of the boy band.

Relief soon followed. Nirvana exploded on the scene along with Pearl Jam, STP (who desperately wanted to be Pearl Jam), Alice in Chains, the Breeders, and a plethora of bands that rocked. Some had social songs, others had dark emotional tracks, and no one over 25 could understand a damn thing they said. Life was good. The buzz on grunge continued unmolested for years.

Then came the slow change. The constipated bands (think Creed and their clones) showed up. Now, we've got the power ballads coming out again. Would Nirvana have done a ballad? Could you imagine Pearl Jam doing one (ignore the Last Kiss cover - that's a tribute to the past)? STP singing about anything other than drugs? No - but now you have Hoobastank and others pushing their schlock. It's the death of grunge, I tell you.

Do I know what's going to replace it? No - but please, by the Goddess, let it ROCK!

July 19, 2004
Immigrant Song

LaShawn Barber linked up this important decision in a Virginia suit that claimed illegal aliens' constitutional rights were being violated because state colleges were refusing to enroll them:

A federal judge has dismissed charges by a group of illegal aliens who claimed that state-sponsored colleges in Virginia were violating the Constitution by refusing to enroll them.

As a conservative, it probably won't surprise you that I applaud this decision and think illegal aliens should be denied access to any tax-supported services. What may surprise you though is that I think the problem can only be solved by liberalizing our immigration laws to make it easier for people to achieve legal status.

Personally, I find it outrageous that people who are not paying taxes are getting access to things like free education, legal representation, and medical care. These are benefits of citizens, people who through birth or effort belong in a very real sense to the United States. They are extended to legal aliens because those legals are paying at least some taxes, and are therefore entitled to the same access. I also think it's a good idea, because it makes it more likely that people who work hard and are productive will become citizens of this country, making it a better place for us all.

But again, in no uncertain terms, I do not think illegal immigrants should have access to any of these services. In fact, I think these services should be actively denied to them.

However, as a dynamic progressive, I think it's current immigration and minimum-wage law that are in fact creating the problem of illegal immigration. I strongly believe we need to liberalize current laws and make it easier for people to legally immigrate to this country. For related reasons, I support initiatives to roll back minimum wage laws.

As any illegal (or employer thereof) will tell you, this would simply legitimize what's already a fact on the ground. If federal officials found every single illegal immigrant in this country and deported them tomorrow, the results would be disastrous. Entire chunks of our economy would simply evaporate, or slowly grind to a halt. We're talking a full-blown collapse here. Anyone who believes otherwise doesn't live in even a medium-sized city or major agricultural area.

Illegals are in such high demand because our minimum wage laws set an artificial lower boundary on labor costs, making it too expensive to hire citizens or legal immigrants for most, if not all, entry-level and/or low-skill jobs. Not just because they don't want to do the work, but because employing them at an illegal, albeit realistic, wage would be an unacceptable risk to the employer. An illegal's status also creates incentives for them to under value the cost of their labor, because the threat of deportation is so high, making them even cheaper to employ (and, by definition, exploit).

Common citizens oppose the liberalization of immigration law because they think "they'll take our jobs", not understanding that the jobs illegals "take" are nearly always those that nobody else wants. Organized labor opposes it because it represents the last bastion of their anti-market, protectionist power. Powerful business interests oppose it because it would in fact increase their costs, since now-legal immigrants could demand a market-set price for their labor, as well as humane working conditions that the threat of deportation keeps them from demanding.

Unfortunately, just reforming immigration law won't be enough. Even if we were to suddenly grant everyone who stepped into the country legal status, the results would still be a disaster. At the very best, prices would spike upward on pretty much everything as now-legal immigrants could demand unrealistically high wages for their unskilled, entry-level labor. At worst the immigration problem would continue unchanged, as legal status would rightly be seen as only useful for the very skilled (as it pretty much is today). Ending our immigration problem will require not only liberalization of immigration law, it will require the repeal (either dejure or defacto) of the minimum wage laws that make hiring any unskilled or entry-level labor unrealistically expensive.

Note I do not say "repeal immigration laws"... I still think the ability to deport those who cause trouble or try to find some sort of free ride is important. But by making it easier for immigrants who come to this country to work to achieve legal status, we'll gain far more than we'll lose:

  • The tax base will increase as now-legal aliens by the tens of thousands start paying income taxes.
  • Services such as free education will grow as new revenue allows for their expansion.
  • Exploitation will decrease because legal aliens will have open access to laws that protect everyone in the workplace.
  • Unemployment will plummet for all workers (both citizens and non-citizens) especially on the lower end of the scale, as the cost and risk of employing low-skilled and entry-level workers is allowed to settle at a market-driven price point.
  • Thousands of people will have the opportunity to learn the skills required for higher income jobs because it will now be cheap enough to teach them when they start out.
  • Crime rates, dependency, and poverty will all decrease markedly as more and more able-bodied people are gainfully employed.
  • "Offshoring" and other "outsourcing" pressures will ease because the US labor market's traditionally unmatched efficiency will suddenly be paired with much lower labor costs.
  • Thousands, if not millions, of new people will place their foot on the bottom rung of the only ladder proven to yield success in America: time, jobs, education, and a stake in the system.

The Bush administration's relatively enlightened policies on immigration are one of the reasons I support his re-election. Inflation is slowly repealing the now set-in-stone minimum wage laws, and I support a Republican congress in part because they have an "over my dead body" stamp to use every time a Democrat tries to push legislation through that attempts to raise it.

Providing tax-supported services to illegal immigrants who pay nothing into the system is not only unfair, it creates the counter-productive pressures of dependency and exploitation. Only by reforming and liberalizing immigration and wage laws will we break this vicious cycle. By doing so, we will not only be recognizing the facts on the ground, we will be setting the stage for millions of people to become productive members of our society. In a nation in which every single member is an immigrant of some sort (even if they were just hunting mammoth, they moved from somewhere else), how can we do otherwise?

Posted by scott at 12:44 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
July 12, 2004
Comiconomics

Slashdot linked up this extra-snarky NYT Magazine article describing the rise of the graphic novel as a form of "serious" literature. Contains wonderful bon-mots like this:

Comic books are what novels used to be -- an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal -- and if the highbrows are right, they're a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit.

Which, along with the rest, is among the better examples of affirming the consequent I've seen in a long time.

The rise of the graphic novel is not some sort of dystopian signpost of the crumbling of western civilization, it is instead yet another indicator of the rising wealth of people under 35, in all industrial cultures.

The left may believe it's axiomatic that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer", but this is only because they choose to see what they want to see. Wealth is not a zero-sum game, it is created. The pizza of wealth is not cut into different sized slices, it grows larger, and the slices grow with it.

One of those slices belongs to people under 35, who are in real terms far wealthier than their parents were at the same age, let alone their grandparents or great grandparents. In a free market, goods and services follow the preferences of whomever happens to have enough dollars to spend, and the youth of today have a great deal to spend indeed.

Comics and graphic novels are being taken seriously not because they're "suddenly" a lot better. As anyone who grew up in the 70s can attest, comics were exploring sophisticated narratives with adult "situations" long before publishers like Dark Horse ever opened their doors. The Watchmen was a culmination, not an innovation. Comics and graphic novels are today being taken seriously because for the first time serious money is being made off of them.

The rise in quality is also no accident. For perhaps the first time, a market that has always appreciated quality and sophistication now has enough money to spend to attract it. Furthermore, a growing market will always provide far more opportunity than a static one, and comics and graphic novels are growing very fast indeed.

This is a culture that is quite patently not "dumbing down", but is instead exploring new themes and new ideas using a medium older than both film and television in which to do it. The perceived “dumbness” so often decried from the tops of various chattering ivory towers is far more about what a very small group of people think we all should listen to, read, or watch, instead of what we simply want to listen to, read, or watch. What they are incapable of understanding is this is a culture and a generation that simply has better things to do than reading very long stories about very small changes in very small people just because their elders tell them they should.

Posted by scott at 12:01 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
June 25, 2004
Will the Real Tet Offensive Please Stand Up?

For the past eighteen months every time a group of pissed-off Iraqis gets together and decides to blow themselves up some Americans every talking head around the world will say the same word at once: Tet. This is Tet, that is Tet, here comes the Tet again, over and over again, culminating in the greatest Tet revival of them all, the Fallujah offensive in April. At that point, you couldn't swing a baseball bat without cracking open the skull of some commentator saying "Tet".

All it really showed was how poorly understood Tet is among journalistic circles. This is not surprising, since the Tet offensive is probably the most poorly understood event in a very poorly understood war. Worse still, by calling the game too soon the media are now incapable of admitting that the recent country-wide bombings and insurgencies in Iraq are at least as "Tet-like" as anything they reported in Fallujah. The media are therefore ignoring valuable parallels and insights between Tet and current events, ones that could provide perspective, and help avoid repeating profoundly damaging mistakes.

It is, of course, useful to understand what, exactly, happened at Tet before moving forward. After some fifteen years of more or less continuous conflict and three years of direct American involvement, the North Vietnamese leadership decided only a bold move could quickly end the civil war in Vietnam. To that end, a surprise offensive was planned for the 1968 Tet holiday (January 31st), Vietnam's New Year celebration and up to that time traditionally a period of truce.

The plan was for the North Vietnamese army to stage a diversionary attack on a remote US base in Khe Sahn near the North-South border. While US forces were thus distracted, southern guerrilla Viet Cong (VC) cadres along with smuggled-in North Vietnamese regular army soldiers would attack most major cities in the South simultaneously. The people of the South, it was assumed, would see how the corrupt Southern regime was incapable of defending them, rise up, and join the insurrection, quickly ending the entire conflict with a single stroke.

At first the plan worked brilliantly. US leadership, which had always been looking for the "one big fight" required to smash the North, went after the bait of Khe Sahn like a starving marlin. The VC uprisings caught all remaining US and Southern forces completely by surprise, allowing the VC to rapidly gain control of several cities, even allowing them to blow a hole in the wall of the US embassy in Saigon during a direct assault.

Unfortunately the offensive began to unravel nearly as quickly as it had started. The key failure was the South's inability to see "the light of truth and liberation" their Northern brethren offered and their consequent refusal to join in the revolt. Through a bit of luck and a bit of skill, a lower-ranking US Army general had held back a few battalions of US forces for protection in Saigon, and these, combined with the Southern Vietnamese army (ARVN), were then able to annihilate the VC forces after a few weeks of admittedly bitter fighting. The Viet Cong would never again be a real factor in the Vietnamese conflict.

Someone completely unfamiliar with the story of Vietnam might be surprised to find out that not only was Tet a disaster for the Viet Cong, it was also a disaster for the United States military. Tet marked the point where public opinion started its decisive swing from supporting an eventual victory to wishing simply to get out. The US's military presence ceased growing and started shrinking almost overnight. Protests of the war would grow larger and increasingly violent. It is no exaggeration to say the chain of events that directly led to the fall of Saigon had its first link forged at Tet.

Conventional wisdom among many military history buffs is this is the direct result of the negative media portrayals both during and after the event. Certainly at the time the events of Tet were portrayed in a negative light and the general perception for perhaps the next fifteen years would be that Tet was a resounding defeat for Southern and US forces.

However, while this is now demonstrably untrue, to lay the blame for the loss of Vietnam on the media's portrayal of a single event is to completely ignore the greater context of the war itself. Vietnam was a debacle from end to end not because of the top brass's inability to control a hostile media, but because of its complete and utter incompetence in the handling of the conflict itself.

Equipped and trained to fight a gigantic force-on-force conventional war with the Soviet Union, like a toddler with a hammer the upper echelons of military leadership kept trying to bang the square peg of Vietnam into the round hole of mechanized warfare. Lower echelon officers who could see what was wrong and attempted to make a difference were prevented from and sometimes even punished for developing new tactics and strategies to fight and win. The dissonance between an army that knew how to win (or at least how not to lose) and a leadership that refused to let them slowly began to tear the military apart from within.

Uncomfortable media reports, worrisome losses, and incessant protests could be dismissed as long as our leaders assured America they were winning. As hard as it is to imagine now, the government's say-so was all that most of the "greatest generation" ever needed to feel confident. But Tet ripped away the curtain of deception the military and political leadership had drawn over the truth. Contrary to what they had been told by their leaders, at times almost daily, the enemy was not growing weaker, was not demoralized or bankrupt, and was not going anywhere any time soon. That Tet itself ultimately ended in victory was of little import. The evidence of their strength, their resolve, and their skill was as bright and clear as the TV screens that transmitted it. It was a fundamental breach of trust between the American people and its political and military leadership that ultimately doomed the effort in Vietnam. The ultimate significance of Tet is that it was here the breach first fissured open.

The parallels between Tet and the three guerrilla insurrections in Iraq (Ba'athist, al-Sadrist, and the current Zarqawist) are many, but they are subtle and too often incorrectly drawn by the media. Then, as now, Guerrilla forces are fighting a US-run occupation to discredit and destroy a US-backed regime. Then, as now, the battle is timed to maximize its effect on an upcoming presidential election. Then, as now, victory will be measured more by a swing in opinion polls than any loss of blood, land, or treasure.

The differences between Tet and the various insurrections are at least as important, and almost never discussed in the media. Iraq is not split in two, with large numbers of its citizens fighting each other. There is no huge regular army standing behind the guerrillas, waiting to pounce. There are no superpowers writing blank checks to the opposition. The government of Iraq is not a military junta of Christian outsiders, emplaced by a violent coup and empowered by US force. Most importantly, America today blindly trusts no one with the lives of its children. We are quite ready, perhaps at times too ready, to believe reports that our political and military leaders are dropping the ball, and are quick to call them on it.

While the political lessons of Tet, that no one with a huge amount of power should ever be trusted blindly, and (much later) that journalists can be trusted to report what they see, but not what they think it means, can be said to have been well and truly learned by modern America. However, the military lesson of Tet seems to have been learned by hardly anyone at all.

When reduced to a narrow military lesson, Tet teaches us that it is profoundly dangerous for an irregular guerrilla force, no matter how well organized or equipped, to take on a more powerful conventional military force in any sort of sustained offensive. Such offensives frequently start out with the advantage of surprise and spectacular success, but with time, especially without the support of the people, merely serve to expend carefully hoarded materiel and expose carefully trained cadre and commanders to the overwhelming firepower of a superior force.

In 1968, with a force trained in the wrong tactics using the wrong gear supported by locals who clearly wished to be somewhere else, the US military utterly destroyed a guerrilla force that had defeated a previous Western foe (the French) fifteen years earlier and seemed undefeatable just weeks before. Thirty-five years of technology, training, strategy, and tactics have made our military orders of magnitude more effective at fighting insurgents dumb enough to try and take them on.

Tet should not teach us an organized uprising is a sign of immenent defeat, but instead is an opportunity. Like a column of enemy tanks moving without air cover, we should see these guerrillas for what they really are.

Targets.

Posted by scott at 04:29 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
June 17, 2004
Contradictions

There are people in this world who:

  • think permissiveness and personal freedom are what make America great, while also strongly supporting smoking bans and crushing cigarette taxes.
  • think evolution is just a theory, and a wrong one at that, while at the same time taking a rainbow of pills to keep themselves alive.
  • will passionately declare, in no uncertain terms, that America has become a Fascist-like police state. In public. At a rally. In a park. Owned by the government.
  • believe those with strong religious convictions are dangerous and should not be allowed positions in government, who also think Paul Ehrlich, Stephen Schneider, and others like them are above reproach.
  • think abortion should be made illegal, while at the same time opposing all forms of social welfare.
  • participate in pro choice rallies one day and visit a friend who had to go to China to adopt a child the next.
  • worry about air quality for their child while driving them to daycare in an automobile.
  • oppose any sort of amnesty for illegal aliens, while at the same time being careful to step aside as the brown guy with the leaf blower on his back walks by.
  • think the federal government should do more to help people, just before they go spend their latest tax refund check.
  • believe Michael Moore is a crusader, and Ann Coulter is a maniac.
  • believe Ann Coulter is a crusader, and Michael Moore is a maniac.
  • think our government is dangerously interventionist, while at the same time decrying free trade and job outsourcing.
  • think first amendment rights are the most important rights we have, while at the same keeping their name on the federal "do-not-call" list.
  • think the failure of biblical prophecies of apocalypse prove that book completely invalid, but the failure of environmental predictions of the same is simply due to a lack of data.
  • believe at least one of the items on this list is not a contradiction at all.

Posted by scott at 10:45 AM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
June 15, 2004
The Papa Principle

Four out of five Iraqis report holding a negative view of the U.S. occupation authority and of coalition forces. -- (Washington Post, May 13, 2004).

Only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm. (USA Today, April 28, 2004)

Few Iraqis mourn the fall of Saddam but there is a growing, at times almost visceral, hatred of the occupation. (Independent/UK, June 22, 2003)

The signs seem to be everywhere... we're failing to rebuild Iraq, we're screwing up the occupation, the Iraqis hate us and want us gone gone gone. It would seem that saying the occupation is not working out is like saying George Bush tends to stumble over words or Michael Moore looks a little chunky. The whole thing feels like it's coming apart faster than an zombie extra in "The Dawn of the Dead."

What I find surprising is that everyone thinks this is a bad thing. As far as I'm concerned, the absolute worst thing that could have happened would have been for us to have gone in with a marvelous master plan that quickly and efficiently rebuilt Iraq into a gleaming, well-scrubbed nation, sorta like those IKEA commercials, only with tanks. You see, nation building is simply not something I think we should be all that good at.

"You two want to go outside? You better clean up this goddamned room first, because if I come back and this place still looks like a train wreck, I'm going to clean it up for you."

"I'm going to clean it up for you." No eight words were heard with more dread in our house, especially coming from my dad. The first time he gave us an "or else", we didn't take him all that seriously. When we came home our room was spotless... pristine, like something you'd see in a Home and Garden magazine. It was fantastic, until we realized it got that way because dad had been the one deciding what was junk and what was important. For a brief time we thought he'd even thrown out the dog. It was, in essence, an apocalypse for two boys who thought putting stuff up was what a maid (or mom) did.

From that point on we took our dad's warnings with deathly seriousness. "Clean up your goddamned room!" motivated us with the same alacrity as Greek peasants hearing Zeus's own voice from on high.

This makes us sound like two selfish spoiled brats, which we were, but really we were just being human. Throughout time and space, giving something valuable to a human being in the hope they'll start working to get more is disastrous. Eventually, and with surprising swiftness, they start expecting that something. Taking it away results not in a buckling down to get it themselves, but instead brings tantrums wailing for a replacement or outright rebellion in order to take it.

Only providing humans with the opportunity to get it themselves, and then having the patience and discipline to let them, will lead to long term success. Oh, there will still be wailing and rebellion aplenty, with maddening attempts to cheat, lie, or steal their way to success, but it will be the background noise of a system building itself up instead of the chaotic roar of a system crashing down.

In this, nations are not much different from the people who make them up. South Vietnam had billions of dollars poured into it, and the protection of the most powerful military machine in the world to protect it, and the result was not a vibrant society of capitalists but instead a sad, sick, twisted culture of dependants and sycophants who simultaneously loathed the presence of the rich Yankee and bewailed any mention of his imminent departure. The Yankee would never depart, so why should they even try to figure it out themselves? The resulting collapse when we did leave may have been demoralizing for Americans, but it was Armageddon for the South Vietnamese, who endured nearly two decades of violent "re-education" at that hands of their northern brethren.

That today we are disheartened or surprised at the chaos and confusion, inefficiencies and graft, abuses and even death in Iraq merely shows the world is right in one respect... most Americans are hopelessly naive about the world around them. What other country would be disappointed that a people ground under the boot heel of a madman for the past thirty five years, with not one year of self-rule in the past five thousand, were unable to "see the light" and form their own working democracy in less than eighteen months? What other country in the world would contain a significant number of people who think this failure could have been avoided with better planning?

Fixing a broken nation isn't like fixing a broken car. This is not "Pimp My Ride" with a guy named Achmed and a really sad truck. A nation is an organic thing, capable of healing itself if given the time and space to do so. A surgeon who cuts and sews on a patient and then does it some more when they don't leap out of bed the next day isn't a healer, they're a butcher. So it is with a beuracracy, polity, or chattering elite who search for program after program to "fix" a nation's problems and then blame the first white face they see when it all fails, all the while ignoring and even impeding the progress of the people on the ground, who are after all the only ones with any real hope of solving it at all.

So pardon me if I'm not disappointed when an Iraqi says we're screwing it all up, or when a reporter breathlessly announces "they hate us", or that they'll be happy to see us all go. I don't want them to be happy with us. I don't want them to think they owe it all to us. I don't want them to think they owe any of it to us. Arab cultures are the last great honor-driven societies in the world. Can you imagine the guilt trip an entire nation of them would undergo if they thought they owed it all to a bunch of clumsy grinning Yankees who just walked up and handed it to them? Do you really think they would be grateful? Do you really think they'd keep it running after we left?

I want the rest of the world to know we're serious when we say "clean it up or we'll clean it up for you", and that the consequences of ignoring this warning will not be a non-stop jet ride to modernity. I want the mice to understand that roaring will like as not get them stepped on before they're handed any cheese. But I don't want us as a nation to think we're good at it, or that it's a simple way to solve a problem. It's said that when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and I would fear for a world containing a nation that thought such carpentry was cheap or quick or easy.

But I would equally fear for a world that contained no nation, no society, no people, willing and able to stand up and take down fascists and fanatics when they see the need. I'm proud to be a citizen of a nation that's willing to sacrifice its own grown children to ensure at least the hope of freedom for those only now being born in a place almost as far away and alien as a crater on Mars. I want desperately for them to succeed, and to believe they succeeded not because but in spite of our help.

I can think of no greater tribute to the sacrifice of our soldiers and citizens than a free, prosperous, safe, argumentative, unreasonable, and ungrateful Iraq. If the price we must pay for the first three is putting up with the last three, so be it. After all, rebuilding something in your own image means always having to look at yourself in the mirror.

Posted by scott at 03:43 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
June 09, 2004
Graduation Present

In just a few short weeks our very own Nina, sister-in-law extraordinaire, will graduate High School. While my first memory of her is a three-and-half-foot-tall ten-year-old punk rushing down the stairs, shouting as she went by, "you're the one dating my sister?!?" [fingers in an L shape slapped to her forehead] "LOSER!!!", I must say that, first impressions notwithstanding, she's turned out pretty decent after all.

However, she, like thousands of other 17 and 18-year-olds, is now staring over the precipice of adolescence and into the chasm of adulthood. If my experience is any indication, lots and lots of people are now emphasizing to all these kids how important it is to move on to college and graduate, but not a one is providing them with any real practical advice as to how to go about it. Which is where we come in...

AMCGLTD's Guide to Getting out of College with a Degree

  • First and foremost, understand one thing: this is the way you're going to live the rest of your life. Once you walk out that door, you will not be coming back. If this doesn't make you feel a little queasy (hell it's nearly 20 years later and it still makes me queasy), you're not paying attention. Get used to it now while you still can.
  • Choose a major, any major, and stick with it. As Joseph Campbell once said, "follow your bliss", parents and peers bedamned. College teaches you how to learn, not get a job. Learn about something that interests you now, and the tools you gain in the doing will help you get whatever job you want.
  • Go to class. No, really, just go. This sounds stupid and easy... after all, that's what you do now, right? Wrong. Nobody makes you go to class in college, and dragging your ass out of bed for classes you don't understand and professors you hate will be the hardest thing you've ever done. But there are real advantages.

    Showing up every damned day will get your face noticed by the professor, who might actually start to care a little (see below) and bail your butt out of a jam if you need it. Showing up every damned day will mean you can get by without some of the massive amounts of homework college buries you under. Showing up every damned day for four years in a row, and paying at least a little bit of attention, doing a little bit of homework, taking just a few notes, will almost guarantee your graduation.

  • Stay the hell away from credit cards. This will start out being easy, but will end up being the second hardest thing you do (aside from graduating itself). Entering college will mean most all of you will have jumped from luxurious independence to indentured servitude in a matter of months. It's happened so fast that none of you will even notice it for at least another year. You'll be dealing with it for probably the next fifteen.

    "Independence?!?" I can hear you all cry out, "this is not independence! Independence is what I'm going to, not coming from."

    Wrong-o. You're confusing social independence with economic independence. This will be the very first time in your life where the economic decisions you make will be the difference between having what you want and getting what you need. There really will come a time when it's down to getting Manson's (or Korn's, or BEP's, or Jay-Z's, or whoever it is you damned kids listen to nowadays) new CD or getting groceries. When (not if) this happens, the siren song of easy credit will be deafening. Most of your friends will succumb, which will make your ragged sweatshirt, torn jeans, and Ramen noodles even harder to bear.

    As someone who only just now, after more than a decade of trying, got himself out from under the debt hole he'd dug himself in his college years, I won't preach to you how credit cards are wrong or evil, or that you should throw them all away. I'll just say they're stupid, and they'll make you do stupid things if you're not damned careful with them. Become a mean cheap bastard, and if you ever catch yourself seeing credit cards as an opportunity, cut them up now.

  • If you go to orientation or some big introduction assembly, look to your left, then look to your right. Those people aren't going to graduate. College is that brutal. Now sigh and feel sorry for them, because you're the one getting out with the prize.
  • Never take a class before 9:00 am or after 2:00 pm if you can possibly avoid it. The people around you saying, "how hard can it be? High school classes start at 7:30!" are idiots, and will not graduate. 9:00-ish classes don't condone laziness, they give you invaluable cram time to bone up on exams and finish papers. If a class you must take is only available at 7:30, take an elective now and take the required class next semester. I'm serious, it's really that important.

    Late classes are different, in that they cut into your study/leisure/work time, and make job scheduling more complex than it has to be. Avoid them when possible.

  • "Gappy" schedules can work to your advantage, as long as the gap isn't too long. You'll get an hour or two of free time to study, work on projects, or read without the discipline pressure you'll face back at the dorm or the apartment.
  • Don't be afraid to drop a class, especially if the problems you're having are caused by the instructor. Nobody pays attention to "incomplete" marks on your transcript, but everyone pays attention to your GPA. Only a moron tries to "tough it out" with an instructor who can't teach them.
  • Understand that college instructors do not care about you. You'll be dealing either with grad students who have problems of their own or tenured professors who could screw the Dean's daughter in the main square and not get fired for it. Mommy and daddy have no leverage with these people, and neither will you. Students who go to class thinking the instructors will catch them if they fall are going to end up as colorful splats on the pavement below.
  • You are not the smartest person in this school. You will not be able to bullshit your way out of an answer you don't know, or to an A you don't deserve. Try it at your peril.
  • Don't envy athletes, pity them. In sane colleges they're working their butts off pleasing two masters, the coach and the teacher. In an NCAA division 1 school, they're probably recruited, on a scholarship, have no idea what they're doing, and are essentially doomed from the start. They'll live high on the hog for awhile, but ten years from now they'll be asking, "you want fries with that?"
  • Learn how to use a washer and dryer. Nothing screams "stupid freshman" like a pretty well-scrubbed face staring cow-eyed at a washing machine. Except maybe for the ones who go to class with pink socks.
  • Cherish your weekends. You can completely cut loose between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning with essentially no consequences (well, as long as you stay out of jail). Under no circumstances hang out with people who want to party on any other day (or night). They will not graduate.
  • Always keep in mind the weekend ends on Sunday morning, not Monday morning. Be wary of attempts to squeeze one more night of partying out of the weekend, and don't hang out with people who make a habit of it. They will not graduate.
  • Travel. This is the only time in your life when you're supposed to be able to stuff everything important to you in the back of a car. Learn how to read a map, and take "we've never been there before!" as a challenge instead of a roadblock. If you have a reliable car, make sure you use it at least once a month to go somewhere (parent's houses don't count!)
  • Give your roommate a chance, but don't stick with a psycho. They're not worth it, because they're not going to graduate. If you try to stay with them, they'll make sure you don't either. Get out quickly.
  • Expect drama, ridiculous drama. The vast majority of college students will be living away from home for the first time, and far too many will be making some of the dumbest decisions of their lives. Don't let the personal politics of your new peers take your eyes off the prize.
  • Expect romance, grownup romance. The kind that can and often does lead to marriage. This is not high school, where you were surrounded by layers of safety nets keeping your hormones from ruining your life. Don't get me wrong... casual is now very casual; you can boink everyone within reach if you like without garnering a "reputation". But keep in mind serious is also now very serious. Romantic entanglements will be the last, greatest risk to your chances at graduation. Tread carefully.
  • Don't feel like you must pledge a fraternity or sorority for the "complete" college experience. Especially in the South, Greek life is all too often merely a continuation of the petty peer pressures of high school, only with alcohol and party dresses. Try it out on your own for awhile first.
  • College is the first place you will be valued for what you know, not who you know. Cherish this, and find a group of people who share every weird or bizarre interest you may have. You'll find them if you're patient. It may be the last time.
  • College is the first place you can ignore the pretty people and get away with it. Pity them too, because now they just don't matter. Some of them never get over it.
  • Never walk home at night without a can of pepper spray in your hand. Girls and guys.
  • Always keep a small box of condoms in your nightstand. Guys and girls.

If nothing else, your roommate will thank you for it.

Posted by scott at 03:52 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
June 02, 2004
Chicken Little and the Oil Crisis

Welcome to The Peak Oil Theory, the latest in a very, very long line of predictions that the world is in imminent danger of running out of oil. It all reads as very rational and very, very worrying:

Peak Oil marks the transition to the downward curve, where oil and gas become much more expensive to produce and demand hugely outstrips production. When energy supply falls beneath demand in around 2006 we will encounter an unavoidable crisis [...] The result? The economy will collapse.

Of course, the only real problem with this theory is that it's crap. Complete and utter crap. It's not that oil isn't abundant, it's just easier to get at it in some places compared to others. They're mistaking a momentary and artificial market spike for Ragnarok. When the oil finally does run out, it won't rush out in a whoosh that sucks the world down with it. It'll instead simper out in a trickle we'll barely notice at all.

First, regarding supply, let's take a moment to examine the Canadian oil sands:

Estimates of Canada’s oil reserves jumped from 4.9 billion barrels to 180 billion [in 2003], making the country the second-largest oil reserve in the world, according to an annual survey conducted by the Oil and Gas Journal.

Furthermore, pumping oil isn't like draining a bathtub. The taps won't all suddenly go dry, and certainly not all at once all over the world. Instead, world supplies will gradually decrease, gradually increasing prices. While there will certainly be some wailing and gnashing of teeth, in free market societies there will also be a great deal of innovation taking place.

There's no impetus to get serious about alternative fuels right now because there's no money in it; petroleum-based fuels are simply too good and too cheap. But when oil prices hit $55 a barrel, it'll send the alternative fuel industry into a growth spurt that'll make the tech boom of the 90s look like a baby fart in a bathtub.

And then something amazing will happen. Once things like this start attracting real money and real innovation, economies of scale will start to kick in. It will get cheaper, and then cheaper still. And it won't be an economic disaster, because the high price of oil will have finally made exploring alternative energy sources profitable. People will be making money off this new stuff, eventually more than was ever made from oil.

Except for the oil producing states, of course. For them very high oil prices are a short term boon that courts long term apocalypse.

This has already happened once to OPEC, in the 1970s. Then, an artificial shortage was created by Arabs who were pissed off because they thought it was the West that was keeping them from squishing Israel like a bug in a yarmulke*. Oil prices skyrocketed, and there were even outright shortages. Arabs got rich, and economies went into a tailspin. Pseudo-academics made millions on the talking-head-circuit telling us all now the taps will run dry.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon. Oil got really expensive, so consumers stopped using it. The money you'd save buying a little fuel-efficient Japanese car was suddenly large enough (in a short enough time) to make up for the difference in comfort you got from a big hulking American sedan. High utility costs meant you made up the difference between an expensive efficient air conditioner and a cheap wasteful one in a matter of months instead of years. Recycling became a profitable practice because it was a lot cheaper to wash a bottle and reuse it than to throw it away and buy a new one. In short, people just sorted it out and got used to it.

This was a complete disaster for OPEC. Demand started to fall, and so the price of oil did as well. Further cuts just made it worse. In 1979 oil prices were so high (the real record, once adjusted for inflation) that oil wells in Arkansas started making money again. Plucky Scandinavians finally had a reason to brave the shittiest weather in the world and started tapping gigantic oil deposits of their own. Not only was the West not using oil like it did before, it was buying it from the wrong people.

OPEC imploded, collapsing in a crisis of leadership that took twenty years to sort out. The taps gushed oil into a market that simply didn't need all that much anymore, and prices went into free fall. The pundits who predicted we'd never ever ever see gasoline prices under $1.00 per gallon in the US were suddenly filling their tanks up with stuff costing .69 cents per gallon.

Of course, the pendulum then began to swing in the other direction, but it took two decades to even come close to equilibrium. In the meantime oil-producing countries suffered an entire generation of instability and revolution, and the West, now with booming, efficient, cheaply-fueled economies, decided to let them.

Finally they got it all back under control, around 1999. This time there would be no politics. Prices would be set at $28 per barrel come hell or high water. Western governments would squeak as prices increased 30% or so, but at that point OPEC countries were desperate and didn't really care.

The problem, of course, was there really was no way to completely exclude politics. Western countries, the US in particular, are insufferably arrogant (being rich, powerful, and right most of the time will do that to you), and there's nothing quite like the thrill of jiggering with their economies by twiddling with the taps.

The first real bumps in the road came from South America, when Venezuela's attempts to sustain old-fashioned cronyism while simultaneously trying to build a free market economy came unglued in 2000. Nothing will win you elections faster than slapping around the gringos from "el Norte", and sometimes if you don't do it your unions will do it for you. Up went the prices.

But the wheels didn't really fall off until 2003. At that point the Saudis, who'd had enough of being called the Wal Mart Supercenter of terrorism (the truth hurts when you don't want to hear it) decided taking the US down a peg or two might be good for it. Don't want them thinking they can build a liberal democracy on our doorstep without consequences, you see. So they allowed OPEC to close the taps just a bit, right when demand would be at its highest.

What everyone seems to have ignored is that the US isn't the only 800-pound oil swilling gorilla in the world anymore. China and India have gigantic oil requirements of their own, and their consumption is going up, not down. Mix in Osama and his Merry Band of Detonating Dervishes and suddenly it's 1979 all over again.

OPEC seems to understand they've badly miscalculated, and are taking steps to correct the problem. Who knows, if they do it fast enough it might actually work. They better hope it does, because the sad truth is OPEC needs the West a lot more than the West needs OPEC.

But to use short-term market miscalculations to support a theory predicting economic Armageddon is like using a burned out light bulb as evidence that you're going blind. Thinking we're all going to drive our SUVs until the taps run flat dry ignores the fact that people will change if they have the proper motivation.

Of course, tenured professors the world over have been trying to reason away human nature for five thousand years. Why should they stop now?

---------
* Because you know it simply could not be that a free and democratic society full of Jews could defeat the flower of Islamic military culture. The horror!

Posted by scott at 03:47 PM | Comments (14) | eMail this entry!
May 20, 2004
Welcome to My World, Part VII: Big Mac Attack

Ok, look, I know there are mac users out in the world that aren't complete incompetents. I happen to be good friends with two. Out of the two mac users in the office, one seems very solid. But I swear to God, as someone who's worked with PCs of all sorts all his professional life, the ratio of morons to competents is noticeably higher in the mac world than in that of the PC. Case in point:

The Scenario: A "corporate" sexual harassment seminar (Evil Scott: "what? Are they gonna teach us how?" Good Scott: "Shaddup you").

The instructor has one of those nifty new Mac laptops (silver, looks like it could stop a bullet). I'd been told about this, and said, "no problem! Our LCD projector will work with it." Which, a few years ago, was true. Back then Macs used the universal DIN-9 VGA connector that everyone else in the civilized world uses. Every projector or monitor in the world can connect to that. So the next day she shows up, I get out the projector, and pull everything out in the conference room.

Me: "Great, we'll hook you right up."

Instructor: [proudly shows off shiny, sleek, connector-less Mac laptop]

Me: "umm... does it have ports?" Far as I could tell it didn't even have a damned power cord.

Instructor: [PAUSE] (I swear I could hear the claxons this time... *graunk* *graunk* *graunk* "All hamsters to battle stations! Prepare for maximum wheel RPM!" *graunk* *graunK* *graunk*)

Me: "Ports? ... Connectors?"

Instructor: [audible CRUNCH as the wheels engage the gears] "Oh! Sure!" and down flips an even sleeker cover to open the "port bay". I'll give them this, Apple laptops are to PC laptops what Queen Noor is to Margaret Thatcher.

Of course, what I'd forgotten was that Mr. Jobs, in his infinite "do-you-want-to-sell-sugar-water-or-change-the-world" design wisdom, decided to equip all the new macs with very avant-guard (and I'm sure quite superior) digital connectors. Which of course nobody else uses on their display hardware.

The mac people in the audience will be nodding their heads and thinking, "yeah, so what? That's what the adapter is for." Well dealing with a genuine Mac on my network for the past year has taught me a few things. I knew all about that adapter.

But I also knew all about typical social-work-major computer skills.

Me: "Ah! You have one of the new ones. We'll need your adapter." Watch this... 3... 2... 1...

Instructor: [spoken with the same "had-a-rock-shoved-in-their-mouth" way that, say, a Trobriand Islander would trying to pronounce "Inglebert Humperdink"] "Ah-dap-ter?"

Me: [inside my head, Evil Scott looks over at Good Scott and says, "told ya. Pay up asshole."] "Yeah, there was an adapter that came with your computer."

Instructor: [*blink* *blink*]

Me: [inside my head, Evil Scott looks over at Good Scott and says, "HA! I love double or nothing. Pay me."] "Small thing, white, connectors on both ends, thin wire between them?"

Instructor: "Oh yeah! I remember that!"

Me: [waiting expectantly]

Instructor: "Yeah, no, I don't have that with me."

Me: [inside my head, Good Scott looks over at Evil Scott and says, "what? Did you think I was going to fall for it twice?"]

Now, let's savor this one for a bit. A laptop is meant to be carried all over the place. That's the point. Without this adapter, 75%, hell probably 90% of the world's displays are not going to work. Why would you need to carry around something that important? Damn thing'll probably just get lost.

Me: [inside my head, a wrestling match ensues as Good Scott struggles to keep Evil Scott from pushing the "SPEAK: 'such a shame when cousins marry'" button] "Be right back."

So off on a quest I go. First stop, the actual Mac in the office. This has an adapter. Unfortunately it also has an employee sitting in front of it. Next stop, the guy who has our "loaner" laptop. "Him? He's gone for a presentation." So now we're down to the parts bin.

After some rummaging I managed to dredge up an old Toshiba laptop. I'm greeted with a "Windows 95" screen, the first one I've seen in perhaps six years (probably the last time this was turned on). But by God it has power point on it. Surprising how little laptops have changed, this one has the big green eraser in the center of the keyboard for a mouse, just like the ones today.

Instructor: "What, exactly, should I use for a mouse on this thing?"

[inside my head, Evil Scott says to Good Scott, "This is just too easy..."]

Posted by scott at 03:06 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
May 19, 2004
An Oily Bubble?

Fark (of all places) linked up this business report on how speculative money has entered the oil market, driving up prices perhaps as much as $10 per barrel more than demand would otherwise cause. Some analysts are thinking $50 per barrel is not out of the question this year. Right now it's very, very good to be an oil producer. What I think everyone has forgotten is that when this bubble bursts, it's going to be very bad to be an oil producer.

The whole reason OPEC got its act together in the late 90s was because uncontrolled production had glutted the market and nearly gutted the economies of oil producing states. The idea was to keep oil prices in a "sustainable" $25-$28 per barrel range, enough to make money but not enough to force corpulent westerners to sell their gas-guzzling SUVs.

Well, something certainly went wrong. People involved in oil production, which includes the governments in states like Texas and Alaska, are making money hand-over-fist at the moment, but nobody expects these prices to last forever. Collapsing oil prices forcing sheiks into the street may sound appealing, but it's more complicated than that. When it snaps, and it will, it won't just blanch the Saudi economy, it'll probably pop the wheels off Russia's as well. The difference is, of course, the Russians still have nukes.

OPEC seems to have forgotten the lesson it was taught in the late 70s and early 80s: the US may piss and moan about high oil prices, but if they stay high enough long enough we will change our consumption habits, and that will have a profound, very long term effect on oil prices. Western economies can survive high, even very high, oil prices because they're rich and very diversified. It's a lot harder for oil producing nations to survive low, especially very low, oil prices, because that's all they've got.

You see, with this much money sloshing (as it were) around, there are very heavy pressures for increasing production capacity at any cost. Oil companies and oil producers have for the past ten years been pretty good at balancing production and refinery increases with price goals, but with prices this high it'll be very hard not to let it all get out of control. Building "pipeline-and-truck" capacity is slower and less flexible than the lunatic swings a commodity market can take. Like office space, there's a very real risk of a production glut as capacity oversteps demand.

The last long-term sag in prices nearly skewered the entire Middle East and a big chunk of South America. The prices are much higher, and have been that way much longer, this time around. If the oil market crashes to scale, it will be very, very bad for our "friends" with the turbans. The only real problem is it'll be very bad for a whole bunch of other people we don't necessarily want to be put out on the streets.

A lot of politicians will get blamed for the bad stuff that happens, and a lot of other ones (perhaps the same ones, depending on who wins the next election) will take credit for all the good stuff that happens, but the bottom line is oil is a market-driven commodity. Conventional wisdom and foil-hat conspiracies notwithstanding, governments have very little control over the market price of oil*. You can throw rocks at Bush now and then flowers at him (or Kerry) later, but as with Clinton a decade ago they'll just happen to be the ones standing at the station as the train goes by. The engine is bigger than any of them and is driven by forces nobody completely understands, let alone controls.

Buckle your seatbelts folks... it's going to get a lot bumpier soon.

----
* That's market price of crude oil, not the pump price of fuel. Pump prices are quite heavily influenced by governments, because fuel is one of the most productive commodities to tax. In the US, something like 40% of what you ultimately pay for fuel ends up in some beauracrat's coffer. In Europe it's much worse. But governments all over the world went on spending binges in the '90s, and nobody's going to cut those taxes just to help something as abstract as a taxpayer.

Posted by scott at 04:10 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
May 16, 2004
On Heroes

Vietnam did many things to this country. Some good, some bad, all painful. Most of all, it destroyed respect for soldiering as a profession. Conventional wisdom now says you join the military for an exciting job, for an easier way into college, for direction and discipline in your life. Today we never seem to even consider people would join because they want to be a soldier. A warrior. Someone who wants to be on the front line, who wants to serve their country by dancing on the knife edge of history.

Are all soldiers like that? Hardly. But there are many more than you'd think. It makes far too many effete intellectuals uncomfortable to think that there are people who would enjoy soldiering for its own sake. That's why Nightline made heroic national headlines with its Vietnam-retread "roll call of the dead", but accounts of living soldier's heroic deeds must languish in obscurity.

Maybe it's better this way. Maybe we should follow the liberal idea of war as nothing more than institutional, legalized murder. Maybe we should puzzle over, discount, fear (and fear for) those who would want to participate. Certainly, glorification has gotten far more nations in trouble. But I think perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, when the only real way a soldier can become famous is as a flag-draped box, a single forlorn picture in a paper, a name read off by a sobbing commentator. Why not read off a list of soldiers who did their duty with honor, who survived amazing acts of bravery?

Why must we only feel comfortable honoring soldiers when they're dead?

Posted by scott at 09:51 AM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
May 10, 2004
Fail Safe

Humanity's love for social stability is matched only by the capacity for self-delusion that is required to perceive it. Worse still, like infants who think the pain never ends we wail and cry of apocalypse and collapse whenever some event tears through our colorful curtain of lies. Naked prisoners, unemployed workers, corrupt politicians, scandalous corporations, all and more are too often seen as the buboes of a diseased culture, the stench of a body politic struck dead on the highway of history.

The truth, as with most axioms of "conventional wisdom", is quite the opposite. These are not symptoms of corruption and decay heralding end times. They are instead indications of a living, breathing, healthy culture. But why does it so often seem the opposite?

Corruption, graft, thievery, rape, murder, and mayhem are not exceptions in our societies. They are the rule in the ever-more-complex cultures humanity has created for itself. Throughout history, one after another would stumble upon some new improvement in warfare, production, or organization, set up a society of plenty and prosperity, only to have it crumble from within due to the rot nobody wanted to talk about. Time and again glittering monuments to humanity's progress would become vine-choked dragon's teeth rotting in the noonday sun. This tragic cycle would repeat over and again for perhaps fifteen thousand years.

The first innovation that helped break the cycle was English... a rule of laws to which even kings of divine right must pay heed. A century later a group of English colonists took the next logical step, one that had been advocated for centuries but which no one ever had the nerve to implement. Essentially, with their written "Constitution" they institutionalized free inquiry, making it possible for any unreasonable crank who didn't care about the stability of a society to turn it all upside down, or at least try to, any time they pleased.

What resulted was not an elegant powerhouse that smoothly exploited its way to world dominance. Instead, a bickering, poorly educated, surly mob was handed the reigns of power, and the resulting chaotic mess became a scandal of the civilized world. "Old" Europe quietly laughed into its collective handkerchiefs as a group of trailer trash, slaves, untouchables, and lunatics lurched from one ridiculous crisis to the next.

There were, of course, just as many hoodlums, thieves, cranks, and lunatics in the world as there were in the United States. The difference was we kept ours where we could see them, and by exposing them were able to stop them before they could do too much damage.

The rest of the world continued to yearn for quiet and stability at the expense of all else, with utterly predictable results. Europe unleashed apocalypse, surviving only to suddenly find itself prostrate before, and then rebuilt by, the rabble from across the sea they made such sport of a century before. Asia fossilized under the weight of its own narcissism, ultimately to be consumed by Western barbarians, then destroyed by wars of its own making. Today Arabia toys with its own annihilation by playing spectacular stunts on the only culture capable of wiping it from the planet with the press of a button.

All in the name of stability, of a smooth culture, of something clean and quiet, something that's admired, something that doesn't make noise. I learn about Enron and Tycho and feel depressed, but I also take heart because, in the name of quiet, the next logical steps result in apparatchiks, plush dachas for a few, and empty shelves for the rest. I read about Watergate and Iran-Contra and what the definition of "Is" is and I'm disgusted, but I'm also pleased, because, in the name of stability, to ignore them would slide us down a slippery slope that ends in red armbands and thunderous, mindless chants. I look at the pictures of naked prisoners and I'm repulsed, but I'm also relieved because without them, in the name of quiet, mothers crawl in a pit on knees cut by bone looking for the doll their child was carrying when they disappeared one night.

In spite of what we'd like to believe, the United States is not composed of saints, is not without bandits, is not free of people who enjoy base violence and humiliation. We are not immune to failure. The difference is we have mechanisms to stop these people, expose them, and remove them from the commanding heights that they have so woefully abused. We are able to correct our failures. It's not quick, it's not clean, it's not always even very fair, but it does work. It fails safe.

Personally, overall, I'm quite happy with my ugly, messy, noisy, inefficient, and embarrassing country. Anyone who isn't simply hasn't considered the real alternatives.

Posted by scott at 03:56 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
May 06, 2004
Bloodsport

Everyone hears it today... politics is more and more partisan, far worse than anyone has ever seen it before. Viciousness and libel, petty bickering and political meltdowns, backstabbing and throat-slashing, all and more seem to be bubbling up faster and faster, like a fetid scum-covered gyser getting ready to erupt. But is it really that bad? Is it really that different? Has it in fact gotten worse over time?

Hardly. In the very first contested election in the United States, that of 1796, Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as a bloodthirsty atheist and a puppet of the French, who represented only "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin." John Adams was referred to as, at best, "His Rotundity", was accused publicly of planning to cancel the Constitution and have himself crowned king, and of having two English mistresses secretly imported to keep him comfortable on the campaign trail.

Twenty years later, newspapers supporting Andrew Jackson referred to his incumbent opponent John Quincy Adams as "The Pimp" because he introduced the Tsar of Russia to a young woman whom the Tsar later had an affair with. Dark insinuations of "gambling furniture" being installed in the White House turned out to be a pool table purchase. Not to be outdone, newspapers in support of Adams ran this piquant rejoinder:

"General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson IS ONE!!"

By the time Abraham Lincoln was running for president, things had not gotten much better. Democratic newspapers referred to him as "Honest Ape" and ran cartoons of him so racist they would get a modern newspaper shut down and its editors lynched. In 1876 the choices, according to the newspapers of the time, were between an alcoholic syphilitic grifter (Samuel Tilden) and a battlefield corpse robber who once shot at his own mother (Rutherford B. Hayes).

More modern presidential elections were no better. Republican "hatchet men" attacked Democrats as corrupt, incompetent, and even Communist in the 1952 presidential campaign. In 1960 candidate Kennedy accused his opponent of being "experienced in the policies of retreat, defeat, and weakness." In 1964 LBJ, with the willing assistance of a sympathetic media, portrayed his opponent Barry Goldwater as a reckless warmonger who would press "the button" on a whim.

This all culminated of course with the Nixon administration, whose paranoia and willingness to use any lever of power institutionalized the "dirty trick" machine and gave us The Plumbers and Watergate. But even that spectacular debacle failed to drive the nastiness underground. Carter was a religious wacko, Reagan both criminally stupid and criminally diabolic, Bush a liar, Clinton a spineless philanderer, and GW Bush a criminally stupid and criminally diabolic thief.

It has always been nasty, it always will be nasty, and in fact if anything has gotten less nasty over time. As children we don't pay attention to how nasty it is, and look up from our Big Wheels to a man who is an institutional father figure. Teenagers and twenty-somethings, facing the blow-torch intensity of a professional candidate's charisma for the first time, see "their" candidate as the good guy being attacked in shocking and deeply unfair ways by "the bad guys" on the other side. We don't do that, no sir. Well, we wouldn't have to if they didn't make us.

It doesn't help that the media, who's gnat-like attention span is matched only by their utter lack of historic perspective, wail and rend their shirts at the first sign a campaign is "going negative." In the worrisome event a candidate obstinately refuses to actually "betray" the issues and go "on the attack", reporters are of course not opposed to giving the campaign a shove or two by dredging up a bimbo, drug deal, or service gap on their own. After all, we don't want the campaign to be boring, do we?

It's ok to wish it weren't so, but in the wishing we are simply pulling the covers over our heads hoping the monsters stay hidden in the dark. It's also ok to revel in the chaos of it all, sitting in the bleachers roaring with the rest of the plebes as one erstwhile gladiator guts his opponent in our own queer Coliseum. More importantly, we should all learn to look past it, see it for the contrived irrelevance that it truly is, and hold all of their feet to the fire until they start producing facts and positions instead of hyperbole and distraction.

But don't forget to bring the popcorn. I hear Kerry's latest attack ad is really something to see!

Posted by scott at 03:33 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
April 26, 2004
Welcome to My World, Part VI: Postcards from the System Edge

Lots of vignettes today:

U1, a famously frantic staffer, strides into my office brandishing a piece of paper and without any preamble or introduction asks, "is this what I need to give you?"

Me: "To...?" (Light a fire? Scribble an autograph? Choke you until the vacuous excuse for a brain you use suffers a seizure?)

U1: "Purchase [software I frantically need yet somehow only asked for once, a month ago]"

Me: "Ah yes! Thank you!" I need to get my money back from the psychic friends network.


U2, in an email on Thursday: "I need this printing in color. Could you get this converted to PDF or directly print to color. [U1] has start working [sic] on this project ASAP so I would really appreciate if this is printed tomorrow."

Me, in email reply, that day: "I cannot work with [toy desktop publishing documents]. I've found a spare Acrobat license. Let me know when you have 30 minutes and I'll install it. You'll be able to print it yourself then."

U2, in reply: "That's great! Can you do it Monday afternoon?"

At 3:30 p.m. sharp I was not surprised to discover it was already installed on their system.


U3, fabulous and fabulously charming, streams fashionable scarves into my office. "Scott," flashing a "sex-in-the-city" spectacular smile, "the screen on my laptop is broken and I desperately need to fix it," runway-worthy turn on some imaginary catwalk that seems to end at my doorstep, "when can you replace it?"

Me: "Not sure, I'll have to see what is free."

U3, in a gracefully executed cross-pose (the word VOGUE briefly flashes over her head), "well I have to get it soon, it's just unusable like this." Exit in a sashay that makes Cindy Crawford weep.

So I scrounge a very nice reasonably new laptop from a recently departed employee (I'm known as the Angel of Computer Death around here because I "harvest" the computers of the dearly departed), and notify U3 by email that I'll need her system for 1 hour to transfer all files and settings.

Six weeks pass. Weeks.

This morning, U3, in a ravishing ensemble, gracefully strides down that weird runway I just can't see: "I hear you have a system for me?"

Me: "Yup, need an hour."

U3: "Let me get a few things done and I can give it to you this morning."

Six hours later, no laptop.


u4, our resident short fuse: "I need another mouse for my system."

Me: "Isn't this your third one?"

U4's spring obviously clicks two notches tighter: "Well, yes, I guess it is."

Me: "That normally means it's the computer, not the mouse."

*CLICK* goes the spring one notch tighter, U4: "Well, if we can find another one..."

Me: "Let's go look and see what's wrong."

Yes, they did have a real problem. Which I eventually fixed, and then went to lunch, with a closed door.

*KNOCK KNOCK* Great. What now? [Open], and there's U4 half way to my boss's door.

Me: "Did everything wor--"

U4, spring wound so tight I'm expecting a sprocket to fly out of his ear and take out a passing staffer, "my password changed again."

Me: "Well, I didn't change it." *CLICK* *CLICK* "Let's go check."

Walk down to U4's office, where they sit and furiously begin typing. Me: "Slowly now, let's try it again."

The password, of course, worked fine.


Update: Forgot this one:

This afternoon, a remote user sent a desparate (they're all desparate... email is like oxygen to these people) note to me regarding how one specific organization was unable to send mail to her.

Examination of the error messages revealed what is probably a buggy e-mail firewall on their end. This has happened oh, say three times in the past six or seven years. The cheaper firewall companies only test against the Borg, and as we all know Microsoft is not all that interested in interconnectivity. Since, what, half the internet still uses Sendmail, they end up posting corrective patches pretty quickly. It's getting them installed that's the trick.

At any rate, I gave this theory to the sysadmin on the other end, only to get the following reply (which I swear I am not making up):

Moron Admin: "Well, yes, now that you mention it we did upgrade our systems a few weeks ago. And actually, I have had a few domains mention they were having trouble connecting to our systems. But I know it's not on our end. Would you please check your systems out again?"

Why no, actually, I don't think I will.

Posted by scott at 04:00 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
March 17, 2004
Money Myths

Myth: The deficit is ballooning out of control, and will undermine the economy.

Fact: The current deficit is equal to or smaller than those recorded in previous recession years, as a percentage of the gross domestic product (citation).

Myth: The current deficit is a gigantic weight on the country's economy.

Fact: The current deficit is impressively large at 521 billion dollars, but this represents just 5% of the gross domestic product of the United States economy (citation).

Myth: The national debt is titanic, growing larger, and will eventually crush our children.

Fact: The national debt currently stands at an admittedly staggering 7.1 trillion dollars. However, this represents just 16% of the currently estimated total household wealth in the United States (citation). Further, more than half this debt is owned by US citizens in the form of various kinds of government bonds (citation).

Myth: Millions of US citizens have no access to health care.

Fact: Federal law requires any person, regardless of insurance, citizenship, or even legal resident status be treated regardless of insurance status if they present themselves to an emergency room (citation).

Myth: Tax burdens fall mostly on middle and lower income families, while the wealthy pay little to nothing at all.

Fact:: Families in the top 5% income bracket pay 50% of all personal income tax the federal government receives. The bottom 60% is responsible for exactly 6%. The bottom 5% receive a 2% credit, regardless of income (citation).

Myth: The war in Iraq will crush the US economy.

Fact:: At the requested funding level of 87 billion dollars, the cost of the war in Iraq represents not quite 4% of the current government budget for the next fiscal year (citation).

Myth: Unemployment is unreasonably high in the United States.

Fact: 94.5% of all eligible workers in the US are in fact employed (citation).

Of course, you know the country's on an express elevator to hell, going down. Just be sure to cite your sources when you prove it.

Posted by scott at 01:58 PM | Comments (8) | eMail this entry!
March 15, 2004
Comparison

By now most people in the West know that while Europeans were sleeping with their own oxen and unscrewing each other's heads with abandon, Arabs were inventing algebra, trading with China, and building structures whose beauty staggers us to this day. Yet in less than three centuries their glittering culture would be crushed and humiliated by barbarians they had once bettered in every way. How could this be?

The roots of failure in the cultures ascribed to Islam are the same that lead to their success, and therein lies the great Sophoclean tragedy of it all. Because the ground in which these roots, of both triumph and oblivion, rest was created by the Koran.

Ironically, it's the history of Christianity that best illustrates this argument. Jesus preached his ministry in the center of a prosperous, and oppressive, empire arguably the most powerful the world had seen. His crucifixion occurred perhaps only five years after the beginning of his movement, introducing an element of instability Christianity lives with to this day. Because the movement was both escatalogical (the end of the world is nigh) and subversive (we're the only ones with a ticket out), a natural fault line developed dividing the spiritual power of Christianity (do as I say because you'll go to Hell if you don't) from the temporal power of the Empire (do as I say or I'll run you through with this sword).

While the rise of Christianity to official status largely filled this chasm in the Eastern half of the empire, historical happenstance (in the form of various flea-bitten but no less ferocious barbarian hordes) maintained it in the West. Over the next thousand years an uncomfortable and unstable status-quo set itself up between a Church that could command hearts and kings who could command steel. Europe suffered four centuries of darkness while it all got sorted out.

All of these things, doctrinaire instability, subversive revolution, the very concept of a separate "church" and "state", were completely alien to a follower of Islam. Unlike Jesus, Mohamed had an extremely long, productive ministry, in which all of the core documents of the movement were written by the founder himself (or by God through him, if you like)*. This made for a comparatively stable religious foundation, which to date has experienced only one significant doctrinal dispute. Islam was created in an area with no government institution larger than what was needed to manage a city. Therefore when the Bedouin exploded out of the desert they were able to grasp both secular and religious power simultaneously.

Herein lay the roots of Islam's success. As a merchant, Mohamed knew almost instinctively that the key to the success of a society was consistent laws enforced consistently. If there was any question of this he had the abject lesson of the Christians of the Eastern empire, who at that point were damning and killing each other over paintings and the precise date of Easter, to instruct him. His long ministry allowed the final and absolute resolution of the thousands of petty arguments that arise with any complex movement. Finally, Islam was able to stab upward into the underbelly of the two richest and paradoxically weakest empires in existence at that time.

This all combined to create a very rich and culturally complex environment almost purpose-built for stability, safety, and free movement. Without the albatrosses of oppression and suspicion around their necks, Muslims were able to look at the enormous libraries of Greek knowledge in their conquered Eastern territories with fresh eyes and open minds. They took this and literally ran with it, extending and expanding beyond even their own expectations. The torch of learning was not extinguished when Odacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476. It was instead set aside, only to quickly be picked up by Arab hands who, for a very long time, carried it well indeed.

So what went wrong? Again, it's more instructive to first look at Christianity before examining Islam.

It took nearly a thousand years, but eventually the Medieval west settled into a sort of equilibrium uncomfortably managed by bishops and feudal warrior-kings. They grew strong enough that by the end of the eleventh century they were able to carve a chunk out of the Islamic empire and maintain it more or less intact for nearly three hundred years. Far more important, although less glamorous, was the Reconquista, the crusade to reclaim the Iberian peninsula for Christianity. By conquering but not destroying the great Moorish cities a sort of "back door" was created, allowing the re-introduction not only of the old Greek learning once lost, but of all the Muslim developments as well.

However, even this wasn't enough to start what would come to be known as the European Renaissance. It would take the scythe of the Black Death hacking away perhaps as much as a third of the population of Europe to light the fuse on that powder keg.

Labor, once nearly free, became fantastically expensive. Empires in the past were able to respond to this through conquest and importation of slaves, but Europe was too politically fragmented for any one state to command that much power. People were able to demand rights and privileges from their rulers in return for their labor, and the rulers had to give it to them or risk those same people offering their services to someone else who would.

But not everyone had this option. Enormous tracts of land, complete with villages and their resident peasants, had been ceded to monasteries over the previous centuries. At first, this was actually one hell (as it were) of a move up for said peasants. No armies to feed, no randy knights hacking and burning houses when they got bored, and no Droit de seigneur. What wasn't to love?

This rosy arrangement started to unravel shortly after the plague, and it only went downhill from there. The duke, bergher, or king may have been an unpredictable bastard, but you could at least bargain with him. The abbot had God on his side. Negotiating a reduction in the harvest tithe was not an option, since the percentage was decided by the Lord himself and who were you to question that? Demanding a change in the tax rate to make your business more competitive with the Venetians merely resulted in blank looks. Push harder and you risked a Crusade being called down on your head.

Of course, in the long run it couldn't last. The monasteries were rich enough to hire a few dozen armored goons to keep the peasants in line, but they were no match for the burgeoning power of the kings and merchant empires. Eventually the peasants either ran off to the nearest free city or took shelter with a prince only too happy to double the wages made miniscule by four centuries of inflation. Over time, one by one and all across Europe, the monasteries were cracked open like oysters on the belly of a sea otter, slowly removing the last vestiges of the medieval and clearing the way for our own modern world.

By all accounts the Arab empires suffered at least as much, if not more, from plague. They had the additional burden of being in the way of the most effective light horse army the world has ever seen (Mongols). And yet with similar pressures came very different results. Christian Europe exploded, first consuming itself in successive paroxysms of religious, trade, and revolutionary wars, then when that became too expensive hacking empires out of everything around them. Muslims, in contrast, coalesced into a single monolithic empire that, once established, essentially coasted unchanged for the next three hundred fifty years. At its end this Ottoman Empire, so powerful that at one point it literally threatened Christianity's existence, was itself allowed to exist at the whim of these "barbaric" Europeans, to be ignominiously dismantled by them when it was finally no longer useful.

The comparison with the medieval monasteries of Europe is striking. True, Islam shuns monasticism in all forms, but by melding religious and secular power into the sharia, they inadvertently made the entire culture beholden to what was in effect a highly organized and indeed quite powerful religious order. The innate conservatism inherent in all organized religion meant that any cultural or economic innovation that the mullahs could not understand would be crushed before it had a chance to break anything.

The burgeoning Ottoman empire, then at the hight of its power, absorbed the impact of the Black Death not through innovation but through the forced migration of perhaps millions of slaves. What commerce existed did so at the whim of the Sultan, and the Sultan never took risks. The culture of empire meant there would be no escape for the common people, no rival petty kings to check the power of the mullahs, no chance for a Renaissance of clever, questioning men to take hold. The empire, as all empires do, slowly ossified, trapping what was once a vibrant and brilliant culture in a pretty, frozen drop of amber.

Islam, once so fortunate in history's eye, chose precisely the wrong moment to crystallize into a monolithic empire. Europe had stumbled onto a combination of culture and technology that, however horrifically violent in its infancy, gradually allowed fantastic gains in productivity. The cold truth is that even without Napoleon, by the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe had become so incredibly rich it could have hastened the end of the last great Islamic empires through the simple expedient of purchasing them.

Islam tried to catch up, but by the time it figured out it was even in a race it was too late. A set of cultures raised on a thousand years of divinely decreed, indeed self-evident, dominance was suddenly confronted with the shattering realization that they were not, in fact, the alpha and omega of creation; that it would be a different set of people, ascribing to a religion they had supposedly discredited ten centuries ago, who would in fact rule the world. They have quite simply never recovered.

For a time it looked as if the old salves of retrenchment and revival, a "returning to the old ways", would bring holy wrath down upon the infidel's head and restore the faded glory of mullah and mosque. Certainly the spectacular collapse of the two most prominent landmarks on the infidel's horizon at the hands of these fundamentalists signaled the dawn of a new age, when divinely inspired martyrs would rain death down on the heads of these prurient, effete infidels and show that the power of Islam had not in fact faded into history.

Of course, as with all escatological fantasies, the world obstinately refused to end. It took five hard and difficult years of planning to kill three thousand infidels in a single day. Yet less than two years after this triumph the only countries in Islam to ever successfully take on the West lay in ruins, their leaders dead, imprisoned, or running too hard to even show their faces. Even worse, the people of these countries are showing signs of adapting to the infidel, of turning their backs on the men of God who should be leading them, riding down the seductive road of perdition called "self government."

In fact, their predicament is no different from that experienced by their Christian brethren six centuries ago. Because to them the world did end, for the one when the last tower of Cluny was pulled down by French peasants so enraged they used their bare hands, for the other when the bronze statue of a madman was yanked off its pedestal while infidel tanks rolled unopposed through the city that once formed the heart of the greatest empire the world had ever known.

It remains to be seen whether the hold of the mad mullahs can be broken, whether, given the chance, great men will arise from all walks of life and lead the peoples of Islam in adapting to modernity instead of being martyred by it. Because without a doubt the peoples of the old Islamic empires must come to terms with the world around them.

It is up to them to choose whether they do so united under a flag of liberty, or the tombstone of a mass grave.

Posted by scott at 08:38 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
February 26, 2004
Clear Channel

The Howard Stern radio show has been taken off half a dozen channels for obscenity. The hosts of the similar Don and Mike radio show in Washington D.C. were placed on administrative leave for two weeks because a technical glitch allowed an obscenity to be heard on the air. "Bubba the Love Sponge" in Florida was fired outright. A cold wind indeed seems to be blowing through broadcasting, and you can't turn on a radio show today without hearing about it.

The thing is, for the most part I agree with what's happening right now. I reserve the right to change my mind or protest if I think it's goes too far, but at the moment to be honest I'm ever-so-slightly pleased at what's going on.

Nobody is as shocked as I am at that admission. For the longest time I was at the absolute tip of the anti-censorship crusade. "If you don't like it, change the damned channel" was the "phrase that pays" as far as I was concerned. Just a bunch of damned busy-bodies poking their noses into my entertainment, trying to tell me what I could and could not watch.

But you know what? As I've grown older, and more importantly had my own child, I'm beginning to realize just how much of this is crap for crap's sake. Shocking images, shocking sounds, shocking words that illuminate absolutely nothing, reveal only that we can be shocked, are simply a waste of everyone's time. Yes, I can (will) change the channel, but I'm growing increasingly tired of being required to every time I turn around.

So pardon me if I'm not particularly concerned that Howard won't be able to smear a woman's butt with cream cheese and throw bagels at it. Excuse me if I'm just a little relieved I won't hear even a bit of what Don or Mike saw in their toilet bowl this morning. And please forgive me if I think it's a good thing Arty Lang will have to be clever to get laughs instead of simply being good at "anal ring toss".

I've lived through all this before, and so have they. Reagan's Meese commission was far more effective at "suppressing smut" than the current FCC will ever dream of being. The country survived that, it'll survive this too. Slippery slopes? Please. I find irony deeper than an ocean trench every time some mindless twenty-something holds a "Bush = Censorship" sign up to a camera, or yet another drippy hippy writes a screed on their website proclaiming the police state has arrived. Got news for you sparky... people who have really lost their freedom of speech don't get the chance to complain about it.

I think everything, even pornography, has its place. I still believe changing the channel is the first, best choice for someone who doesn't like what they’re hearing or seeing. But I also believe people have an obligation to be decent to each other, that shocking people just to shock them is artistic masturbation, and that it's better to do good work than indulge in bad behavior. I don't think preventing Howard from broadcasting the description of a man's toe being inserted into a woman's vagina will result in the destruction of our free society.

I'm amazed anyone (except maybe Howard) does.

Posted by scott at 04:08 PM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
January 29, 2004
Rationale, Pt 2

While I have already stated my overall reasons for supporting the war in Iraq, the questions "why now? Why the rush? Why not more time for inspections? Why not more time for negotiation?" are legitimate ones. A few more months, even a year, would have made little difference. Why not wait?

In all this debate, not once have I seen simple logistics mentioned. As the aphorism goes, "amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics." In my opinion, looking at the logistics and circumstances of the lead-up to this conflict provides the ultimate answer not to "why?" (which we addressed in part 1), but rather, "why now?"

It was widely speculated in the media that one of the strategic purposes of the governments who apposed the war was to delay action long enough for summer to start. This is a very valid point. If the jump-off point was pushed from March to, perhaps, July, the average high temperature would've spiked from 66F to 108F (citation), making the weather at least as dangerous as the Iraqis themselves. Had the international community gotten its wish and been given an extra three months, they would have effectively been given an additional four months as the brain-frying summer heat passed by.

This additional four months would have, of course, been spent with troops gathered inside countries who held no particular love for them. The opportunities for terrorism would have been many. Armies are similar in some respects to athletic teams... motivation over long periods of inactivity is challenging to say the least. The sword that was sharp in March might have been far duller in November. The political cost of having reserves and national guard units sitting thousands of miles from families and jobs while doing literally nothing goes without saying. The fiscal and logistical price of moving them home then moving them back would have been prohibitive.

Well, if a few months were impractical, why not a whole year? The problem then is not logistical, but political. Waiting until March 2004 would have put the operation in the heart of the election season, providing the opposition a titanic stick with which to beat the current administration. Most everyone should remember the "wag the dog" debacle Clinton went through when he attacked Baghdad in '98 (on the eve of his impeachment vote), and those were just cruise missiles (citation). Our government moves slowly in the best of times. In an election year it moves not at all.

So delaying the war even three months would have effectively delayed it at least two full years while the national elections passed and the dust settled. Two years of international pressure to not only delay a war, but remove sanctions completely. Two years of costly, dangerous enforcement of no-fly zones at the full expense of US taxpayers. Two years with an election in the middle that may have installed a different administration, one that would perhaps have allowed the sanctions to lapse or be removed. Two years of potential gestation before the real nightmare began.

Had Osama's operation gone off a year earlier, I do not doubt we would have given the international community their year. Whichever president ended up in the White House would've been able to do that. Unfortunately it didn’t. In my opinion once Afghanistan was targeted first and Iraq second, the only way the timetable could work was for an invasion to be started in March of 2003 at the latest. It wasn't a comfortable clock, and its gears may have been made of knives, but our discomfort with it did not stop its ticking.

In my opinion, this is the reason the governments of France, Germany, and Russia decided to risk outright rupture with the United States and pushed so hard to delay the campaign. A delay of only three months, a reasonable request among gentlemen concerning such a barbaric but effectively de-fanged little brown man, had the very real potential of scuttling the entire project, perhaps forever. The oil money promised to them in construction contracts, defense purchases, and outright graft would've flowed freely, and it would've been a fine party indeed. Right up to the point of apocalypse.

It's quite true that our forces probably could've gone in the height of summer and won anyway. An inverted Odessa campaign wouldn't have resulted in a blast-furnace Stalingrad. Certainly the Iraqis would have been fighting under the same, if not worse, conditions. But I wonder how the fierce detractors of the conflict would have reacted had even a single US or UK soldier died of heat stroke simply because they wanted the international community to like us.

The sad thing is, I doubt they would have reacted at all.

Posted by scott at 03:30 PM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
January 16, 2004
Rationale

I supported our decision to depose Saddam Hussein through military action. But the anti-war protesters were right; there were no weapons of mass destruction, there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9-11, and Iraq presented no clear and present danger to the United States. His economy was being strangled by sanctions, and almost daily air strikes ensured his military could not even build basic defenses. This was naked aggression, a war of conquest at the whim of a single madman, a 21st century Hitler goose-stepping across the world. How could anyone with an IQ greater than a hamster's support such a thing?

I cannot speak for the administration's actual motives. However, being without an "inside track" does not prevent informed speculation, as just about every pundit on the planet proves daily. What follows is, as with theirs, my own opinion and worth about as much.

We never really stopped being "at war" with Saddam Hussein's regime. For more than a decade after the end of general hostilities in 1991 Iraq was the subject of almost daily bombing raids to enforce the northern and southern "no-fly" zones. Attacks on the heartland were periodic but frequent. This was not done for free, nor was it being paid for by any international coalition. The US and UK were spending approximately a billion dollars a year simply to maintain a dangerous status-quo (citation).

The escalating level of violence required to enforce these no-fly zones was resulting in increasingly vocal humanitarian opposition. The very legality of the zones was open to contentious debate (citation). The loss of even a single aircrew would have inevitably brought about tough, perhaps even unanswerable, questions about our involvement and the zones's effectiveness. Having a captive or dead American soldier or two paraded in front of television cameras would have almost certainly triggered an end to the only military involvement actively preventing the Ba'athist regime's undisguised efforts at rearmament.

The vaunted sanctions supposedly strangling the regime into submission were widely accepted as not working (citation), and the outcry at the humanitarian cost was growing increasingly difficult to counter. The international (and indeed domestic) business community, quite rightly seeing Iraq as a titanic works project waiting to happen, was also bringing increased pressure on the various governments involved to end the sanctions. Many prominent countries were simply ignoring them and signing billion-dollar investment deals with the Ba'athist regime, presenting the United States and Britain with a gradual but no less de facto international repeal.

It was only a matter of time before the outcry grew so great and the suffering of the Iraqi people so obvious that future US and UK governments, with no particular attachment to policies of previous administrations, sought some method of quietly ending sanctions altogether. Re-armament would not then simply be expected, but facilitated by international arms dealers competing for a piece of the last big arms market in the world. But this re-armament would only concern Iraq's immediate neighbors. The unprecedented events of September 11th showed in spectacular fashion how to carry war to the west's own cities, their own peoples, in ways that could paralyze them with comparatively minimal expense.

Ideological differences have caused Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to be anathema each other. However, the Middle East has a long, rich history of demagogues holding their noses and associating themselves with turgidly corrupt secular leaders... as long as the price was right. With its own funding sources pinched if not cut off entirely, it would be difficult indeed to resist the sound of gold shaking on the belt pouch of the man sitting between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Even if bin Laden still snubbed the now freed Hussein regime, it's not particularly difficult to field one's own set of insurgents. Certainly the Palestinians, who remained faithful allies, would've been quite willing and able to provide both training and recruits. The dormant quest for nuclear weapons, either purchased or manufactured, would certainly be renewed. Even at the height of sanctions feelers were being cast about to acquire such weapons and the technologies required to deliver them (citation).

In my own view, it's quite true that Iraq in 2003 posed no real and present danger to the west, the United States in particular. Unfortunately, the efforts required to maintain this situation were on-going, expensive, dangerous, sometimes deadly to innocents, and showed literally no signs of ever ending. A war without end made real. Worse still, powerful political and economic forces were aligning to free Hussein's regime of these restrictions, allowing Iraq to eventually become a very real, indeed inevitable, future danger to our country, and the world.

This is why, in my opinion, Saddam had to go, and sooner rather than later. Not for any present need, not for any pressing requirement, but rather to avert an obvious political, humanitarian, and military disaster that was quite patently going to happen before it actually did so. Certainly if Saddam's reconstruction were to succeed beyond his wildest dreams we would still be able to defeat him. But at what additional cost?

History is littered with wars that could have been stopped, holocausts that could have been interrupted, millions dead in combat who simply did not need to die, had someone acted decisively at an early enough juncture to force real change. In my opinion, that is exactly what has happened here. You can disagree. You can claim my scenarios are unlikely to ever have happened. You may even be right.

But know I sleep better at night because now I'm certain they can never happen at all.

Posted by scott at 06:27 PM | Comments (11) | eMail this entry!
December 23, 2003
Casualties

It is axiomatic in the third world that the best, indeed only, way to defeat the United States in battle is to inflict the maximum possible casualties at all times. Eventually, the reasoning goes, the weak and vacillating commoner leading them will pull the troops out in order to win the next election. Failing that, the people will rise up and install a leader that will do it for them. Either way, the result will be the same, because Americans have no stomach for battle.

The thing is, they're right. History has proven time and again that the United States has a very low "pain threshold" for it's own casualties. However, to paraphrase a line in a movie I once saw, "that does not mean what they think it means."

"You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it." -- Ho Chi Minh

Part of the problem is the definition of what, exactly, constitutes a casualty. To most of the rest of the world, a nation's existence is defined not by the survival and prosperity of its people, but of its elite. For nations (and supra-national paramilitary organizations) such as these, the success of one man's (or a small group of men's) will defines the success of that nation (or group). A failure of will naturally means apocalypse.

In a situation like this, the life of one soldier is meaningless. The lives of battalions of them are meaningless. They can, indeed should, be sacrificed to ensure the will of the nation (i.e. the exclusive will of its leadership) is expressed in victory.

The United States simply isn't like this. In fact, we are so different it's often difficult for us to comprehend this sort of mindset. Regardless of chicken-little airheads' and washed up radicals' accusations of "fascism", the United States has been, is, and always will be the expression of a collective, not individual, will. The survival of the nation is not bound up in a single man, but is instead defined by the combined wishes of a majority of its inhabitants*.

In a situation like this, the life of every soldier has value. The loss of battalions of them simply unspeakable. They are us, and because we have no particular wish to die we do not wish our soldiers to die either, sometimes regardless of the cause. When our nation's forces leave a war zone it is never a defeat because that departure represents the will of the nation as a whole. We leave not because we must, we leave because we want to.

This has important implications for all sides. A totalitarian ruler would be well advised to stop wasting money on fancy weapons his indoctrinated troops could barely use anyway and spend the money on Madison Avenue and the New York Times's advertising department instead. A few clever Super Bowl ads here, a few full-page print sections there, and pretty soon it won't matter what the President thinks, because the people will be planning vacations and the editors will spin negative stories like tops just to keep the business.

This is not to say we're stupid. Far from it. It's just that, if it doesn't intrude directly on our lives, most of us don't care what the rest of the world does. In this we are no different from the rest of humanity. A Briton, Indian, or Chinese may protest their civility versus our barbarity, but when was the last time you saw a campaign to relieve the poor on Manhattan's streets?

An aside, for a moment, on the myth of the vaunted Western concern for civilian casualties. Significantly vocal but most definitely small minorities will violently disagree, but for the most part if it's someone else that's getting blown up, we're no more concerned about it than a Guyanan, Congolese, or Trobriand Islander would be. Oh, we'll feel bad about it, sometimes to the point of actually doing something to stop it. But if it comes down to a choice of protecting our troops or their civilians, well that's no choice at all. History has shown time and again most people (not just Americans) are quite willing to believe the most outrageous lies about battlefield victims as long as victory is swift and their own are not the ones filling the bags**.

For Americans, it's important to admit that it is in fact possible for an enemy to win (by their definition) simply by killing enough of our soldiers†. However, it's also important to understand that the values which make this possible: rule of law, citizen soldiers, universal education, and free inquiry, are at the same time what makes our military the most effective and powerful fighting force in history.

By emphasizing the value of each soldier while instilling in him or her pride in both their service and their country, we do not create soft cowards, we create mean clever bastards who fight harder and smarter than any opponent who may face them. They'll evaluate, innovate, and implement whatever works wherever possible, faster than any tinpot dictator or religious wack could ever hope to match.

Because, as citizens of the United States of America, they simply have better things to do.

Posted by scott at 06:21 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
December 15, 2003
Patriot

"What makes me so mad", a friend once said to me during an instant message conversation, "is that people accuse us of being anti-American because we protest the war."

To which I replied, "that's because they're stupid. Protesting wars is one of the things that makes us Americans. We shoot each other over sneakers. Of course we're going to argue about war. Besides, you still love the country, right?"

After a long, thoughtful pause, the words came up, "well, that's a complex issue. We'll have to talk it over some time."

An artful dodge, but one I actually understood. How could any educated person actually "love" this country? How could we, when we knew this country had oppressed so many peoples in its making, sucked up environmental resources in gargantuan quantities and spewed them out the tops of smoke stacks to ruinous end, coddled the rich and buried the poor, and destabilized entire regions settling old family scores? Who could love such a thing?

Well, I can. I do. And for better reasons than any of my "educated citizens" might have for disliking it.

I love America because it's got an insanely complex government. Tens of thousands of people at all levels get to decide almost everything about the country, from the position of garbage cans outside my house to the position of a space station orbiting the earth. The only thing special about these people is they simply wanted to do it. Even better, we regularly get a chance to replace all of them, sometimes simply because we don't like their beady little stare. Every bit of regulation and law, right up to the founding documents of the country itself, can be changed or discarded if enough of us feel like it.

I love America because large numbers of its citizens are so naive they actually expect this government to function. They rally, they chant, they write, they march, they call, they vote, they care, all in the sincere belief that if the right combination of politicians ended up in office, we could actually get this government to work for us. For this they are, of course, doomed to eternal disappointment, but their Charlie-Brown-like ability to get up, dust themselves off, and grumble down the field for another kick at congress's football makes us all better in the long run.

I love America because far larger numbers of its citizens want to work for themselves and keep the government out of their way. They know that people who gain power through public office need to be carefully watched, and that crusaders are usually only leading their followers into the sea. They strongly believe as long as the playing field is level and the rules are followed, anyone... anyone can succeed. For this they too are doomed to disappointment, not just because the field can be mined and the rules hidden, but because too many players think they're "owed" a starting position.

I love America because it's as much an idea as a nation, one that lets anyone participate. It may not be easy, it's usually not fair, but it's too often far more than 85% of the world gets on their first birthday. Today we are not the only place in the world that provides this opportunity, but we were the first, and we stand with a depressingly small group of equals.

I love America because as a nation we're always thinking up something new. People are smarter than their governments, a lot smarter, and by enabling more people than anywhere else on the planet, America has become a gyser of ideas, a fountainhead of innovation unequaled in time or place. Not all of them are good ideas, and some work only badly, but for every Zima, Chia Pet, and Clinton Administration there are a dozen TiVOs, Saturn Vs, and Wright Brothers. More importantly, we get to decided what succeeds and fails, not some dusty bureaucrat or son of a dictator.

I love America most of all because we never stop trying. We screw it up just as much as anyone else, sometimes with horrible, tragic results. When we see that happen, we work to fix it, nearly always faster than anyone else would or could. We refuse to be the whipping boy of the rest of the world, refuse to be an excuse distracting from bankrupt economies, crumbling infrastructures, and ruptured ideas. This means we get blamed for screwing up a lot more than we've ever been responsible for. But when we accept a screwup, we do what we can to fix it, from giving a farmer cash for a stray bomb to crushing an entire administration for blowing up a country and then lying about it.

We're not perfect. We're not even close. If you were to hack this country out and put it under a dome on Mars, we'd still be robbing liquor stores and trying to elect Hillary Clinton. We probably wouldn't even notice the sky'd gone a funny color and the French had finally shut up. But to the great disappointment of Noam Chomsky, Ted Rall, Jacques Chirac, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden (aka "next"), and many others, we're not going anywhere. Instead we're going to stand out here, holding our torch as high as we can. Because no matter how rusted it may be, no matter how many times we're ungainly in its holding, we know the gold of it will always shine bright.

And for that, my friends, I am a patriot.

Posted by scott at 03:55 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
December 08, 2003
A Letter to the Editor

This is a letter to the editors of E-Pregnancy Magazine. In their current issue, they have yet another tiresome, repetitive, and most of all utterly wrong article titled, "Keeping Kitty in Her Place." You can check out E-Pregnancy here.

Scott says this lacks my normal "ranty freshness", but I think it still gets the point across. Mama Smurf will be very happy it doesn't contain f-word, not even once.

I am a Licensed Veterinary Technician of 10 years and had my first baby 5 months ago. I am also the owner of 5 cats. I practice at an exclusive cat practice in Arlington, Va. I am also an active member in the VALVT (Virginia Association for Licensed Veterinary Technicians.) I am writing to educate the authors of the article, "Keep Kitty in Her Place" that appeared in your January 2004 issue, who are ignorant in this field and have chosen to only listen to their medical practitioners, other magazines and superstitious friends and family. When one is pregnant and owns a pet, your veterinarian can become an invaluable source of information and advice.

To this day, I am still appalled by what is written in pregnancy magazines about cats. Not only how to keep pets away from your children, but a 'How To' guide on how to toss a pet aside when one is pregnant and make it a "Me" situation. How utterly selfish. Pets are a responsibility. If you plan to become pregnant and just can't seem to fit a pet in your life, don't get one. Learn to adjust your life and your pet's life to a new addition and make it a positive experience for everyone. I cannot tell you how many clients I have had come in to our clinic and test and retest their cats on Toxoplasmosis only because they keep receiving false information. I practiced feline medicine till the day I went into labor at work, ( and returned 6 weeks later).

I have spent ten years in the field of professional animal medicine, being exposed to cats for forty hours a week, six days per week on average. This is far, far, beyond anything an average pet owner will ever experience. Like all other pregnant women, I was tested for toxoplasmosis in my first trimester.

I tested negative. I had never, not once, been infected with the disease.

You are more likely to contract Toxoplasmosis by raw meat and gardening. Hence, wash your hands.

Now, to the specifics of the article:

Many cats are NOT deterred by tinfoil. Cats WILL cross that line. You might as well draw a circle of salt and hope for the best. Cats are not stupid, they are curious by nature. Cats like to play with tinfoil, especially in ball form. So why would you want to deter them with a toy?

Keeping a spray bottle around and spritzing the cat every time it nears the baby is also a poor idea. This only lets the cats know the baby and that area of the house is "off limits" permanently and because of this the cats will generally cause trouble elsewhere or become depressed. What you are telling the cat with this action is that: "I don't want you around." It amazes me to this day how a couple will come in with a new kitten, ooh and ahh over it, 6 months or later down the line, become pregnant and that poor cat is tossed aside like some dirty laundry. A pet is a companion, it is a privilege to enjoy its company.

Cats like to be where people are, and this naturally includes the baby. Cats won't suck their breath away or sleep on their heads because of warmth. Most cats will leave a baby alone for quite a while and will introduce themselves to the baby when they feel it's time. I have a cat in my household that is well known for being "nasty" to company, and was not amused when the baby arrived. This cat has now taken to the baby and likes to sit by her and share her space watching her with curiosity. Never has this cat uttered a growl or hiss. The cat comes running to her when she is upset.

Cats WILL find a cozy place of their own. It may not be the baby crib, but it may just be that play mat, or Boppy or blanket that you left on the floor.

It is recommend that you not only discuss your options with your doctor, but with your VETERINARIAN or Veterinary Staff- especially those who have had children.

One thing that you failed to mention in the article, KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED! This is the EASIEST way to keep kitty away from baby.

I hope in the future you contact a veterinarian that is CURRENT on feline medicine for consultations on advice in this matter. You can find the information you are looking for at www.aafponline.org (The American Association for Feline Practitioners) for further information on feline medicine and advice.

Sincerely,

Ellen Carozza LVT, VDT
Vice President of The Virginia Association of Licensed Veterinary Technicians.
Mom of 1 human and to 5 cats.

Posted by Ellen at 09:17 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
December 05, 2003
Grease Monkey Pt II

Safety is as safety does...

In Part I we discussed the various things you need to have fun working on a car, well, other than Pam Anderson (or, if you prefer, Jonny Depp) in a coverall. These were a) a safe place to work, preferably a garage, and b) quality tools to get the job done. Now, we'll talk a little about working on a car safely.

An automobile is nearly always at least a full ton of steel, mounted on wheels, filled with enough gasoline to blow up a house and an electrical supply that can weld metal. Screw around with your girlfriend (or boyfriend) and they'll leave you. Screw around with your car and it'll kill you faster than a Palestinian "fashion belt."

So, there are a certain set of tools and procedures you must follow if you want to work on your car safely. These are basically non-negotiable if you don't want to be buried with it. If someone tries to get you to work on a car without this stuff, know you are doing so at your own, mortal, risk.

The first thing you need is actually part of your safe place to work: a hard, flat, level surface. An automobile is one of the first, best examples of mass versus weight. When your car is sitting on a level surface, all you're dealing with is its mass1, which neatly obeys Newton's laws of motion. In other words, if it's sitting still it'll tend to stay still, moving only when something acts on it. You'll be the only thing acting on it, so you'll be able to control it.

When you put a car on an incline, you're working with its mass and its weight. Weight is the force of gravity on an object2, and a car on an incline is basically a whole bunch of mass fighting to break free. This means that, instead of tinkering with a neutral lump, you're working around something that wants to move. Which means you have to sit there and figure out which ways it wants to move, and brace against them. Not impossible, but the consequences of screwing up can be, well, unpleasant.

The next things you'll need are a floor jack and a pair of jackstands. You may wonder, since cars come with jacks already, why you'd need a special one just to work on the car. Well, spare tire jacks are emergency-use devices, meant to help you impress chicks (or rescue helpless guys) and scrape knuckles. They're not designed to push cars into the air time and again, and don't lift the car very high into the air. As a car is lifted on a jack, it shifts around a bit. Spare tire jacks aren't designed to compensate for this, and so they'll lean over alarmingly as the car goes higher in the air. Floor jacks have none of these limitations. If you get one nice enough, it'll also lift the car a lot faster than any spare tire jack could.

Jackstands are simple (and therefore cheap), but one of the most critical "first-buys" you'll make. All they do is hold a car in the air. They are designed to never move, lean, crack, crumble, bend, or splinter. Rocks, cinder blocks, bricks, boards, and blocks have been used to hold a car in the air, sometimes even successfully, but only by stupid or very desperate people. At a typical cost of $50 for a pair of really nice ones (and half that for cheap ones), there's no reason not to have them.

These two items, jacks and stands, go together because they perform related, but distinct, jobs. The jack lifts the car into the air, and the stands hold it there. As you will find often in your adventures in automotive maintenance, these tools are very good at what they're designed to do, and they suck ass at anything else. If you use a screwdriver as a prybar and it snaps in two, you've usually just ruined a tool. If a car falls off a jack because you were too cheap to buy stands or too lazy to use them, at best you'll simply damage your vehicle. At worst you'll be dinner table conversation at the next coroner's convention.

This is important enough to deserve repeating: Never, ever, ever work under a car that isn't properly supported. A jack of any sort is not proper support. One of the saddest things I ever saw was an episode of "California Coroner"3 I caught on Discovery a few years back. Someone had called the police complaining of a stench coming from their neighbor's back yard. The police arrived to discover a very (as in 4-day) dead person half-squashed underneath a car. The moron had only used a bumper jack, and apparently he got a little careless and bumped it. The horrifying thing was it took a little while before he died. They could tell because he'd broken his fingernails off, desperately trying to lift a two ton Chrysler Imperial off his chest with his bare hands.

The third thing you should buy, or first if the stuff you need to do doesn't involve putting the car in the air, is a large fire extinguisher. The larger the better. Cars are filled with all sorts of nifty petroleum products, ironically the largest quantity of which is also the most flammable. None can be put out with a garden hose or a bucket of water. Once ignited, a car will quite merrily burn with a heat that can melt cast iron and definitely destroy an entire house. A fire extinguisher will ensure a random flame is a fun excuse to coat your garage with white powder, not a reason to call 911.

Stay alert when working on a car that's running. There are a lot of spinning parts in there, any one of which can lop off a careless finger or crush a misplaced hand. Assume that unless you're watching it, the hand you're moving is being placed straight into the path of the fan blades. This will ensure it always stays attached to your wrist. Put away the damned jewelry, which will get caught and torn up, probably cutting you up in the process. Make damned sure all long hair is kept under control, because getting that caught in a fan belt will tear your head off, which makes for a very messy cleanup.

The rest of it is just common sense. Stay calm, take your time, think about what you're doing. The really dangerous stuff usually has warning labels attached to it ("do not open when hot", "can explode if not properly ventilated", "keep hands and feet in ride at all times", etc.) Follow them religiously. Read the manual to learn the proper places to put a jack and stands, because you'll damage the car if you don't. If you don't have the manual ask someone, don't just take a guess.

Your car, your body, your friends and your family will thank you.

To be continued...

Posted by scott at 04:18 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
December 01, 2003
Battle Notes

While the press is, rather predictably, playing up the "worrisome escalation" angle of yesterday's big ambush attacks, there are several things they're missing:

  • The regular army isn't very big on subtlety or subterfuge. In other words, when it comes to ops planning they have the reputation of being as imaginative and subtle as a cast iron skillet. So, let's for the moment posit that this whole thing wasn't some massive, extremely clever setup. This means the CPA has been penetrated, and probably pretty deeply. Convoys filled with currency don't have swinging yellow "Billions On Board" signs attached to them. Someone dropped a dime on this one.

    The co-ordination was just too good. Sure, a convoy filled with APCs and M-1s guarding a few 5-tons fairly screams "ambush me!" But you can't co-ordinate three different nearly simultaneous attacks with a cell-style guerilla unit structure. It takes time, and quite a bit of it, to get everyone in position, trained and tasked. They've got leaks, serious ones, and need to find them.

  • They almost certainly didn't bag 50-plus insurgents. On average, for every dead combatant there will be two wounded (in other words, usually 1/3rd of all combat casualties are deaths, the rest are wounded), and it's very unlikely the good guys managed to wound everyone, which is what would be required for the numbers to add up. Expect a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacking by the press monkeys brave enough to actually leave the Palestine hotel for a few hours.
  • They did kill some of them, and almost certainly wounded many more. At the cost of zero dead and eight wounded. This is about as one-sided as it can get.We won this one.
  • In spite of the trumpeted co-ordination, there was a remarkable lack of heavy weapons. Shooting AK-47s and RPGs at an M-1 Abrams, even the ass of an M-1 Abrams, is like lobbing spitballs at Steve Austin. You need recoilless rifles, big mortars, and wire-guided missiles before these things even start paying attention to you. They had what must have been at least a week of preparation, and still couldn't field these critical items.
  • Even without them, the insurgents stood up and fought. Every guerilla doctrine from the Wascones to chairman Mao states you sneak up on the enemy, hit him on the back of the head as hard as you can, and then run like hell if he turns around. We turned around, but they didn't run. We had tanks and they didn't run.

    This means they were stupid, arrogant, or very, very desperate. You just don't attack prepared regular army units with partisans, not if you want keep them from being noisily turned into worm food. Trained officers, even ones as badly trained as those who riddled Saddam's army, know this. These men were sacrificed in a gamble that didn't pay off. They bluffed us with aces and eights when we were showing four cards of a straight flush.

  • They took the chance anyway because we are winning. The "old" Iraqi Dinars, which it would be fair to assume the guerrillas have aplenty, expire this month (according to NBC news at least). Always remember guerrillas operate on the fringes... they beg, borrow, steal, or buy what they need or they (literally) starve and die. If the CPA really were running around with their thumbs stuffed so far up their asses they could pick boogers then the "new" Dinars would be taken about as seriously as Michael Jackson's claims of "innocent" sleepovers.

    Instead, the new money is being taken so seriously the opposition was willing to show just how co-ordinated it could get just to knock over a few trucks full of it. This is the kind of co-ordination you use only when you have the chance to shove a bullet in Bremer's ear. If it were a simple feint they would never have come near this convoy. Instead they threw everything they had at it, and had their heads handed to them.

We're not perfect over there. I think we're still probably screwing up at least as often as we're getting it right. But this was not a screwup, at least not on our part. The good guys won this one.

And if you don't think we're the good guys, please don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

Posted by scott at 08:37 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 20, 2003
Grease Monkey, Part I

Nearly all of you, at one point or another in your life, will get stranded somewhere because of a car breakdown. Nearly all of you at one point or another will shell out more than a thousand dollars for an unexpected car repair. Nearly all of you will pay someone else to solve these problems.

Some of you, though, will think, "maybe I can do this". Of course, you'll be wrong. Just thinking you can do it is quite a bit different from actually gathering up everything you need to do it. The only time someone fixes a car simply by lifting the hood and twiddling with something unseen is in a movie.

Real car work, even simple real car work, requires an amazing amount of stuff to get done right. But don't worry, that's where AMCGLTD comes in. No, you can't have my tools, sod off! But you can have the knowledge I've gained from 20 years of working on various cars, which (as any professional mechanic will tell you after reading this) will be worth exactly what you paid for. What we're going to explore here are the things I've discovered that will a) allow you to fix cars and b) have at least some fun doing it.

Which reminds me... there are about as many different ways to work on a car as there are cars to work on. Automotive Maintenance is as much about philosophy as it is technique. This is my philosophy, my technique. You can (many will) disagree with it. That doesn't make you any less wrong1 , but hey, if you've been working on your own car long enough to disagree with me, then what are you doing here? The following is what I have found I needed to fix a car and have fun doing it.

To start, you must find a safe place to work. Parking lots are not safe places to work. Not only do you risk getting run over by Buffy the SUV slayer as your legs stick out from under your car, you also risk the wrath of the Condo (or Apartment) Nazis. These jackbooted thugs2 will not understand your quest for automotive enlightenment, instead persuing their own obsession with weird abstracts like "property value" and what a 96 Toyota on blocks leaking hydraulic fluid is doing to it. Avoid their attention at all costs.

Beginners will try abandoned parking lots or even back or (if you're desperate, isolated, and/or unmarried) front yards. The first time a 4mm screw slips from your fingers and into the tall grass, or a C-clip departs the engine bay at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light, you'll understand there are exactly two safe places to work... a garage and a driveway. Of the two, a garage is far superior, because there's nothing more effective at getting you to snap a bolt off than lightning hitting a tree a hundred yards away.

As with just about anything else involved in working on cars, you can borrow adequate working space. However, this will generally limit your projects to things that can be done quickly, usually less than a day. Worse still, it sometimes limits you to projects other people think you're capable of completing3. Finally, unless you're fortunate enough to borrow the space of someone who already does car work, you have to bring all your own tools. Having to make long round trips to your house (or a parts store) just to pick up a pair of pliers or a wrench, four or five times a day, is not conducive to an enjoyable repair experience.

Which brings us to tools. Ah... lovely, sweet, shiny tools. In auto maintenance, having the right tool is literally half the battle. The basics, sockets, ratchets and wrenches4 are only the beginning. There's also screwdrivers, pliers, cutters, punches, chisels, hammers, crimpers, and a whole host of specialized tools you probably won't even know to ask about when you start. The first time you do any new project, you'll end up buying a whole host of tools. The good news is, generally you'll only have to make big purchases at first. The bad news is, good tools aren't cheap.

And you want good tools. Sure, they all have lifetime warranties, which in theory makes them all equal. However, as with Mr. Orwell's barn, some are more equal than others. In America, there are three tool brands professional mechanics use in preference to all others... Snap-On, Mac, and Matco. Of the three, Snap-On is considered the best, with good reason. Unfortunately, Snap-On knows this, and charges accordingly. A small Snap-On metric socket set can easily set you back $300. No, that's not a misprint. On my patented "scale of beers"5, Snap-On is equivalent to Guinness poured from a tap in Dublin. It may take awhile to appreciate, but there just isn't anything better.

Mac and Matco seem to be roughly co-equal with each other, their reputation setting them below Snap-On but far above anything you'll find in a department store6. Their pricing is substantially less than Snap-On as well, usually by almost half. Still, $170 for a set of ten sockets and a ratchet will shock the hell out of anyone used to shopping at Wal Mart. On the scale of beers, they both rate in the "Sam Adams/Pete's Wicked/[Your Favorite Microbrew]" league. Definitely premium, but there are (a few) better things, if you can afford them.

Which leads us to the department-store stuff. While few can question the quality of the "big three", there's a lot of variation in the "amateur" ranks. Without exception, "real" mechanics will call most of it junk. Pure junk, if they're in an ugly mood that day. For the most part, they're not far from wrong. Because I wanted to actually eat, there have been times when I've been forced to buy the cheapest tool I could find. Some of them are so poorly made they won't even fit what they're supposed to. Worse still, many will damage nuts and bolts that need some grunt to loosen. On the beer scale, anything with made in "Taiwan", "India" or "China" is equivalent to the plain white can in your grocery store labeled in large block letters with the word "BEER". You can buy them, but you're not working on my car with them!

Of all the tool makes "mere mortals" can buy, the only two I personally would recommend are Craftsman and Husky. Craftsman makes decent quality tools and sells them for (comparatively) bargain-basement prices. I've found their sockets very high quality, their wrenches somewhat crude but effective, and their ratchets sub-par but workable. There's also the legendary Craftsman guarantee on hand tools:if it breaks, no matter how old, worn, or nasty it is, take it in to any Sears anywhere in the world and you'll get a new one, no questions asked. Husky, a brand found mostly in Home Depots in the south, is supposedly made by the same company, but regardless the quality is roughly equivalent. On the beer scale, they're in the Yuengling/Michelobe range. Certainly not the best you can do, but definitely acceptable considering the price.

And then there's e-bay. Because all of these tools have lifetime warranties, it really doesn't matter how used they are. If they break, you get new ones. So, e-bay is an extremely useful place to find discount tools. Probably half the hand tools I now have I got from e-bay. Snap-on is, ironically, the most common professional grade tool you'll find, but absolutely everyone knows how much they're worth. You won't have to pay $320 for a set of 10 wrenches, but you'll usually have to pay at least $120.

Mac and Matco are also out there, but much rarer. The sets tend to go for only a little less than the Snap-on stuff, but because they're not as well known it's possible to "snipe" an occasional auction and get a really great deal. It's still better than what you'd pay buying them off the truck.

The real bargains are Craftsman. Those are the tools you'll get literally for pennies on the dollar. Not only that, a lot of the stuff is new, usually still shrinkwrapped. Be careful though! As with any e-bay item, make sure you know how much any of it costs new. Include the shipping! Craftsman is available at any Sears in the country, and there are very few things in the world that'll make you feel more foolish than buying used tools for more than you'd pay for new.

So, now you've got your tools, you've got your car, and you've got a place to do some work. Now what? Well, you could just start loosening and unscrewing until stuff starts to fall off. And if I want to get rich I can just go to Vegas and start playing slot machines. Both have a roughly equal chance of success. But, as with blackjack, there are systems you can use, strategies and techniques that, while they can't guarantee success, can at least minimize the pain.

For those, you'll have to wait for part 2.

Posted by scott at 07:53 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 10, 2003
Guerrilla Warfare 101

The second in a series of occasional essays on various aspects of warfare.

Preface

One of the problems with being a lifelong student of military history is you start assuming everyone knows things that very few people actually do. There have been many times in the past few weeks where I've shouted "DUR!!!" at the TV only to be confronted with a quizzical look from my wife. So, apologies if this all seems a bit too obvious to you, or a gross oversimplification. I'm just trying to make sure we're all working from the same page.

Guerrilla warfare is one of the most complex, and yet paradoxically one of the most simple, forms of warfare man has created. Like chess, the pieces are straightforward, their paths well-known, but in combination give rise to a nearly infinite number of combinations and strategies. Because of this, guerrilla warfare is usually considered one of the more difficult fields of fighting to study, and often seems barely understood by the popular media. We're going to try, in 1500 words or less, to take at least a baby step in rectifying this situation.

First off, it's important to emphasize that because of their very nature guerrilla conflicts are always unique. Generalizations are very difficult, and dangerous besides. It's very tempting to think just because you understand one guerrilla conflict very well, you understand them all. Gigantic volumes have been written simply detailing the differences between the various conflicts. Trying to inflexibly apply rules that worked in one to another can get you killed.That said, comparing all the various conflicts and the writings of the people who fought them does reveal some commonality.

The basic units, the guerrillas themselves, are nearly always taken from the poorest sections of a society. They are usually young men, poorly educated but not stupid, drawn directly from the local population. As such, they come with a built-in knowledge of local language, custom, and geography, items invaluable to a guerrilla's survival.

The leadership of these bands are oftentimes not drawn from the same "local boys" as the rank-and-file. Instead, leaders tend to come from groups of the better educated middle- and upper-class sections of a society. University students and recent graduates are common choices, as their youth and uncritical idealism make them prime candidates for indoctrination, while their education allows them to see alternatives to the injustice the current society is inflicting.

Because guerrillas are at heart a grass-roots movement, they are always chronically short of supplies. Since they have no factories, no foundries, no depots to call on, they must beg, borrow, or steal essentially everything they need to do their job. Simply acquiring and maintaining the advanced weaponry needed to make the entire project work is a major and difficult undertaking.

Because of this utter reliance on the world around them for supply, the guerrilla must have the support of the common people. As Mao Tse-Tung once said, "the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." The common people provide the guerrilla with food, shelter, and places to train, as well as accurate and timely information about the enemy. Without the people the guerrilla is simply a starving target hiding in the wilderness. This single factor is central to a guerrilla's existence. Without the people, guerrilla movements wither and die.

The support of an outside "great power" providing weaponry, pots of money, and/or logistical support is nice, but not required for the success of guerrilla operations. If an outsider isn't around to just hand you things like SAMs, recoilless rifles, howitzers, and mortars, then a guerrilla unit will simply attempt buy, borrow, or steal them from the enemy. Don't laugh... the Viet Cong were for a very long time equipped with some of the finest weaponry the US government could provide.

Indoctrination and ideology are also essential to a guerrilla movement's success. You'll always have a certain number of individuals who'll fight just for the sake of fighting, but to really build numbers you must give people something worth fighting for.

It's important to also understand how limited guerrillas really are. While easily able to harass and hinder, they are not capable of occupation in the face of determined, well-organized resistance. They can run amok when all they're facing is infantry, even regular infantry, but when the tanks and planes show up they run or they die. Guerrilla movements can drive "regular" generals insane and hamper their ability to operate, but it takes a regular "real" army to make the final moves in a revolution.This does not mean the guerrilla leaders need to build their own army from scratch, although some have done so. At least as common is co-opting existing generals by indoctrination, blackmail, or kidnapping.

This is why guerrillas need safe places, far away from enemy interference. Without a haven, regulars cannot be trained, supplies cannot be built up, training cannot take place. This is where the dumb luck of geography comes in... some places have terrain almost purpose-built to hide huge numbers of people doing really noisy things, while others make it impossible for three guys to stand together without being noticed.

While it is very difficult for a guerrilla force to win, it's equally (and more famously) difficult for them to lose. Because a guerrilla is as much about mindset as equipment or training, they can fade back into the peasantry as quickly as they sprang up, only to return again when the conditions are right. When lead well, guerrillas never even attempt to confront their enemies under anything other than ideal conditions. Again, Mao: "When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he stops, harass; when he tires, strike; when he retreats, pursue." If the enemy won't stand and fight, and looks exactly like a peasant once he's ditched his rifle, it's just about impossible to win a battle with him.

This does not mean guerrilla forces are invincible, far from it. Guerrilla movements are created by external conditions, and it is only by controlling and removing these external conditions that they can be reliably defeated. Sometimes this is simply not possible... a brutal, corrupt dictatorship is not going to introduce land reform or give away its power, no matter how many soldiers die in ambushes. In such places the best that can be hoped for is a bloody stalemate, with both sides grinding away at each other, sometimes for decades at a time.

When the conditions can be alleviated, guerrilla movements evaporate like puddles on a hot street. However, these conditions are by no means obvious, and their solutions not simple at all. Roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals can be built by the dozen, but if half the project is sucked up in graft and the other half is spent meeting the requirements on the cheap, nothing will be gained. Children can be sent to schools and protected on safe streets but if it requires the locals to be uprooted from the land of their ancestors they'll simply move right back where they started, and send their sons to fight the infidel. Fences can be constructed and leaders assassinated, but as long as settlements are built in the heart of an erstwhile homeland while bags of money are being handed over the border by cynical fools, nothing will change.

So when you hear the report of a bombing, consider the targets. Were they soldiers, or their supporters? Were they instead common people, or those known to help them? Are soldiers working with the locals, or are they trying to sweep the opposition aside so that a "new order" can take hold? Are the guerrillas drawn from the local population, or are they filled with ranks of "foreigners" from other places? Do the guerrillas have a safe haven to operate from, or terrain to use as cover for their operations, or are they stuck with flat, exposed country in which even dead dogs can be spotted a half mile away?

Ironically, as far as Iraq goes the conclusion to my first "101" essay is essentially the same as this:

What you watch for then is how patient our guys are. The Iraqis have no love for us, because we have invaded their country. Never lose sight of this fact. It doesn't matter if we're there to "liberate" them... we're big, scary, weird looking, and in their front yard. Only by being patient, by removing the bastards with the sniper rifles and the mortars, without killing anyone else, will they decide we are the lesser of two evils. When that happens they'll do our work for us, because unlike us they know Achmed's kid Achmad is no damned good and has been playing with some awfully smelly stuff in his basement lately. It is only with the villagers' help that we'll transform a successful suicide bombing into a dumb kid sitting in a cell.

Posted by scott at 08:08 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
November 06, 2003
Competition

One of the more challenging parts of growing up, for me at least, was learning about sportsmanship. Oh, we'd be told about "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game", but the way adults acted when a team played well but lost versus when a team played poorly but won was not ignored by the children involved. As I grew up, hard lessons taught me the only time people play for the sake of playing is when they have nothing to lose. People who win, and do it consistently, have always understood rules are flexible things, rewarding most only when bent just to the point of breaking, but no further.

It's everywhere. Pro ball players, business owners, real estate developers, labor union leaders, senior citizen groups, gun nuts, peacenicks, hookers and homeless are all looking for an edge, an advantage that will give them exactly what they want, and at the top will do absolutely anything to get. Every one of them always keeping in mind the old axiom "it's not breaking the rules as long as you don't get caught."

What I find surprising about such things is that other people find them so surprising. In business and sports it's amusing, but in politics it's simply staggering. Thankfully, our founding fathers were nowhere near as naive about human nature as the current generation seems to be. They knew far too many of us prefer to bend our knees than use our heads, and that people who seek governmental power are always smart, charming, perceptive, funny, and at heart the absolute last people you would actually want to give that sort of power to. So they designed from the outset a system of government so Byzantine in its complexity we still haven't completely figured out all its subtleties more than two centuries later. Even then it was nearly torn apart by the efforts of the rapidly industrializing North to defang the power of the old-money South. Only the truly credulous think the Civil War was just about slavery, or state's rights.

I'm not so cynical as to say everyone is like this. Far from it. Our country is fantastically successful not just because it puts ruthless, vicious people in a precarious balance against themselves, but because it also makes them directly accountable to the vast majority of decent, law-abiding folks who make up the rest of it, folks who really do think good works, a pious soul, and living a clean life are signposts along the only real road to happiness. But to deny the monsters exist, or to claim they infest one side only, or that they are not in charge and have always been in charge (no matter which label happens to hang on them) is to at best show a fawning ignorance in the way the world works, at worst a denial so complete as to be called cynical itself.

It's very important to remember this... the US is not successful because of any innate virtue bestowed on us, but rather because the dark, powerful people who run our society are kept in balance with each other, while being held in check by and accountable to the rest of us. Even more importantly, the rest of the world is not as successful as we are not because we've lied or stolen or killed our way to the top. They fail instead because for the most part their countries do not have such checks and balances, and therefore are always at risk from the predations of evil and the miscalculations of good intent. History has proven time and again that such nations all too easily succumb to the abyss of totalitarianism, no matter what its disguise may be.

It is to our discredit that we fail to recognize this, and instead blame ourselves, and allow ourselves to be blamed, for all the evil that is in this world.

Posted by scott at 10:46 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
October 09, 2003
Definitions

"We love the people, we just hate their government" is a phrase nearly everyone, everywhere, has heard, and yet no single phrase is more often misunderstood by its speakers.

Westerners living in democracies say this out of their utter naivete about how the world works. Deep down, most of us actually think there are no real differences between the governing class and the governed in a society. In our wide-eyed ignorance, we really do see one group as interchangeable with the other.

It simply doesn't work this way. No matter how egalitarian, no matter how totalitarian, societies are ruled by the social elite of their culture. What's important to understand about more "traditional" (i.e. theocratic, Marxist, and/or autocratic) cultures is their social elite is small, fixed, and essentially unchangeable. It is made up of at best a few dozen families who jealously and brutally guard their privilege. We are puzzled when a dictator or oligarchy runs their country into the ground because we do not understand that, to them, they are the country, and only their prosperity matters.

This deserves repeating: In most of the rest of the world, if you are not born with the right last name, go to the right school, marry the right person, and live in the right neighborhood, you do not count as a member of that society. A cynic may sneer it's no different here than there, but that only proves their ignorance. In a traditional society there is absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to change these facts to your advantage.

Power changes hands only with violence. Without exception, throughout history, real transfers of power are marked by seas of blood sloshed out of losers at the hands of winners. Dynasty is exterminated by dynasty, empires change hands with a sword through the neck, and heretics create orthodoxy with a torch and kindling.

The theory that modern democracies are miraculous because they avoid this mayhem through law is a myth. As is so often bemoaned by Marxists and Greens in the west, the change is only one of degree, not kind. Al Gore went to Harvard, George Bush to Yale, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Oxford. These are most definitely not men of common stock.

Instead, the power of capitalism and democracy are that they spread out the definition of elite, make larger and far more mobile the pool of aristocracy. Faith can be twisted, naivete manipulated, but the money enshrined in capitalism has a cold, hard logic that defies long-term political or religious manipulation. Academics and liberals bleat about the failure of this country because of rights denied, opportunities stolen, all the while willfully ignoring an ugly truth: the only things really inalienable in this world are naked power and grim death. Constitutions are designed to protect, and only enable by accident. Whatever failings this country may have, its democratic constitution has over time protected it very, very well.

We succeed where all others fail not out of fairness, or the empowerment of a mythical "common man", but because our society gives anyone smart enough, mean enough, and determined enough the opportunity to become elite. Power is therefore never wrested from the smoking pyres of coincidental birth, but is instead bequeathed by one recognizable old fart to another. By breaking the chains of simple inheritance, our society reaches liberty not by allowing the plebe to influence the senator, but by allowing the plebe to become the senator.

And therein, as they say, lies the rub. Anti-war protesters in our country march in the streets against our violent involvement in the affairs of another country. In part, they do this because they assume that by attacking the ruling government we are attacking the people, because in their countries the government is the people. Never once do they seem to realize this is simply not the case. Never once do they seem to realize that violence is required to remove an entrenched elite, an elite so small and removed from the "commoners" as to be almost from another planet. Never once do they seem to realize that without such intervention, they doom the other society to a bleak existence of poverty, secret police, and wood chippers.

The reverse mistake is almost as common. The surest way to power, or the elimination of a rival power, in a traditional setting is to exterminate a small, readily identifiable minority. Simply destroying glorious landmarks in a timely way will ensure the collapse of an entire country because that's exactly what would happen in their country, if a bomb was smuggled into the right palace. Never once do they realize the ignorant masses that to them moo and baa at the master's command actually are the government they seek to destroy, and the only way to truly eliminate the threat is to kill them all.

It should therefore not be surprising that such elite labor so mightily to acquire weapons that can kill millions at the touch of a button. Nor should it be surprising (to anyone that's actually paying attention) that our government is willing to shed blood to deny them that privilege. We fear them because we think they have the support of millions. They attack us under the assumption that the death of mere thousands will give them hegemony.

Of the two, the latter is the more delusional. True, it's been proven time and again that a small, mobile, determined foe can succeed as long as their larger, more resourceful opponent screws it up. As long as they're lucky each time, they will prevail.

The problem they refuse to see is the big guy only has to be lucky once.

Posted by scott at 08:30 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
September 11, 2003
Violence

Bin Laden accuses us of being soft. Have we no stomach for violence? In the long run, will it make a difference?

We've all seen it at one time or another... the hero, after witnessing the deaths of his loved ones sets out to avenge these misdeeds. After questing long and hard, he finally confronts the evildoer and after an epic battle disarms him. Just as he's about to send this murderer to his maker, some supporting actor always runs up, grabs the hero's arm, and shouts, "No! You can't do this! If you kill him you'll be no better than he is!" After a few moments of dramatic music, the hero takes a deep breath, puts away his weapon, and the credits roll.

This tableaux, acted out so often in our media we can almost recite the dialog word for word, represents a fundamental contradiction in our modern society. The elitist, the academic, the intellectual, both self-styled and actual, is bemused by simple, outdated concepts like "good" and "evil". After some sixty years of post-war cultural relativism, they fully believe in the utopian delusion that misunderstanding and miscommunication are the root of all evil and only by refusing to "talk it out" do we descend into madness.

The "common" people, however, hold no such delusions. In a world of strong versus weak, where success is too many times defined by how hungry you are when you go to bed, where prosperity is always bestowed to the mean and the clever instead of the virtuous and responsible, they know without a doubt that good and evil are both concrete and easy to spot. They do not look to the latest vogue social theories to guide them, they look instead to the books of their ancestors, whose admonitions will be with them long after the latest behavioral theory has been discredited.

And so, since Hollywood is filled with the former while the rest of America is filled with the latter, our heroes seem to always be forced through this existential angst at doing what is, after all, the hero's job. As with all modern streams of liberal thought, Hollywood has forgotten what middle America has not. There are always differences between the hero and the villain, deeply rooted ones that could never be undone with a single act of violence.

It wasn't always like this. The foundations of our culture, the quasi-mythological histories of Greece, Rome, and Judea, are filled with vengeful characters carrying out their missions with, as the modern saying goes, "extreme prejudice." Ancient criminal justice systems could be sophisticated in the extreme in the procedures used to find guilt, yet had exactly three sorts of penalties: fines, mutilations, and death. Such sentences were always carried out publicly, and at the ancient high point of our cultural tradition were turned into macabre sport. In warfare, extermination of an entire people was the understood, and desired, goal, so obvious it was never even articulated.

What changed? The answer lies at the feet of the industrial revolution. The upward mobility and burgeoning middle class created by industrialization redefined what was a threat to society. Because agrarian cultures (and, before about 1760, all advanced cultures were agrarian) are always ruled by an extremely small, extremely rich elite surrounded by masses of very poor, very desperate people, the slightest transgression was always seen as a direct threat to society*, and was treated accordingly. Defeated cultures could be annihilated simply by lopping off a few thousand heads and enslaving the rest.

Industrialization's emphasis of wealth over birth as the arbiter of power shattered this construct. For the first time in the history of civilization, being born poor did not automatically doom someone to a life of poverty. Unprecedented numbers of people suddenly had the wealth and time required to be creative, and therefore define the culture. The weapons of these societies were so powerful they doomed any army that didn't have them, and so such creativity could not be snuffed at the will of a thug who happened to be good with a horse.

With so many people having a "buy" into a society, and industrial technology arming them with weapons of such unprecedented lethality, cultural extinction simply fell off the radar screen. Since birth no longer solely determined a person's value to a society, the concept of "rehabilitation" became possible, even desirable in an age of freewheeling opportunism. It took a lot longer for massacring an opponent's army to go out of fashion, but eventually even that was seen as denying one's own producers a set of future consumers.

Modern societies are now ever further removed from violence of any sort. A person nauseated by the thought of killing a chicken, cow, or pig would've starved 150 years ago yet today can prosper without eating meat at all. The effectiveness of modern police forces have made private gun ownership an at times dangerous luxury instead of an obvious necessity. We have become so insulated even obviously fictional violence upsets us, and viewing real, albeit televised, death is perceived as a shattering experience.

What's important to understand, and far too often ignored by insular academics, elitist diplomats, and policy wonks, is that the rest of the world still works the old way. A "traditional" society is almost by definition agrarian in nature. This is far too often romanticized into bucolic visions of peaceful farmers riding carts pulled by braying donkeys, but such is not the case.

Instead, these are societies ruled by very small classes of elites, defined more by blood than by talent. Social mobility, especially by women, is seen as (and in fact is) an immediate and direct threat to the very foundations of these cultures, and because of this is dealt with in the most harsh and brutal ways imaginable. "The people" simply don't exist in the western conception of that term, instead being composed of masses of very poor, very ignorant people with no conception of or concern for the policies, practices, or preachings of their rulers so long as it does not affect their fields.

The events of September 11th represented a literal clash of these two cultural conceptions. To the traditional culture, this was a logical attempt to exterminate at least some** of the ruling elite that threatened their utter destruction. In their mind, such destruction would perforce result in the implosion and extinction of that society, since the elite were the only ones actually responsible for it. Victory would be, therefore, inevitable.

To the most culturally advanced (i.e. liberal) members of the industrial society, it was the violent "acting out" of a people who had simply "missed out" on the benefits of modernity. Cultural extinction, on either side, simply never occurred to them because their society was made up of all the people, not just a small subset, and it would be assumed the other side was likewise composed. Negotiations should be the rule of the day, not primitive vengeance.

Of course, of the two miscalculations, the former is much more dangerous to the traditional society than the latter is to the industrial. Modernity is an uncomfortable suit of clothes for many, perhaps even most, of its inhabitants. Even two centuries is not enough time for such people to forget apocalypse. To them, the attacks represented a clear and present danger not just to their country, but to their way of life, even their very existence. It doesn't help much that they're right. And it's those millions of people who understood on that terrible day one simple truth the liberals, elites, and academics had long forgotten.

The good guy can never turn into the bad guy simply by killing him, because the bad guy is now dead.

Posted by scott at 08:58 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 05, 2003
Welcome to My World, Part V

U1: "Scott! Help! I sent a message to a few people and it ended up going to the whole staff! What's wrong?!?"

Just what I need on a Friday. An e-mail mystery.

U2: "Scott! Oh my god! I sent a message to someone and it went to the whole staff!"

Well, ok, one person having a problem is, well, one person having a problem. Every network admin worth his/her salt knows the biggest source of bugs and errors comes from the device sitting between the chair and the keyboard. More than one person having a problem, well, that's a network issue, and that's my job.

U3: "Scott! What's going on?!? I sent..."

Me, in unison: "a message to someone and it went to the whole staff?"

U3, disappointed (spoiled it for her): "well, yes."

Me: "No idea what's causing this. I'll get on it."

U3: "Well, great, because ... " [insert user dialog #6: "something weird happened and now people are calling me and I just wanted you to know because it's completely your responsibility at least a little and I know you're interested anyway"]

While trying to tease out what the hell might be going on with these messages (I got them too), a miracle occurred. Not just a "wow-look-a-20-dollar-bill-on-the-sidewalk" miracle, but a genuine gold-plated divine intervention, complete with clouds parting, sunbeams descending, and a chorus of angels singing hosannas on high.

One of my users figured out what was going wrong. All by themselves. And they actually came by to tell me about it.

U2: "I've got it! The messages I sent to [Known Clueless Usertm, aka KCUtm] got sent to all the staff. Just those, nothing else."

Cue wavy-screen flashback effect and music as Scott looks skyward. Voiceover of Scott: "Hmmm... [KCUtm]"

Flashback: Yesterday, 3 pm, phone rings

Me: "This is Scott"

KCUtm: "Hi Scott! This is [KCUtm]!"

Me: *GROAN* (on the inside)

KCUtm: "What was that? Is my cell phone acting up again?"

Note to self: must keep inside thoughts inside

Me: "I guess... what's up?"

KCUtm: "Well, umm... I was... umm... wondering. How do I set it so that it sends out umm... you know... whenever I log in?"

How to get tech support to help your clueless ass [page 28]: Be as vague as possible. Tech support people enjoy trying to figure out what the hell you're talking about. Words like "computer" and "email" are too specific and disappoint your tech support person. Instead, use pronouns that could refer to six or seven different things on your computer. Finally, make sure to refer to something that's just impossible, like sending everyone on the staff a message when you log into your computer. Support people live to help you specify your problems before they can solve them.

Me: (Hooray! Another dart throwing contest! Let's see... what does KCUtm always want to do yet never remembers how... ah! I remember, the thing KCUtm called about the past three times in a row) "You mean you want to set a vacation autoreply on your e-mail account so when people send you mail they get a reply that you're out of the office?" (Swear to god, Jane Goodall got nothing on me when it comes to translating the intentions of the primitives)

KCUtm: "Yes! That's it!"

Me: "Ok, go to [intranet website] and visit [clearly labeled e-mail section], then click [clearly labeled account management section, even says "autoreply" on it], then follow the directions."

KCUtm (long pause ... I can almost hear claxons sounding in her brain and the announcement "DANGER! DANGER! SELF-RELIANCE REQUIRED! SYSTEMS OVERLOADING! STAND CLEAR! SYSTEMS OVERLOADING!"): "The directions?"

Me [oh no you don't, not this time]: "Yup, the directions are right there. Just follow them."

KCUtm: "And they'll tell me what to do?"

Me: No, they'll tell you how to make chicken and dumplings in a spare tire. "Yup."

KCUtm [in doubtful singsong tones suggesting "You'll be sorr-rey"]: "Umm... Okay..."

Cue wavy-screen flashback effect and music as Scott nods his head

Me: "Thanks [U2], I think I already know where the problem is."

Let's see... nope, don't know her password, not on file (things like this are why I keep them in a file, not because I like spying on them. Well, much.) Too bad, so sad, going to have to call me to find out what it is now. A quick password re-set and I'm in. Sure enough, there it was.

You see, right below the part where you set your vacation reply is another section marked AUTO FORWARD. Let's repeat that... another section. That being something marked clearly and separately from the correct section. And right there, in the auto forward section, was the all-staff e-mail address. Now, this isn't some sort of button you just click and suddenly mail is going somewhere else. Nope, you have to click two boxes and type some text in to get forwarding to work. You have to want it to work.

Yup, this person had, for reasons I at first refused to even attempt understanding, set it up so anyone sending her e-mail would automatically have that e-mail forwarded to the entire staff of this organization.

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence -- Napoleon Bonaparte

I should have that carved into my door. No, I don't think she did it on purpose. Wait, what am I saying, of course she did it on purpose... it's the only way something like that can be done. What I mean is I don't think she did it out of a sense of malice.

Putting on my "moron goggles" I had to admit that, in spite of the fact these were two separate sections with two obviously different functions, there were no explicit instructions saying "use this for that, and this other thing for that other thing." In my own defense, nobody in the past five years this system had been in use had managed a stunt like this. However, by crossing my eyes and focusing on exactly and only what was in front of me and ignoring everything else, I could almost see what happened...

KCUtm [in voiceover]: Let's see... here's the autoreply stuff... well, this is easy... who needs those squiggly "instruction" things anyway. Now, type up the reply, and, oh! Look! It's even got this blank at the bottom for me to tell it who to send the reply to! Wow, it's got more squiggles around it... "A-U-T-O F-O-R-W--" oh god, this is so confusing... Well, it's obvious what it's for anyway. Let's send it to everyone on the staff, that's so great!"

So now there are big red warnings on the page, a-la "DO NOT USE HAIR DRYER WHILE IN BATHTUB" and "WARNING: INSERTING HEAD INTO BAG AND CLOSING MAY RESULT IN SUFFOCATION".

Now if I can just get out of here before she calls wondering what happened with her password...

Posted by scott at 02:06 PM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
September 04, 2003
Spotter's Guide

How to spot a:

Liberal

  1. Thinks Al Franken is funny
  2. Isn't sure what's causing all this bad weather, but knows George W. Bush is behind it somehow
  3. Sincerely believes this would be a better place if government got more involved
  4. Thinks world opinion is more important than actually getting something done
  5. Is actually surprised when politicians lie. Well, Democratic politicians that is.

Conservative

  1. Thinks Rush Limbaugh is funny.
  2. Isn't sure what's causing the economy to flop around like a trout in the bottom of a boat, but knows Hillary Clinton is behind it somehow.
  3. Believes big business has only the best interests of this country at heart.
  4. Thinks the US would be much better off if we'd just put all these funny looking people back on the boats they came in on.
  5. Believes Christianity automatically makes someone moral.

European

  1. Thinks the UN is an honest, efficient agent for world peace.
  2. Isn't sure what caused that huge heat wave, but knows the US was behind it somehow.
  3. Believes Israel would be much better off without so many damned Jews.
  4. Wishes they could stick all the funny looking people on boats and ship them to the US.
  5. Thinks the safe-house of radical Islam is in the Middle East.

Iraqi

  1. Thinks the occupation is the root cause of all suffering
  2. Wonders why soldiers are so mean to them when "someone else" lobs an RPG through a Humvee.
  3. Doesn't know what the answer is, but knows the US, the OA, the Imams, the tribes, their elders, the Ba'ath, their mom, and their cousin aren't it.
  4. Wonders why 200,000 soldiers can't find 20 million people jobs.
  5. Believes a working air conditioner is a bigger worry than their kid ending up in a wood chipper.

Palestinian

  1. It's all the Jews' fault
  2. It's all the Jews' fault
  3. It's all the Jews' fault
  4. It's all the Jews' fault
  5. It's all the Jews' fault

Journalist

  1. Doesn't care who's fault it is as long as they get a byline.
  2. Thinks research is reading the New York Times and the Washington Post.
  3. Sincerely believes liberals are under-represented in the mainstream media.
  4. Thinks a microphone in their hand automatically means they have something interesting to say.
  5. Knows that they are the only thing standing between the mooing masses and a Republican-led dictatorship.

Hollywood Actor

  1. Thinks having a microphone stuck in their face automatically means they have something meaningful to say.
  2. Believes money is a good substitute for education
  3. Wishes all these plebian, ignorant "fans" would just leave them alone so they can go about practicing their "craft". At least until their next movie comes out.
  4. Thinks playing make-believe turns them into a political analyst and foreign policy expert.
  5. Sincerely believes things like "good" and "evil" are antiquated notions unsuited to this "post-modern" age.

That should piss pretty much everyone off. My day is complete. :)

Posted by scott at 01:36 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
July 18, 2003
Casualty Statistics

The casualties along the airport road have occurred during a string of attacks that have killed 34 U.S. soldiers in Iraq since May 1. A soldier was killed today when his convoy was hit by rocket-propelled grenades on a highway just west of here.

--Washington Post, July 17, 2003

At least 79 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since Bush announced an end to major fighting May 1. Of those, 32 have been killed by hostile fire and 47 were victims of non-hostile fire or accidents.

--CNN.com, July 11, 2003

The solider was at least the 34th killed since major combat operation ended May 1, and the 149th to die in combat since the war began. Counting accidents, 226 Americans have died in the war, which began a day shy of four months ago.

--CBSnews.com, July 18, 2003

Dreaded calls continue to arrive in the still of night.

This week alone, nine soldiers died and another dozen were wounded. Among the dead were Sgt. Michael B. Quinn, 37, who went to high school, married and lived in the Tampa area before reenlisting in November 1994, and Sgt. Thomas F. Broomhead, 34, who was raised in Fort Myers.

--WMBBTV.com (a local news station in Panama City, FL), May 30, 2003

Two months after President Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, stealthy enemies are still killing and wounding American and allied soldiers - five killed and 22 wounded in May, 20 killed and 39 wounded in June.

--Knight Ridder News Service, June 30, 2003

It's depressing, isn't it? We went to all that effort, spent all that money, lost all those men and women, and now we're losing the peace. Every time you pick up a newspaper, turn on a TV, or listen to a radio, you hear it over and over and over again... US troops are getting killed constantly, nothing's going right in Iraq, and no real progress is being made. We might as well pack up and head out before we're inflicted with another Mogadishu or, even worse, Vietnam.

It's crap. Crap perpetrated by a press corps far more interested in a career-enhancing story than in providing an even balance of reporting. Pictures of blood splattered humvees and tear-stained parents sell. Stories of bomb-throwing taxi drivers and clerics preaching Jihad against the infidel sell. The consequences these stories have on the moral of a nation doesn't sell. The implications these stories have on perceptions of progress don't sell. What these stories do to the overall effort of rebuilding a nation we spent the blood of our own on don't sell.

And of course, if it doesn't sell, the media doesn't care about it.

Let's do a little fact checking on our own, shall we? The media love to intone the statistics of dead soldiers in the occupation of Iraq, ticking off the numbers with deep sincerity every single chance they get. But listen carefully. For the longest time the statistic was combat and accidents. In other words, to the press corps a kid getting killed by an Iraqi with an RPG is comparable to a different kid getting killed by a crate of tank treads falling on him. This is a distinction important enough it deserves repeating: to the press, accident and combat fatalities are the same thing.

What we're not getting, unsurprisingly, is any sort of perspective about these numbers. The Army is a dangerous place in the best of times. Working with stuff designed to blow up on purpose usually is. To demonstrate this, let's take a look at just how dangerous it is to work in the army on, as they say, "any given Sunday" by checking out the fatality rate for the past nine years (source):

Army Military Fatalities
FY1993 FY1994 FY1995 FY1996 FY1997 FY1998 FY1999 FY2000 FY2001 FY2002
237 233 209 194 150 168 186 161 168 202

Please note that, like the media, I'm lumping all army fatalities in here. So let's compare it with the last "real" war the media seems to take seriously, Vietnam (source):

1961-1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971
1,864 6,053 11,058 16,511 11,527 6,065 2,348

Again, lumping both combat and "non-combat" casualties.

For comparison, the total number of fatalities for the army in FY 02-03, including combat and accidents, stands at approximately 344. That's 151 fatalities during the war (source), and 193 accidental deaths since October of 2002 (source).

So, what does it all mean? Well, depends on how you look at it. If we look only at accidents, the current fatality rate is high, but not extraordinarily so. If we look only at combat fatalities, the current rate is almost unbelievably low, especially when compared to the last occupation-style operation in which a comparable number of troops were involved.

Most importantly it means the press is focusing on the wrong thing. The media has an incredibly important role to play in the reconstruction of Iraq. Vietnam turned into a debacle in no small part because nobody was watching the people in charge to make sure they were doing a good job. We need the press to keep us informed, to act as a watchdog against bureaucratic excess and failure when it happens, and act as a promoter of ideas that work and people who come up with them if they remain in obscurity. They are simply not doing this.

Each fatality is a terrible tragedy, yes, but we're in the process of rebuilding an entire nation. Where are the stories about fixing infrastructure? Where are the stories about attempts at government? Where are the stories about reconstructing the economy? While careerist pop-star wannabes are out chasing ambulances we're stuck here with no idea what's really going on.

It's not at all uncommon for our media to self-indulgently focus on the dramatic death of a single person in order to further a career. The orgy is distasteful, but in the context of, say, a natural disaster or a lurid murder the results are basically harmless.

The rules are different now. The fate of someone else's country is at stake. Like it or not, the media sets the tone for our national debates. By focusing on demoralizing tales of death and failure on the scale of a single soldier, they are actively undermining political support for a national cause which we have already paid for in blood.

It's not just the prestige of a politician, the success of a party, or the re-election of a president that's on the line here. The ultimate fate of more than 22 million people and countless future generations is now our responsibility. Of course, this is simply too big for most of our press corps to get their head around, so let's ratchet the focus down a bit. If we suffer a failure of nerve over a perceived lack of success, if we cut and run because of a seemingly endless stream of bad news, if our representatives squander their opportunities and destroy our chances with programs that just don't work, then our media will have ensured only one thing.

They will have ensured the sacrifices of all the Americans they take such ill-disguised glee in reporting, every single one of them, will have been a complete and utter waste. And if we all don't wise up to them, it might actually happen.

Posted by scott at 06:00 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
June 20, 2003
Communication Overload

Ok, let's face it, I'm not exactly what you'd call a socializer. I'm just not real good at it. I guess I don't feel I have all that much in common with, well, almost anyone. In the great high school we call adult life, I am most definitely one of the weird kids in the corner reading a science fiction book. I'm actually used to it, so what has happened in the last nine months has caught me completely by surprise. In that short period of time I went from the guy people scheduled around to someone every person wanted to talk to.

Oh, I've found friends, good people who do in fact share the same interests as me, but most of the time my conversations with other people tended to go like this:

P: "Wow, that's an interesting picture on your calendar there."

Me: "Yeah, that's an He-111 bomber. In fact, it's the one that flew Franco around after World War II. The Confederate Air Force picked it up in the sixties and fly it around to this day. It's one of the only warbirds I haven't seen in person. If you'll notice the engine nacelles look funny. That's because they used Merlin engines with that model. Makes them look really different." (Ok, look, I didn't say being treated like I still had zit cream on my chin wasn't justified.)

P: [blank stare, bit of a pause] "Umm... yeah... wow... gee, look at the time, gotta go!"

Me: "Sure! No problem! You sure you don't want to see next month's--"

At which point they've usually escaped.

Worse still are lunchtime conversations. Those long, awkward silences while you're munching a sandwich with someone sitting next to you, even if it's someone you don't know very well, get under my skin in a hurry. This usually triggers a pitiful exchange like:

Me: "Wow, some weather we're having, huh?"

R: "Yeah. Rains a lot now. My geraniums have really started to wilt. Do you garden?"

Me: "Well, no, not really."

R: "And my husband hasn't been able to attend any baseball games either. Who's your favorite team?"

Me: "Ah. Well, don't really follow baseball that closely either."

[long pause.]

R: "Wow, some weather we're having, huh?"

It gets so bad I sometimes think people move their lunch hours around just to avoid me.

At parties I try to stay quiet, which works just long enough for me to find the beer, which gives me "can't-shut-up disease." This inevitably leads to fixed stares of slowly congealing horror on the faces of those around me as I barrel across the conversational savanna like a rhino charging a tour bus.

Ellen's not a whole lot better. I know it will be nearly impossible for regular readers of this site to believe, but in a party situation Ellen is usually a complete wallflower. A field mouse under a leaf pile hiding in mortal fear of a hawk is more conspicuous than my wife at an office party. Alcohol will loosen her up, yes, but when that happens at the end of the night I can find where she is by listening for the word "cat" interspersed with "and then I said what the fuck are you talking about?!?" Not hard to do, since her voice travels quite well enough to reach the host. And the people in the next county.

Yeah, party invitations were few and far between. Repeats less so. Well, at least until we found friends as weird as we were anyway (TCM! TCM! WE'RE A FAN! IF GOTHS CAN'T DO IT NO ONE CAN!)

Pregnancy changes all of this, and not just for the mother. A lifetime membership in the pocket protectorate is suddenly turned on its head. Not only do you have something to say to someone, anyone, they're actually interested in hearing it! Even stranger, they'll actually ask you questions, and listen to the answers!

Z, in gleeful tone: "Scott honey, just how is that wife of yours doing?"

Me: [Long pause. Turn around. Twice. Did they hire another Scott? Has someone replaced the woman who said "I'm sick of you talking to me like that, and I'm going to see it stops" with some alien clone? Is this in fact the fourth sign of the apocalypse? Is my fly undone?] "Oh, uh... she's fine, ready for it to end, but fine."

Z, so cheerful you expect the top of her head to blow off from the pressure of all that pure sunshine: "Well that's just great. Just great. Be sure to give her my regards and tell her to hang in there!"

Lunchroom conversations are an absolute breeze now:

D: "How's Ellen? When is her due date again?"

Me: "June 27th."

D: "Wow. Are you guys ready?"

Me: "Well, for the most part, but..."

The eyes don't glaze over, furtive looks of "oh my god make it stop make it stop!!!" are not exchanged with better-adjusted companions, they're not even curling in on themselves like someone opened a carton of six-week-old milk under their noses. Let's try an experiment...

Me: "... and it was a great excuse to pick up the latest Stephen Hawking book, and man let me tell you--"

D: "Umm... yeah... wow... gee, look at the time, gotta go!"

Ah well. At least lunchtime won't be so damned awkward anymore. Now if I can just figure out how to convince one of them Olivia could really use a 24 piece metric wrench set...

Posted by scott at 06:50 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
June 12, 2003
The Stand

I stand with Israel. In the endless finger-pointing game of "who shot first? Who stops shooting first?" I point my finger squarely at the Arab world, and wait with Israel for them to make the first real move. I admire Israel, because it is a ridiculously small country with ridiculously brave people.

At this point most other authors would say, "if you don't agree with me you'd better just skip the rest of this." I almost did just that. But I changed my mind. If you don't agree with the sentiments above I want you to read the rest of this very slowly. I want you to understand how stupid and ignorant you are. I want you to understand that being "for Jews but against Israel" is a contradiction that reeks of anti-Semitism. I want you to get so angry your blood fizzes. Because you see that's how angry I am right now, and I feel like sharing.

I'm sure anti-Semitism did exist in the little southern town I grew up in. The real problem with it was a lack of targets. There were two, count them two, Jewish families in Dumas Arkansas (population: 6400). Since everyone was busy discriminating against people who looked different (I mean, really, what good is bigotry if you have to ask before you discriminate against someone?) these two families had simply become part of the quirky background noise that flavors any small town, like candy flowers on a particularly tacky birthday cake.

One family had a wife who was a flat-out kleptomaniac. Her husband would keep an inventory of whatever she happened to shake out of her hand bag every night and come around to each store once a week to pay for the items. My mom cared for the matriarch of the other family to help pay for nursing school. Stories of a very tiny, very old, very crazy Jewish lady who insisted on putting up a Christmas tree every year regaled our household for that brief period.

When I was a kid, I learned about the Holocaust, and I learned about Israel. To me, the two became inextricably linked... very bad people had gathered up a bunch of other people and shot them and hung them and gassed them and burned them by the millions simply because they didn't like them very much. A country got set up by the people who survived to ensure it never, ever happened again. These people were still surrounded by other people who would shoot them and hang them and gas them and burn them if they were given the chance.

The difference this time around was the Jews had guns. Big ones, and lots of them. I was told these Jews, these Israelis, got most of their guns from us. Unlike their Soviet-sponsored neighbors they didn't use them as fancy parade pieces, and didn't use them as an efficient way to blow up their own people. They used them, very well, to protect themselves from everyone else. As I watched the television images of living naked people being rushed to the edges of trenches filled with dead naked people and shot over and over and over until it seemed the whole world would be mired in tears and blood I was proud to know my country was helping to keep this from ever happening again.

I still am.

I learned later there was more to it than that. Actually a lot more. I learned that Palestine didn't even exist for two thousand years, it was merely the southern part of Syria. I learned how groups of Jews started simply buying land there from whomever would sell it to them. Turned out that at the end of the nineteenth century there were a lot of sellers. A lot. After all, it was mostly desert. So many sold that by 1917 an appreciable amount of what had then become Palestine was under Jewish ownership through the simple expedient of purchasing it.

I learned of the deeply cynical deals England and France made to everyone and anyone whom they thought would help them defeat Germany in the First World War. Southern Syria was sold not once but twice to two different peoples in secret agreements hardly anyone really knew the details to. When it was over England was given the whole thing in spite of all the agreements.

I learned that the Jews of Europe knew the rules of this system and how to make it work for them. While the Arabs squabbled amongst themselves as to how to deal with this new Crusade from the primitive infidels, the Jews continued to quietly buy land and bring in families. They built farms and houses and canals and universities. It became such a scandal among Arabs they started shooting each other to prevent the legal sale of land to Jews.

I learned that in order to quell Arab unrest in Palestine Britain closed it off to Jewish immigration at precisely the time Hitler came to power, and that thousands, perhaps millions, died because of this. When the war was over Britain turned the whole mess over to the UN, which, in typical UN fashion, came up with a plan that tried to please everyone and ended up satisfying no one.

I learned that in order to support their "Palestinian" brothers the rest of the Arab world decided to crush the nascent Israeli state instead of deal with it. When the Israelis handed them their heads the Arabs annexed whatever bits of land they could grab for their own countries, said to hell with whoever happened to be living there, and rooted out and booted out every Jew they could find inside their borders. Israel took every single one of them with open arms.

I learned the United States was officially no great friend to Israel in the beginning. It was the French who supplied arms and armor to the Israelis for the first fifteen years of their existence. The IAF flew Mirages, not Starfighters. Israel was denied direct help by one US administration after another because providing it would annoy the Soviets, who had the place surrounded with their client states.

I learned it was only when those client states attacked and threatened to annihilate Israel not once but twice did the US come around and realize the country they were ignoring as inconvenient was the only working democracy in the region. A democracy that would be unable to continue its existence without our help.

But most of all, I learned the United States did not create the "problem" of Israel. Israel created itself, by legal means where it could and by force where it had to. It won its existence the same way our country did, through blood and toil and tears, promising nothing and apologizing to no one.

I learned that even secular Jews consider Israel important. I learned that every time a restaurant or bus gets blown up they feel it like it happened on their street. I learned that even today it is ridiculously easy to get Arab leaders to admit the only logical path they can see toward peace is the utter destruction of Israel.

I say these things to Americans in the hope they will understand. Understand that even today when Israelis say they're fighting for their existence they aren't kidding. Understand that the Palestinians are not the helpless victims they so often claim to be. Understand that it's not radical Jewish terrorists who blow themselves up in the name of Jaweh. Understand that someone saying they're not against Jews, they're against Zionists is like someone saying they're not against Americans, they're against the United States.

I say these things to Israelis in the hope they, too, will understand. Understand that we realize one culture in the Middle East helped found ours, while the other wants to destroy it. Understand that we know we only got a taste of what it's like to live in your shoes. Understand that because of this the most powerful country the world has ever seen is working with all its might to ensure your nightmares, now ours, remain nothing more than dark wisps left behind on children's pillows.

I say these things to Israel's enemies even though I know they will never understand. Never understand that by destroying two buildings they succeeded only in transforming an ambiguous friend into a staunch ally. Never understand that by singing the praises of human detonators they merely dig a deeper hole in which to bury their own culture. Never understand their religion is no longer a force to be reckoned with, ceased being one six centuries ago, and their traditions are what got them in this mess in the first place.

I say these things to everyone so they may all understand. I am just one man among an ocean of men, a sea of women, living in a country of our own making with our own blood and treasure. I look across half the world and find in a region as old as time itself only one small nation that looks like mine. Unique in that region, its government is of its people, by its people, and for its people, and I am willing to do whatever I can to ensure it does not perish from this earth. True, I am just one man, standing up for what I believe in.

But I do not stand alone.

Posted by scott at 04:44 PM | Comments (145) | eMail this entry!
June 06, 2003
When Car Geeks Attack

Ok, sometimes when work is slow Damion and I get to talking about souping up cars. Today's topic, how to soup up a Honda Civic so as to enable it to beat an 01 Pontiac Trans Am (why so specific? No reason...)

I do this to prove that I am not the motor wacko in this group. To wit:

S: beat him in it once, then sell it so he can't go build something else to beat it
D: right
S: oh no... D has a mission... what have I done....
D: we would have to get a standard tranny, but that shouldn't be too expensive
D: (borrow kris's)
S: heh
S: remember, we hafta do it cheap
S: cheap cheap cheap... want to build TA killer for, like, 1/5th cost of TA
S: "We can whup your ass *AND* carry more groceries!!!"
D: or we could add turbines to the back of the CRX as well
S: JATO rockets here we come
D: and a big fat spoiler on the roof
S: must APPEAR stock
D: we can do "appear"
D: Auction example of potential "victim"
D: now we're getting somewhere
S: I'd forgotten how frumpy those things looked
S: heh... jeff is on phone now
D: HAHAHA!!!
S: should I narc you to him?
D: oh, if you want, hahha
D: see if he laughs at us.
S: heh... indignity!!!
S: he doesn't think we can find a tranny that will hold all that horsepower
D: heh, with rocket power, we'll just drop it into neutral once we get up to a certian speed.
S: he sez "will still be a civic"
D: yeah, but a civic w/ a quarter mile time of like 6 seconds
D: if not less
S: he sez, "TA = chick magnet, Civic=gonzo nutball what-the-hell-izzit"
D: heh, he's just making excuses now.
S: no, final word was "well, yeah, there are 9 sec civics out there, but that's a total race car"
D: well, what about the stock engine w/ the solid state rocket in the back?
D: that's stock with (1) performance mod
S: I gotta write this up... just to prove to ppl I'm not the gearhead crazy in this group
S: well, the thing is, model rocket body = 6 oz.
S: civic crx = 25,600 oz.
S: um... think you might run into scaling problems eventually
D: wonder if my little igniter would work, or if you would have to hold a blowtorch to it...
S: *I* will not be holding blowtorch!
D: well, the like 50 of them, the size of of a 2 liter soda bottle
S: JATO rockets... if 8 of them can push a C-130 into the air in ~ 800 ft, I think we'll only need 2 of them to push a nutball D in a civic 1400 ft
D: well, better play it safe than sorry, get 5 of'm
D: wonder how much those rockets go for...
D: Hmm, actually, my mom is an ex-chemist.
D: I bet she could brew me up some.
S: lissen you hotroddin goth garb wearin skateboard moddin WACK
S: I AINT GOIN NEAR NO RICE ROCKET!!!
D: can I put Type R (for rocket) stickers on it?
D: sure ya don't wanna ride shotgun?
S: positive
S: more likely we'd light the fuse, there'd be this huge WOOSH, and when the smoke cleared the civic would be sitting there w/ no roof
S: and you'd have no eyebrows
D: no, cause it would go in the hatch
D: not on the roof
D: bolt it down to the floor
S: you crazy nutball... you actually want this thing BESIDE you?!?
D: weld a hell of a cage to hold it in place
D: well, technically behind me, a few feet hanging out the back ain't nothin
D: as long as you tie a red flag onto it so no one drives into the rear of your car
S: har
D: sure you don't wanna go for the test drive???
S: most definitely

Posted by scott at 11:12 AM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
May 21, 2003
Grand Dame

One of the funniest things I've noticed about having a child is not how it has affected us, but how it has affected our parents. We seem to have ceased being their children and instead have become grandchild delivery systems.

Phone conversations are completely different. "How are you?" "What's new in your life?" "How are things going?" have been replaced with "How's my grandbaby?" "How's the baby doing?" "Are you sure the baby's OK?" Mysterious boxes arrive from points unknown with fuzzy pink things inside so cute they'll turn your teeth into sugar. Visits from parents turn into home improvement projects, even gardening expeditions, and you'd be glad for the help except for this scary gleam in their eye. Looking there, you know they're not seeing you, but rather they're seeing the people who'll be raising their grandchild.

I guess part of the reason is grandchildren are the ultimate "other people's kid." They are yours in a very real way, yet if you get tired of them you can (usually) give them back. What's more, unlike other people's kids, you can give advice on how these are raised and the other party has to listen.

It's especially funny to see how nice they are to the kids. Things my nephew does that would've gotten my brother in trouble are just cooed over, "isn't that cute?" I get this terrible feeling that if my daughter poured a bottle of chocolate syrup on our couch my mother-in-law would smile and hand her a spoon. Bill Cosby was definitely on the money when he said, "These are not the same people I grew up with! These are old people, trying to get into heaven!"

And you don't dare actually give them your children unsupervised. Not because they'd do anything wrong, far from it. I only too well remember, after upending yet another bottle of model paint on my new school pants, my mother saying, "one day you're going to have kids. And one day I'm going to get to keep them, and on that day I will spoil them absolutely, completely rotten, give them everything and anything they want, and then give them back to you." I know this will work, I know it will, because, looking back, I realize that is exactly what my grandmother did to me.

Of course, there's also the parent's curse... everyone say it with me now, "one day I hope you have kids, and I hope they act just like you." At the time you thought it was a silly threat, and pitched a fit anyway. Decades later, you can see the holy terror that was you at that age, and you fear.

Don't think that your parents won't be that way just because they claim not to want grandchildren. Trust me, they're lying. My step mom, my mom, and my mother-in-law all actively discouraged their kids from having their first grandkid. Tell them the news though, and it's like someone set a happy-bomb off inside their head. And God help you if your brother or sister has a grandkid and you don't. Babies are like crack to old people, and it doesn't take long before they start jonesing for another one. From there it's just a short hop to, "you know, it's so sad, seeing as how I'm going to die soon and all, that I won't ever get to see your child."

You shouldn't really worry too much though. Having someone around who's already been through it all can be a godsend. Especially since they've been through it all with someone who's going to act just like you.

Posted by scott at 04:07 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
May 20, 2003
Blast Echos

35 is a funny age. With, God willing, roughly as much life ahead of me as behind me, I'm starting to get a perspective on just how much the world has changed. Oh there are myriad little things we've added... antilock brakes, glow-in-the-dark condoms, DVD collections and CD box sets, wine in big boxes and juice in small ones, telephones that fit in your pocket and televisions that hang from the roof of your car. All of these are things my daughter will take for granted that I simply can't stop marveling at. But there's one thing that is gone from our lives, that I, and perhaps everyone over the age of, say, 33, remember. One thing that is never commented on by "pundits" but is no less remarkable for its absence.

My daughter will not know fear of the apocalypse.

The dream was always the same. We would all be playing with our Star Wars toys out in a harvested bean field, wearing ripstop nylon windbreakers to protect us from the cold bed sheet breezes of autumn. Luke (Jeff) and Wedge (Me) would be running down the Death Star trench described by a stubbly dirt row, valiantly dodging Darth Vader (Jimmy) and his evil henchmen (Stewart). Just as we were making our "final run" (when everyone got to change sides), the sky would be split by a ripping sound, like someone tearing apart a thousand sheets of steel. The gray clouded sky would show a spark arcing across it like a struck match head, quite clearly a missile inbound. I knew what it was, we all knew what it was, and we would start running for home.

Running for home as time slowed and sliced into heartbeats, as the beautiful, awful thing fell over the horizon. A single pause, a silence between breaths, a last look at everything I ever knew frozen in a moment, and then the dome of cloud above us would burst with a blinding flame and a skull-cracking roar. Only then would I jerk awake, realizing it was in fact just a dream, all the same still feeling the heat on my cheek, sunburn hot and as real as the bed I was sleeping in.

I can't think of anyone I knew who didn't have these kinds of nightmares at least once in awhile. And not just kids either... I would hear grownups talk in quiet voices about each international crisis, not in terms of how it would affect them or the country, but how it might bring about the end of the world. It didn't help that every Christian fundamentalist preacher, in a town full of Christian fundamentalist preachers, could barely disguise their glee convincing everyone that now was the rapture, today would be the kingdom, coming at us on the point of a missile.

"And we'll be glad too," the 'guest speaker' at our boy scout meeting said to us, standing on the pulpit of our local church. Normally I wouldn't set foot in the place, but as an awkward 14 year old I was trying to walk in the footsteps of my old man and become a scout like him. The meeting started out in the basement, but we were brought to the main hall, ostensibly to hear how important scouting was.

Instead we got an earful. "You boys need to learn how to survive, because the Bible tells us that everything around us is doomed to destruction. Doomed, by the godless communists who as prophesied in REVALATIONS will destroy us, manipulated by the antichrist. Your brothers, your mothers, your dads and your uncles will have to rely on you to save them, and you must remain PURE to your oath, and PURE to Christ, because when those missiles fall down it is written that only the just, only the righteous, will survive."

Needless to say my scouting career was quite short. I could only imagine what my friends, who sat through things like this all the time, must've had running through their minds. And it was everywhere, anywhere you looked. Every military thriller ended the same way. Each one wrapped up with tragedy, the heroes on opposite sides nearly coming to terms, only to be shattered when one of the generals drew a dagger simply to kill an asp.

It only got worse when Reagan became president. Reagan inherited a shattered and weak military, incapable of even rescuing a few hostages in the desert. He inherited an economy weakened by inflation and recession. He inherited a press corps and international community happy for American weakness that made their jobs easier. Most of all he inherited a people who had sunk into despair and self-loathing over a stupid war in a stupid place that sent all too many sons home in boxes.

Reagan would have none of it. A charismatic man, someone you literally could not help but watch speaking, who had a mind like a razor and a love of country from a simpler time. He decided appeasement would not work, communism was a danger to the entire world, and only through confrontation would it be defeated. He rearmed, rebuilt, and reaffirmed America. For the first time in a very, very long time someone was standing up in front of cameras saying this country was the best country in the world, and you could be for us or against us, but you didn't want to be against us because we were going to win no matter what it took.

The rest of the world went bananas. This crazy old man, this actor, was going to get us all killed. The press did everything to tear him down. Almost the rest of the world (lead by, no surprise, France) heaped scorn and did their level best to keep America where it should be... beaten down and only just strong enough to keep the tanks from rolling through the Brandenburg gate and down the Champ Elysee. The Hollywood elite completely blew a gasket, convinced the plebes really had managed to elect Hitler himself to the Whitehouse.

In truth it was a scary time, because even though nearly everyone else liked Reagan, we weren't really sure if he actually was going to get us involved in a nuclear holocaust. A veritable deluge of books, movies, and TV shows rolled out showing in graphic detail what, exactly, would happen if it all really did come apart at the seams, if the bombs really did fall. The nightmares weren't going away, they were getting worse.

Every year it was the most entertaining part of graduation. You were supposed to predict what would happen, where you would be, ten years after high school was over. "In ten years, Jimmy Freeman will be flipping burgers and working for Tom Steward." "In ten years, Jane Summers will be married to Greg Banner and have two happy, healthy children." "In ten years Scott Johnson will be doing something exciting, far far away from here." All were typical.

Also, at least as typical, were these: "In ten years, Ted Murphy will be on the front lines, helping win WWIII." "In ten years, Roosevelt Smith will be living in his bomb shelter with his wife Latonya Hooper." "In ten years, Jim McGhee will be serving alongside Ted."

That was 1986, but in truth at that time even we were beginning to laugh at it. Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev had been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, the first Soviet leader who did not serve in WWII, a comparatively young man far more concerned with Russian people than with Soviet power. Seeing his own country rapidly approaching ruin, he decided to cut and run in the competition for world dominance with the United States. Taking a huge national, and in fact no less personal, risk, he reached out to Reagan. To nearly everyone's surprise, Reagan reached back.

It is every West German male's duty to serve in the military or the civil service. It's a requirement. It's also a requirement that every West German work toward re-unification with East Germany.

Two years later, and everyone chuckled as our European History professor so seriously intoned these words. Reunite with East Germany? The thought was self-evidently absurd. The Soviets would never, ever let it happen. Czechoslovakia and Hungary quite graphically demonstrated what would happen if either side tried. Anyone who studied the military situation around that border, and in that class we had all studied it, knew there were divisions of Soviet tanks waiting on one side and entire armies and air forces on the other poised on a hair trigger, a precarious balance that could, must, be maintained, perhaps forever.

Then less than a year later the goddamned wall fell down.

By this time the first George Bush was in the White House, a decent if rather colorless man. The media and entertainment elite proved incapable of absorbing that Reagan, their very own Hitler, probably was responsible for it all, and instead focused on the fact that really the entire world was caught flat-footed when it happened. I lived through it, and it really did seem like one day we were all gathered around ready to defend against an invasion, and the next a half-naked drunken German was dancing on top of the wall, surrounded on both sides with jubilant people holding hammers, smashing away at the everlasting symbol of their division.

And then it was over, so suddenly it was over. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we treated it with high drama but nothing compared to Kruschev banging his shoe. We signed nuclear reduction treaties with miniscule fanfare, utterly without somber comparisons on the evening news of cartoon stacks of holocausts, any one of which could end the world. The Cold War, which had been declared over and done with in 1968 by the 1977 press (as we cruised into purgatory of post-cold-war "detente"), was declared really, really over by that same press corps 15 years later. Everyone seemed to have forgotten what it really was like, as if by pulling Damocles's sword up into the shadows it had never existed at all.

"Daddy," she asks me, as she does every night, "tell me again what Grandpa did."
("Mommy," I ask her, as I did every night, "do you think the missiles will fall tonight?")

"Oh, your grandpa got to do really cool things. He got to help put people on the Moon."
("Oh of course not. We're going to be just fine")

"Oh I know that story daddy. What did he do before that?"
("But you say that every night.")

"Well, before he worked for NASA he was in the Air Force. He worked on Titan Missiles."
("I know, but really, it will be all right. I promise.")

"What are those?"
("But how can you be sure?")

"They were big terrible things that had huge bombs on them. We pointed them at Russia, which we called the Soviet Union back then. And they pointed ones at us too. If we'd ever actually used them, it would have been very bad."
("Because I'm your mom, and I know. It will be all right.")

"Wow, I'm glad we don't live back then."
("I'm scared.")

"So am I."
("So am I.")

Posted by scott at 06:39 PM | Comments (31) | eMail this entry!
May 19, 2003
West of Eden

Last week we said goodbye to the West Wing as it went on hiatus for the summer. We also said good by to its creator, Aaron Sorkin. I worry for the show, because I think it's smart, entertaining, even funny, and I think Sorkin was the key to making it so. I also worry because, with the departure of Farscape this year, it's really the only good science fiction show on television right now.

It may not have blasters, exploding planets, or funky aliens, but to me it has everything else good science fiction has. It is set in a world so disconnected from the one you and I live in it might as well be another planet. The heroes wield enormous power, with the ability to change the lives of millions of people almost at a whim. Yet they are constrained, constrained by rules that are not always obvious and sometimes not even particularly well understood. The villains may not have green skin or bugged eyes, but they are no less evil, and many times no less alien. What's more, not all of them are villains, some just have weird motivations, unreasonable expectations, or simply don't speak the right language.

It's even written like science fiction. These characters do not solve problems with their fists, they solve them with their minds. As with all good science fiction, the show exhibits an almost clockwork quality as the players interact with the situations they find themselves in not by smashing things, but by manipulating the rules of their world. And as with all good science fiction, half the fun of watching is trying to figure out through the half-spoken lines and weird referrals just what those rules might be. Because, unlike the physics, biology, and chemistry that surrounds most other science fiction like nuns outside a catholic school dance, we have the built-in advantage of a decade or more of civics and social studies classes. We know, or perhaps rather knew, these rules. They tickle at us, like a single lyric from a song that suddenly floats into our mind even though the melody is long forgotten. The payoff is remembering, even predicting, the rules and how they will affect the outcome.

I worry because time and again Hollywood has proven incapable of producing large numbers of writers who really understand the concepts behind science fiction. I fear that they will think the show is about peril and drama and the occasional belly laugh, different only that they're played out with six syllable words. Certainly it has these things, nearly every successful show does, but it also has a complexity found in very few other places. It has high-stakes puzzles that require brains and not brawn to solve. It has inside jokes that you can only get if you reach out to understand the game. It doesn't stop to explain the rules, assuming instead you're plenty smart enough to figure them out as they go along. Because really, you are.

Most of all the show, like all good science fiction, is as much about teaching as it is about entertaining, and I am deeply worried it will lose this once Sorkin is gone. The West Wing shows us in a truly dramatic fashion just how it all works. Idealized? Yes. Slanted? Of course. Condescending? Perhaps, at times. But really, that's not what science fiction is all about, and it's not what this show is about. Like all good science fiction, The West Wing gives us hope that the future will be better. It teaches us that it really is possible for the best and brightest to succeed, succeed in spite, because of, a humanity that we share with the characters on the screen. These are not gods, these are not the elite, these are simply people who in the face of unspeakable power and consequence still manage to make the world a better place, as best they know how.

In our government. Like I said, science fiction!

Posted by scott at 07:38 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
May 15, 2003
Uncomfortable Truths

  • No matter how hard you try, you're still going to die.
  • Nobody really knows what happens when you do.
  • Most of the people who claim to are insane.
  • George Bush probably wasn't the best candidate the Republicans could come up with.
  • Al Gore probably was the best candidate the Democrats could come up with.
  • If you've gotten good at a driving video game you've probably had more training than 90% of the people on the road.
  • One day you'll probably have to place at least one parent in a nursing home
  • If you could figure out how to afford it, you'd probably wish you could check yourself in with them.
  • One day, your kids will be in charge.
  • No matter how hard you try, you'll still end up acting like your parents.
  • You probably are already.
  • There is a small, but non-zero, chance that humanity really is the best the universe can do.
  • Your camera doesn't lie.
  • Cosmopolitan's does.
  • If you could get bigger boobs from a pill, every woman in the US would already have have D cups so firm you could bounce nickels off them.
  • So would a quarter of all men.
  • If you could get a bigger wang from a pill, half the men in the US would have ones so big they'd have to coil it in their jeans.
  • The other half wouldn't be able to leave the house.
  • The Osbornes are popular because they're weird looking but act just like your family.
  • Only with less swearing.
  • You would have to spend the next hundred years in an airplane to be at serious risk of a terrorist attack.
  • You only have to drive to the grocery store to be at serious risk of getting run over by Buffy and her Magic Cell Phone.
  • If you're over 40, somewhere someone has a picture of you in a leisure suit.
  • If you're under 20, one day your parents will show your kids a picture of you with purple hair as a justification for your kids getting theirs done in stripes.
  • Orange and green stripes.
  • There are good kids out there who just don't have a chance.
  • Sometimes you wish you could trade them for your kids.
  • Anyone over thirty can't be trusted.
  • Your parents thought the same thing.
  • Little old ladies know more about sex than you ever will.
  • Sometimes they'll end up on TV to prove it.
  • The real reason Hollywood celebrities speak out about politics is it's the only time they're actually in control of anything.
  • The real reason politicians speak out is it's the only way they can prove they're in control of anything.
  • The people who hold real power never speak at all.

Next...

Posted by scott at 06:49 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
May 14, 2003
Welcome to My World, Email Edition

Ok, let's open our mailbag at work today, see who's going to piss me off...

From: [Mr. Mysterious]
To: Scott
Subject: (no subject)
Message:
I have a problem.


From: Scott
To: [Mr. Mysterious]
Subject: re: (no subject)
Message:
I will need more detail to provide you with assistance. Please elaborate on what, exactly, the problem is you are experiencing.


From: [Mr. Mysterious]
To: Scott
Subject: re: re: (no subject)
Message:
Hi; I have just returned from [my local chapter]. I am a member of [my local chapter] and I wanted some advise [sic] on a problem I have right now. They did not have the resources needed for help for me. Can you help?
[Mr. Mysterious]



From: [Ms. Forgetful]
To: Scott
Subject: Login problems remain
Message:
Every name that I use in order to login gets the message that "there is a problem with my account" and to contact the administrator. I would prefer to have "the problem" resolved so that I can simply login without bothering you each time. Please advise -


A brief search through my SENT messages (no accident that they go back 2 years) reveals 8 messages over the past six months, remarkably identical, consisting of:

try username: [correct username] instead
try username: [correct username] instead of [incorrect username]
you should try username: [correct username]
do not use [incorrect username], use [correct username]
try username: [correct username] instead
use: [correct username]
try username: [correct username] instead
please use [correct username]



From: [Mr. Guess My Problem, I Dare You]
To: Scott
Subject: (no subject)
Message:
What about my account being in question?



From: [Mr. Mind Reading Candidate]
To: Scott
Subject: I have a problem? [Mr. MRC] [Chapter Name] - President
Message:
 



From: [Yet Another F*cking Consultant]
To: Scott
Subject: StaffPres
Message:
[YAFC's name]
President
[YAFC's Company, which I'm never going to use]
[YAFC's Street Address]
[YAFC's City & State]
[YAFC's four, count them four, contact numbers, definitely going to call them the second I see them, yeah right]

Background: "staffpres" (not it's real name) is the name of a pan-organization mail group. I mean, doesn't everyone use mail group addresses as their subject line?



From: [Ms. Bet She's a Hoot with a Road Map]
To: Scott
Subject: Not Sure What is Wrong
Message:
Dear Scott,
I am not able to access [intra net] because it says that my address is already in use and that I should go back through at least six months of E-mails. Unfortunately there is not time to do this. I need to access [useless bureaucratic] documents for a teleconference today at 3:30 [message was sent at 11:00 am].

Actual text of error message she received:
The e-mail address you specified is already listed for another [intranet] member.

This is nearly always caused by you already having [an intranet] account. Please go back through your e-mail records for at least the past six months to see if you have not overlooked your [intranet] account notice.



From: [Mr. Excitable]
To: Scott
Subject: Posting on Our [Little Local Website, hosted on your server]
Message:
Dear Scott: [Yet Another F*cking Consultant, #2, that they actually hired] suggested that I send Scott the 2 pages for posting on our web site hosted by [you] [Did he now? Well wasn't that just peachy of him]. Please post under (What's New) page of our site, 2 pages that I faxed you at [god knows which fax machine this was] tonight. That fax # is the one I used last year [oh really?]. If [no you mouth breather, WHEN... fax <> web page] you have to manually enter the text it can be very plain, not "fancy" [I'm so glad you've given me permission]. Also please change the text in What New on (The 18th Presentation---to read (The 19 Pres----and 2004 Series:--) and delete the text under Details and add under Details(Please look here for the schedule and 2004 sign-up in December 2003. Sincerely, [Mr. Excitable]


From: Scott
To: [Mr. Excitable]
Subject: re: Posting on Our [Little Local Website, hosted on your server]
Message:
All items for posting to websites must be provided in electronic form. Please e-mail the attachments to this address.


From: [Mr. Excitable]
To: Scott
Subject: Re: POSTING ON [Little Local Website]2nd request [note helpful increment manually put in by Mr. Excitable]
CC: [My Boss]
Message:
Scott, I'm desparate [sic]! We do not have the ability to scan and deliver the 2 pages that I faxed you. Please review the material and put the essentials on our web site. This was done a few months ago and I realize it's a lot of trouble for you but we must have the site carry the material on the 2 pages. Best Regards, [Mr. Excitable]


Four hours of ass-busting later:

From: Scott
To: [Mr. Excitable]
Subject: Re: POSTING ON [Little Local Website]2nd request
Message:

[Link to very spiffy (if I do say so myself) work-up of even more than what they asked for (included a little Yahoo map to where this stuff was happening)]

Please make sure to include electronic copies in the future, as it makes things much easier to work with. Let me know if you spot any mistakes or need any changes made.


From: [Mr. Excitable]
To: Scott
Subject: Fw: POSTING ON [Little Local Website]
Message:
Please post this 1 page per the message.

[Awful barely understandable HTML spaghetti that vaguely resembles what was faxed]

You're welcome


It just don't get much better than this, folks.

Posted by scott at 10:35 AM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
May 07, 2003
Reasoning

America is a Christian nation. By moving away from God we have forgotten our roots and turned this country into a bubbling, reeking cesspit of secular depravity. All our troubles would become far easier to solve if we were simply to allow morality and good Christian values to be taught in our schools and become a part of our government. Nowhere in the constitution do the words "separation of church and state" appear, because the founding fathers knew that driving God from government would destroy the country.

Nowhere is this country's lack of perspective, understanding of history, and poverty of education more starkly lit than when activist Christians discuss the separation of power in their own country. What's worse, those of us who know they're wrong are saddled with the same inadequate education, and find it surprisingly difficult to argue against their lines of reason. After all, what exactly is the harm in learning the Lord’s Prayer? The Ten Commandments actually make sense when you read them, why not mount them on the walls of city hall? We ask these questions, even if only to ourselves, and are uncomfortable because most of us have difficulty coming up with good answers.

The thing is, the reasons behind it are simple. Like all basic truths, the trouble is it's so obvious it's hard to explain to someone who refuses to see it. We have a separation of church and state because history has proven time and again that, with Christianity at least, any other combination results in chaos, murder, manipulation, and oppression in the name of love.

Christianity is a weird religion. Notwithstanding the truly mystical riddles of the trinity, the resurrection, and the kingdom, there are some basic features that make it almost completely unique and more than a little, well, quirky. Unlike Judaism or Islam, its founder was humiliated and then murdered less than four years after beginning his ministry. His followers then experienced a full three centuries of at times grinding persecution that more than once threatened the extinction of the movement. Christianity, unlike virtually any other religion, developed rigid doctrines and powerful hierarchies simply to survive.

Christianity did not create a system of government, as both Judaism and Islam did, it was recognized by a system of government and then provided with the tools of civil power. The result was a disaster. For the next thirteen centuries it would be riven with breaches that literally threatened the souls of its followers, afflicted with doctrinal disagreements that frequently devolved into bloody wars, and used by power brokers both inside and outside its ranks to promulgate the ugliest and most brutal scenes of carnage the world had ever seen. Schism, apostasy, heresy, investiture, inquisition, all and more are words invented by a religion patently incapable of wielding civil power and yet paradoxically all too easily manipulated by civil power.

This all culminated in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a conflict that claimed a greater percentage of Christians than any before (and probably any since). More were slain in a few decades of horror than in previous centuries of plagues. By the time it was all over it had become quite clear to many that the only way to real and lasting peace was to completely and utterly separate religious and secular power. Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, and countless others like them began to envision a society that did not rely on religion, because their own history showed religion as utterly unreliable.

These are the people who influenced our founding fathers. There were no examples of a "godless" society causing any sort of trouble at all, yet there were countless examples of the opposite causing untold suffering throughout the ages. By placing a legal firewall between religious and secular authority, the founding fathers sought not only to exclude religion from government, they also sought to exclude government from religion. Hence:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

If history is any example, it seems to have worked. A fanatic Christian may decide you will burn in hell for disagreeing with them, but for the past two and a half centuries they have largely been prevented from hurrying the process along with a little fire of their own. Conversely, police have stopped showing up at the doors of people accused of sedition simply because they believed the wrong number of angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Has it been perfect? Not really. Religion really does provide many, perhaps most, people the rudder, paddle, and compass needed to navigate the hurtling rapids and bubbling swamps that describe the human condition. Christianity, like all good religions, is hard enough to teach to a dedicated student. It's no wonder parents in this modern world of distraction and destruction feel they could use all the help they can get. Why not bring the schools in?

Unfortunately this just cannot be. Any recovering alcoholic can tell you sometimes all it takes is a sip of booze to send them rocketing down into a pit so black they can't even see their own shoes. Once inside the belly of this beast any number of horrific things become possible. The only real solution is to admit the problem and swear the stuff off completely.

Christianity went on what amounts to a thirteen hundred year bender with the liquor of secular power. Eventually the society it helped create became sick and tired of being sick and tired, and took away the drink. But as any spouse of a recovering alcoholic knows, it only takes one glass to turn it all inside out and upside down. They, we, just can't risk it.

And if you're a good Christian, neither can you.

Posted by scott at 04:28 PM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
April 24, 2003
The Learning Channel

Pretty much anyone who's made it all the way through high school and into college has heard it in one form or another from various professors:

Learning does not need to be fun. Learning is not supposed to be fun. Learning is work, and therefore never will be fun. Trying to make learning fun simply dilutes the knowledge that must be imparted, makes the lessons less relevant and full of unnecessary "fluff", doing the student a disservice in the long run.

In my case it usually came from tenured professors trying to make me read Thucydides or Marvin Harris. Yet they couldn't have been more wrong. As so many people often do, they were mistaking schooling's primary job. School isn't supposed to teach you facts, it's supposed to teach you how to learn them.

"You and I will never be rich," was the way a dialogue went in one of my Arthur C. Clarke books, "not because we're dumb, but because we don't know how to be rich. The rich are rich because they like to make money. You and I are not rich because we like to spend money."

On the face of it, the assertion seems absurd. Everyone likes to make money, because money is where it's at. Money gets us food, clothing, fast cars and cheap women (or, if it's your taste, expensive jewelry and obedient men), fancy boats and cool toys, and... well, if you run the list off in your head why money is important, I'll bet most of you find it really is about how you want to spend it.

In spite of what our jealousies make us feel, most rich people are rich because they really do like making money. They're all about investment opportunities, tax shelters, savings vehicles, bond issues, retirement goals, and all the other myriad ways money can be turned into more money. Rich people who stay rich typically spend very little. Sam Walton was famous for his worn out pickup trucks, Madonna is well known for never having any cash when she goes out, and LL Cool J pays cash for a Honda instead of a Humvee.

In other words, the rich get that way not because there's something intrinsically or genetically special about them, but because they are willing to sacrifice both great and small things for their one true love: the acquisition of more money. They enjoy making it, far more than spending it, and that's what makes them different. There really is no blue in their blood, no special gift bequeathed to them simply by birth.

Knowledge is, of course, a kind of wealth. Coming from the physical side of anthropology, I learned early on that in spite of many long and strenuous efforts, anthropology (and pretty much every other science) has been incapable of proving a link between sex, class, color, or religion and intelligence. Black, white, red, yellow, male, female, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and all in-between have the exact same brains between their ears.

It did, however, lead me to a kind of problem. Accepting the position that there is no genetic cause for stupidity still left me with all these quite patently stupid people milling around causing trouble. Even weirder, people would call me "smart" even though I certainly felt, and occasionally acted, as dumb as the next guy. How can it be that the same organ that allows Steven Hawking to mathematically prove that black holes emit radiation also allows Tammy Fae Baker to believe the world is only 7500 years old?

It was a personal revelation that lead me to the answer. I was sitting in a waiting room while Ellen got her glucose test. I had forgotten my copy of Thucydides (which, fifteen years later, wasn't anywhere near as head-crunchingly boring as I thought it was when I was 19), was instead reading a statistical textbook on the environmentalist movement, while wishing I could finish up both so I could start on a new analysis of the Iranian revolution. In a flash, I suddenly realized something.

I was smart not because of any particular combination of genes, and not because I happened to be white or male, I was smart simply because I liked to learn. And not just about one particular subject, but anything. I was interested in how they made cereal, why an aluminum can has a funny pinch on one end, who Imam Ali was, how a steam engine worked and where the Bible was written. I wasn't upset about books I had to read, but that I had no time to read all the books I owned.

The more I thought about it, the more the hypothesis seemed to hold up. Everyone in my own personal life whom I considered "smart" enjoyed learning for its own sake. Maybe not about Everything, but certainly about one or more Somethings. Conversely, people who I considered dumb got that way in my mind because they had proven unwilling to learn oftentimes the most basic things.

It also provided a nice explanation for stupidity in its more general sense, without having to rely on the ugly crutches of racism, sexism, or religious discrimination. People believed dumb things not because they were brain damaged, or female, or black, or Christian, or any of the thousands of other trivial things that differentiate us. They believed dumb things because they'd lost interest in learning. Lost the taste for it. Their world had frozen in an amber-hard gem of belief, now incapable of being reshaped even as it slowly went cloudy and scratched from age.

Worse still were the people who'd never gotten the chance. Critical thinking is a skill hard won by humanity, one which entire cultures have learned, forgotten, re-learned, and forgotten again, sometimes at the cost of millions of lives. The chimpanzee lies very close to the surface in all of us, and it can take frighteningly little to turn it loose.

Human beings have to be taught to think. It quite simply does not come naturally to us. History has proven again and again that without years, sometimes decades, of drill we will many times lose the ability to think for ourselves. When this happens the best that can be hoped for is a culture of poverty and entitlement. All too often it ends in the abyssal hell of the fanatic.

This is why learning must be fun. A society may decide the minimum number of things it's important to know, but without the will, the knowledge, the passion of learning the only result is a person with a minimum knowledge of things. A bad teacher forces in dry facts and mistakes knowledge for education, blaming ignorance for the sleepy heads and glassy stares. A good teacher instills a love of the mechanisms of learning, understanding knowledge will take care of itself, far beyond the time and space of the classroom.

Even more important, while it is possible to lose the ability to think critically, love learning, it's also possible to get it back. A person can't simply stop being black, or female, or Jewish, or any of the hundreds, thousands of other stupid, useless things that entire swathes of humanity have been written off over. It's not easy, not by a long shot. Critical thought is to our intellect what enlightenment is to our spirit. Re-learning it is probably one of the hardest things an adult can do.

But it is something anyone can do.

Anyone.

Posted by scott at 10:27 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
April 21, 2003
Taps

I haven't heard it voiced out loud yet, but I know it's only a matter of time before someone says, "the US's ability to wage war while sustaining almost no casualties means they're much more likely to engage in future conflicts." On the face of it, it even makes sense. It's the cost of a thing that determines how often we use it, right? By minimizing the cost in human life to the victors, war will automatically become easier to engage in, yes?

One of the more crass but no less predictable comments on the Columbia disaster was, "there were just seven people on that thing! Thousands of people are killed [by whatever petty injustice is on their mind today] every day, how dare you be upset by seven people!"

The difference is, of course, that we can know these seven people. We learn their names, know how many children they had, what each individual's history was. Instead of faceless statistics, they become real in our minds. Further, they were our best and brightest, doing something that nearly all of us see as worthwhile and meaningful. We know that every one of them understood the risks, and considered what they did not brave, but simply part of the job.

It's simply a cold, hard truth of humanity that we sympathize only with what we can identify, humanize, or incorporate into our own experiences. The most effective way of motivating people over an enormous humanitarian crisis is not to drone on with statistics, or even tell stories of refugee camps or show pictures of dozens of skeletal bodies mummifying on a road, it's to focus on a single person and tell their one compelling story as effectively as possible.

That's what this so called "modern war" allows. Cynics at Hollywood parties and college cloak rooms will eventually crow about "video game warfare" and "the puppet press brigade", all the while missing the real point. We can never know the thousands of faceless soldiers who marched shoulder-to-shoulder at Gettysburg, who went over the top at Verdun, up the cliffs of Omaha Beach. When death is counted in the thousands, we can't understand that each statistic represents the body of a high school linebacker being rolled in the surf, a sophomore chemist in a frozen foxhole with his eyes fixed open, or a pharmacist floating alone in the middle of an ocean, the nearest land a thousand miles away.

But when the casualties number in the tens, instead of ten thousands, every soldier has a name. Every one of them is mourned not only by their families, but by communities, counties, states, a nation. We can know their faces and their history. They have a future we can all see was cut short too soon, and by seeing their sacrifice on a personal level we work all the harder to make sure it has a meaning.

Some may say fighting a war that kills a mere hundred is no war at all. To them I ask how many is enough? To them I say how dare you make yourself the judge of the amount of death needed to create "equality." To them ask if they will say these things to the faces of the families of those hundred, that the death of their child, a child the rest of the nation mourns, means nothing. I call coward any who prevaricate, refuse, or bluster.

When money is like water it is spent as if the gates of heaven have opened wide. But when each penny leaves dear, each dollar let go only with regret, the wisdom of Solomon himself can't convince a people to part with it. That is the lesson of this war. By individualizing every death an entire nation re-learns the wisdome of Robert E. Lee when he said, "It is well that war is so terrible--we should grow too fond of it."

Posted by scott at 10:11 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
April 10, 2003
Sleeping with the Enemy

Representational governments (not just democracies, but any form of government in which the citizens of a country get to pick their leaders themselves) have proven over time to be the safest, least-worst form of government humanity has created to date. Yet, if it's so self-evidently good, why does it always seem to go so wrong? Why do so many governments start out as representational, but end up monolithic dictatorships or oligarchies?

The answer is actually hard for people who live inside these governments to understand. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to a successful representational government is learning to accept that just because people disagree with you, doesn't mean they're out to destroy the country and exterminate your way of life. Remember, the only people who really want to run a government are people who have an axe to grind, who's belief in their causes make the pope look like someone who's a little interested in religion.

Really, when you think about it, we're no different. Here in the US whichever side is out of power bleats the same bleats against those who are: "AAAG! Those [fascists/communists] are out to ruin this country and [deny us our rights/take all our money]. They're just so [stupid/evil/greedy/ignorant] we can't trust them to [keep their hands off the help/speak without drooling], let alone run this country!" I mean, when it comes right down to it the only real difference between Rush Limbaugh's opinion of the opposition and Barbara Streisand's is the sex of the speaker. The words, attitudes, and opinions are all the same.

Britain was the first major nation, perhaps in history, certainly since the fall of Rome, to actually get a grip on this problem. Even then it took centuries of false starts, blind alleys, and at least one major civil war until people started to understand it was possible to disagree without suspecting the other side of selling everything out to the pope. For nearly the next three centuries most of the other places in the world with functioning representational governments had ancestors that either left or were thrown out of Great Britain.

They succeeded in no small part because of the tradition, in most cases centuries old, of "the other side" holding power, if only occasionally, and not actually setting the pets on fire. Very few other places, pretty much anywhere in the world, had this advantage, and it showed. Romantic poets, philosophers, and basically anyone else with a brain but without a job, would wax eloquent over these foreign people’s ability to govern themselves without once understanding this was something granted through blood, not wishes.

Because without this deeply ingrained tradition passionate, powerful people (and at the very top they are all passionate about something) see those who disagree with them not as adversaries, but as traitors to the state. And perhaps the only thing all governments across the world agree on is the proper way to treat a traitor.

It's a formula that is followed almost without fail to this very day. A group of revolutionaries, typically but not always from the military class (because it's easier to have yourself a revolution if you've already got the guns), band together secretly and form a cabal to overthrow the utterly and obviously corrupt ruling regime. Because they are so obviously and utterly corrupt the only people supporting these regimes are outsiders (for the past sixty years either the United States or the Soviet Union), and so the government implodes in a matter of days (when the great powers didn't care) or decades (when they did).

As everyone is merrily dancing in the street pulling down statues and looting the local government office, great promises are made to Give the People a Voice, and most of the time the people now in charge actually mean it. Unfortunately what actually happens is those in charge come to understand that not everyone agrees with Our Grand Vision for the Great Push Forward. Worse still, some of those in the "opposition" are unbelievably obstinate and seem to be willing to resort to nearly anything to stop them. Almost as if by reflex those in power start passing laws to ensure these maniacs are never allowed to take the reigns of the state they risked so much to free, and from there it's a very, very short hop to holding polychromatic celebrations in the national soccer stadium for the Great Leader's birthday.

Is there a way out of this downward spiral? A pessimist would say no. Europe embraced representational government only because everyone else had taken away their guns. Their governments were forged in the fire of not one but two utter apocalypses, with the hammer of the United States beating them against the anvil of the Soviet Union. Japan only looks like a democracy from the outside. In truth nobody's really in charge of the place, and everyone in power is utterly convinced that if they really were to give the people a crack at running it all the very best they could hope for was an entire nation running naked in the streets.

There are, of course, some exceptions. Israel built itself a functioning democratic government with little if any help from the outside world, although one wonders if this was perhaps the only way a people willing to defy a god could function at all. South Africa looks promising, but with such an overwhelmingly powerful main party it's far too early to tell if they'll end up "Japan-ifying" themselves over time. The Latin American states are shaping up nicely, but far too many remember the stability, if not prosperity, given to them by the Juntas and the Generalissimos.

Regardless, it's incredibly important to understand, and therefore hardly ever truly understood, that representational governments are hard. They are not some sort of magic box you simply open up in front of the people of a country that suddenly allows them to be enlightened. Even the very brightest, especially the very brightest, can all too easily and with the best of intentions pervert it into something dark and twisted. This ain't no party, this ain't no disco. Life during wartime is easy compared with making your way through the peace that follows without cracking the skulls of the people who disagree with you. It is most especially not something that can be bequeathed quickly nor easily by a group quite patently just passing through.

They have to want it. And badly. We can only light the way. Always remember it's up to them to pick up the torch.

Posted by scott at 07:36 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
April 07, 2003
Axioms

The United States has no stomach for casualties.

The people of the United States are so naive they insist no innocents be killed in war, and in war there are of course no innocents.

The United States can be relied on to use airpower alone, and airpower alone is easy to circumvent.

Vietnam proved that the United State’s own citizens can be manipulated to the advantage of their adversary.

Mogadishu proved that if you hit their military hard enough, even once, the United States will fold and run.

The soldiers of the United States insist on air conditioning and television, hot coffee and cold beer. They know nothing of hardship, and are too soft to fight.

Surprise attacks, even spectacular surprise attacks, happen all over the world every day. It's been more than a year now, the people of the United States need to move on, and it just shows how decadent and weak they are that they haven't.

This is what the world believed about us. In the richly decorated halls of countless governments, in the dark hearts of temples and mosques, and in the ivory towers of academia this is what was known about us. With unflinching reassurance the lives of tens of thousands were wagered on bets made with these odds by old, mean, ignorant men.

There will be many good lessons learned from this conflict. Unfortunately because people are, well, people, there will also be many bad lessons learned. However, without a doubt these are lessons that should be learned:

The citizens of the United States do not enjoy having their soldiers come home in boxes, this is true. However, our nation's history is one steeped in the valor of sacrifice, and the religion of our founders teaches us that such sacrifice is not only good, but sometimes required for success. We understand that in war soldiers die, just as well as anyone else in the world. What we will not tolerate is the sacrifice of our soldiers for causes we do not understand, over time periods which have no clear ending, in places where we have no clear interest.

The citizens of the United States strongly believe in the concept of the blood of the innocents. We want justice, even victory, not destruction, and never slaughter. We have spent trillions of dollars over the past sixty years creating weapons so accurate that nowadays we sometimes don't even bother to attach explosives to them. A quarter-ton lump of concrete dropped from 25,000 feet has enough inertia to quite handily crush an antiaircraft battery, APC, or tank, and leave an adjacent house standing, as long as you can put that rock right down the tube of the gun. We can, and so the "concrete bomb" is a real, effective, weapon.

Vietnam did in fact prove that the US is chock-full of "useless idiots", even powerful ones, and the citizenry of America was eventually manipulated to the advantage of the enemy because of them. Such anti-war protests may have in fact resulted in the end of an unjust, badly run, and brutal conflict, but it also resulted in the barbaric treatment of young men who quite literally were given no choice but to participate.

From this distance it all looks like one long tie-dyed drug-addled rock concert, but people who lived through that time know the country came closer to tearing itself apart over Vietnam than it had since the civil war. Rightly or wrongly, this torment has been laid at the feet of those who protested, and ever since (as any modern protestor can assure you) a majority of Americans suspect protestors of at best giving aid and comfort to our enemies, at worst outright sedition. We shall not be manipulated into spitting on our own soldiers again.

Mogadishu proved several things, but none of them have anything to do about our inability to absorb a shock. It proved that the American people have no tolerance for our soldiers being killed and humiliated over an explicitly humanitarian mission. It proved that if a foreign land wishes to descend into anarchy and is willing to kill anyone trying to help them out of it, we are quite willing to let them cut open each other's babies until there are no more left.

Most importantly, it proved that if cornered Americans fight with unbelievable efficiency and lethality. What is never emphasized enough is that in Mogadishu an entire city attempted to destroy just a few units of American special forces. A few dozen men isolated and outnumbered more than 100 to 1 not just surrounded but encapsulated by enemy forces were not exterminated, not even routed, but survived as units and got out losing exactly 18 of their own. Nobody even bothered to count how many of Mogadishu's citizens bled their last into those city streets that day, but rest assured the city's dogs were well fed long after.

American forces are no stranger to adversity, and can accept deprivation that at times surprises even themselves. "All the comforts of not-quite-home" does not represent decadence, it represents efficiency. "Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics" is never more true than in the way we support our wars. We give our soldiers the occasional creature comfort not because they cannot fight without them, but because it costs the war effort nothing to provide them. America has at least since the civil war been an absolute master at logistics. We do not out maneuver, out think, or out fight our foes, we out manage them. In WWII the Japanese could either build bases or build airplanes, but not both, while we had so much gasoline available we were washing our airplanes in it to get an extra 10 miles per hour in the air. We've only gotten better at it since then.

Finally, no one has the right to tell anyone else how long they must mourn. Only the egregiously arrogant or the hopelessly ignorant would ever even dare the attempt. The United States has been surprised, attacked, and defeated on its own soil only twice in the past two hundred years. We are not, cannot, and will not get used to it.

Want to know how long 9-11 will be on this nation's mind? We brought the world to the brink of nuclear war because of our paranoia over surprise attack, more than twenty years after Pearl Harbor happened. Mine is perhaps the last generation to hear adults talk frequently about the shock and implications of December 7th, and at that point it was thirty-five years in the past. The west in general has a very, very long memory for such events. To this day a trumpet is cut off mid note on a tower in a church in Krakow, Poland, a symbolic memorial commemorating the alarm for an invasion that ocurred seven centuries ago.

We are not dictators. We have no wish for empire. The constant bleating from far corners otherwise merely shows the blinkered ignorance of people quite patently being manipulated by forces far beyond their understanding or control.

In 174 B.C. the King of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, invaded Egypt, threatening the stability of the region and a supply of grain Rome was becoming increasingly reliant on. Instead of sending legions to destroy both him and his country, Rome instead sent a single man, Gaius Popillius Laenas, as a representative of the Senate. Meeting the king near Alexandria, Laenas presented him with an official decree, demanding his immediate withdrawl from Egypt. Antiochus asked for time so he could consider. Laenas agreed, but used his staff to draw a circle in the sand around the king, and told him he must give an answer before he stepped out of it.

Antiochus’s response, and the consequences to him because of it, was most instructive.

Posted by scott at 06:28 PM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
April 02, 2003
Airpower 101

Preface
One of the problems with being a lifelong student of military history is you start assuming everyone knows things that very few people actually do. There have been many times in the past few weeks where I've shouted "DUR!!!" at the TV only to be confronted with a quizzical look from my wife. So, apologies if this all seems a bit too obvious to you, or a gross oversimplification. I'm just trying to make sure we're all working from the same page.

One of the primary, even historic, strengths of the United States military is its reliance on air power. At times we've relied on it too much, and certainly its advocates can be a bit strident. Airpower's popularity took a nosedive after Vietnam, when it became obvious that no amount of bombing could overcome really stupid leadership, but re-thinking strategy and tactics, as well as improved technology and leadership, have brought it back to the fore.

One advantage of airpower is the comparative immunity to interception it provides. In spite of common perception, it's actually extremely difficult to shoot down a modern combat aircraft. What's more, to ensure expensive airplanes and even more expensive pilots are not shot down the first move in any modern battle is to disassemble the other guy's air defenses. Once the sophisticated computer controlled systems are eliminated, aircraft become effectively immune to interception.

Oh, it's still possible to knock them down, especially if the air guys are being stupid (that's what got that stealth fighter shot down over Yugoslavia, not some super-secret development), and there's always just plain dumb luck. Unfortunately you can't rely on stupidity and luck to destroy an entire air force. Once the anti-air system has been brought down, tactically and strategically an air force as a whole becomes unstoppable.

The next advantage is freedom of movement. It's one of those things that is so obvious it's never really examined, but aircraft are fast. It can take hours to move up heavy artillery or big horking battleships within range of a target, while an aircraft can be within range in a matter of minutes. Freedom of movement, and the ability to move rapidly, is a monstrous advantage on a battlefield.

The kind of ordinance (fancy word for "stuff that blows up") an aircraft can put on a target is generally orders of magnitude larger than any other platform available, and this ordinance can be delivered at any point on a battlefield, even far behind the lines. A 2000-pound general-purpose bomb is just a fantastically powerful weapon, quite capable of completely gutting a large office building all by itself. And that's just the biggest general weapon most aircraft can carry. We have a specialized weapon for just about any purpose, and (so far) they all seem to work as advertised.

The traditional weakness of airpower, its lack of precision, seems to have been solved in the past decade. The GPS bomb in particular seems to be a favorite weapon for both close air support and strategic attack. Precision is important not only because it keeps civilian casualties* to a minimum, but because it maximizes efficiency. In WWII, it took 10,000 men in 1000 bombers dropping 8000 bombs to partially disable a single factory. Today that factory can be destroyed by one guy with one bomb.

It's important not to lose sight of the fact that airpower is not an end in and of itself. This was a very hard lesson for the US armed forces to learn, one that has had to periodically be re-learned as time goes by. Airpower, like pretty much every other advanced form of weaponry, is ultimately a support tool for the infantry. The whole point is to make the ground force's job as easy as possible. When used correctly, airpower does this very, very well.

Every ground unit on a battlefield is amazingly vulnerable to attack from above. If guided with precision (and our weapons are nothing if not precise), there is literally no mobile ground unit available today that can withstand even a medium-sized (500-pound) direct hit. They are simply blown to pieces by such things, and again once the air defenses are destroyed there's nothing they can do to defend themselves against such an attack. On a battlefield in which your enemy has achieved air superiority if you move, you die. The problem is you must move in order to fight. Which is why even the fastest armored division is utterly helpless if the other side has free use of the skies.

For a long time the answer was to dig a very very deep hole, crawl in, and pull the door shut behind you. Wait until the invaders got close and then pin them down with whatever you have. Positioned correctly a fortress could be nearly impossible to hit even from the air with unguided munitions, and so the invaders would have to do it the hard way by throwing as many people into your meat grinder as possible in the hopes that someone would get close enough to take you out. If you were smart, you'd have dozens of emplacements like this, making them do it over and over again. Sometimes the other side would stop because there just weren't enough soldiers left alive to continue.

With the development of modern precision guided munitions this doesn't work very well either. Using a slick combination of GPS receivers, radios, and laser designators, a single GI can transmit the exact co-ordinates of your bunker's location to a bomber circling as much as five or six miles overhead. The targeting is so exact that a bomb can literally be put through the gun slot of your bunker, and suddenly your comfy hidey-hole is merely a very short, very noisy ticket to the front of the reincarnation line.

So now you can't move to confront the enemy, and you can't hide in a place he'll have to move past. Even if you set up a temporary ambush you only have a matter of minutes before the sky simply falls on you. And, to repeat, there's nothing, nothing at all, you can do about it.

The only real solution is to take off your uniform and hide in amongst the civilians in the hopes you can start a guerilla campaign against the bad guy's supply lines. If you're lucky, the bad guy is stupid and starts setting villagers on fire in the hopes he'll get the rest of you. In cases like this the villagers will give you food and protection and replacements just to spite the Yankee invader.

If you're unlucky the invaders start setting up their own villages with running water, free cattle, and a plot of land for every peasant able to walk across the lines. If you're really unlucky the guy you work for has made himself extremely unpopular with these villagers already. In such cases the invaders don't even have to do anything special because the traitorous, ignorant, weak, and foolish peasants will turn your ass in faster than you can say "Allah Ahkbar." The last thing you'll notice right before the 500 pound GPS bomb hits will be how there suddenly aren't any peasants around anymore.

What I'm hoping you all take away from this is the understanding that if you hear of an ominous concentration of enemy troops moving toward the front you should be ecstatic, not worried. A large concentration of bad guys on the move is a huge target, not a threat. When you hear about a known concentration of enemy forces dug deep in fortifications you should take heart, because such a concentration is even easier to destroy than guys on the move. The only cause for even a modicum of concern is when the bad guys start trying to melt into the general population. And airpower, combined with the land forces they support, makes it all possible.

What you watch for then is how patient our guys are. The Iraqis have no love for us, because we are invading their country. Never, never lose sight of this fact. It doesn't matter if we're there to "liberate" them... we're big, scary, weird looking, and in their front yard. Only by being patient, by removing the bastards with the sniper rifles and the mortars without killing anyone else will they decide we are the lesser of two evils. When that happens they'll do our work for us, because unlike us they know Achmed's kid Achmad is no damned good and has been playing with some awfully smelly stuff in his basement lately. It is only with the villagers' help that we'll transform a successful suicide bombing into a dumb kid sitting in a cell.

Posted by scott at 08:58 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
March 24, 2003
The Prisoner

I've gone on record many times saying that the west fights wars like no other culture in existence. While history has proven without question that our methods of warfighting are superior to all others, what is not often pointed out is how idiosyncratic they can be. No place is this quirkiness thrown into a starker light than our conception of the special status of a "prisoner of war."

These perceptions originate with the ancient Greeks. No culture up to that time had ever attempted to compose its armies of relatively free and equal citizen-soldiers. Unique in all the world, a Greek soldier had the expectation of protection under law, and the ability to speak his mind without fear of arbitrary reprisal. By enshrining these beliefs in the core of their culture Greek soldiers ceased to be merely chattel and acquired an intrinsic value, became more than simply a shrieking rabble whose individuals were patently expendable simply because the general didn't like the way they smelled that morning.

The next innovation would be brought by Christianity. By instilling a core doctrine of universal love, by preaching that all human beings are intrinsically valuable, and by firmly placing the concept of a universal, immutable law to which even despots and emperors must obey at its center, Christianity allowed the definition of "value" to be spread from the soldier to the serf. Certainly these concepts would be eclipsed and ignored in brutal ways, but they were never completely forgotten, and, in this particular combination, they were powerful and unique.

Unfortunately the inheritors of the Greek traditions, the Romans, like every other culture ever to contact the near east, became seduced by the concept of god-emperor. As they adopted more and more of the trappings of absolute power the very beliefs that made them the rulers of the known world gradually corroded into dust. What the barbarians eventually destroyed in the forth century of the common era would have been unrecognizable to a senator of the third century BC, and in no small part even to Augustus himself four centuries before the collapse.

The Germanic tribesmen who swept away imperial rule in the west may have been primitive and illiterate, but they brought with them powerful and new beliefs in the supremacy and sanctity of the warrior. It was still possible, even acceptable, for a Visigoth or Merovingian chieftain to lop the head off a soldier due to incompetence, cowardice, or even insubordination, but that chieftain was then expected to compensate the soldier's family a fixed amount of gold for his fit of temper.

What gradually developed in the time between the fall of the empire and the rise of the nation-state was a unique culture that not only saw the value of the combatant at war, but also of that same combatant in surrender. By distributing land and rights to a comparatively large number of noblemen and welding this to innovative methods of finance, feudalism imbued the elite warrior with a certain kind of "equity" that made his life as valuable to his enemy as it did to his lord.

Unique in all the world this culture evolved an entire economy based on the concept of ransom. Anywhere else on the planet a knight or soldier unhorsed or disarmed was seen as merely an inconveniently (and therefore ever-so-temporarily) wriggling piece of meat. In the West, however, that selfsame helpless enemy was not seen as an impediment, but rather as an opportunity, a poker chip wrapped in a tin can valuable only as long as he lived.

Knock a knight off his horse and you were entitled to all his stuff, but if you stayed calm enough not to kill him you could offer it all back, for a price. More than one noble family got its start in the chaos of the tourney field when a freeborn boy got a lucky blow in on an unsuspecting knight, and conversely more than one literal king's ransom had to be paid because an effete nobleman decided the coincidence of birth outweighed the strength of desperation.

Elaborate rules were drawn up for ransoms, not just on the battlefield but in tournaments as well. Mercy for a surrendered foe gradually stopped being a novelty and more and more was expected of a "civilized" gentleman. Rituals were developed for the recognition of individual surrender, rules were created for what constituted proper and improper treatment, and an entire infrastructure was built up almost exclusively for the exchange of prisoners for gold.

It's important to emphasize that this culture of chivalry existed nowhere else in the world. Islam may hold itself up as the guiding light of religious tolerance, but the emirs and sultans thought nothing of slaughtering thousands of disarmed foes like livestock in a single day. In the Americas a victorious warrior could often expect a drunken, colorful, but most of all extremely short and sharp victory celebration, and in Asia a head could be separated from a set of shoulders literally at the twitch of an eye.

Of course, a peasant didn't fare all that much better in the West. After all, what good is ransoming someone who's worth less than the land they till? Mercy toward a common foot soldier developed relatively late in the west, as the concept of personal liberty and universal justice took hold in the enlightenment of the seventeenth century. Even then it was more a redrawing of the boundaries of who could benefit from chivalry rather than a transformation of the concept itself. The sense of "fair play" and "fair game" at its core survived. When Europe boiled out of its rapidly industrializing homeland for the final time in the sixteenth century, it took with it not only the unique concept of warfare as a form of cultural extermination, but also that there could actually be rules to govern this horrific idea.

The more traditional, but no less sophisticated, agrarian societies of the rest of the world were confronted with a juggernaught of unprecedented lethality and efficiency which paradoxically demanded nearly inconceivable mercies to it combatants. It was beyond surreal to such cultures that these incredibly vicious and always victorious white men expected to be spared simply because they threw down their arms. Even worse, to slaughter these devils as proscribed by tradition lead to even worse predations rained down on your head. Not only were these maniacs undefeatable, they were insane.

In a strange sort of way it's like football (US rules) or cricket... you simply have to grow up with it for it to make sense. A westerner will have no trouble understanding the distinction between a bomber crew dropping firebombs on a city being "fair game" and that selfsame crew in parachutes suddenly "off limits". That the only difference between the former and the latter is now the victims of the bombing have an extra set of mouths to feed is immaterial to a westerner. The city was, after all, being defended with anti-aircraft artillery. To be called subhuman for shooting the perpetrators of a terrifying attack simply because they're floating within easy reach beggars the imagination of most other cultures.

The rest of the world did eventually catch on, deciding that this bizarre fascination for the west's defeated and dishonored could be used against them, a chink in our armor they have been studiously prying on ever since. What they do not understand is our concern for captives is actually one of the strengths of the way we fight wars. Time and again returned prisoners insist the primary source of their strength in captivity was the knowledge that their government and their countrymen were doing everything in their power to get them out safely. Our soldiers take calculated instead of suicidal risks because of this fact. Finally, by caring humanely for our own captives we ensure that the next generation is raised with a father to teach instead of a legend to avenge.

Because you see for us, at root, to do anything less would be barbaric.

Posted by scott at 09:24 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
March 14, 2003
Warp and Wend

I came to my study of Christianity relatively late in life, shortly after I graduated college in my mid 20s. Before that time I was, at various points, atheistic (no god), agnostic (prove it), or deist (yeah, ok, God, but boy are His religions f'd up or what?) So for the vast majority of my life up to that point I had no real conception of just how deeply ingrained Christianity is on western societies, not just in America but everywhere considered "western". Most shocking of all to me was the discovery that Christianity in no small part created the secular and scientific society I loved and my "evangelical" associates hated. I had discovered that the belief system whose most vocal adherents literally made my toes curl in their ignorance was actually what made my way of life possible. How did that happen?

By melding the philosophical practicality of the Greeks with the organizational skill of the Romans, the early Christians created a powerful system to allow people to reason their way to faith. The works of men like Clement, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian and others instilled a tradition of logical criticism heretofore the exclusive pervue of the Grecian Jewish communities like that in Alexandria.

Of equal importance was Christianity's emphasis (again, copied from earlier Jewish communities) on monasticism. When the tides of Germanic and Nordic tribesmen finally overwhelmed the battlements of Europe and washed away the crumbling supports of the classic western world, the monasteries remained like rocks on a storm-swept beach. They remained not just as repositories for books that would otherwise be used to wipe the backside of a nose-picking Viking, but also as islands preserving the tradition of men (and, far too infrequently, women) dedicating their lives to learning for its own sake, indeed for the sake of their eternal soul.

European thought seemed to take a nosedive into the "dark ages" not because of a disdain for knowledge in and of itself, but because the instability of the countryside made it too dangerous to travel outside the walls of a monastery. Even when it was safe to travel there really wasn't anywhere to go. Largely rural even at the height of Roman power, Western Europe simply didn't have libraries on the scale of Alexandria or Antioch. Certainly the Muslims, who simply had the dumb luck of invading the most ancient and literate section of the planet west of the Himalayas, were in no hurry to share the hoards of knowledge they'd inherited, stolen, from the Infidel.

So the engine of Christian thought was forced to sit idle not from a breakdown of its parts, but from a lack of fuel to fire the boiler. It would take most of eight centuries for that fuel to be found, rediscovered, as crusaders brought back crates of books from both Spain and the holy land, and bilingual Jews made themselves available for their translation. The tank was filled, the parts were cleaned and oiled. It would only take someone turning the key to start the machine wheezing and chuffing back into motion.

That someone would be Thomas Aquinas, a brilliant thirteenth century thinker who set about harmonizing the spiritual world of developed medieval Christianity with the hard-nosed philosophy of the "rediscovered ancients". He did so with such insight that some of his arguments are still used today, eight centuries later. However, by even making the attempt he, and hundreds, thousands, of his monastic compatriots set a powerful precedent... Christianity would forever after be seen as a religion that both invited and paid attention to criticism not just from theological grounds, but from more secular "philosophical" ones.

Less than 75 years later the Death came and changed everything. By culling perhaps as much as one third to one half of Europe's population, the great plagues of the fourteenth century transformed nearly every aspect of European culture. The scarcity of labor forced a reliance on technology, which in turn created a practical market for the exchange of ideas that worked, not through the esoteric assertion of a monastic propeller-head, but through the school of hard-knock reality.

It was at this point that the engine lit by Aquinas was routed onto a side rail that took both its passengers and its purported engineers down the track to our modern world. The man who pulled that switch was named Galileo Galilee.

A brilliant, practical man with a tendency to speak the truth as it was proven instead of as it was given, Galileo was at first actually supported by the gigantic enveloping power that the Christian Church had become. Were it not for the movement founded by a truely meddlesome and hard-headed monk and the utter intransigence of a woman who refused to recognize she had no business ruling a country, let alone a church, Galileo's teachings would probably have been embraced outright.

Of course, it didn't work out that way, but through a series of technological and political coincidences, it didn't need to. The development of the printing press allowed Galileo's theories, and more importantly his techniques, to be spread literally faster than they could be burned. The rise of Protestantism allowed the nascent practicality of science to survive not because of any innate value, but because anything the pope hated was by definition something of value.

The fact that any nation that utilized the discoveries of these scientists almost automatically became a military and economic power was not lost on anyone paying attention. If that meant ignoring the growing number of increasingly uncomfortable theological questions their research was rapidly uncovering, well, as long as it meant our cannons blew the heads off of those who chose not to ignore them better and faster that was just fine.

Eventually though, the discoveries were so obvious, so powerful, and so revolutionary they could not be ignored. Science was proving that at nearly every point the Bible touched the natural world, it was getting it wrong. The child of reason, so carefully nurtured at the very heart of the religion that protected it for so long, had returned unrecognizable, seemingly intent on consuming the parent.

At this point, occurring roughly everywhere around the late nineteenth century, western civilization suffered a sort of nervous breakdown. Faith, still a core requirement for a well-rounded human being, became far harder to realize in a world where one could not relax comfortably in the warm pages of the inerrant book of one's ancestors. It suddenly had to be found through serious inquiry, long and hard quests for both internal and external knowledge, commitments people from western cultures many times simply found too hard or too frightening or just too much work to accomplish.

Two avenues were chosen, neither worked very well. Europe slid into a cold steel hell of nihilism, fascism, and communism, ultimately resulting in millions of its own citizens murdered in mechanized meat grinders so efficient we simply have no clue as to exactly how many were shoved in. The United States suffered a flat failure of nerve, with large sections of its society choosing to ignore and deny and fight any knowledge, any fact, that might upset the grand illusion that allowed them to accept the results of knowledge while repudiating its implications. The result was a citizenry often breathtakingly ignorant of the workings of the modern world, coming all too close in word and deed to the amber-frozen medieval Muslim fanatics they ridiculed from their own pulpits.

It would be tempting to think this leaves us at a crossroads today, but this is merely the narcissistic conceit of a culture still unable to come to terms with the universal truths of morality and mortality. We are instead still barreling across this dark and dangerous plane, riding an engine going so fast it broke the sound barrier long ago. It is badly dinged and worn in spots, and burns the unwary who touch it in the wrong places or at the wrong times. But its lights have guided us forward, steered us clear of the abyss of fanatacism and the cliff face of nihilism, even if it occasionally teetered or banged into each, hurling the willfully ignorant into one or the other at each turn.

And painted on its side, covered with decorations from a billion hands, intertwined with the symbols of a million beliefs and a thousand formulas, defining the debates even of those who utterly repudiate it, is the unmistakable symbol of the cross.

Posted by scott at 10:36 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
March 12, 2003
Color and Shape

I've always been fascinated by history, I'm not sure why. For me, it's always been amazing that things haven't always been like This. There weren't always TVs, there weren't always cars, and people once used to crank a pump to get gas and a spin a propeller to fly through the air. Clothes were different, houses were different, even the very words we used would change over time.

But, deep down, to me it was all very abstract. Oh I understood on an intellectual level that the events and transformations I was reading about in history books and watching on TV actually happened, but if I didn't witness it personally, on some subconscious level it was as if it occurred in some other abstract place. It took me a long, long time to realize these were not just words on a page, not simply images on a screen.

I think nearly everyone makes this mistake, at least at first. The miracle of learning by language is that it allows someone else's memories, someone else's knowledge, to become yours. But of course this knowledge, this history, "feels" very different from what we experience with our own senses. The ability to remember words has been with us only perhaps a quarter of a million years, but the ability to remember sight, sound, taste, and smell has been part of our genome for more than half a billion.

Technology both increased and decreased this cognitive dissonance. The development of writing meant you didn't need Plato standing there telling you about his Republic, but it also meant you couldn't ask him a question if (when) you got confused. The telegraph caused an entire generation to absorb certain experiences as rhythmic beeps, clicks, and taps. A later group would remember only disembodied voices coming from a dark wooden box. Movies allowed us to see things as they might have been, and later television would allow us to watch them as they happened, but only through a prism that removed all color, or softened the shape and texture of what we saw.

And so that's how most of us remember what we are taught, by remembering how it was taught. Aquinas and Caesar are flat on the page, disembodied voices denied even the reality of actual sound. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas are wax-figure stiff and gray and weirdly alien in high-contrast monochrome. Lucy and Desi move through our imagination in two-dimensional black and white, as do Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. Vietnam happened in sienna tinted color, soft on the edges and low in contrast.

I'm not sure when I stepped back from it all and realized just how disconnected my perception of history had become from its actuality. I think perhaps it was when I started noticing things I clearly remember happening in my own life beginning to go yellow and curly at the edges. Commercials that were completely clear when first run are now muddy with wonky color balance. Live news events replayed on videotape look too bright and clangy, all burn throughs and shadows. Color photo albums bleed to pastel while the images in my head remain as vivid as a razor cut, as solid as a hand on hot metal.

This existential bit of amusement may have been triggered at first by the clanging sledgehammer blow of being called "Mister" by a strange kid for the first time, but it eventually has lead me to understand much, much more. History is not about stale numbers and dates, names and places, events and occurrences. History is about people, people exactly like me and yet completely different from me in weird and wonderful ways. I have found I can take the common experiences everyone goes through and place them on the shoulders of the people whom I read about. In that way I find a grounding, a crossbeam from my world to theirs which allows me a far more vivid appreciation not only of what we have in common, but of what makes us different.

When I look up into the sky in the middle of a hot day I know I feel the heat of the same sun Constantine blinked at when he saw a cross in the sky and changed the world. The cold cotton smell of spring mist as I walk out the door in the morning gives me a base to imagine what it might have felt like to walk Ann Boleyn out into the courtyard and watch the crystal clear three-dimensional reality of her ascending the scaffold. The match-crack snap of a broken twig in the cold dark woods of a night hike gives me just enough of a taste to imagine the stomach-churning fear of a soldier on patrol in the black woods of Germany.

For me, when I do this, history ceases to be dried bones dusting the pages of endless black ink words and instead becomes real, as real as the crunching gravel under my feet (on the road to Damascus), the smell of rotted mud (in a trench near Verdun), and the sound of surf on a beach (when everything that lived was in the ocean). It helps me realize these were people, people who had to eat and go to the bathroom, people who marveled at birth and mourned at death, people who had no more idea how it was all going to turn out than I do today.

Does it actually put me in these places? No, not really. History is different if for no other reason than I know how it turned out and they didn't. But by stepping outside the dry words of a book, by allowing color to leech into gray combat footage, by putting the very real sites, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations of my own life into the lives of those I learn about, I don't just allow these people to become real again. I allow them, for however brief a moment, to live inside of me.

Posted by scott at 10:30 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
March 07, 2003
Fire and Noise

I'm a car guy. Well, actually, I'm a machine guy. Cars just happen to be the most accessible complex machine I can get my hands on easily. There's pretty much nothing about a car I haven't tinkered with or thought about tinkering with or broke when I shouldn't have been tinkering with. I'm not alone, but I'm definitely in a minority.

To most people, cars are simply convenient lumps of metal useful for, even critical to, getting around in our daily lives. Oh there's definitely style involved, and competition. It does have to be pretty, even better when it's fancier than the neighbor's next door. Few know, or even care, what makes it tick, how it moves, why it works the way it does. If it breaks, they take it to get it fixed, and if it does so too often they get rid of it and buy a new one. What makes me so different? What makes car guys (or girls) tick?

I wasn't always this way. The first fifteen years of my life weren't dominated by cars, they were dominated by spaceships and airplanes. If it flew in the air or went into space, I was all over it like an octopus on a lobster. Cars were things that took me to places I could see airplanes.

1983 was when it all changed. Reagan was president, Michael Jackson's nose was still attached (we only thought he was weird looking back then), and Duran Duran was climbing the charts. 1983 was also the year the "4th Generation" Corvette premiered, and I was never the same again.

I lived Corvettes, I breathed Corvettes. I ate Chevy small blocks for breakfast and fiberglass bodywork for supper. I drove my parents insane with constant chatter about one feature or another of this amazing automobile. To this day I can tell the difference between a 58 Corvette and a 59 from a hundred paces. At $22,000 it was cheap for what it was (just as at $55,000 it's cheap for what it is today), but it was more than I could pull at $3.35 an hour, let alone what the insurance would've been.

But a funny thing happened on the way to fiberglass dreamland. The car magazines I poured through constantly didn't just talk about Corvettes. 1983 was the dawn of the age of emissions performance, when car companies were finally coming to terms with the odious (if necessary) tailpipe and safety regulations that nearly destroyed the car culture that came before.

Every month new and interesting cars were reviewed. They talked about what things did, and where they went, how they could be improved and what might be done if they were broken. They talked about new cars I could never afford and used cars I might have a shot at. They even talked a bit about the prettiest little Italian convertible I'd ever seen, and how anyone could own one if they just knew where to look.

Most of all they talked about how cars Worked. What made them tick, what each piece did, and how it fit in the whole. Turned out cars were every bit as interesting as airplanes, damned near as complex, and unlike airplanes all I had to do was walk into the garage to see one. Eventually people started asking me for car advice. Sometimes what I gave was even right.

I learned to appreciate that cars were in many ways rolling works of art. Some came off the factory floor that way, remarkable because of the passion and precision invested in their design from the outset. Others were transformed by their owners from cookie cutter transportation with all the character of a stale saltine to something utterly unique, literally like no other, sculpted according their will and wishes.

I learned there were posers and provocateurs, people who thought if it looked fast it must therefore be fast, or that if it got you envy or lust or power bedamned with whatever soul its designers gave it. I've seen countless innocuous Hondas transformed into booming, wheezing clown cars and innumerable BMWs treated like appliances because of these people.

Less contemptible but more numerous were the mundanes, people who would look at me and shake their heads at my lack of common sense. "What is wrong with you?", they would ask.

"Just get rid of it and get another one."

"You know, one of these days you're going to have to grow up and get something reliable."

"Do you have any idea what you just did to the resale value of that?"

"You know, with what you just spent you could probably have bought [something ugly, stupid, and boring]"

And on and on and on. In spite of their irritation, I have to pity them, because they just don't get it.

They think because they sometimes feel a little warm and fuzzy about their cars that I, we, all my fellow car nuts, simply magnify that emotion and turn our vehicles into surrogate metal children. They do not understand that we know quite well these things are machines, that, no matter how full of character they are or may become, they are still just metal and plastic. That, far more than they, we know these machines are neither warm nor fuzzy and are quite capable of inflicting pain, injury, or even death if abused, ignored, or neglected.

They do not understand that what we seek is extension, to become ourselves yet more... better. What we all reach out for, either through purchase or transformation (at times even both) is something that fits us like a second skin. Something that becomes transparent in our minds, melding and melting until, in that perfect moment, we feel the road under our tires, we sense the weight balance to get us through the next curve, we know exactly what it will take to shut down the challenger in the next lane, even when, because of, family members crying out from the back seat to stop us.

We cherish these vehicles not because we have made some infantile substitution for pets or children, but because they are Tools. Our very genes are stitched with the understanding of the power of tools, and these allow us to do things our ancestors could never dream of. With feet and hands we are able to run faster than the fastest horse, span distances in minutes that once took days, turn more quickly and with more precision than the most powerful leopard ever conceived. These are our chariots, and by controlling, maintaining, improving them we do, however briefly, become like unto gods.

If all this makes you sit back and sneer because we're arrogant or stupid or unrealistic I'm still going to feel sorry for you because you still don't get it. Just like you we know there are mortgages, and bills, and kids, and families, and responsibilities enough to crush Atlas to dust. Unlike you, we know with the turn of a key, the motion of a foot, the flick of a wrist, and the tool we picked or made for ourselves we become, however briefly, so much more.

You can still sit there, but if you do you'll never know what it's like to have the canvas thump of warm summer morning air on your face, decorated with the smell of fresh cut grass and dew, dancing with hands and feet to balance yourself and your vehicle, hearing the song of cams and chains and fire and noise all under your control as you swirl clippings in your wake, disappearing over the horizon with a roar and a shriek that echos through the empty mountains.

Go on. I dare you.

Turn the key and dance...


Dedicated to K & D, for both inspiring this essay and teaching me that just because it looks like a box and acts like a video game, doesn't mean it can't have a soul.

Posted by scott at 08:16 PM | Comments (21) | eMail this entry!
February 28, 2003
The Sound of Silence

The so-called "pro-war" crowd likes to think of itself as better educated, more enlightened, than the so-called "anti-war" crowd. Certainly people carrying signs equating Bush to Hitler and celebrities being quoted as being anti-war because it's "hip" doesn't help. Yet for pro-war folks to call anti-war protestors "un-American" is to express an equal, perhaps greater, ignorance. There's almost literally nothing more American than protesting war.

The open questioning of military leaders is a Western tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks. The entire Bill of Rights can be seen as an elaborate legal mechanism to preserve the right to poke our government in the eye. Anti-war dissent in particular has been with us since at least the Civil War, starting with the draft riots of 1865.

Foreign wars have been especially fond targets of our dislike for armed conflict. Without exception each expedition into the heartland of someone else's country has triggered at times massive civil disobedience and protests. Especially when conscription meant compelling young men to risk their lives whether they wanted to or not, protesting against war has been as natural for an American as watching baseball or eating apple pie.

The funny thing about today's anti-war protestors is that for many their motivation comes from a place normally thought to be the heartland of conservatives and Republicans-- a deep distrust of federal power. Conservatives worry what the federal government might do with their money. Liberals worry what the federal government might do with their kids. Both seem incapable of understanding the common ground they share: that government should not, must not, be unquestioningly trusted with things we hold dear.

"Fools" said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows."

Anyone who says anti-war protests have never brought anything but misery to this country needs to go back and read their history books more carefully. Anti-war protests stopped the Civil War practice of "commutation", the ability for the rich to use their money to either buy their way out of the draft or pay someone to die for them. They also ensured that diplomacy got more than its fair chance during both world wars.

Korea and Vietnam are the only two large-scale conflicts in our history that weren't preceded by some form of anti-war protest, and neither of them could be considered stellar victories. Vietnam in particular stands as a shining example of what can happen when politicians are trusted without question with our armed forces. The liberal elite's near fanatic and, far more important, unquestioning support of Bill Clinton resulted in eight years of inconclusive and ongoing conflicts precisely because, as the traditional heart and soul of the modern anti-war movement, they remained silent.

It may be true that going to war without France is like going camping without an accordion (in both cases one is only leaving noisy and useless baggage behind), but, for America at least, going to war without questioning our motives is like trying to make steel without carbon... the result is often brittle, inflexible, and prone to failure. We need this kind of debate, if for no other reason than to make the politicians answer tough questions and make proper plans to ensure a war is prosecuted quickly and decisively.

It's perfectly OK to say the current anti-war movement is elitist and poorly thought out. I do. It's fine to disassemble their arguments like the badly constructed tinker toys they are. I do that too. It's even OK to point out that the leaders of the movements may have agendas at odds with those of their members. I've done it before.

It's not OK to call them un-American. It's not OK to call them traitors. It's not OK to refuse to listen to them, or to attempt to silence them. Anyone who does these things, anyone, is simply an ignorant thug who's out to attack people just because they disagree with them. It means you have become exactly what they accuse you of... someone who should be clever but has instead gotten mean.

Really, for the most part it's not particularly difficult to drop their arguments to the mat and pin them for the three count. Sometimes, though, it won't be that easy. Sometimes you'll run into someone who's every bit as skilled at argument as you, every bit as prepared for each point you make. They may not convince you. You may not convince them. But you'll both have a better appreciation for each side when it's over, and your own beliefs will be stronger for the examining.

And that, my friend, is the miracle of America.

Posted by scott at 09:12 AM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
February 24, 2003
Fear and Loathing

To me, one of the more puzzling features of the human psyche, or at least the American one at any rate, is the concept of "survivor's guilt." People who survive incredible disasters in which large numbers of other people (even complete strangers) did not are often overcome with tremendous feelings of guilt and remorse, guilt and remorse even when the disaster was quite patently not their fault because its origins were simply beyond their control.

As a nation we are told innumerable times by academia and the media that our country is built on theft, lies, deceit, treachery, oppression, and murder. In high school we're shown pictures of the aftermath of Wounded Knee, we read the declarations made about "manifest destiny", and hear about the stories of honorable treaties broken and torn. Everywhere we look we're taught and told we have no reason to be proud of who we are because we got here riding the backs of people who walked on the corpses of our victims.

The hardest part about it is these are not lies. This is not propaganda. Innocent people really were killed in the building of America. Hundreds of thousands of men and women were subject to oftentimes brutal oppression in the creation of this so-called "free" society. Treaties were broken at a whim, and entire peoples were rolled into obscure corners of the land all in the name of "progress". How dare we be proud of this gore-spattered, blood-soaked country of ours?

As with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, our guilt comes from having only part of the truth that makes up the whole. It arises partly from our own naiveté, and through the subtle and not-so-subtle machinations of elite nihilists and academics with an ill-disguised contempt of the "commoners". What started out as a much-needed injection of realism into the perception of our own history ended up getting manipulated into an almost paralyzing self-loathing, and twisted into a fear of the "bad old days" of patriotism and optimism that characterized the very fiber of this country.

We are told that we stole this country from the Indians. This is quite true. What we are not told is that there really weren't all that many Indians around to steal the country from. It's all too tempting to transliterate the colonial experiences of Eurasia, which was heavily populated and comparatively literate, with those of the Americas, which, especially in the north, was neither.

Most native North American cultures were not highly organized, and for the most part varied between hunting and gathering and horticulture as a method of subsistence. These lifeways simply did not result in the population densities experienced by highly organized agricultural societies such as those in, say, India. Furthermore, through a sort of bio-geographical coincidence, which was completely out of the control of the European explorers and colonists, much of the population that did exist had been mercilessly culled by the scythes of virulent diseases against which the natives had no immunity.

The land was, by and large, empty of settlements because of these factors. But, in spite of perceptions in our history books and popular culture, these native Americans quite patently did not go quietly into that great dark night. Especially during the colonial era, what tribes and nations there were quite merrily made war on settlers when they either thought or were convinced it would be in their best interest to do so. Neither side treated civilians with any distinction. Unspeakable brutalities were commonplace regardless of skin color. No quarter was asked, and none was given. The treaties signed toward the end of the conflicts were not made between two nations of equal power, but rather were an attempt by the Native American nations to shield themselves from an onslaught against which they knew from bloody experience they were unable to roll back themselves.

Does this excuse what happened, somehow make it right? No, it doesn't. But I didn't cause those things to happen, and neither did you. And, I'll wager, neither did your parents, your grandparents, nor (for most of you) your great grandparents or even great-great grandparents. I refuse to feel guilty about the conquest of America because there's nothing I can do to stop it. I was born at least a hundred and fifty years too late to do a damned thing about it. And so were you.

What I can do, and what you can do, and what all of us can do, is recognize that our history is no better, and, far more importantly, no worse, than the history of any other nation on the planet. England has Ireland, and France has Algeria. Canada has its Inuit, Japan its burakumin and India its untouchables. We are by no means unique in having minorities that experienced brutality and oppression.

America is unique in that the costliest war we ever fought was over the liberation of one of these minorities. A war, it should be pointed out, in which only Americans were killed. We may have herded them into camps and denied them their rights, but at no point, at no point, have we ever made an effort to consciously and systematically exterminate them. Great Americans of the twentieth century are defined not by their glory in battle, but rather by their struggles on behalf of these very minorities to overcome the discrimination of our forefathers. Like survivors coming to terms with their continued existence, some of us have decided to put the past behind us and instead fix the present to make the future meaningful.

Others, however, do not see it this way. Like some Old Testament prophet, they have decided that the sins of our forefathers must be visited on us a hundredfold. They have decided that because of the decisions made by a generation that has been dust for more than a century we must not be allowed to feel proud of who we are. They have decided that because of the policies of dead presidents it is somehow justified that more than three thousand living, breathing families were forced to bury pieces of meat in the ground.

I look back on my country's past and I am not ashamed. Neither am I proud. I look back instead and see a body of people who, no matter how misguided, genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. I see a body of people who sacrificed their sons when it turned out they weren't. I see a body of people who do not simply accept problems as they are, do not try to ignore them in the hopes they go away, do not pick a fight with someone else because they're not willing to do what it takes to solve them. More than anything else, I see a body of people who sincerely want the world to be a better, safer place for their children. Unique in all the world, I see a people who have both the power and the inclination to try and make sure it's safe for everyone else's.

We are human. We do, will, screw it up. But we try not to, we try damned hard not to, and when proven to be in the wrong are nearly always one of the first to ask "what can we do to make it right?" Sometimes we can't. Sometimes we screw it up so badly nothing can make it right, and for that I do feel guilty, and will try to do whatever I can to at least make sure it doesn't happen again. But I find it obscene that someone should suggest I must feel guilty simply because I exist.

Posted by scott at 07:46 PM | Comments (15) | eMail this entry!
February 21, 2003
Welcome to My World Pt IV

Background: A few weeks ago I receive an e-mail from Z4, stating that the president of the board of directors (the boss's boss's boss) and Z4 have decided that Z5, a member of a "special needs" volunteer advisory council, has inadequate Internet service and should be provided a gratis internet account from us. This is not an unprecedented request. I say, "fine, I can definitely do that, but..."

You see, 99% of the members of this advisory council have the computer skills of a sea sponge. Most of them literally do not know how to turn one on. I have not met this particular one, so I'm very political about it, "they'll need to have a technical person who can come out to their house to set it up for them."

Why so specific? Why so harsh? Because the last time around we provided an entire computer to a different member of this advisory council and it sat in the box for two months because they literally did not know how to get it out. I am not making this up. Getting your fingernails pulled out is only slightly less painful than having to explain over the phone which end of the power cord goes into the wall.

You see, setting up an internet connection is a real Russian roulette kind of operation. In order to work, it has to sink some hooks pretty deep into your computer. 90% of the time it goes in slick as oil on ice, but 5% of the time it blows up in some obscure way, and the other 5% of the time it takes the computer with it. You do not want to be half way across the country on the phone with Forrest "since-life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates-lets-stick-one-in-the-floppy-drive" Gump when this happens. And for me, it always happens.

So yeah, I set the bar pretty high. They're getting an internet connection for free fer chrissakes. If they want it bad enough they'll dredge up a local techie or their IT-professional relative (ASK ME HOW I KNOW THIS) to help them out. If they don't, then they really don't need it. Yeah, I'm a bastard. You'll find out why in a second.

Fast-forward three weeks. I'm sitting at my desk, trying to figure out how to introduce a new travel system I've created for the ship when in walks Z4, the person who requested the account, trailing someone I've never seen before, who immediately starts dissassembling themself (coat, backpack, etc.) like they own the place. "Hi Scott," Z4 says, "this is ZX, they are a member of the advisory council, they wanted to talk to you." And then Z4 just walks away.

So I'm sitting here while this person makes a great, long, rambling introduction. They obviously think I should know both who they are and why they're here, but I am clueless. I gradually pick up that this is Z5. Finally out from this huge backpack comes, of all things, a laptop. "Z4 said you were going to install my new internet connection for me today." Really? How nice of him. "It was acting a little funny with the old internet connection, but I couldn't get in touch with my tech support. Hoping you could take a look at that too. Here ya go!" *thud*

Ok, some points here:

  • If a tech person touches a computer, they own it from that point on. Any little thing, any burp, wheedle, crack, or thump that happens in the next six months, no matter if it's from what he or she did to it or not, is theirs.
  • Computers are fiddly little bastards, and laptops are fiddlier still. You won't find two laptops that even turn on the same way. All sorts of fun specific software required to make one tick. Fun, specific, easy-to-blow-up, hard-to-fix software.
  • There is almost literally nothing harder in a computer tech's professional life than doing tech support over the phone. People who do help desk for a living usually only last 6 months because of this. It's like trying to teach a jumpy person Russian over the phone so they can disarm a bomb.
  • Computer person axiom #44: If the Computer is already broken, it is a Very Bad Idea to install new system software.
  • Rule of Motivating Computer People #8: Do not surprise your tech. Techs do not react well to surprises.
  • Computer person axiom #73: Working on a stranger's computer is like playing in a minefield someone else planted: full of unpleasant surprises.
  • Scott's a Bastard, Rule #3: I get paid to work on the computers of this company. It is work, it is not fun. I do not work on other people's computers unless they are a) also paying me money (LOTS of money), b) a relative, or c) giving me copious amounts of high-quality alcohol as a reward.

I say "gosh, really sorry to hear the computer is giving you trouble, but I'm afraid you'll need to get that fixed first before anything can be done for your internet connection." This is true, good advice, something I'd say to anyone. "You'll need to contact your manufacturer." Because I really don't like working on computers I've never seen before.

"But [name], the President of the Board of Directors, said you'd be able to help."

This is where I got all hard and flinty. There are two, and really only two ways to deeply piss me off about computer stuff: acting like it's the end of the world if you don't get your problem fixed right this second, and name-dropping. Especially name dropping from people who don't actually work here. "Well, I'd love to help, but unfortunately I'm not allowed to work on computers we didn't purchase." (it's not a lie, it's a deflection), "especially if it's giving you trouble. I'll be happy to provide you with what you need to get your internet connection running once the computer is fixed."

"So I'm going to have to go to my tech support anyway then?"

What, you mean the tech support you paid for when you bought the computer, tech support who's job it is to know your computer inside and out? "Yes, I'm afraid so." [SHINEY HAPPY WORKER BEE MODE] "But I'll be happy to provide you with the settings you need for a new internet account once you get it fixed."[/SHINEY HAPPY WORKER BEE MODE]

"Hmpf!" they said as they re-assembled themselves. "I guess I'll just have to go back and talk to Z4 won't I?"

After relating a similar story to a friend, they said "doesn't it just make you want to shoot yourself?"

"No," I said, "it makes me want to shoot them."

Posted by scott at 04:03 PM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
February 19, 2003
Survey Says...

Taken from Omnipolitan Magazine:

Those silly Americans are at it again, throwing their weight around and generally trying to get it all their way. But what's a leader to do in these uncertain times? George Bush is obviously a threat to the stability of the entire world, and we just bet you're feeling a little anxious about your own little corner of it. Fear not! The editors of Omnipolitan Magazine have prepared this survey to help you determine just how likely you are to be invaded by the United States:

  1. The government of your country is:
    1. Democratic
    2. Communist
    3. "Citizen-validated" dictatorship or Monarchy
    4. None of your beez-naus, you obnoxious American fart-knockher
  2. Your economy is run by:
    1. itself
    2. five year plans, when not meddled with by Capitalist scum whose entire race will be erased from history if we ever catch them at it again.
    3. Oil
    4. I cannot bee-leeve you. Onlee ig-no-rhant Americans would not understand the true way to Fhre-dhom is through zee kindness of zee state.
  3. Your military is:
    1. A well oiled, well controlled machine capable of striking anywhere on the globe
    2. The most fearsome proof of the innate superiority of the prolitariat's true power. Except when the minisubs wash up on someone's shore.
    3. Manned by illiterate draftees, lead by my best friends, equipped by France or the US.
    4. Sacreblu! Our militaree ees second to non! Jes because our haircraft-caree-er had to be towed back to zee harbor twice ees no sign of our pre-pahred-nas. [book falls from shelf, BANG!!] AAG! I surrender! I surrender!
  4. The women in your country are:
    1. Equal or near-equal participants in all aspects of political, social, and legal life.
    2. A part of the worker's paradise just like the men. When they aren't busy watching their children starve to death, that is.
    3. Only allowed out with their cousin's-uncle's-mother's-brother-in-law, and even then only when covered by three layers of cloth (if it's below 120 at least).
    4. Mon dieu! How ees ze way a so-sy-itay's tratemon zepposed to haf any bear-eeng on zee discu-shee-on? Ze weemon, zey are, how do you say, ha-pee. Who caires what the rest of zese monkees do with zaire weemon.
  5. The children in your country are:
    1. As safe and protected as we can possibly make them
    2. Ensuring the continuation of the glory of our wonderful, all-powerful, and joyous leader. When they aren't busy starving to death, that is.
    3. Fuses
    4. Hee-den away so zay cannot be corrup-ted by zee crass an 'orrible American cul-tyoor.
  6. When your people disagree with your government they:
    1. vote the scoundrels out the first chance they get.
    2. are obviously defective and must be taken quickly to a re-education camp for an indefinite period of time.
    3. disappear
    4. Are seemplee confused by zee enlightened policees of ze unelected beuracracy whose sole inte-rest is thaiyr libartee.
  7. When threatened, your country's first response is:
    1. To make a lot of noise, convince as many of our friends as possible of the danger, then start kicking ass.
    2. To threaten the corrupting capitalists with utter annhiliation.
    3. To secretly strap bombs to kids, cars, buildings, women, and donkeys, while wailing away about how our fourteen century old culture is about to be wiped out by Zionists and Americans.
    4. To negotiate, but of course, while our crack special forc-es find out wheech official eet will be most efficiant to bribe.
  8. If attacked, your country's first response would be to:
    1. Pull together, bury our dead, heal our wounded, then start kicking ass.
    2. collapse
    3. collapse
    4. Ha-ha! Onlee zee Americans, because of zayre eegnorant and boorish ways, haf anything to fear from zee world. Our enlight-eend policy of briberee and pro-test protects us from [cat knocks over vase, CRASH!!] AAG! I surrender! I surrender!
  9. If some citizens of your country organize so they can more effectively disagree with your policies, you:
    1. Are required by law to allow them to assemble. You also listen to what they have to say, modify your policies (if only a little) to try and accommodate them, and arrest anyone who's smoking pot, if only to thin the crowd a bit.
    2. Roll tanks into whatever village or neighborhood is full of these dangerous spies and traitors to show them the consequences of disagreeing with our benevolent and enlightened policies.
    3. Use gas. It's faster.
    4. Allow zem to para-lyze zee entire countree because zay tink zay need forty more hou-ers of vacation.
  10. If shown an inkblot, an average citizen in your country would think it was:
    1. A burger. MMmm... burgers...
    2. What was left of their husband, who disappeared six months ago because he said the glorious leader might need a haircut. No! Wait! I didn't mean that he-[BANG!]
    3. What was left of your sister after she nobly sacrificed herself in the name of God ensuring the Zionist conspirators infesting that daycare center were taken care of.
    4. Pah! EEt iz obvious-lee zee work of an enlight-ened arteest, only zee ignorant American would theenk it was a bur-ger.

Scoring:

A answers: 0 points
B answers: 10 points
C answers: 25 points
D answers: -5 points

0-20 points What the hell is wrong with you? The US might be loud, annoying, and obnoxious but you know damned good and well what would happen if something really bad happened to your country. Hint: it won't be the French offering you the biggest airlift force in the world, and it won't be MADE IN JAPAN stamped on the tons of relief supplies raining down from the sky.

21-100 points Well, the US probably isn't all that interested in invading you, but you shouldn't be surprised if mysterious airplanes so full of electronics you can pick them up from your fillings patrol off your coasts.

100-200 points Probably not any time real soon, but I'd make sure to pack some fresh underwear in your [pinky to mouth] super-secret escape capsule [/pinky to mouth], because if you don't straighten up soon you're probably next.

250-500 points Goddammit Saddam, quit screwing around.

-50-0 points You're French, which makes you annoying, effete, two-faced, deceitful and an ingrate, but it doesn't make you a target. Go back to eating cheese and boinking your mistress and let the real countries take care of business. We'll let you know when it's safe to come out and play.

Posted by scott at 02:24 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
February 16, 2003
Race Riot

Black folks and white folks are eating together. Right there, in front of me. Not just eating in the same restaurant, but sitting at actual tables together. Not just black folks. Asian folks are sitting with Latino folks, white folks are sitting with Asian folks, Latino folks with black folks, and every combination in between. You even catch the occasional homogony lilt of an African accent, the beef stew roll of a Russian one, even the bright sun tang of an Australian among the tables. The whole world was sitting in front of me, having some lunch, and nobody thought anything of it.

 

"Mom! We got on a Little League team!", I said with the enthusiasm only a ten year old can muster. It was, oh, 1978. Star Wars was still dominating the country's theaters, the first "test-tube" (i.e. 'in-vitro') baby was born, and almost a thousand people killed themselves deep in a South American jungle at the command of a madman. I remember all these things, but at the time I didn't care about them. All I cared about was that I was going to be one of the "cool" kids by playing baseball. Oh I hated the game, I was never one for athletics, but it got me with the "in" crowd, and all my friends were there. Well, all except one.

"Why isn't Travis in the league?", I asked. Travis was my best friend. We talked so much on the phone our moms teased us about being a couple of little girls gossiping. We talked about comics (we shared a passion for Spider Man), science fiction (he liked Spock, I liked Kirk, how perfect was that?), the latest bully reports, and who knows what else. I was seriously worried about baseball. Two weird geeky kids are a team. One weird geeky kid is a target.

"Travis? Well... I don't think Travis wants to be in that league," my mom said with the all-too-quick phrasing of someone trying to side-skirt an uncomfortably complex topic.

"What? Well, maybe I can call him and talk him into it."

"No, no, you don't need to do that, I'll talk to his mom later on." Which was mom-jujitsu doing a number on my attention span. Because I didn't know the real reason Travis didn't come to play on our teams. I wouldn't figure it out for years.

Travis, my best friend, was black. I don't know if he was officially barred from our league, but he sure as hell wouldn't have been welcomed. The black folks had their own leagues on the other side of town. I wouldn't have been welcomed there either.

 

"C'mon nigger, deal the cards!"

It was four years later, 1982, and Travis and I were in our second go-around as roomies at band camp. Fourteen-year-old boys with cash money and no direct supervision, and what do we do? Order some pizzas and start playing cards, of course. Guys are guys, you see, no matter how old they are.

We had V, who had a speech impediment that made him hard to understand but who was smarter than six other people put together, A, a new kid who was a little high-strung but otherwise OK (the fact that his older sister, C, was gorgeous didn't hurt), M, a preacher's kid who would remain the most arrogant and ignorant person I would ever personally know, Travis, and me. We'd scarfed most of the pizza sitting on the gritty-dusty mottled gray asphalt tiled floor of our dorm room and were waiting while A fumbled with the shuffling so we could play a game I can't remember anymore. That's when Travis said that, the most amazingly shocking thing I think I've ever heard anyone say in my life.

"C'mon nigger, deal the cards!"

It was at that point that I got clued in. It literally had not occurred to me up until that second that I was the only white kid in the room. In all honesty, I don't really think anyone else had noticed it either, although I think I caught a sly grin or two as I tried to subtly pick my jaw up off the floor. It was the first time I'd actually witnessed the other double standard, of things that can and cannot be said by certain people at certain times.

I knew on a visceral level that word meant nothing but evil, ignorant rot so foul it made six day old corpses smell sweet. It came out of the mouths of the bullies I hated and feared, out of the mouths of relatives who I was supposed to respect and love but who I could only hold in sad contempt, out of the mouths of preachers and teachers, but only when "off-duty", when they thought nobody who counted would hear.

It also came out of the mouth of my best friend, who up until that time I knew on an academic level was black. To me, he was black as in "wow! I didn't know black people didn't have tan lines!" (to which he replied, "damn, white people have white butts!" The showers in the dorm were "open", you see), something to be remarked on like a hair color or a distinctive birthmark, something we could discuss to distract ourselves from the completely bizarre transformations our bodies were undergoing in the depths of puberty.

 

For whatever reasons, and I don't really think it was this, our relationship would gradually change, and we would drift apart. He lived in the "nice" section of "his" side of the town, and I lived in the "nice" section of "mine". Oh, we were still able to banter about our differences ("This is what white people do on the weekends?!?" was his incredulous question when I showed him the cruise route for teenagers), but our social lives diverged (he had one, I didn't), and in the mid-80s there was no such thing as a "crossover" relationship, certainly not in the south.

One event, though, sticks clearly in my mind. I was a cook at a Pizza Hut in 1986, and Travis, along with a few other of my high school friends (black and white) were working there. We had an employee meeting about who knows what, sales probably, when the manager mentioned his one real scheduling difficulty. You see, the manager was from California. He didn't know You Didn't Talk About Such Things in the south.

"The biggest problem I have is that I have to keep a white waitress on the clock at all times. A third of the people who come into this place won't speak to a black waitress or waiter. Sonya [who was the nicest lady I ever met, and the best waitress in the whole joint] can walk up to the [very prominent, "pillar of the Baptist church" family] when they come in and they just won't speak to her."

What surprised me wasn't the admission. I'd known there were stupendously ignorant, dangerous, and evil people in my town for years. I was counting the days until I graduated and could escape the entire mouth-breathing mass of them. What surprised me was the complete lack of surprise the black folks expressed when the manager said it.

I've already said many times I study things that interest me. Some things, like science, have interested me for my entire life. Others are struck by an epiphany, a revelation which can happen at the oddest points.

 

I remember it distinctly. It was a typical hot, muggy, northwest Arkansas July 4th in 1992. I'd come there to go to college, and had settled after graduation while I tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I was driving down the "bypass", a sad little excuse for an interstate that surrounded the college town I lived in, steering my old convertible. My beween-the-shoulderblades hair was stinging my eyes as it whipped in the hot towel-snap wind. I was going to the mall, probably to pick up some books, wondering if the sky's ominous color change to soap-scum covered copper would cancel the fireworks scheduled for that night.

While I was driving I pondered the country. How proud I was to be an American. How proud everyone who lived in this country should be. How we were a nation of people who had picked up, packed up, and pushed up to make the most powerful nation on the planet. All except, I suddenly realized, one. One set of people had ancestors who didn't really want to be brought here. People, regardless of who was ultimately to blame, regardless of how ultimately promising their lives turned out to be, who did not seek this country out, but were instead carried here against their will. It sounds almost Joan-of-Arc-ish, but from that point forward, sweating on that dusty road in a car that was more rust than it was steel, I decided to at least try to pay attention to what was going on "on the other side of the tracks", to educate myself as much as I could on what it really was like to be considered different only because of your looks. I started to pay attention, and I watched.

I watched as the bitterness of the civil rights boomers seeped into the racial debate. I watched people who were so deeply naive they really thought they could overturn three centuries of racism in less than a single lifetime grasp desperately for relevance amongst the generation after my own. A generation whose parents were raised integrated, who, no matter what was spoke at home, understood that in the schools and at the workplace it was wrong to notice color (even if you did anyway). I watched them define their failure not by how far race relations had progressed in the courts, not how far they had progressed in the media, but by how far they had progressed in the social order of our life. "Black folks and white folks may be forced to work on equal terms", they would say, "but they don't socialize very much. We don't eat together, and we never will." To them, it seemed, every time the goal was in site the goalposts moved farther away, never getting any closer.

Which are the words that echoed in my head as I walked into "El Pollo Rico", which as I understand it translates into "rich chicken". It's the paragon of the modern "mom-and-pop" local fast food joint, South American style. It happens to be across the street from Ellen's cat clinic, and apparently has the best rotisserie chicken on the planet. You walk in to a stark, plain, florescent-lit dining area with randomly scattered and tightly grouped wooden tables and chairs on white tile, a giant counter at the back flanked by huge ovens filled with chickens doing a slow-roast samba. It is very, very good.

The place was packed when we walked in last Friday. While Ellen waited in line (she knew what to order) I tried to stay out of everyone's way as they busily dissected tasty Peruvian chicken and went over the day's events in the ratchetty buzzy rumble that is a group discussion in a crowded room. It was then that I really noticed what I was seeing...

Black folks and white folks are eating together. Right there, in front of me. Not just eating in the same restaurant, but sitting at actual tables together. Not just black folks. Asian folks are sitting with Latino folks, white folks are sitting with Asian folks, Latino folks with black folks, and every combination in between. Nobody cares, nobody notices, except for one white kid, who can remember wondering why his best friend couldn't play little league on the same team as him.

It can still be dangerous to simply have the wrong color skin in the wrong part of town in this country. But I no longer fear for the future of race in America, all because of what I saw in a dinky little grab-and-go.

In America.

Posted by scott at 09:38 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
February 12, 2003
The Quiet Man

The United States is the most powerful nation on the planet, and has been attacked in a spectacular and egregious way. Yet we prevaricate and protest. Europe once ruled the entire planet with an iron fist and yet brought literacy and enlightenment where once war and abject slaughter ruled. Yet they see in their greatest trade partner and staunchest ally a force of chaos, good only for ridicule, while a culture that has worked to destroy them for more than a thousand years sharpens its knives yet again. Why is it this way? What the hell happened?

One of my favorite "old" movies is John Ford's The Quiet Man. In it, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an American returning to Ireland to reclaim the homestead of his ancestors. Sean has a secret, one which drives a major portion of the plot.

Sean used to be a boxer. Sean beat a man to death in the ring.

Because of this Sean won't fight, he just won't. This stand threatens his health, his love, even his standing in the community. Everyone thinks he won't fight because he's a coward. Everyone is, of course, wrong. He is eventually drawn into a fight, but not until grossly provoked. Fortunately this is "old" Hollywood and so everyone plays by the rules, and it all has a happy ending.

Such anti-heroes have become a staple in American cinema. From Pale Rider to Rambo and Star Wars to The Godfather, all and many more contain people who turned away or tried to stay out of it all, to no avail.

It's a tradition that has its roots deep in western thought and culture. The Greeks, unique in all the ancient world, had armies made up of free men who quite literally had better things to do. The Romans worshipped Cincinnatus who, after all, just wanted to plow his fields. Of course, for every Cincinnatus there were a hundred Caligulas, for every Washington a thousand Napoleons. We cherish these quiet men because they are in fact exceedingly rare.

The west drove itself to the brink of annihilation in the twentieth century because we ignored the lessons of the quiet man, not just once but twice. Europe immolated the old order in a drunken orgy of death and destruction that, were it not for the reluctant intervention of the United States, threatened to literally go on forever.

Sick to their very bones of fighting, the west then ignored the rise to power of a series of dictatorial governments whose leaders were so insanely out of touch with reality they made Charles Manson look like Buddha. What Germany and Japan did not understand was the rest of the world gave them what they wanted not out of cowardice, but from an unwillingness to go through all that again, to throw wave after wave of their children into a bloody, futile meat grinder, where even the survivors can't truely be said to be human anymore.

So Europe did whatever it took short of war to avoid it. Even when it came to war, it should be no surprise that the nations whose soil soaked up the blood of Verdun, Somme, and Flanders chose to surrender instead of going through it all again in less than a single generation. Britain remained standing more out of luck and the insanity of the opposition than any defense, no matter how valiant it may have been. It took an unprovoked invasion of the largest country in Eurasia combined with a humiliating defeat on a tiny island in the Pacific before the last of the great western powers awoke, rolled their sleeves up, and got down to business.

And what a business it was. The west became powerful because of the way we fight wars. We're good at it, better than any culture has ever been. At the climax of the Second World War, we were cooking people in bomb shelters because the fires in the cities were so intense. We vaporized people by unleashing a force hotter than the surface of the sun. Like a boxer who can't hear the bell over the thundering in his ears, we kept punching and punching and punching, not noticing that the other guy's skull had been completely bashed in.

The culture that had ruled the world for nearly two hundred years collectively recoiled in horror at what it had done. A nation whose cornerstones are liberty and justice burned whole square miles of city completely to ash, ensuring the last thing too many children saw was the way a firebomb blew open like a dandelion, just before it hit. Like an alcoholic waking up from a blackout and finding blood all over the house and a knife in his hand, Europe quite willingly let the US handle the liquor of war and has ever since tried to convince the rest of the world to go on the wagon (even as they themselves occasionally fell off).

For a brief period of time the United States, which through geographic co-incidence hadn't suffered serious domestic casualties in nearly a century, put down its traditional disdain for foreign conflicts and threw itself full-force into defending what it saw as the entire free world. It took an additional 58,000 or so bodies coming home in bags during the course of a decade over a place so remote most people couldn't find it on a map before we realized we were in fact not omnipotent. And always the shadows burned into the walls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted us.

So, eventually, the cultures of the west collectively decided to sit it out. The rest of the world could be nasty and brutal and dangerous and, as long as they didn't do it in front of a camera, we all, almost subconsciously, decided to let them. The quiet man decided he'd had a belly full of death.

Then the walls fell.

It's never as simple as this. The peoples of Europe are not a monolith, and the peoples of America are nothing if not the peoples of the entire world. The governments and businesses and academia of continental Europe, along with the intelligencia and entertainment elite of our own country, oppose the war for cynical, self-serving reasons. Reasons that have very, very little to do with peace on earth, good will toward man. But the people of Europe, our founding Britain, and in no small part our own country, the ones who stand up for ridicule and, God help them, go running around in the snows of central park wearing nothing but boots and scarves, they oppose war because the quiet man still wishes to simply be left alone.

The tragedy is it can't happen this way. It just can't. Where we see holding back out of mercy, the tin pot dictators see retreat out of cowardice. Where we see concern that only combatants are annihilated, the religious fanatics of the world see an effete concern for the welfare of the expendable. Where we decide through simple economics that it just isn't worth it to save a people who don't want to be saved, the leaders of those people decide we simply don't have the stomach to take them on, and kill a few more out of spite.

Even sixty years on, the peoples of Europe are still heartsick over what happened in the middle of the last century. Fortunately for them, we are not, and have seen what must be done. The quiet man west of Albion has been awakened with a terrible fury and purpose. Fortunately for us, our allies in Europe (and Britain, and Canada) stand by, if nothing else to protect us from our own excess, grounding us and ensuring the less savory elements of our own culture are kept in check, and that we really do act on the international stage in the world's best interest. It's not comfortable, and it hurts us more than they know, but we need it desperately.

The fanatics and dictators of the rest of the world see the hole in Manhattan as a triumph, the prevarication of the west in its aftermath an opportunity. They do not understand that the smoke merely woke again the sleeping giant, and the debate is merely over how best to dissect the insect.

More's the pity.

Posted by scott at 06:16 PM | Comments (42) | eMail this entry!
January 30, 2003
Power Plays

One of the things that most amuses me about the radical left is how their heads are stuck so deep in the sand you half expect to get a phone call from an irate landscaper somewhere in Beijing bitching about how hard it is to mow around them all. Personally, I blame Lincoln. While the Gettysburg address is a truly inspiring bit of speech writing, it has forever after allowed the more soft-headed around here to actually believe this country, any country, was once "of the people, by the people, for the people", and that today it's not and that this is a Very Bad Thing.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. --Winston Churchill

"The people" have no damned business running a country. "The people" have made Jerry Springer a household name, Ms. Cleo a rich actress, and Benny Hin a beloved (and believed!) preacher. "The people" have given us hanging chads, scratch-and-win lotto, and drive-through windows on liquor stores. "The people" tore down Penn Station and paid out of their own pockets to build Oral Roberts University. Think about it for a second. Do you really want your neighbor in charge of this nation's nuclear arsenal? I think balancing my checkbook drunk is fun. Should I ever be allowed to play with a trillion dollar budget?

What's more, many, probably most, "people" don't really want to be in charge. They want to live their lives and raise their kids, throw darts and shoot guns, learn about the world and travel around to see it. Government is all about boring, nasty, unbelievably petty people trying to get away with boring, nasty, unbelievably petty things, and the vast majority of us are quite happy to let someone else wade around in that particular mosh pit-meets-manure pond.

Really, there are only four kinds of folks interested in government: the greedy bastards, the power hungry lunatics, the rich old farts, and the congenitally pissed off. Good government is a complex dance that constantly tries to play these forces against each other in such a way they don't blow anything up, and still allow them at least a chance to occasionally get something done.

This is why "efficient" governments always sound really good on paper but always end up being more about how fast one man or one group can empty their country's treasury while filling its "re-education facilities" (concentration camps). Because the people you really want to run the place almost never do. Albert Schweitzer is always too busy helping the poor, but boy ol' Albert Speer is just hanging around the beer hall listening to a really noisy Austrian.

Actually, I have no problem with rich old farts running the show, as long as they're being watched. They got rich for a reason, who better to put in charge of making money for an entire nation? I'm not particularly worried about greedy bastards, as long as their interests compliment mine. Power hungry lunatics would at first give me pause, but they'll be protecting me along with themselves. Of the four, I personally find perpetually pissed off people to be the most troublesome. There's nothing more unreasonable than an idealistic 20-something with a cause, but as long as the other three are around they won't get too far.

If you think this is all cynical and heartless and doesn't have to be this way if we'd just all listen, well, I'm sorry but you're still not paying attention. Governments across space and time, history and culture, attract and are infested by dangerous people. Some are garden-variety crackpots and kooks, easy to spot and simple to deal with. There will be others, though, who might mean well, especially at first, but who eventually decide the reason why it's not working out is nobody else is listening to them and it's just a matter of educating these ignorant masses so they'll understand the Rightness of Our Ideals and of course the most efficient way is to send everyone out to be educated at once and anyone who doesn't see this is obviously trying to screw it all up and must be Dealt With Accordingly.

Good government is never really "by", "of", or "for" anybody. Good government is about protecting the citizenry from the predations of evil and the miscalculations of good intent. It's about keeping powerful people busy without allowing them to become unaccountable. It's about building a system that can harmlessly fret away at itself for decades at a time and yet allow quick focus and rapid recalculation in the face of a real crisis. Excellent government provides the bonus of allowing the occasional brilliant leader or exceptional idealist the ability to make their way to the top, while simultaneously providing quick and easy exits when it all just becomes too much for them or, far more importantly, when they decide they've become too much for it.

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that --Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was not a great man because he wrote good speeches. He was a great man because he saw a system that worked, a system that provided more freedom and opportunity than any that had come before or existed in his day. He was a great man because he did whatever it took to preserve that system, and didn't manage to destroy it in the process. He was a great man because he wrote a simple little speech on the back of an envelope that convinced a bleeding and desperately tired nation that if we'd just hang on a little longer, try a little harder, bleed a little more, we'd become the greatest country on earth.

And you know what? He was right.

Posted by scott at 04:06 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
January 24, 2003
The Politics of Dancing

Extremism is so much fun. When hyperbole is just a kind of mint jelly, all sorts of excess becomes possible. It both glues and greases this country's political machine.

When Bill Clinton was elected president I was working at an archeology firm (they do exist, and they paid me $4.15/hr for things I do today) and listening to good ol' Rush Limbaugh every day. That November day it was like the Apocalypse had rolled up its sleeves and given ol' Rush the Noogie of Death. Dirges, mourning, and rants about the country's imminent demise dominated the show, and continued to for the next two years. They all knew, they all knew, it was the end of the world, and Bill Clinton would be the one holding the drain plug with that big goofy grin on his face.

When George Bush was (eventually) elected president, I was working where I am now, surrounded by Democrats so fervent they have yellow dogs tattooed on their asses. That December day it was as if the curtain of the temple had been torn asunder. I half expected my mother to don sackcloth and start throwing ashes. They all knew, they all knew, it was the end of the world, and George Bush would be the one with the drain plug chain wrapped around his ankle trying to figure out where the toilet sound was coming from.

Extremism sucks the sense of humor out of a person faster than Jenna Jameson on crystal meth. Caller after caller to Rush's show demanded Clinton's impeachment years before he failed to squirm out from under a legal oath. I had someone who I otherwise consider extremely intelligent declare with complete sincerity that George Bush was just one judicial appointment away from banning birth control. Both sides insist to this day they're right, and treat the other, again with granite-lined sincerity, as if they were at best deluded fools or at worst apostates and traitors.

It's rather fun to eat popcorn on the sidelines and watch the two sides fling poo at each other, play Cassandra as if Aeschylus himself were writing the lines, or engage in temper tantrums that would make a two-year-old antichrist blush.

Because you know what? In spite of his inability to actually take a stand on something that might piss one or two people off, the country really was better off when Bill Clinton left than when he arrived. You know what else? Everyone said George Bush was a bomb-throwing moron when he called North Korea part of the "axis of evil". It was only after more than a year of digging that the press quietly admitted that, well, yes, those things in that satellite photo do look an awful lot like giant concentration camps after all don't they, and gosh, did you realize they're working on ICBMs that could hit Los Angeles?

I liked Bill Clinton because he really tried his best to make the country easier to live in for the less fortunate among us, and we needed that then. I disliked him because he was too smart for his own good, was afraid of pissing anyone off, and surrounded himself with left-wing zealots who beavered away at separating me from my money. I like George Bush because he's three times smarter than anyone thinks he is and is more decisive and precise than an argon laser, and we need that now. I dislike him because he's surrounded himself with right-wing zealots who are beavering away at separating me from my rights.

Most of all I know that in many ways none of it matters. The founding fathers rightly feared an efficient dictator or lunatic king, and so made the presidency no more powerful than the other two sides of the triangle, in many ways far weaker. The miracle of our country is that anything one government does can be undone by the next if it seems too wonky, right up to the constitution (18th amendment, anyone?) In essence, our country has a giant UNDO button sewn into it, guaranteeing nothing really stupid can stay that way for very long.

But please, don't mind me, I'm just the rational guy sitting in the corner trying to figure out how to breathe in with one nostril and out with the other. Don't let me interrupt your anarchic waltz with unreality and disillusionment. I'm smiling at you precisely because you don't think any of this is funny.

Posted by scott at 03:30 PM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
January 18, 2003
The Wrong Lessons

I'm sure it would be a revelation to most baby boomers, press monkeys, and pretty much anyone under the age of 40, but the Vietnam era did not herald the invention of the anti-war protest movement. Protesting wars has been part of the American landscape for pretty much as long as there's been an America to own a landscape. From Washington's farewell address of 1796 to the draft riots of 1863 to giant anti-war rallies in 1915 through the conscientious objector movements of World War II and Korea we have always and ever been a country not completely comfortable with waging war. The Vietnam war protests are unique only in the the way its protagonists took nearly every good thing they did and twisted it into something awful.

In many ways the early part of the Vietnam conflict was quite unusual in its lack of protests. It was a time when a staggeringly large number of citizens had been trained in unquestioning obedience to authority (see Transformations for a more complete development of this idea). It was a time when communications technology had not developed to the point where any place on the globe could be reached by any other place in a matter of hours, minutes, even seconds. It was a time when politicians were far more afraid of nuclear conflagration than they were of victory, and generals were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their men.

So through an unusual combination of forces, coincidences, personalities, and technology the United States took what should have been a three year civil war and turned it into a decade long bloodbath that cost the nation billions in wasted dollars and the lives of tens of thousands of its best and brightest, delivering nothing in return but misery and destruction.

But it could, and probably would, have been worse. It's difficult to understand just how badly the war was run in Vietnam. The President and his civilian cabinet picked targets for lieutenants and captains to bomb the same day. Generals counted success by the numbers of claimed enemy dead instead of the amount of enemy land taken and held. At least as many, if not more, soldiers were involved in making sure colonels and generals were kept in air conditioned, gourmet meal comfort as ever pointed a rifle at the enemy.

The mainstream media should be rightly proud it exposed such horrific waste and unbelievable incompetence. The protest movement should rightly be proud that it caused important and significant changes in the way that war was waged. These are events, achievements, and milestones that are properly celebrated in liberal academia and press clubs to this day. Unfortunately they came with a price, a price far too infrequently noted, in no small part because it was caused by those responsible for writing the history.

Because, as with most large group endeavors, the anti-war movement's and the media's reach eventually exceeded its grasp. Vietnam rapidly came to be seen as the prime ticket required to quickly advance a reporter's (few late in the war warranted the moniker "journalist") career. Fact checking, historical, even tactical perspective, and the ability to separate the story of soldiers from the story of war all got lost in the machiavellian quest to "get the story", "get the sound bite", "get the pictures".

Hysteria ruled not only the teenager getting shot at, but also the reporter trying to talk to him. Peter Arnett is world-famous for the quote "the only way Hue [a South Vietnamese city] could be won was by destroying it", yet he never provided a source for it and to this day no-one else has ever claimed to have said or heard it. Eddie Adams's electrifying photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan personally blowing the brains out of a captured Vietcong infiltrator is widely held to be one of the most defining of the war, yet the fact that this was essentially a terrorist who, with his fellows, had just murdered most of the General's security forces (including one officer at home with his wife and children) has never been widely circulated.

The protest movement holds "four dead in Ohio" as the leitmotif of the suffering they went through in the execution of their cause. Yet hardly ever is remarked the pain and suffering their hyperbolic foaming caused thousands of soldiers returning from jungle horror. They caused these men, the vast majority of whom were draftees who never wanted to go in the first place, to be spat on for serving their country. Sean Penn may have visited Saddam in Iraq to highlight his views against the war, but Jane Fonda sat in an anti-aircraft gun used to kill American troops that week, and smiled as they took her picture.

The wounds these events caused on the American psyche were deep. Eventually even Hanoi Jane apologized for the pain she'd caused. As the first in-depth histories, biographies, and memoirs were written in the 70s and 80s the nation learned what it had always suspected... the war did not have to turn out the way it did, and the media and the protesters shared a heaping portion of the blame alongside the politicians and the generals.

It was therefore only surprising to the media, the liberal intelligentsia, and celebrities that, when the Gulf War rolled around, Americans had had a bellyfull of their careerism, myth-making, and sarcastic repartee. Poll after poll applauded the military's tight control of the media (in spite of the weak bleats of complaint heard to this day), and this time it was the protesters standing forlornly in the middle of college campuses, looking lost and out of place.

Because the media, the protesters, and the liberal left learned the wrong lessons from that war. When they should've been learning that no authority is beyond questioning, they instead chose to believe that no authority is worth trusting. When they should've been learning that the death of every American soldier was tragic, they instead chose to believe that preventing the suffering of enemy civilians was paramount. When they should've been learning that status, celebrity, and journalism were powerful counterweights to ensure the proper prosecution of a war, they instead chose to believe any cause they considered unjust could be stopped simply by upping the rhetoric, increasing the heat, attracting more attention.

By learning the wrong lessons, by crowing about the wrong things, they are losing the incredible opportunities they have before them today. Instead of focusing on the effectiveness of our strategies, they're visiting the palaces of those sworn to destroy us. Instead of concentrating to make sure politicians are not allowed to decide the fate of corporals, they're protesting that an economic lynch pin of the modern age isn't worth fighting for. Instead of ensuring our politicians have a workable, valid plan for an aftermath that will make the horrible sacrifices justified, they are instead trying to dredge up or recreate glories long past, and tarnished.

A great man once said, "Let the dead bury the dead." It is a lesson, to their great discredit, that not a single one of the current anti-war protesters seems to have learned.

Posted by scott at 09:00 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
January 17, 2003
Tool Time

Now that I have a real garage, I'm trying to collect a set of real tools (about the "getting a real car" thing... when your car wins a world championship we can come back and talk. When it wins more than ten I might take you seriously). I've got a pretty decent collection of Craftsman stuff, but there are still places even those wrenches won't get to, and bolts they'll still round off.

After doing a lot of research on it, it would seem the three "makes to have" are MAC, Matco, and Snap-On. These are what professionals use, and they are supposed to be quite noticeably better than even Craftsman (which is pretty good already).

It used to be a bit difficult to get these tools, because they're traditionally sold out of trucks that visit dealers instead of storefronts. Nowadays all three have web-based catalogs, so availability is not that big of a problem anymore.

What is a big problem is price. MAC and Matco tools are about 3-5 times more expensive than Craftsman (which is about twice as expensive as what you get at Wally-world), and Snap-On is around 6-10 times more. It's quite easy to spend $2500 on a Snap-On set of tools that would normally only cost $300 or less from Craftsman.

Enter E-bay. Like all-clad pots and pans, all three brands of tools are readily available on that bubbling pot of an electronic bazaar. Unlike pots and pans, I have no problem at all buying used tools (I don't eat what I fix with a ratchet), and used ones are available at a fraction of the cost of new.

Turns out Snap-On, MAC, and Matco all seem to go for about the same prices used, so I've targeted Snap-On, which is generally considered the best (although apparently not by enough to justify the extreme premium they cost when new, which is why all my stuff is used). Please note this is no slight to the other two. My research showed that at the professional level tool choice can spawn holy wars that make the "Mac vs. PC" stuff look like two kids going at it with rubber-band guns. Any of these three are fine. Also, these are all US made tools. I'm actually quite curious as to what's considered the "best of breed" in hand tools in Europe, South America, Africa, or Asia. If you're from there, let me know!

Anyway, here's what I've found so far:

  • Craftsman tools are very nice, fit-and-finish wise. Snap-On tools are like jewelry. In every respect the Snap-On stuff is lighter, more finely made, and more precise. Think of a Western Sizzlin' steak (cost: $12.00). Now think of your local five star steakhouse (around here that's Ruth Chris. Cost: $35.00). It's that kind of difference.
  • Because of their smaller size, Snap-On's will get in tighter places.
  • The Snap-On ratchets don't seem to have a sprocket mechanism any finer than the Craftsman. I may simply not have purchased the correct ratchets yet, as some have more teeth than others. Not extremely impressed so far.
  • The difference between Snap-On wrenches and Craftsman wrenches is far more dramatic. The Snap-Ons are noticeably lighter, more finely made, and have smaller, more precisely machined working surfaces. This translates into wrenches that fit better, grip better, and don't round stuff off.
  • The difference between the sockets is more interesting. Again, Snap-On is lighter and more finely made, but they're also shaped differently, and have a different interior design. This could translate into better grip, but I'll need to wait until I tackle a few more "nut and bolt" jobs before I can say for sure.

Conclusion so far: Craftsman still makes pretty darned good tools, but they usually aren't in the same league as Snap-On.

Why pay so much? Why not just head down to Wal-Mart or Home Depot and pick something up for a fraction of the price? Don't they all have lifetime warranties?

Warranties guarantee the tool. They don't guarantee the job. The difference between Craftsman and Snap-On may be the difference between a burger and a steak, but compared to either of these the stuff you get at Wal-Mart or a chain hardware store is what you'd find at the bottom of a dumpster behind the restaurant at the end of a long, hot day.

There's nothing quite as satisfying, in its own way, as contorting yourself until you reach that last nut or bolt, getting a socket or wrench firmly on it, pulling really hard, and having it come loose with a smooth "click!" There's also nothing quite as sickening as getting everything just right, pulling hard, and having the nut round off with a mushy "thwop", hurling your knuckles into a pinch seam on the firewall. One gets you closer to your goal of fixing something. The other forces you to get out the power tools and the vice grips, and adds hours to a project that might've only taken minutes.

You decide which one you'd rather experience.

Posted by scott at 11:24 AM | Comments (30) | eMail this entry!
January 13, 2003
Caesar's Paradox

On the razor-lined stage of world politics, the real paradox of national power is it can only occasionally be used directly, increased only by not using it. Without question the most successful states, the ones that lasted centuries instead of decades, were created by those willing to spread their power to the largest number of people as possible. The haves by their very nature fear the have-nots, but it is only by enabling them, empowering them, and most importantly of all just leaving them the hell alone, that the powerful have any hope of succeeding with any consistency.

It seems almost self-evidently obvious that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Our economy's gross domestic product is larger than the next three countries combined. We can haul other country’s entire air forces around in our cargo airplanes. We haven't lost a capital ship to enemy action in more than fifty years. Our special forces can be any place in the world in a matter of hours, entire armies can be moved in a matter of months. If a country really pisses us off we can turn it into a glowing plate of glass in a matter of minutes.

Yet everywhere we turn it seems we can't actually do anything. Our European allies think we're a bigger threat to world stability than a guy who shelled his own villages with nerve gas just because they annoyed him. A nation in Asia not much bigger than Alabama, which lost millions of people to starvation last year, claims they'll unleash a "rain of fire and doom" on us if we don't give them the food and fuel and promises not to invade they demand. Countries which make trillions of dollars selling us a product that would otherwise be useless black goo funnel that cash to nutjobs so crazy they can convince college-educated fathers to fly airplanes into buildings.

What's going on? Why can't we do something about these things? We've got all this power, all this wealth, all this glittering, snarling violence at the tips of our fingers. What good is it if we can't use it?

There was a time when I was a boy that I thought shooting turtles off logs was great fun. Now, before you get all hot and bothered let me make clear that my marksmanship was such that I turned more turtles to God from fright than I ever personally put in line for reincarnation.

At any rate, one fine, hot summer day my dad, my brother, and I were prowling the bayous near our deer camp looking to pop some caps into a few unwary turtles' behinds when we came across the mother load. By being very quiet and very cautious (no mean feat for ten and eight year old boys) we had crept up to a bog filled with dead trees so thick with sunning turtles they looked like slumbering beetles in the shimmering distance.

"Now, before I give you this gun," my dad quietly said to us, "I want to ask you just how many turtles you think you can shoot over there."

"Three!" I whispered emphatically.

"SIX!” my younger brother chimed in with defiance, always looking to one-up me in a competition

"Nope, you're both wrong. There's only one turtle out there you're going to get to shoot at."

We couldn't believe it. There were dozens of turtles out there in the sun, gray-black nailheads hammered into the dried, dead wood sticking out of the smelly brown water. How could we not miss?

In truth, I don't remember if Jeff (who's turn it was to shoot that time) managed to plink one into turtle heaven or not, but I never will forget what happened next. At the crack of the rifle every single one of those turtles immediately went into the water, with a sound like scattering a sack full of pennies into a swimming pool, clearly audible from our hiding place thirty yards away.

Before my brother even looked up from the rifle, that pond was empty, with sun-glittered ripples being the only evidence turtles had ever been there at all.

It's not just efficiency that makes the US take the long and winding road to our goals instead of using the laser-straight trajectory of a speeding bullet. Sometimes even nations must sleep.

There's a spot in the ruined forum of Rome that to this day has fresh flowers laid upon it. On that very spot, so tradition holds, a group of weak, argumentative, and greedy old men united in fear and loathing to murder the most powerful man the world had ever seen.

Julius Caesar’s mistake was not to trust the senate, not to ignore the "ides of March", not even to walk into a crowded room without a proper bodyguard. Caesar’s mistake was in demonstrating his power openly in gaudy triumphs, naked power grabs, and ostentatious displays of wealth. It was assuming that because he could command the cheers of thousands, he didn't need to win the hearts of the few dozen people required to make his empire a functioning whole.

His adopted nephew Octavian, whom the world would later know as Augustus, did not make this same mistake. It was true that he commanded the deadliest, most effective army on the planet, could and at times did order the execution of individuals with little more than a flick of a finger, but at root Augustus was just one man. He needed these cranky old bastards to run his burgeoning empire.

So the most powerful man in Rome, and therefore the world, sat in the senate just like the rest of the senators, was berated, wheedled, complimented, lobbied, and debated by them, almost as if nothing had changed at all. Oh, everyone knew it had, these were Romans after all, the world’s best hard-nosed realists. But by allowing these men their petty political games, by accepting (within limits) their need to express their independence, and by carefully cultivating and ensuring their continuing wealth and power, he built an empire whose like would not be equaled for more than a thousand years.

Only the hopelessly naive would think such hands-off policies would be all that is ever required (which is why such things are advocated so loudly by the media and various leftist elites). History is replete with examples of short-lived, poorly run empires that were nevertheless quite capable of dismantling nations unwilling or unable to defend themselves and their interests. However, it's only a little less naive to think that just because you're the biggest, scariest kid on the block you'll always be able to pummel people into seeing it your way.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, in spite of their cynical, self-serving bleats about oppression and injustice, America really does care what they think. Can you imagine the French reacting at all to the news that the rest of the world hates them? Can you picture Kim Jong Il changing his country's policies one iota in response to a press release from Britain? Can any one of you honestly see King Fayyed allowing the Saudi Arabian press to cover Italian protests over his country's "barbaric" practices?

We do. We do all of that and more. It actually hurts our feelings when we hear that one nation or another doesn't like us, even mean nasty ones run by short guys in funny glasses. We hold benefits, send cash, and risk international stability over tiny islands and nations buried so deep in mountains it's a wonder their own residents can find them with a map. We've even given up huge, sparkling military bases because democratically elected legislatures refused to renew our lease... billions of dollars of military might removed over a sheet of paper.

It's not "SAUDI ARABIA" or "LIBYA" or "CUBA" stamped on ton upon ton of free food being sent to, and at times even refused by, Africa. Turkish immigrants worry about being deported from the United States. They worry about being burned alive as they sleep in Europe. A South Korean may worry about getting run over by an American teenager in any army truck. A North Korean worries about his whole family starving just because they don't say "Death to America" loud enough when the wrong person is listening.

We're not saints. Half the time we don't seem to like ourselves very damned much. But anybody that says we're the primary threat to world peace today needs to have their head examined.

Posted by scott at 08:18 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
January 10, 2003
A Difference in Kind

It has been said on more than one occasion that this nation knows nothing of war. While this statement is a falsehood of such amazing ignorance it does not even require refuting, I would posit that, contrary to the beliefs of most of this country's "left", this nation does in fact know nothing of poverty.

It only takes watching this extremely uncritical 60 Minutes II segment to understand this. People who consider themselves poor and in need of help drive to food banks in this country. They stand in line wearing new coats, new hats, new shoes, and glasses. They return to homes with televisions, VCRs, and microwaves.

And they are all very well fed. Around the rest of the world true poverty is measured by how close you are to death by starvation, disease, or war. It is measured by the number of tiny bodies lying on a roadway, covered in flies. It is measured by the number of beggars sitting on a street corner in a filthy loincloth because they literally have nothing else to wear.

It's no wonder much of the "developing" world considers Americans soft, decadent, and arrogant. What are they expected to think when a 50 year old woman drives to a food bank in clean clothes, jewelry, and freshly styled hair? What are they expected to think when a teenage girl with a double chin weeps openly claiming she can't concentrate at school because she's "hungry"? What are they expected to think when they see a grown man with a tearstained face claiming he can't find work when they see their own brothers and sisters virtually imported by the boatload to work here as field hands, janitors, dishwashers, maids, and clerks?

Our grandparents and great grandparents were the last generation in this country to really understand what poverty meant. In a time before Social Security, welfare, and the "great society", being thrown out of work meant you were quickly on the street. Having a crop fail meant you were quickly going to starve. Many people were so traumatized by these events they never really recovered. I can still remember hearing about friends who had older relatives who didn't trust a bank, and literally stuffed their money in mattresses.

Americans today know no real poverty at all. Getting fired from jobs, evicted from homes, going on food stamps, being hounded by collection agencies, and patronized by people who claim to want to help are poverties of convenience. These people are in no danger of starving, of dying from a curable disease, of being murdered en masse because they happen to have the wrong last name. I find it sickening that we can compare an overweight white kid in a mobile home in Ohio with a naked orphan on the streets of Calcutta.

If you have loved ones around you, you are not poor. If your children are being educated for you, even taken away and raised by someone else because you can't, you are not poor. If you can find help to get you out of the situation you find yourself in through bad luck, bad decisions, or bad blood, You. Are. Not. Poor.

Because there's a difference between needing help and being poor. Needing help means you dug a hole too deep and need someone to lead you out of it. Needing help means you're too stubborn or stupid to stop having babies and leave a man that beats you. Needing help means God decided to bunt a hurricane through your back yard this spring and the insurance company doesn't want to pay. There's no shame in needing help, really nothing remarkable at all. Certainly nothing needing the breathless, chicken-little yammerings of people who claim to know better.

Needing help implies a contract between you and me, one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, one that provides you with the tools and the responsibility of using them to fix your own situation. Being poor is just something you are, something that cannot be escaped, something that entitles you rather than enables you.

I just wish Americans would look up from their commercials long enough to understand the difference.

Posted by scott at 03:47 PM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
January 02, 2003
Welcome to My World, Part III

Sometimes my users aren't the ones who are dumb. Sometimes it's me.

So I have this new off-site executive from an affiliated organization (AO) crawling up my butt trying to get into our intranet, a funky slash-coldfusion hybrid. Since he's a) pushy, b) just smart enough to be dangerous, and c) picking up the pieces from a big political meltdown somewhere else, everyone else is crawling up my butt to make sure it gets done too.

Of course, as expected, he can't get in. The guy used to work for a different AO in a different state, so he was already in there, but de-activated. I wipe out this old record, and then try to log in using his information. No luck.

So, I had a user who should be able to log in, but couldn't, and all the logical things that would be keeping him out aren't there. At times like this I drop back 10 yards and punt, moving on to other projects to let my brain rest for a while.

A few hours pass and yet another executive comes by asking how's it going getting this guy on. Well, it's not going on at all 'cos I don't have a clue what's wrong (which is what I say on the inside). Instead I say, "Working on it, should be fixed soon" and turn back to the project.

So there I am with my little database tools trying to get a look inside the files that contain the user information. What I wanted to do was get a look at the entire contents of that file, which would require me to run this technical command (called a 'query'):

select * from users

I had a query already very similar to that, "blah blah blah where user = [username]". So I just erased the "where user" line and ran the query.

It was only after a few seconds with no results that I realized what was going wrong. Sitting in front of me was not

select * from users

Instead it was

delete from users

Those of you used to SQL will already be slapping your head. Those of you who don't, a brief explanation:

SQL is a language used to talk to databases, giving you access to the information in their files. You use it by typing commands and pressing ENTER (a "command line interface"). Like all command line interfaces (CLIs), it's very powerful, very weird, and very unprotected. CLIs were designed by geeks, for geeks, and geeks don't need safety nets.

The DELETE command is about as powerful a command as you can get. By default it wants to get rid of everything. You have to tell it special conditions to stop it from doing this. Imagine a bomb that is powerful enough to blow up a city, but sophisticated enough to erase a pencil mark as long as you twiddle the knobs correctly. Now imagine the designers of that bomb making sure that by default it does the former, not the latter, without so much as a f*ck you on its way out the door.

What I had done was told it to delete everything in the user table. All the names, all the e-mail addresses, all the passwords, everything. Kaplooie! BeepBeepZipBANG! One second, a computer file full of information about the most technically clueless users on the planet. The next millisecond nada, nothing, a big empty warehouse with just shadows on the floor where the shelves used to go.

Any sysadmin worth a dime knows the greatest danger to his or her network is not weather, electrical problems, or software glitches. It's users. You may judge an admin's quality by how quickly he or she fixes your computer, but we judge each other's quality by how difficult it is for you to blow sh*t up in the first place. This means locking you out of all sorts of amusing and fun-to-play-with toys like system files, certain (in my case most) utilities, even some kinds of data files like... you guessed it, user database tables.

But of course there's little to protect a system from the admins, who need all these tools when a user has been extra-special clever and managed to fark it all up anyway. Normally we're smart enough to know where the cables are buried in the back yard, but every once in awhile we go ahead and dig anyway.

So after saying oh-Sh*t a few times (out loud, to judge by the looks out my door), I went into damage control mode. The rest of you sysadmins are saying "no problemo, just restore it from backup". Ah, my friends, that means you are not inflicted with Arcserve, the (IMO) Worlds Worst Backup software. I'd just spent the past month banging my head bloody on it trying to get it to back up anything, and all it did was merrily give me the finger and fling boogers on the wall. I hadn't managed to get it backing up the slash box yet. It was barely backing up even more important stuff.

In other words, I was the front man on one of those flying Wallenda pyramids and had just sneezed a hundred feet in the air, nothing below me but a nice hard concrete slab. The pole was swaying, and falling off meant taking everyone and everything with me.

It's times like these where the design decisions you made laying out the network either make you or break you. At that point you can't save the network, but sometimes it can save you. And, actually, it did.

See, the slash site is just part of where user files "live" on this network. The core information is stored somewhere else, in an "LDAP Tree" (fancy technojargon for "other, safer, place"). Without even missing a beat the LDAP Tree started to synch up the slash site as if nothing special had happened. The phone didn't start ringing off the hook, people didn't start showing up to my door with pitchforks and torches, really nothing special happened at all.

The account that triggered this whole mess even started working again, but that kind of felt like watching your linebacker fall on a fumbled football after it rolled across the first-down line... you'll take it, but that's not normally a real good way to get it done.

So there ya go folks, a brief look at what happens behind the scenes WHEN SYSADMINS ATTACK.

Posted by scott at 12:00 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
December 30, 2002
By the People

Conservatives love to go on and on about how great this country is, but if it's so great how do you explain the DMV, Trent Lott, and the Corps of Engineers? Liberals love to go on and on about how awful this country is, but if it's so awful how do you explain the Stealth Fighter, my wife, and Sam Adams beer? In truth, as is typical with political opinions, both are completely right, and both are utterly wrong (usually at the same time, c.f. Streisand, Barbara). The United States, like pretty much all modern representational governments, is not the paragon of efficiency or virtue, it is instead a shining example of the principle of "least worst".

It's amazingly easy to find more efficient, effective methods of government. Without question the most efficient and effective possible is a dictatorship. No, really! History is replete with examples of well-run, relatively enlightened dictatorships. Ramses, Chin, Augustus, Charlemagne, Shaka, Capac, and Tokugawa are just a short list of comparatively just despots who lead their peoples to glory and prosperity.

Of course, we all know there are some glaring problems with the dictatorship style of government. First and foremost the enlightened, wise, and charismatic dictator has this annoying habit of ending up dead. Most are such egomaniacs their eventual demise simply never occurs to them. Even worse, the ones who do plan on a successor tend to entrust their dynasties to their son or nephew, who typically hasn't been seen sober in a decade or more.

Even when the successor isn't obviously insane or immediately incompetent, absolute power tends to be corrosive over time. It is a rare bird indeed who can resist wanting to decapitate yet another rich party boy caught boinking a rebellious daughter, greedy housewife trying to steal her neighbor's cookware, or cranky old man throwing rocks at effete (but effective) bureaucrats because they're trampling his azaleas. Most importantly, without fail, there is simply no way to get rid of these kinds of rulers short of "accident" (murder), "disease" (poison), "old age" (better poison), or revolution.

Communism, on the face of it, presents a far more elegant system of government, avoiding all the pitfalls of a dictatorship. In reality, pure communism is almost an "un-government". At root, it simply means everyone owns everything (see Happy May Day for more details).

Of course, anyone with the common sense god gave oatmeal immediately sees communism is completely unworkable in the real world. Its disconnect with the human condition is so staggeringly apparent that the only people who really buy into it are intellectuals and the hormone-addled twenty-somethings they are teaching. By requiring a fundamental change in human nature to function it strays dangerously near religious ground, and the thought police required to enforce the doctrines that make it tick are far too easy to use as a path to absolute power.

Socialism would at first seem a happy medium ground between the two camps. It spreads the decision making around to a select few, but not so many as to allow the ignorant rabble to run the country into the ground. At the same time it keeps the decision making process simplified enough to react quickly to crises whenever they arise. These enlightened leaders delegate their power to their enlightened bureaucracy, which carry out their plans with brilliant efficiency. Because these enlightened leaders would of course be selected only from the most learned of the society, it remains to this day fantastically popular with higher-level academics and garden variety elitists around the world.

Unfortunately what actually ends up happening is the best and brightest selected to lead this utopian ideal tend to be neither. Either they're machiavellian cutthroats interested only in stealing whatever isn't nailed down and routing it all into Swiss bank accounts for the enjoyment of their growing collection of mistresses, or they're ivory-tower academics who, when they aren't busy arguing over the best time to have tea, treat the society as a giant laboratory useful only for deciding if, for example, businessmen really are the only people qualified to run a business. This conglomeration usually wraps itself in a Byzantine bureaucracy that quickly ossifies, fixing the people in amber, trapping them in an entire country run by a DMV.

Theocracy has been popular of late, especially around the sunnier regions of the planet. Unfortunately such governments have so far only proven it is in fact possible to combine the efficiency of socialism, the concrete reality-based beliefs of communism, and top them off cherry-like with a wild eyed lunatic of a leader, creating a system of government that is even worse than its constituent parts.

This leaves us with the red-headed stepchild of all systems of government, democracy. Of any system of government, it (and its representational variants) is probably the least efficient, least effective form yet invented by mankind. By spreading power as widely as possible, it guarantees no one visionary will ever have enough to enact really effective laws. By allowing everyone, anyone, a say in government it ensures the vast majority of that government's time will be wasted on endless, pointless, passionate debates about the shape of toilet seats.

In essence, democracy locks a society into a perpetual state of crisis management. Long-term planning becomes impossible because leaders never look further than the next all-to-soon election. The only time any problem gets solved is when it becomes so glaring and obvious a four year old with glasses can see it. As any academic, pundit, or elitist celebrity will tell you (in private if not in public), the common people are only occasionally able to govern themselves, and even then only badly.

In spite of all this, democracy actually has many powerful features working in its favor. It provides rich and ambitious people many paths to power. It ensures only the most important ideas are turned into law. It prevents the coalescing of power into the hands of a dangerous few, or one. It requires no modification of natural human behavior, choosing instead to balance one need, one greed, against the other to achieve a safe, relatively effective whole.

Most important of all, and most unique of all, modern representational democracies provide many extremely powerful methods of self-correction. First and foremost is a free and unfettered press. Democracies can only function when everyone knows what is going on. In fact, democracy simply wasn't possible on a large scale in the ancient world because it was so difficult to inform the public. Pundits may bemoan its many and varied biases, but without this populist counterweight there is no accountability of the elite to the common people.

By including formal mechanisms of change inside the core documents of the government, democracies guarantee long-term flexibility in the face of adverse and unknown future conditions. The United States today is not in fact the country our founding fathers created. It's better.

Finally, by their very inefficiency democracies guarantee stability and liberty. History has proven time and again that efficient, effective government is efficient only at rape, effective only at pillage. Such efficient governments succeed only rarely, when a combination of genes, education, and flat-out luck combine to allow a single person (nearly always a man) to claw his way to the top and rule well in spite of the difficulties.

But by investing power in a person instead of an idea, by bending knees instead of opening eyes, these societies hook their prosperity to the mortality of a man, ignoring the immortality of the ideas behind him. Such societies hold a revolver to their head every time their leader dies, spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger with each new successor. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the chamber is empty, and the trigger clicks without harm.

But sometimes it doesn't.

So take heart America! Take heart Japan, Britain, France, Germany, and the dozens of other representational governments! Wear your "least worst" mantle proudly! After all, "least worst" gave you electricity. "Least worst" paved the road to your house. "Least worst" ensured it was a reporter who listened to your complaint in your home, instead of a soldier taking evidence in your cell. "Least worst", my friend, put a human being on the moon less than seventy years after we learned to fly.

Posted by scott at 08:05 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
December 29, 2002
Mythos

One of the reasons a story has power is it speaks about and to the core ideals and beliefs of a culture. The latest installment of The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers) is a fine example. We all know it's a good story, but there's more to it than just interesting characters, clever dialog, and spectacular visual effects. At its core, the film is also about one of the defining aspects of western, and therefore American, culture: war. And not just any sort of war, but the peculiarly unique form which our culture practices. The west, unique in all the world, has for more than 2500 years viewed war as a collaborative, co-operative endeavor dedicated to the complete annihilation of an enemy.

Nearly every point in the film speaks to this simple, but deeply important, premise, and yet we hardly even notice it. Indeed, the post-war era of western thought has busily tried to repudiate it at every step. And yet it is very important to understand and accept that the success of the most advanced, progressive, and liberating lifeway the world has ever seen is due primarily to that lifeway's ability to both attack and defend in unprecedented, innovative ways that have been proven superior to all other cultures it has ever encountered. Understanding, even accepting, this heritage is key to realizing why other cultures detest the west, and, paradoxically, why the west has little to fear from this hate, no matter how spectacularly demonstrated it may be.

We simply accept as normal, for example, that a king's nephew could repudiate that king's policies to his face without fear of mortal reprisal. We are not surprised at all when junior officers, even outsiders, innovate on their own on attack or defense in the face of sudden adversity on the battlefield, without even considering consulting the king. It requires not one ounce of suspended disbelief that a siege could be lifted by rushing head on into the teeth of the adversary, seeking out a simple, violent, conclusive battle to decide victory or defeat in the shortest time possible. Finally, we accept without question the premise that there can be no compromise with an enemy, no settlement. To win we must not just defeat a single force in a single battle, take captives, or cause dishonor, but rather must utterly destroy an entire army, wreck its infrastructure, and exterminate or transform its people. While it is all too easy to focus on the latter and weep, we must, as Tolkien did, focus instead on the former, and take heart.

Because in reality, if given the proper opportunity, every society seeks the annihilation of every other society. The difference is that the west's traditions of individual responsibility, free inquiry, personal liberty, rigid discipline, and citizen-soldiery have made it actually capable of outright conquest far more often than any other culture it contacts.

It would be simply inconceivable, to choose an example, for a samurai to openly dispute the decisions of his shogun. Far more expected would be to protest by suicide, thereby not only silencing a potentially important idea, but also removing a strong back and ready hands to fight whatever type of battle is decided.

It would also be impossible for, say, an Iraqi lieutenant to exploit an obvious hole in the lines of his Iranian adversaries, rush in, and thereby assure a victory in battle. While such victory might bring him glory, if it highlighted his superior's incompetence he could probably expect his reward to instead be a long stay in a small cell. Defeat would simply mean execution out of hand.

It is also almost beyond imagining for any non-western army to openly confront a western one by seeking out a single, decisive, "shock" battle. Even when equipped with near equal, even superior, materiel, and always equipped with far greater numbers, these battles and these wars have invariable resulted in the defeat of such a force.

As has been amply demonstrated time and again throughout history, the things which make the west great, individual responsibility, free inquiry, personal liberty, rigid discipline, and citizen-soldiery, are not things which can be "cherry-picked" one over the other, one instead of the other. Rather they are things which come of a piece, a totality that at root makes the west, well, the west.

The collapse of the European colonial empires and the experiences of America in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan taught the rest of the world important lessons. It taught them we are no smarter, no better, than they are, that white skin bestows no special form of invulnerability, that we can be as moronic as the next guy, that we bleed the same blood and die the same deaths.

Unfortunately it also caused them to forget other, equally important lessons. We do not fight for personal honor, symbols, or glory. We never fight the same way twice, and learn from our defeats rather than surrender because of them. We care little for the rank, status, color, or creed of a soldier if he or (lately) she has an idea that works. That soldier also has the expectation that, success or fail, their life or their liberty will not be taken away at the whim of a commanding officer.

We do not defend ourselves until an attacker gets what they want or goes away; we defend until we are able to attack and then exterminate our attackers so they may never threaten us again. When humiliated, frightened, or threatened, we do not negotiate, we do not prevaricate, we do not moderate. We defend, we learn, we invent, we adapt, we seek out, we attack, we win, and then we sow salt into the earth of your lands to ensure you never threaten us again.

The Japanese were the first non-western nation to seriously challenge the western world on its own terms, with weapons of its own design and tactics of its own making, in more than five centuries. They remain the only nation in the world to be victimized by an atomic device.

Some parts of the world have already forgotten these lessons. They do so at their peril.

Posted by scott at 12:25 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
December 17, 2002
Ancestry

It's almost axiomatic that we marry our parents. Guys marry their mothers, girls marry their fathers. Gays, well, I guess they get to choose. Regardless, it's an almost sacrosanct tenet of psychology, this Oedipal quest buried deep inside us.

Now, at first glance this seems, well, icky. I mean, most of us, even the ones with grown children, still can't picture our parents... well... you know. The concept of us actually going after them just sucks us right through the other side of icky and into this weird space where we lay sobbing on a couch and talk to a bizarre Austrian with glasses.

But really, when you get right down to it, it makes sense. There are only two people in your life who you get to watch in all their screwball glory. Gramma and Grandpa are semi-frightening legends, your friends only teach you how lame you are, and you don't trust the people at your work with business news, let alone anything personal.

Scary as it may seem, your kids pick people like you on purpose. And you picked people like your parents on purpose, because at heart they're the only people you really know how to deal with. Your parents, nearly always inadvertently, gave you a set of tools to deal with one particular kind of person on an ingrained, almost subconscious level. And of course while you may not realize it you are ensuring your own children will seek out your simulacrum, because you're the only people they'll ever see stuck on a toilet with no paper, or trapped naked under a mis-hung shower door, or fighting with a father, or crying with a mother.

Sure, you try to make sure they're not exactly like your parents, because let's face it your parents were psychos. Nice, even well intentioned for the most part, but quite patently escapees from Bedlam. The scary thing is every once in awhile you'll catch your own kids with these looks on their faces, watching you like a specimen in a jar, and you half expect them to be in white lab coats holding clipboards, clucking sadly as they take notes.

But here's the weird part. It's a kind of serial immortality. I mean, where does it end? If we're all marrying (hopefully improved) analogs of our parents, in a strange sort of way we really are keeping them alive. As they kept their parents alive, as their parents kept their grandparents alive, and so on, and so on.

So, when we look at our significant other, in a funny sort of way we're looking at a singular, gradually modified persona, which perhaps stretches back in a continuous, ever-shading thread into eternity. The ultimate communal creature, never existing in more than three individuals at once, never existing in a single bloodline at once, but definitely existing in them and ancestors stretching back to a time when we thought a stone axe was the "in" tool.

In a weird sort of way, we quite literally exist outside ourselves, a soul so big, so overarching, it can't really be contained in a single vessel. This creature is still recognizably human. It can be terribly broken and destructive, or amazingly powerful and enlightening. Sometimes it can be both in a single triptych of existence, because we don't pick exact analogs, but improved ones.

On the face of it, this is frightening beyond all reason. But on deeper reflection, I find it bizarrely powerful, this vision of what must only be a few hundred thousand "true" individuals existing in the billions of singular human beings alive today, immortal but changing, improving, sometimes slightly, sometimes profoundly, over thousands, maybe millions of years. It makes me wonder what you and I will be like a thousand years from now.

Because we won't just meet again. You see, we've never left.

Posted by scott at 09:23 PM | Comments (8) | eMail this entry!
December 16, 2002
Tribal Justice

Larry and Meryl and many others may perhaps claim this is yet another example of the "peace and justice" religion of Islam, but that's taking the wrong lesson from it. This is yet another example instead of the way the world used to work for the past ten thousand years or so. Might makes right, and you don't piss off the powerful folks otherwise it will go very badly for you. This is the kind of "traditional" culture we are being railed at for destroying.

The ugly fact is that these sorts of "traditions" have resulted in the torture, death, and dismemberment of far, far more native people than any colonial regime imposed by the west has ever even approached.

"Traditional" cultures are, at heart, about how to keep powerful families as powerful as possible and the weak masses as weak as possible. The fancy dresses, fancy dances, and fancy literature are merely window dressing to distract from this mean, ugly truth. Just because a family shows up to church clean, smiling, and in pretty clothes doesn't forgive the fact that the husband goes home, gets drunk, and beats his wife and children.

Because, when it gets right down to it, if enabling small people to stand up to rich thugs means I'll never again see a Ramayana dance, if forcing families to raise baby girls instead of leaving them in the far corner of a rice paddy to die means I'll never again hear a Muezzin call the faithful to prayer, if giving the common people a voice in their own destiny means I'll never get to eat a traditional Massai meal, well, I'm just fine with that.

Aren't you?

Posted by scott at 01:51 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 25, 2002
Red Light Special

There are things in life you simply never question, habits so deeply ingrained you never even realize they're just habits. Take underwear, for instance. Initially just a way of keeping the dirtier parts of our anatomy wrapped up in small, easy-to-wash packages, it was made obsolete decades ago with the development of the mechanical washing machine and dryer. And yet I still sit here wearing a pair of whitey-tighties underneath my work clothes. Oh, people might say comfort or safety has something to do with it, but if we can design headwear for cats what's keeping us from designing a pair of jeans that won't grab Abbot & Costello on the zip up?

Societies have these sorts of built-in assumptions as well. Traffic lights, for example. These devices rule our everyday lives, and yet we never once question how patently ridiculous they are. A gizmo that only recently acquired the smarts of a meth-addled gerbil can simply switch one colored light off and another on and thousands of people will instantly move to obey its commands. Folks who are quite convinced the government is only prevented from deploying mind control because its top leader would point the thing at himself (would we be able to tell the difference?) will calmly obey traffic signals, never once seeing the connection.

And how slavish is our dedication in obeying our tryclopsian masters! How many of you out there have sat at a red light, not a soul to be seen, and patiently waited for it to turn green? How many of you have sat for minutes at a time waiting for a left turn arrow without any cross-traffic facing you? How many times have you felt shocked and indignant during those rare instances when you witnessed someone else defying your tricolored god?

All this might be taken as me becoming an advocate of ripping these triple-eyed beasts from their perches, storming the Bastilles that lie on every corner in every town in America and hurling their heartless guardians into the crackling flames. Vive la traffic! Unfortunately, you're wrong.

Because every one of us knows the real reason for traffic lights is not to prevent us from making our daily rounds, but rather to protect us from mouth-breathing morons who turn our streets and highways into a Jerry Springer show on wheels. Closely examining a modern traffic light is like opening up a "traffic control for dummies" book:

  • Put one light in front of each lane, because we want be sure and stop the ones who would assume it didn't apply to the entire intersection.
  • Be sure to put two lights up if there's just one lane, because lord knows that shoulder sure looks inviting.
  • Left turn arrows are good because letting them control their own destiny turns an intersection into a multi-ton game of chicken.
  • Make sure to hood every light so we'll stop the ones who assume any green light is their green light.
  • Put big black borders around every one you can, because three or four really bright red lights shining right in their faces probably won't provide enough contrast for them to notice.
  • Be sure to leave the lights red in all directions for a few seconds each cycle to stop the people who think taking advantage of their legal right to the intersection entitles them to put someone else in the hospital.

And even this isn't enough. There was one intersection near our old apartment that had a giant strobe light that flashed in one direction whenever the light controlling that direction turned red. It took me biking past the place for a few weeks before I realized there weren't any cameras that needed assistance, it was just to get people to notice the light was turning red. In our new neighborhood they've replaced all the incandescent bulbs with huge LED arrays that look like a lite-brite set on a stick just to make sure that last one on the cell phone will have their retinas burned through before they can get across the intersection.

They didn't set these and untold numbers of other weird devices up just because they looked pretty, or needed something to do that day (this is the highway department after all). They were put there because it was needed to keep morons from putting you in the hospital. The modern traffic light is if nothing else a concrete-and-steel monument to Rich Cook's famous saying:

"Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning."

So while I think a colored light's ability to make someone sit still at an intersection in the middle of an empty night is a little surreal, I do see its utility. I will, however, reserve the right as a responsible grownup to occasionally take the law into my own hands and treat traffic lights as stop signs when it's safe to do so.

I will also make sure I'm wearing clean underwear. You know, in case I get into an accident or something.

Posted by scott at 03:20 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
November 21, 2002
The "C" Word

You hear it all the time in the foreign media, or from foreign world leaders:

"The confrontation of pious and martyrdom-seeking forces with the highest forces of colonialism is extremely dangerous, and might inflame a third world war."1

"In contrast [to Arabic history], terror as we know it today was introduced in the region only at the beginning of the 19th century, by Western colonialism and the Zionist gangs."2

"I am not against liberation of the nations of the world and the rebuilding of the Arab nation and confronting all the unjust forces of colonialism."3

"The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! Imperialist pigs are coming to steal our land, eat our children, take our women, destroy our very culture!" On and on and on in so many varied, colorful, and different ways it actually becomes quite amusing to watch. Imperialism and colonialism, the two best, worst, "isms" the "developing" world has ever seen.

As with predictions of America's imminent demise, it's all crap. Moronic crap. It is the last, best, most useful Big Lie.

There are actually two different brands of "modern western" colonialism: settlement and economic. The first, settlement, is actually the earlier of the two. Developed primarily as a way of ridding oneself of meddlesome troublemakers and malcontents, as well as creating sources of cheap raw materials and "captive" markets for manufactured goods, this kind of colonialism was almost exclusively limited to the relatively (by eurasian standards) unpopulated western hemisphere.

But this is never what is really meant when you hear the words "colonialism" and (almost interchangeably) "imperialism". These terms are almost exclusively used in reference to the second type, economic colonialism.

Basically, economic colonialism is all about carving out more "captive" markets, places to buy cheap raw materials from and sell cheap finished goods to, by using existing populations instead of merely exporting the less desirable/more annoying parts of your own to unsettled lands. It's important to emphasize that, with one notable exception, this particular brand of colonialism really didn't exist until about 1870.

The history of colonialism is often presented as if some monstrous Rob Zombie-inspired steam shovel hacked its way through idyllic, peace-loving native peoples, turning them into shriveled famine victims living a dystopian nightmare of smokestacks and filth. This of course ignores the fact that all of these colonial holdings, all of them, were carved out of pre-existing empires, such as the Mughal in India, the Mamulkes in Egypt, the Manchu Dynasty in China, and the Ottomans in Asia. It's also not emphasized enough that before 1870 the greatest post-Roman empires were almost exclusively Muslim empires, the last of which lasted a full four centuries.

While fabulously profitable and only inconsistently oppressive, modern economic colonialism wouldn't last. Europeans' attitude toward the rest of the world may have changed, but their attitudes toward each other had not. The wealth their empires provided was squandered in not one but two massive bloodlettings we all know as the world wars, the end of which rendered them incapable of hanging on to what they'd built. The majority of the empires, most spectacularly that of the British, were completely dismantled by the 1960s. Even sub-Saharan Africa largely freed itself by the early years of the 1980s.

In other words, the vast majority of old-world peoples felt the "yoke of imperialist oppression" for less than a century, many times within the space of a single human lifetime. None lasted more than two centuries. When compared to the "native" empires that came before them, industrialized colonialism is just a blip on the radar screen.

Of course it's not Europe the world is supposedly worried about nowadays, it's America. "Imperium Americana" is regularly decried in the editorial pages, academic journals, and history books of the European, Arab, Asian, even at times American, press. Again, this is just more moronic crap from people who are exceeded in their ignorance only by their sincerity in expressing it.

The United States of America has never been a global imperialist on the scale of the European powers. During the first century of our country's existence we were dedicated solely to the expansion of our territory within the geographic boundaries of the North American continent. Certainly sections of America wished for empire, some quite vocally, but these were always kept in check by the vast majority of citizens who did not.

It is true America did eventually become a global empire, if only briefly, after the Spanish-American war of 1898. Puerto Rico and Guam became formal US territories. The Teller Amendment prevented America from annexing Cuba, and it was quickly (albeit with considerable and continuous meddling by US business interests) removed from direct American control. The Philippines were at first brutally suppressed by a US military far out of sight and mind of America, but even this island nation was quickly granted self-determination, with a fully elected legislature by 1916, less than 20 years after their "conquest". Indeed, by 1934 a plan was in place for complete Philippine independence, interrupted only by WWII.

This is not to say the US is an innocent lamb of peace wandering amongst European wolves. We quite merrily meddled in the affairs of nations less powerful than ourselves, mostly in Latin America before WWII. After WWII, the US acquired an unhealthy obsession with "communism" (although very few actually understood what the term meant). While Stalin was in power this was not necessarily just paranoiac ravings, but eventually it became little more than a lever used by big business to manipulate both the government and the people into most of our less savory actions in the last half of the 20th century. Regardless, the US never simply walked in and set up a colonial protectorate along the lines of French Indochina, India, or China. Never.

As for "cultural imperialism", it's a myth. There is only one country in the world completely taken over by America in the past sixty years: Japan. It's hard to imagine a more different culture when compared to the US. And yet America undertook a massive reconstruction effort, and less than ten years later Japan was again an independent nation.

Were the Japanese destroyed by this experience? Did they become slaves of white imperialist oppressors? Do we still rule Japan? Can anyone honestly say we exploit her?

Colonialism and imperialism were bad, very bad. But certainly no worse than what had come before, and undoubtedly would've come after had these peoples been left to their own devices. Colonialism, along with its big brother Imperialism, is a fact of history, with roots going back to first dynasties of ancient Egypt. By now most countries have had forty years to recover from the "modern western" variety, and all have had at least twenty.

Of all the great western powers of the colonial era, the United States in particular stands out as fantastically non-imperialistic. We consider it literally not our problem if your culture, government, religion, or power structure cannot stand up in the face of clean water, live babies, comfortable shoes, equal rights, air-conditioning, and automobiles. However, it does become our problem when your culture creates people who are willing to fly airplanes into our buildings to protest these facts.

Japan was the last country to directly attack the United States.

The Japanese experience should be most instructive to those who applaud terrorists.

Posted by scott at 06:58 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
November 18, 2002
Buddhism 101

I'm a Buddhist. I'm always surprised people are surprised when I say this. I consider my religion to be as close to me as any Islamikaze or Christofundowackamole, but, well, I guess I just don't look "buddhish".

The other thing I find is people just don't seem to know much about it. Oh, they know there's this funny little guy with glasses who talks to Richard Gere a lot and upsets the Chinese, and there's a lot of chanting involved in there somewhere and didn't Keaneau Reeves make a phone booth stop somewhere nearby? Well, yes, sort of, at times anyway, but there's a whole lot more to it. And that's what, in 1000 words or less, I'm here to tell you about.

Personally, I was looking for something to give me spiritual comfort, challenges, and meaning without forcing me to accept the science, laws, and lifeways of six-thousand-year-old goatherds or fourteen-hundred-year-old merchants. Buddhism works for me because:

  • It does not consider the origins nor the ends of the world to be central to its doctrine. Oh, there are origin myths in Buddhist tradition, but they're not even of second- or third-tier importance to its core beliefs. In fact, in many ways buddhist doctrine is remarkably easy to reconcile with modern scientific theories.
  • It does not proselytize, nor does it ostracize people who do not accept its doctrine. One of the hallmarks of Buddhism is its practicality. "Try it", the doctrine says, "if it's right for you, you'll know".
  • It does not require a God to be at the center of everything (what it does require is a lot more complicated, but this could, and sometimes has been called "God" before, which is an over-simplification).
  • It in no way condones, accepts, or promotes violence in any shape form or fashion. Violence in the name of belief, even in defense of belief, is anathema to Buddhism.
  • It sees all living things as holy and important, and abhors cruelty to animals. True story: a Buddhist monastery in New York City had become infested with roaches. At first the monks simply lived with the problem, indeed denied there really was a problem, until the local health department threatened to condemn the building and shut them down. It was only after many long meetings and several elaborate rituals that exterminators were allowed to clean the place out.
  • It does not care what the sex, color, nationality, even religion of the person you love is, so long as you love them.
  • It discourages unthinking belief, the lynchpin of fanaticism, and encourages inquiry and discussion.
  • It does not see doctrinal differences as "outcast". There's no such thing as heresy or apostasy in Buddhism. As long as the main core is upheld (see below), Buddhism doesn't care how you go about the particulars of your worship.

So, what, you might wonder, does a Buddhist actually believe? Well, as with most true religions, the core beliefs are surprisingly easy to summarize:

  1. No one can deny suffering is a primary condition of the human experience
  2. The reason human beings suffer (NOTE: suffering is not pain) is because they desire
  3. Suffering ceases when desire ceases
  4. The way to cessation of desire is through the practice of the eightfold path.

Which is:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Contemplation

Of course, the next question would be "well, what is 'Right View', or 'Right Livelihood', or 'Right Contemplation'?", and from those simple questions an entire religion was born.

Buddhism gives me great comfort, but it also challenges me. To succeed as a Buddhist I must learn to love everyone regardless of their actions. I must learn to accept the impermanence of everything, and because of that meditate frequently on death and dying. I must learn to live forever in the present moment, letting go of past grievances and forgetting future worries.

Am I good at it? Well, not really. Another primary tenet of Buddhism is you can't learn it from books, and I'm too chicken to walk into a monastery or temple and ask for help. Simply writing about this has revealed to me how poorly I've done following these beliefs. But, in spite of this, I still hold them, and this has helped form the spiritual center around which I have built my own life.

In a funny sort of way it's lead me to a place very similar to the one a fundamentalist inhabits. Like them, I too have come to believe a human being isn't really whole without some form of spiritual practice in their lives. Like them, I too have come to believe a human being without some form of spirituality in their lives often experiences life as a cold, cynical horror. Like them, I too went through a revelation, a "rebirth", before I came to truly understand these ideas.

Unlike them, though, I don't want to hit you over a head with a rock just because you don't agree with me. And I don't think my soul or yours will be in a better place if I blow myself up because you don't agree with me. And I don't think your final destination will be any better or worse just because you don't agree with me.

And that, my friend, makes all the difference.

Posted by scott at 04:10 PM | Comments (11) | eMail this entry!
November 08, 2002
Trivial Pursuit

One of the natural byproducts of a liberal arts education is your head gets stuffed full of useless crap. So, since I can't think of anything funny to write today and I've already done my stuffed-shirt essay for this week, I give you these tidbits of information you (hopefully) didn't already know and (perhaps) might find useful in, oh I don't know, maybe sticking pins in your local version of Cliff from Cheers:

  • They're called parkways because the original roads that bore the name were meant to take you from New York City (where the first ones originated) to one park or another in Long Island. The very first parkway, the Long Island (Vanderbilt) Motor Parkway, was originally designed to allow high-speed (60+ mph) racing at the turn of the century. Robert Moses took the concept of a limited-access roadway designed for safe high-speed travel and used it to further his ideal of the suburb.
  • They're called turnpikes because of the toll plaza. A "turnpike road" originally meant a roadway protected from attack by special turnstiles fashioned from pikes (long, sharp, pointy sticks). The first ones date back to the late middle ages, and the term came to mean a toll gate late in the 1600s.
  • Books as we know them, rectangular, bound, and full of pages, are a comparatively late ancient invention. Originally called "codexes", they were invented some time in the first century A.D. At first, they weren't at all popular... too weird and too different for the conservative reading public of that time. However, they were adopted immediately and totally by Christianity, which needed an easily portable, easily hide-able format in which to store their sacred writings. Perhaps even more importantly to an extremely political and insecure religion, a bible in a codex could never be mistaken for a Torah on a scroll. It wasn't until Christianity became the most powerful religion in the western world that the codex format took over from the scroll.
  • Ancient writing contained no punctuation, capitalization, or word spacing. It was meant to be read aloud, and you were thought extremely weird if you tried to read silently. Greek and Hebrew writing at first didn't even have vowels (Hebrew used apostrophe-like marks to mark where the vowel sounds went). In the west, capitalization (actually, the invention of lower-case letters), punctuation, and word spacing were all gradually introduced during the early middle ages, but didn't find complete expression until the advent of the mechanical printing process.
  • Nobody really knows why prostitutes are called "hookers". The most common story told relates the extreme fondness of one Joseph Hooker, a Union General during the civil war, for "ladies of the evening" as being the origin of the term, but you'll also find stories claiming relationship to garment districts and even distinctive styles of dress.
  • It is impossible to figure out the sex of a child just from their bones. Before puberty, there simply are no differences (skeletally) between girls and boys.
  • During WWII Charles Lindberg, the guy who first flew solo non-stop across the Atlantic, helped the war effort by touring pacific squadrons and helping them get the most range from their aircraft. A group of P-38 Lightning (a big, fast, twin engine fighter) pilots were being instructed by him when they were attacked by a Japanese squadron of fighters. Lindberg shot two of them down.
  • The molecular structure of crystallized carbon, otherwise known as "diamond", is laid out in such a way that the surface of the crystal readily binds with hydrogen atoms. When you touch a diamond, you're actually touching an extremely thin layer of hydrogen atoms and not the carbon underneath.
  • The universe was initially composed of lots and lots of hydrogen and perhaps just a little be of helium. Everything else, everything else was made inside a star, including everything required to create you.
  • Early gasolines were of such poor quality it was nearly impossible to compress a fuel-air mixture using them without causing detonation. High-performance cars of the era were routinely equipped with enormous (7 Liters and up) four cylinder engines to compensate for this.
  • If you fire a gun pointed straight ahead and drop a rock from the same height at the same moment, the rock and the bullet will hit the ground at the same time.
  • Ants evolved from wasps.
  • Police Boxes (think Dr. Who) were made of cast concrete.
  • The reason wagon wheels look like they're turning backward in a movie is due to a strobe-like effect involving the camera shutter. Motion picture cameras take 27 pictures each second. If the wagon wheel's motion is such that in each picture the spokes are behind their previous position, the wheel will look like it's turning backward. You can point a strobe light at a moving fan and get the same effect, for the same reasons.
  • A similar effect is responsible for TV and computer screens having large moving bars across them whenever they are videotaped.
  • Gospel facts: Matthew and Luke contain birth stories, Mark and John do not. In Matthew the infant Jesus is visited by wise men, in Luke he's visited by shepherds, and neither account mentions the other group. There are three different accounts of the last words of Jesus on the cross. The number of times Jesus visited Jerusalem are different in John, and he has Jesus being crucified at a different time than the other three.
  • Natural gas is odorless. The funny smell you get from your stove is added as a safety precaution.
  • Proportionally, compared to other primates, human infants are born almost exactly one year premature.

These are all from memory, so if I got one wrong please feel free to correct it in the comments. I am Uber-Cliff Claven. Fear me.

:)

Posted by scott at 11:25 AM | Comments (10) | eMail this entry!
November 05, 2002
A Poverty of Expression

One of the things not often understood about our modern world is that, in many ways, we have solved the problem of poverty. Hopefully you weren't drinking anything when you read that, because if you were I have a feeling you just blew it all over your computer, but hear me out.

Poverty, along with organized warfare, government, writing, and beauracracy, is at root an invention of the agricultural age. Before the time of the plow, as hard as it is to imagine, there simply were no poor, at least not in the sense we understand the term. People lived in very small groups, typically no more than 40. Greed was kept in check because hoarding didn't do you any good. You never lived in one place for more than a few months, and if you couldn't carry it on your own back it quite literally was not going with you.

Agriculture changed all of this in a hurry. About 15,000 years ago groups of people scattered around Eurasia discovered tall grasses that naturally grew in the deltas around various flood plains were actually not all that hard to raise yourself, and if you worked at it for awhile you could make quite decent meals with the stuff. More importantly, it gave you a reliable supply of the raw ingredients for various fermented drinks (such as the true elixir of the gods, beer1).

The decision to settle down to grow crops wrought profound, far-reaching changes for humanity. We'd been hunters and gatherers for so very long our biology had adapted to the diet that lifestyle provided. Now we were confronted with coarse, extremely simplified diets that (among other things) wore out our teeth and shortened our stature2.

But the cultural changes were much more profound. Farmers that group together are much more efficient than they are alone, and the food surplus that results is far larger than anything that could be gathered or killed. This allows even larger groups to live together, and from there it's just a short hop to the first city-states 3.

Even more important for our purposes, the agricultural lifeways allowed greed to rear its ugly head in a most extreme fashion. Fields don't move, so you were forced to settle in one place, which for the first time in human history made hoarding on a grand scale possible. The formation of governments, pretty much required to allow agriculture to work on a really large scale, allowed the strong to take from the weak and hoard not only food, but later money and other valuable goods.

All of this combined to form an impoverished underclass on a scale that simply doesn't exist in the industrialized world anymore. The demographics of ancient civilizations, especially western ones, is that of a stylized pyramid (see Figure 1), with the vast majority of people making up what we would call "the poor" (broadly, those people existing at a subsistence level 4), accompanied by a very, very small, almost unimaginably wealthy and powerful upper class (in Roman times estimated to be less than 5% of the total population), and essentially no middle class.


Figure 1: Stylized pyramid representing typical economic distributions for agricultural societies.

What is remarkable about our modern industrialized lifeway is not how wealthy certain individuals are able to become. There have been people as rich Bill Gates and Donald Trump and King Fahd and Reverend Moon for as long as we've known how to turn grass into flour, and flour into steel. What is remarkable about a modern industrialized society is how wealthy everyone else is.

Because the pyramid really hasn't changed all that much. Study after study has found that something like 90% of the "wealth" (whatever that means) is still owned by a "measly" 10% of our population. What they tend to leave out is the remaining 90% of the population is emphatically not living at a subsistence level.

Far from it. By simply earning what everyone else does (a "median" wage), you are now able to afford at least one, typically two, fabulous self-powered chariots able to whisk you back and forth in, compared to an oxcart, nearly obscene comfort and safety. By simply earning what everyone else does you are able to purchase a dwelling with magical devices that cook, clean, provide safe water, remove dangerous wastes, and present hours of cheap information and entertainment for you. By simply earning what everyone else does you are able to have someone else educate and enculturate your child into society, for most of that time without directly paying a dime.

By historical standards even the people we would all consider "poor" are wealthy beyond all reason. Today, in industrialized countries, when we talk about poverty we talk about people with drug habits, people with mental illnesses, people cheated out of opportunities or denied the ability to make a "living wage".

We're not talking about people rotting in the streets from leprosy, or kept in constant fear of legal murder because they happened to be born with the wrong last name (or without a penis), or denied the ability to feed themselves because a group of thugs needed supplies to fight a different group of thugs on the other side of the mountain. These are truly poor people, and not a one lives inside any country commonly recognized as "industrial", or "westernized". Poverty, as it was known for more than ten millenia, has ceased to exist in our particular part of the world.

All of this could be taken as denying there is a poverty problem in the western world. Not by a long shot. As I've said many times before, genius strikes in random places, on random people, at random times. A society which runs on idea and ideals as ours does must find and encourage the growth of these geniuses regardless of where they live, what language they speak, or what color their skin happens to be. We're not doing it, and this is the real problem.

Don't complain to me how rich just a few people are in this country. I can see the yachts in the harbor as well as you can. Don't scream at me about how unfair it is that some people inherited what they have while so many others sleep on the street. I already know how tough life is. Don't tell me it's all the fault of an uncaring majority and an inhumane government. Unlike you, everyday I see people make stupid decisions and yet receive help from both.

Instead, tell me how you plan on keeping babies from having babies so at least one generation will have the time and energy to learn. Tell me how you plan on talking a battered wife into leaving her husband and getting a GED. Tell me how you plan on convincing a religious fanatic to send their honor-roll kid to Harvard instead of Bob Jones University.

Because until you tell me these things, until I see you really working at these things, you're nothing but an unimaginative sack of hot air.

Posted by scott at 05:28 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
October 30, 2002
Manifesto

I live in a country called the United State of America. I am an American.

I am an American. I am not a citizen of the world. The world is a chaotic, nasty, selfish place where it's every man, woman, child, dog, and cat for themselves. I believe we as a nation have every right to ensure our own peace, prosperity, and freedom in this boiling pot of thugs and bullies we call a planet. As an American, I believe that ensuring these things is something that can, should, must be given priority over the wants and needs of the rest of the world.

I am an American. I recognize that other countries have other interests that may conflict with those of my country. I believe competition with these countries and interests is good for America. I believe that when nations follow their own rules of law free from corruption such competition can be healthy for all involved and not result in the destruction or instability of anyone.

I am an American. I am not an imperialist. I have no interest in running other countries. I have no interest in sending my or any other American's children into countries solely for the purpose of making them suitable to live in by their own citizens, citizens who have already proven incapable of living together without killing each other's children. I deeply resent being expected to do so by the rest of the world.

I am an American. I am a capitalist. While I may not have interests in running other countries, I reserve the right to be interested in making money off of them. I do understand that to other countries, with other political and belief systems, this is tantamount to attempting the same thing. But there is a difference. I am not surprised that these countries howl to the world about how groups of unarmed merchants are trying to destroy them, but I do find it amazing that some of my own citizens do not see the distinction.

I am an American. I am not a fool. I realize that at times the individuals who represent me and my interests will be corrupt and cause trouble with the rest of the world. I believe nations that follow a rule of law free from corruption should have no problem catching, exposing, jailing or deporting American citizens causing trouble within their borders.

I am an American. I understand it is my responsibility to ensure the leaders of my government are not allowed to be a source of instability or destruction in the rest of the world. Fortunately, the founding fathers of my country have provided me and my fellow citizens with mechanisms to ensure the legal, orderly, but no less complete overthrow of any government I and my fellow citizens find dissatisfying to us. I find it disturbing the rest of the world and even many of those selfsame fellow citizens do not seem to grasp this single, fundamental, fact about America.

I am an American. I realize that my country is not perfect. I understand there are large numbers of people who, in spite of their citizenship, are hated, treated with disrespect, jailed, even murdered for their differences by their fellow citizens and even their own government. I find this abhorrent and detest every single incident of it, and work as hard as I can everywhere I can to prevent it. However, I find it hypocritical in the extreme that my nation's problems are used as a rallying cry inside other borders, by other citizens whose countries and cultures practice the most puerile and violent forms of discrimination on a scale that at times beggars the imagination.

I am an American. At root, I believe my country is a source of good for the world. I believe that simply by existing we have made this a better place for everyone, not just our own citizens. I believe that by making ourselves a human trash heap for "more sophisticated", "more advanced", "more civilized" countries we sucked away every singled talented, determined person out there and gave them hope, freedom, safety, and opportunity, certainly not all of them, but more than in any other nation that came before. I believe this, and this alone, is the reason America is the most powerful nation in the world. I believe there is still injustice, oppression, and discrimination in my country, but I believe that we have a real chance at overcoming these problems.

I am an American. I am sick to death of apologizing for it. I am nauseated that some of my fellow citizens continue to do so after violent attacks on our citizens, our culture, our country, and our way of life. I believe if every other citizen of every other country were to be as proud as I am of mine, they would not allow themselves to be ruled by unaccountable thugs, oppressed by greedy foreigners, and murdered by their own police.

Because I live in the greatest country on earth.

And I am an American.

Posted by scott at 12:58 PM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
October 29, 2002
Welcome to My World, Part II

(NOTE: All names are changed. Nobody around here has a name that even begins with "Z". And this is a different Z, not the same one as last time.)

*ring* *ring*

Me: "yeah Z1?"

Z1: "I can't log in to anything, my password isn't working."

This is like calling a mechanic who you've never seen before out of the blue and saying, "my car won't start" Me: "Doesn't work at all?"

Z1: ***pause*** (I can almost hear claxons as the hamsters scramble to general quarters and start furiously running on their wheels) "Well, it's not working right now."

Me: "What are you trying to access?"

Z1: ***pause*** (a couple of hamsters have obviously grabbed onto their wheels and now are twirling away inside them)

Ah well, dartboard time again... two for two? Me: "Are you trying to access [the only system you ever work with]?"

Z1: "Yes, that's the one." How to motivate tech support part 1, section C: When a password works to log into a machine, log into an email account, and log into an intranet, but not log into a specific system, it is by definition "not working at all". Be sure to sound extra desperate because of this.

Me: "Have you checked to see if your CAPSLOCK key is on?" Watch this... 3, 2, 1...

Z1: ***PAUSE***... Two hamsters suddenly seize up from heart attacks and are flung out of their furiously spinning wheels like fuzzy stones from a chrome-plated catapult. I can almost hear them thud into the wall of the cage."My what?"

Me: "Left side of the keyboard, third from the bottom. Tap it once for me"

Heard over the phone: *TAP* *TAP*

Must... Resist... Urge... to... Pound... Head... Against... Desk...

Me: "ONCE please. Hit it one more time."

*TAP*

Me: "now try it."

Z1: "Hey! Wow! It's working! What went wrong?"

Oh, I don't know, sitting you in front of a computer maybe? Me: "The capslock key got turned on somehow" (I say this without the slightest trace of sarcasm, because telling the truth and saying 'you hit the capslock key by accident and didn't know how to turn it off' would've just started a 'did not, did too, did not, did too' argument).

Z1: "Gee, thanks a lot! You're the best!"

The joys of tech support...

Posted by scott at 09:42 AM | Comments (7) | eMail this entry!
October 15, 2002
The Thing in the Closet (fiction)

We've all seen or heard them at one point or another, I'm convinced of it. You open your eyes at night and see a shadow move across the doorway, you hear footsteps walking around your bed but can't wake up enough to do anything about it, or something pulls away just as you round the corner of your stairwell. In each case, of course, there's nothing there when you actually focus, or wake up, or walk a little faster into the room. Just nerves. That's what I thought, anyway.

I just happened to be wrong.

I really was having fun being a big girl, alone in a new house while the husband was dragged away on a business trip (bastard! I bet he arranged it on purpose too!) I got to play all the music he didn't like as loud as I pleased, talked on the phone to my girlfriends as long as I wanted, ate an entire pint of Ben and Jerry's in one sitting, danced around the house in my underwear like a moron, the works. The house creaked a bit sometimes, and occasionally I thought I saw movement, but after turning on every light in the house and not finding a thing for the third time, well, I figured I was just being stupid.

Unfortunately it was a pretty cold night, the first cold snap of the year, and I'd forgotten to turn on the heat. Since my favorite blanket warmer was six states away things started getting chilly. I finally decided blue feet weren't sexy and got up to root out a blanket from the walk-in bedroom closet.

A streetlight outside provided just enough illumination for me to find my way around the bed without needing to turn on a light. I knew I'd tossed the big comforter on the floor in there somewhere, so while I couldn't see into the closet proper I decided to just feel around with my foot rather than flick the closet light on. I was just muzzily surprised at first when my foot hit something hard and stiff, shaped like the leg of a clawfoot table. I was puzzling over what the hell a table was doing in my closet when something surprising happened.

The goddamned clawfoot moved.

I jumped back a bit and was getting ready to scream when suddenly something big and powerful came shrieking out of the hanging clothes, scattering shirts and pants like a hand grenade detonating in a leaf pile. Off balance, it bounced me off the opposite wall and then landed on top of me on the floor. It was all happening way too fast, wrestling and punching and grabbing. Absurdly, the first thing that came into my mind was how its skin felt like the bark of a maple tree... hard and rough and jointed, but cold. I caught impressions of glittering eyes and a dog-like snout and the brilliant glint of razor teeth when all of a sudden I put a knee in something soft and threw the thing into the back of the closet as hard as I could.

At that point I wasn't thinking, I was just trying to get as far away from that thing as I could. I ran straight out of the closet and banged my shins hard against the bed frame (DAMMIT! WHO PUT A BED THERE?!?), fell face-first with a scream and then rolled as fast as I could to the opposite floor, promptly wrapping the sheets around my ankles. I landed with a thud on the opposite side and wrestled with my goddamned feet while my heart did an incredibly convincing imitation of a bongo drummer after his sixth espresso. I rolled over and scrabbled against the rough nylon of the carpet until my back literally hit the wall.

For whatever reason, when I finally looked up I didn't see it standing over me like I expected. I wasn't completely sure it had actually happened until I peered over the bed and saw the two gleaming dots of reflected streetlight gleaming back at me from deep inside the closet. It was at this point I realized I had a problem (well, in addition to the weird freaky thing sitting in the back of my closet, I mean).

I'd just wanted to get away from it, but inadvertently ended up on the side of the room opposite the bedroom door. Every time I tried to move past the bed I'd hear it start to growl, a low, rumbling noise like the lid of a crypt being pushed sideways. I always used to bitch about movies who had dumb heroes, ones that didn't do the obviously right thing and just got themselves deeper in trouble, and damned if I didn't end up choosing the moron option myself. I'd picked this place for its beautiful staircases as much as anything else, but now I was stuck at the top floor of a pretty three story brownstone with two brilliant, close-set diamonds gleaming back at me, and they were closer to the door than I was.

As seems to be typical in these situations (what? doesn't everyone have one of these things in their house? Are you sure?), I'd left my primary self-defense weapon, a genuine Louisville Slugger baseball bat I'd got when I'd visited their factory years ago, downstairs next to the front door. All I had was a set of old slats from the bed... planks an inch thick, three inches wide, and probably four feet long, stacked against the wall next to the dresser. Well, I guess I can lance it with one of these. I levered myself up with one of them, absurdly careful lest I get a splinter from it, and looked straight into those metal buttons still staring at me from the back of the closet. "C'mon you sonofabitch", I whispered to it quietly, "I'm ready now... come and get it..."

The two tiny lights in the closet went out.

Oh my god. It's moving.

Posted by scott at 12:34 PM | Comments (10) | eMail this entry!
October 11, 2002
How to Talk to Tech Support

  • Do not tell us you are bad with computers. Do not tell us you are good with computers. We'll be able to figure it out for ourselves very quickly.
  • Be specific. Do not start your conversation with: "my... um... well, you see, when I do something to it... well... it doesn't... do" or "I'm trying to do this thing and it's not letting me" or any such thing along these lines. We are not psychic. Assume we know n-o-t-h-i-n-g about your problem, because we don't.
  • Error messages are useful. Write them down exactly as they appear on the screen.
  • Restart the computer before you call. Trust us, just do it.
  • Do not restart the computer more than once. This isn't a loose wire. Restarting multiple times won't make it "get closer" to being fixed.
  • Yes, yes, we know you've already done what we're telling you to do, perhaps more than once. We're orienting ourselves within your system, and we're making sure you actually did do these things.
  • Tell us what it is doing, don't tell us what you think is wrong. If you already know what's wrong, why are you calling us?
  • See if you can make the problem happen somehow. Regular, traceable bugs are dead bugs. Irregular bugs live forever.
  • Be polite, be civil, be professional. The person you're talking to had little or nothing to do with the creation of your system, and even less to do with what's making it go wrong.
  • Yelling, swearing, insulting, or being snide just makes you sound like a childish moron and guarantees you and your call will end up being ridiculed by the entire staff.
  • We are well aware that this problem is important to you, that the very existence of our city, our country, our civilization, the entire universe depends on whether or not you get your document to print in the next two minutes (and yes, you really do sound like this). Explicitly reminding us, several times, just pisses us off.
  • Do what we tell you to, as we tell you to do it. DO NOT assume you know what the next step is and then do it. Your computer is broken. This means we're going to be doing both expected and unexpected things to try and fix it.
  • Try to do some research. Go onto google and search using the text of your error message. Go onto our website and search through our tech documents doing the same thing. The answer is almost always there already.
  • Read the manual. READ. THE. MANUAL.
  • Do not call us because you do not feel like doing the two steps above, or because you think calling us is faster than doing the two steps above. We're trying to help people with problems, not hold the hands of lazy buffoons.
  • There's a pretty good chance the person on the other end of the line doesn't have any more of a clue than you do. Most first-line techs are reading from scripts. NONE of them will be the person who created the computer or the program causing trouble. Adjust your attitude and expectations accordingly.
  • If you have a friend or relative or spouse who does all your tech support, it's always an extremely good idea to, without any prompting from us at all, provide cases of good beer, bottles of nice wine, or gift certificates to pleasant restaurants as a reward if we manage to fix a problem for you. You don't have to, but it's nice.
Posted by scott at 01:33 PM | Comments (6) | eMail this entry!
October 09, 2002
Break Like the Wind

One of the disadvantages of being a short chick is that when you spoon your husband, his ass is way too fucking close to your head. It's not like you get this great ripping whomp noise, like a Mexican riceburner on a bad day after Paco's brother forgot to tighten up the muffler brackets on that "gives you extra 50 horsepower" coffee can muffler. It's more of this silent, yet deadly, effect, like the hiss of a mustard gas canister into a muddy trench after you've loaned your gasmask to the guy who went over the side and never came back.

I'm sure all you wives and/or girlfriends know about this horrible experience. You're at the verge of falling into a deep, dark sleep, when suddenly you feel his body tense, and then "it" comes out. Only rarely is there enough of a warning noise to let you know you must roll over now or face the consequences. Most of the time, most of the time, it's this deadly, silent hiss. A smell so bad, so foul, you don't even have time to hold your breath. So bad I don't normally have to go to the salon to have my eyebrows waxed. Usually the offending, and I mean offending, party, is so sound asleep they haven't even stopped snoring.

Normally, the rule in our house is "if thou must pass gas, thou shalt hang thine ass out of thine covers". But when it's three in the morning, and you're so tired you can't tell if it's just a bad dream, well, more drastic measures have to be taken.

Actually, the least effective action is to punch the offending party a few times saying, "you just farted on my face you fucking ass, what the fuck is wrong with you?!?" This does not work because all the offending party does is snort a few times, roll over, and attempt to hug you to make you "all better". Of course, this does not get your eyebrows back. Sometimes it scares the cats away.

Far more effective is to simply get up and grab your can of lysol (you do have a can of lysol next to the bed, yes? If not, you're obviously not married yet) immediately yank the covers away, and spray at point blank range. That's right girls, aim for the red eye! If you play you cards right, you'll get an extremely satisfying snort!!! as the hypercold mist encounters an ever-so-sensitive region of their anatomy.

Unfortunately, I'm sure every female who's ever slept with one knows this, the male species's exhaust seems to have an almost velcro-like quality upon everything it happens to touch. It's simply not good enough to spray his ass. You must also spray the air, the comforter, the sheets, the body pillow, the nightgown, and occasionally the cats. Never forget to loudly exclaim, "goddamit motherfucker what the fuck is wrong with you?!? Does your digestive tract pass Love Canal?!? I'd rather change litter boxes all day than deal with this shit!!!" Be sure to open the window and gasp theatrically at the screen. Make sure you open it good and wide because the cats will be joining you.

Not only does Scott fall into category of "silent, yet deadly", he also has "rips the sheets apart" mode as well. Something we both still laugh at is the time he crawled into bed, snuggled up really nice and romantically to me, and then pulled the lanyard on the Titanic's horn. I jumped almost vertically a good six inches off the mattress, and went rigid enough to throw no fewer than two cats off the bed.

At least he had the decency to get me flowers the next day. What category does your man fall into?

Posted by Ellen at 07:40 PM | Comments (21) | eMail this entry!
October 07, 2002
The Decline and Fall of the United States of America

Rome's shadow is long and black, and casts itself over surprisingly subtle places in our culture. Ever since western civilization bettered Rome in every way (between 1650 and 1800 A.D., depending on who you ask) it has been expected to fail. Countless authors for nearly two centuries have at one point or another predicted the decline, overthrow, or dystopian transformation of western civilization. All either explicitly or implicitly draw parallels with the last, greatest ancient western civilization, Rome, as an example of the seeming inevitability of their predictions.

Today it's even more in fashion to predict the imminent decline of western civilization, especially the collapse of its most powerful national example, the United States of America. The Internet especially is chock-full of self-appointed pundits who almost hourly decry the imminent dissolution of our country into at best a Stalinist police state, complete with barbed wire fences, secret police, and German Shepherds patrolling the borders.

It's all crap. What's more, the most recent predictions are moronic crap, cooked up by Marxist ex-hippies and college sophomores with too much time on their hands and too few thoughts in their heads.

Those of you who think Rome is a good model predicting the inevitability of a sophisticated society's collapse haven't studied Rome very closely. First, the economy of any agricultural-based society is so fundamentally different from a modern industrialized nation it might as well be from a different planet. It's hard to emphasize how important this is. In ancient agricultural societies, the middle class did not exist. You were either filthy stinking rich, or you were so poor you thought dirt looked tasty. There was no middle ground.

Most of the roles we think of as "middle class", merchants, scribes, laborers, teachers, and the like were actually filled by the poor, or even slaves, and those occupations were therefore considered the lowest of the low. Slavery in particular represented a lynchpin of Rome's economy, and it guaranteed a certain level of instability would be built into their society.

Because of these factors, there were large numbers, large numbers, of people who simply had no stake in Roman society. Why actively work toward success when that success would simply be taken away from you via taxes, theft, or outright murder? Why innovate when you can simply buy a slave to do the work for you? Why worry whether the ruling classes are running things into the ground when you can't even read their pronouncements?

When combined with a military differentiated more by training than technology and a bureaucracy that didn't even answer to the emperor himself, it's no mystery that the empire fell... it's a mystery it survived as long as it did.

Industrialization represents a fundamental break with these traditions. It's difficult to overemphasize just how utterly different our lifeways are from those of the ancients. For one thing a capital-based economy, an economy running on money and the fruits of labor and not on land and the fruits of the earth, is a far more flexible thing (see Economicon for a complete development of this idea). A few bad harvests will crush an agrarian society, but an industrial one simply purchases food from somewhere else.

The creation of a middle class, a hallmark of industrialization, geometrically increases the number of people with a stake in a society. What is going on in the country matters a lot more when it's your house and your job and your money that might get blown up because some windbag of an old man decides to raise taxes just to pay for a new war he feels like having for himself. The essentially complete rejection of slavery also greatly increases the overall stability of an industrial society. When everyone gets paid to do a job, suddenly everyone has a reason to work.

One of the signatures of western industrialization is its distinctively practical nature. Everyone's ideas, no matter what family they belong to, who they know, or what their title happens to be, must be tried out in the hard-knock-life of the real world. A stupid idea coming from a dictator can destroy a country, whereas a stupid idea coming from a businessman usually just puts him on a breadline.

The United States in particular brings several important innovations to the basic industrialized model. Democracy, a form of government considered basically unworkable by most power brokers of 18th century, ends up giving anyone with the ability to vote an immediate stake in the government, and therefore the society. While at root an inefficient method of ruling a country, it provides powerful mechanisms for self-correction, especially over long periods of time.

A legally unfettered press, enshrined in the very core documents of the United States, is a feature rare even in many other industrialized nations. In spite of its tendency to be more interested in the latest gruesome celebrity murder than in legislative or business developments, a free press provides an extremely powerful counterweight against the interests of the rich and powerful minorities who normally run national governments.

Taken together, a government designed to be changed and a fifth column of rabble-rousing commoners whose sole purpose in life is to ensure it gets changed, these two forces represent most, if not all, of what makes and keeps the United States the most powerful nation in world history.

Finally, it's becoming less and less clear that collapse on the order of what the west experienced between 450 and 1050 A.D. is even possible. Charismatic maniacs who could once have built an army of hundreds of thousands able to threaten the stability of entire continents are now instead forced into pitiful (no matter how psychologically horrifying) stunts. The ability to reduce two buildings to rubble and punch a hole in a third after some five years of careful planning is nothing compared to the United States's proven ability to dismantle an entire country using just our special forces in less than nine months.

Further, unlike a traditional ancient culture or even a modern totalitarian regime, our system of government is, in essence, in a state of perpetual overthrow. Every two years roughly 60% of our federal government can be legally overthrown at will, and every four years the percentage rises to perhaps 85%. Rules and regulations, even within our core documents, can be legally invalidated without requiring insurrection or civil war. Basically, it really doesn't make much difference if a politician "steals" an election, even a very important one, because in less than half a decade that same politician will have to face being overthrown his or her self.

This should in no way be taken as saying the United States is a perfect country. Even the Chicken-Littles who run around endlessly shrieking about police states and fascist Attorneys General have their place. But in a world populated by human beings, ones who have over time proven themselves capable only of "least-worst" methods of government, and even then only rarely, the United States stands strongest, and for good reasons.

It may represent a great disappointment, even a surprise, to tinpot dictators, wild-eyed charismatics, and pot-smoking Marxists everywhere, but the United States isn't going anywhere any time soon, and anyone who thinks differently is in for an ugly surprise.

Posted by scott at 05:22 PM | Comments (38) | eMail this entry!
October 04, 2002
Inheritance

Most of us are given the impression in our history classes that first there was Egypt, then there was GreeceRome, then something in the middle happened with knights and popes and kings, then the pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and George Washington was born. At that point you get a lot of "flashback" lessons about how GreeceRome and the Magna Carta were sort of mixed together by the founding fathers and out came the Constitution like some sort of democratic poptart.

Even folks who follow history more closely tend to get the impression that the real ancestors of our modern western cultures were Greece and Rome (which do become separated when you study them for awhile), and the middle ages was when it all sort of marked time until they scrabbled their way back from the abyss the barbarians had tossed them in.

Unfortunately this impression is flat wrong. We did not inherit our western culture from Rome or Greece. For a thousand years and more those legacies were lost to the west like a box of old books left behind after a move. While we did eventually rediscover some of this knowledge, it is really just a veneer covering the core of what we in the west think most about what we are. That core, the column that holds up the roof of our modern culture, was built in the time between 500 A.D. and 1450 A.D. The dates are, of course, approximate and highly contested, but they represent the essence of the Middle Ages.

In 480 A.D. Julius Nepos, the last legitimate western Roman emperor, was assassinated in an abortive bid to wrest control of the city of Rome from the Germanic barbarian Odovacar. While this and surrounding events are usually seen as the end of the Roman empire, the heart of imperial power had long since moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul, in modern Turkey) where it continued to beat for nearly a thousand years more.

Justinian I actually did restore a large part of the western empire, but only briefly, in the sixth century. Weakend by plague and bankrupted by conquest, they were soon forced back by a fresh wave of barbarian invaders. What remaining influence Constantinople had on its putative western territories effectively ended when Islam bisected the Mediterranean basin in the eighth century. They got far too busy keeping their own skins intact to really worry much when the Bishop of Rome made an illiterate Germanic warlord the "Holy" Roman Emperor.

These two events, far more than the barbarian invasions from the steppe three centuries earlier, were in fact what ended the influence of Rome on the west. They put a period on the end of an era stretching back some twelve hundred years. There was of course some trade with other empires, other cultures, but for nearly a thousand years this represented more a fizzing on the edges rather than anything that affected the interior of the land.

Once the barbarians finally quit hanging the heads of monks on their monastic towers things did finally turn around, and in a surprisingly short period of time. But, while certainly not Roman, these people weren't that much different than the ones who surrounded them. They were still using swords and horses, steel armor and wooden bows, iron plows and feather pens, leather and flax. But there were important, and subtle, differences.

Europe had essentially jettisoned the ancient idea of slavery, and while serfdom looked an awful lot like it, the lord didn't own the peasant in the same way that, say, a sultan owned his servants. Certainly armies of slaves were unheard of by this time. There was also a decidedly practical bent to what the people of Europe were trying to accomplish.

It wasn't just about how to unscrew an enemy's head faster or more efficiently. Nearly everyone everywhere was interested in that. It was about things like how to turn grain into flour faster, grow more and better crops, and tell time accurately and automatically so you didn't go to hell just because you'd overslept Matins.

Medieval innovation wasn't just about creating things either. Adaptation played a big role as well. Precisely because one of the primary pastimes of anyone living in Europe was figuring out new and efficient ways of stealing someone else's cattle, land, peasants, castles, towns, coasts, and anything else that happened to strike their fancy, they would eagerly adapt any technologies that promised to make that job easier, no matter what god the originator happened to worship.

Had history been allowed to continue disturbed only by man's inhumanity to man, Europeans may have remained not all that much different from their neighbors. But history didn't turn out that way.

It took just one ship sailing with the tide on a warm October morning in Sicily to change the course of European history, and therefore that of the world. Because the morning was in October 1347, the ship was a Genoese cargo vessel, and its crew was carrying the Black Death.

The first great bubonic plagues of the fourteenth century didn't just kill a third of Europe. Scattered documentation continues to reveal this great pulse of horrific death affected the entire developed world of the time. From the coast of the South China Sea to the Indus River through the Caliphates of Islam all the way to Ireland it scythed a swath that was as ugly as it was random.

What made Europe unique was not the way it suffered the Death, but the way it recovered. The technological and economic innovations that are generally considered to mark the Renaissance were triggered in no small part by the catastrophic loss of both skilled and unskilled labor that occurred here, in the heart of the Middle Ages. The philosophical and religious innovations that were to tear Europe apart in just a few generations were seeded by the question, "If God let this happen..."

But even with these pressures, were it not for the innovations and developments of the Middle Ages, unique developments found only in Europe, the Black Death would've been just another catastrophe wrought by God. Eventually life would have returned to the regularly scheduled fragfest it was before.

But it didn't. The Renaissance didn't explode onto the world's stage because people suddenly began reading their classics. It was brought about because the innovations of the Middle Ages made it possible. The Black Death merely lit the fuse on a keg of powder that had been filling with explosive innovations for at least five hundred years.

These are the people who made our modern world possible, not some effete senator deploring the blood of the arena, nor some cranky old philosopher ranting about how he knew nothing at all. The re-discovery of the ancient teachings of Plato, Socrates, Galen, Pythagoras, and other ancients like them certainly helped shape what was to happen, but it did not trigger it.

It's just a damned shame we've been taught in our schools to see Romans and Greeks when we look behind us. Because to do that we have to ignore the forest of medievals standing in front of them.

Posted by scott at 04:18 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
October 03, 2002
Much Ado...

Ya know, I do my level best to maintain a positive outlook on the human race. I really do want to think there's a genius in every one of us, if we'd only just try harder. Then I read something like this, and I realize 400 years of rationalism is nothing compared to ten thousand years of superstition.

Most "reborn" fundamentalist Christians in the US really do just want you all to share in the ecstatic warmth, confidence, and empowerment they felt when they "found Jesus". Like fanatics everywhere, the vast majority of them are genuinely surprised, and then alarmed, when the rest of the world doesn't see the obvious truth in their message.

If all your faith does is make you feel comfortable, make you feel loved, make you feel like you belong, I'm here to tell you your faith is weak and worthless. If you're really paying attention to your religion, thinking about it critically and not just listening to charmingly mad preachermen froth and spit, it should challenge you at every moment, puzzle and confound you in ways that make you question every assumption, think about every decision, and break you out of habits of hate, greed, and lazy ignorance that mark all our lives.

Real religion is hard. Want to know how hard? If the god you worship is love, if you are a true Christian, why do you support the death penalty? Why do you pass by beggars on the street? Why do you support war? Why do quest for big houses and fancy cars instead of using that money to help the poor? Why are you not using all your money to help the poor?

These are hard questions, yes. Some don't have good answers; others don't have any. But, as a Christian, they should be questions you ask yourself every day. It sickens me to see enormous churches so new they sparkle in a muggy Sunday dawn next to parking lots filled to overflowing with colorful metal waterbugs with names like Cadillac, Lincoln, and BMW. Whenever I drive by one of these places I'm always reminded "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money - not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them."

Indeed.

Posted by scott at 01:29 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
October 02, 2002
Top Five Lists

Top 5 Reasons Conservatives are Morons:

  1. The world is not made up of white people
  2. Deregulation actually means "letting rich people make more money, faster"
  3. If guns were banned, nobody would have guns. That's the point.
  4. The USA is not a "Christian Nation", and it never was.
  5. Just because it shocks and offends you doesn't mean you get to keep me from seeing it

Top 5 Reasons Liberals are Morons:

  1. Rich white people are not out to get you
  2. Sometimes the poor are poor because they're stupid
  3. If we really did stop "wasting" money on weapons and spending it on head start we'd eventually end up a bunch of really well fed slaves.
  4. Al Gore is a boring stuffed shirt. At least Bush is funny.
  5. There's a reason "traditional" cultures are usually in poor countries, and it has nothing to do with colonialism.

Top 5 Reasons the Media are Morons:

  1. A BA in Journalism doesn't make you any damned smarter than anyone else
  2. We're not all sheep just because we aren't interested in what you think is important
  3. Nobody watches Meet the Press except your friends
  4. We're interested in what actually happened, not what you think it means
  5. A microphone in your hand doesn't mean you automatically have something interesting to say

Top 5 Reasons Europeans are Morons:

  1. If it weren't for the US, Stalin really would've made sure you were all speaking Russian before 1950.
  2. The reason why negotiations worked so well at creating peace in Europe is because everyone else took away your guns.
  3. FRANCE: Get over it. Nobody cares what you think anymore.
  4. BELGIUM: Stop being so shocked that the rest of Europe hates the EU.
  5. GERMANY: Tree huggers have no damned business running the most powerful country in Europe.

Top 5 Reasons Arabs are Morons:

  1. If there really is a global Jewish conspiracy, why the hell are they headquartered in Palestine?
  2. Islam isn't going to conquer the world.
  3. Sticking half your population in bedsheets and keeping them locked in a closet will not help pave the road to prosperity
  4. The Crusades happened 700 years ago. It's time to move on.
  5. If Allah really did think martyrdom was a path for the righteous, why aren't there instructions for explosives in the Koran?

Top 5 Reasons Israelis are Morons:

  1. Putting 50 well armed wacks in the middle of 20,000 pissed off Palestinians does not create a "fact on the ground"
  2. An Apache gunship is a crappy tool for assassination
  3. Making their homeland unlivable doesn't make people want to move. It pisses them off.
  4. A cabinet member who resigned over his involvement in a Palestinian refugee massacre is not the person you want to be touring the third holiest shrine of Islam, or put in charge
  5. It isn't all the Arabs' fault

Somebody stop me...

Posted by scott at 02:22 PM | Comments (17) | eMail this entry!
Making a Geek

There's an episode of Happy Days I remember that reminds me a lot of the way I deal with computers. This was toward the end of the series run, well after they'd "jumped the shark". Fonze decided he'd become a teacher, complete with (as I recall... I only saw the episode once, when it was first run, which makes it... gawd... more than twenty years ago) beard and sports jacket. He was teaching auto mechanics, and decided the way he learned was the way everyone should learn. Unfortunately the way he learned was by being shown how to, say, rebuild a carburetor just once by a master mechanic, and then he knew how. Of course, nobody in class was able to do it this way and so, as they say, "hilarity ensues".

Working with computers has always been nearly that easy for me. Yet it's quite patently not that easy for most of the rest of America, perhaps the world. And, like ol' Fonze, I have a real hard time understanding why everyone else out there has such a damned hard time with them.

It would be tempting to think I'm just a helluva lot smarter than most people. Certainly a really huge number of computer "techies" do just that. But anyone who's read about my forays into the world of cooking should quickly realize I can be just as dumb as the next doorknob.

So what is it about me that makes working with computers easier than, say, pressure cooking chili? What do I do differently that lets me get computers to do what I want, when vast numbers of people can barely turn them on? After thinking about it for a really long time, this is what I've managed to come up with:

How to Become a Computer Geek in Thirty-Four Years or Less:

  • Take to heart first of all that you can actually understand this stuff. Really! The vast majority of vaporlock computer morons I deal with sit in front of their systems without ever even attempting to figure out what is going wrong. It's this attitude alone that causes people like me to think they're smarter than people like you. Prove us wrong.
  • You can do it, but it's hard. Resist the temptation to call on someone technical you know just because you think they already know the answer. This yet another variation of "give someone a fish, and feed them for a day, teach them to fish, and feed them for a lifetime". Learn to research your problems and you will come to understand how to fix most of them yourself.
  • Read the damned directions. READ THE DAMNED DIRECTIONS, PEOPLE. My first encounter with electronics was stereo gear. Everyone, from the hi-fi shop to my high school band room to my parent's house, treated hi-fi like it was some sort of crystalline time bomb... one wrong move and it'd either blow up or shatter completely. I never understood this attitude because every knob, switch, and plug was clearly labeled. If it's not painted on the front of whatever you're using, it's in the instructions. Half of my "talent" comes from just carefully reading the manuals.

    Not just directions, but computer magazines, concept books, "how-to" books, "Dummies" books if you really must. Learn how to apply what you've read, and stop relying on someone else to show you. A book is far, far cheaper than a class, and is more convenient and easier to schedule around. I know there are a lot of you who are completely uncomfortable with this approach to learning, but until you get comfortable with it learning how to do anything with a computer will probably remain forever out of your reach. Not because you're stupid, but because you're poor and have better things to do than attend hours-long classes.

  • Don't fear the experiment. This is the last, and probably the most important, aspect of dealing with computers. Want to know why your kids are so damned good with computers and you're not? They're not afraid of breaking it, and you shouldn't be either. Do your level best to make sure you can un-do whatever you're about to do, or failing that take notes about what you've done so if you get in really deep someone can help you get out, but do something. Don't get frustrated if your experiment fails. Experiments are supposed to fail. Learn from each failure and you will eventually find success.

And really, that's all there is to it.

Or you can always pay (or, in the case of Ellen, yell at) me to do it for you. Will I.T. for beer!

Posted by scott at 12:30 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
September 25, 2002
The Coin

A master was approached by his pupil one day while tilling his garden. "Master," the pupil said, "I have recently talked with a Christian, one who claims to be 'Catholic'. He explained that the Christian God is actually composed of three equal beings: The father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. But I am puzzled, master. How can a deity be three distinct entities, and yet just be one god?"

The master looked up from his garden work and smiled. "Ah, my student, have you listened to nothing I have taught you?" The master then pulled out a coin from his pocket. "Look at this coin", he said as he showed the face of it to his student, "what is its shape?"

"Why, it is round, master."

"Now", he said as he turned the coin's edge toward the student, "what is the shape of the coin?"

"It is a line, master."

"Now", he said as he flipped the coin twirling high into the air, "what is the shape of the coin?"

"It is a sphere, master."

As he caught the coin, the master hurled it at the student and asked, "At any point, did the coin ever stop being a coin?"

As the coin painfully bounced off the student's head, he was enlightened.


While I'm not Catholic, and therefore do not have the benefit of years and years of Catholic school (which my wife claims wasn't much of a miss), I have studied church history and doctrine for many, many years. They may make your head hurt, but guys like Origen, Clement, Augustine, and Jerome, if you read them long enough, do a pretty decent job of explaining the transcendental nature of the Trinity that lies at the base of modern Catholic doctrine, even to an apostate Buddhist like me.

Unfortunately very few people outside a divinity college even know who those guys are, let alone what they taught, and so the holy trinity tends to be completely inscrutable to most folks. Especially if they're protestant, since one of the hallmarks of Protestantism is to screw Catholic doctrine up as completely as possible and then force-feed your kids with the result.

So I'd been mulling over the trinity for a long, long time when one Saturday night, while wandering a book store (yes, we're really that boring), I heard an argument over in the history section. A group of teenage boys, I'd say about six or seven of them, by their identical T-shirts a part of one of the endless tour groups that seem to land at Pentagon City Center every day, had apparently decided to gang up on what must've been the only Catholic in their group. The ring leader kept ragging on him with things like "so how can God be a ghost, and still be God?" Basically yet another arrogant preacher's kid, just as tooth-grindingly ignorant as the rest. The poor Catholic kid just kind of mumbled at his tormentors, obviously unwilling or unable to really put up a staunch defense.

I thought up the Koan above as we drove home that night. It does not, of course, explain the full depth of the Trinity. No words can express the transcendental truths of any great religion, be it Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, or any of the rest. These are by definition inexpressible experiences that lead one to enlightenment. But I think it did neatly explain the prissy questions that poor kid was being pelted with.

Unfortunately, as with all really great comebacks, by the time I'd cooked this one up its targets were long gone.

Posted by scott at 03:13 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 23, 2002
The Caddie, Part 1

Ok, this is a long one. I mean really long. So long I think I'll serialize it. This time it's fiction. In fact, it's my first (and so far) only attempt at fiction. A story I started long, long ago, back when I was in college and thought writing a weekly Star Wars RPG adventure was the hardest thing imaginable.

I never finished it. I couldn't think of how. But I'm seven, eight years older now, and I think I actually might be able to one day. If I serialize it, and enough (well, one or two besides my mom) express interest, I'll take a shot at finishing it. I'm actually kind of impressed with how good it is, if I do say so myself.

Be nice people. I know I tend to skim fiction on blogs, and you might too. If you do, fine. If you don't, leave some feedback, either with a comment or via the "tell us about it" widget. If you really like it, and run a blog, telling your readers would be very nice. My essays are me just preaching. Fiction is something I make out of my own soul. It'd be nice to think someone else was impressed with the one time I decided to really stretch :).

And props to Ellen, who saved every letter I ever wrote her, including one written just before Halloween six years ago, when we'd only known each other about six months and god knows how weird she thought I was.

So, anyways, a work of neo-cypherpunk fiction:

The Caddie

AND GOD DID SPEAK THUSLY... THAT ANY MAN WHO THINKEST HE IS THE ULTIMATE POWER, WHO BELIEVETH ONLY IN MACHINES AND DEMONS OF HIS OWN MAKING, THAT HE SHALL SUFFER THE GREATEST PUNISHMENT... THAT FIRE AND EARTHQUAKES WILL COME UPON HIM... THAT PESTILIENCE AND WAR SHALL BE INFLICTED UPON HIM... THAT EVEN HIS CHILDREN AND HIS CHILDREN'S CHILDREN WILL HAVE SUFFERING HEAPED UPON THEM..."

And they go on and on like that every single day around here. Can you believe it? Crazy men and women standing on street corners in the husk of downtown, shrieking at the top of their lungs about how it's all gonna be hellfire and damnation for us all if we don't accept "God's Love", that the earthquake of '25 and the fire that followed, that the Ebola that bled what the earthquakes didn't bury and the fires didn't incinerate, were somehow all our fault. How can these people say god is love in the middle of all this, and with a straight face and nearly the same breath preach how He allowed all of it to happen to us for our own good?

But that's the way it always seems to be. I've seen pictures in the TV kiosks of preachers that sounded just like this one, slick sweaty men in custom cut suits preaching to flocks of well dressed, well scrubbed moon-plate faces. What amazes me the most is how well fed everyone looks when the cameras swivel across the cow-eyed audiences.

It really was a typical night in Paradise, or what was left of the center of what they used to call L.A. It's funny... all those books Jose said people used to write about the "big one" causing all this horrible damage. What they seemed to forget, or didn't notice, was the engineers and architects busily designing buildings with shock absorbers. Skyscrapers on springs no less. When the "big one" finally did hit, the buildings just wobbled around like washing machines with an unbalanced load.

Of course, it didn't make much of a difference, and lucky for all my types it didn't. You see, they never took into account the insides of the buildings. The pipes broke, the electricity went, the gas jetted high-pressure flatulence that ignited on the spot and burned for months. So now we're left with this... glittering towers with interiors so mixmastered that it would take billions of dollars to repair it all. And, since the small buildings around them weren't so well protected, they stand alone in rubble, like steel and glass trees in a forest of brick humus.

So rather than repair it all they left it. Just grabbed the insurance money and built somewhere like Vegas. Sure, Satan sunbathed there, but at least the ground didn't try to eat your buildings.

They left it all to the wise guys, and the whores, and the crazies that escaped from the postal sanitariums. And the gangbangers like me.

I'm sure in five or ten, maybe twenty years, all those same Japanese businessmen who bought it all in the first place will come back along with their Japanese money and their Japanese workers and transform this place into something pretty and shiny, castles dipped in chrome with little slanteyed children playing with big cute teddybears, streets safe and oh no dear did you hear about the Wakimotos and the new Zil 959 in the driveway? Watching Trid revivals of Sailor Moon or some other ridiculous thing.

Of course, I'll be dead by then, so who cares?

Typical night, crowds filling the streets, dodging the rubbled remains of the occasional burger joint or corner grocery store to take a ride up into a tower to do god knows what to god knows who. Brownian motion in the wrapped-in-a-blanket heat of a particularly claustrophobic night. We were all hanging out on the streetcorner, me an my gang of droogs (cool slang, eh? Jose says it's from some antique flat flick he saw at one of the kiosks). The leflights, which probably were the only things that really worked in this godforsaken place even before the sandbox got kicked over, were regurgitating their stored sunlight in liquid copper pools up and down the streets. The smells from the various food stands that spring up like roach nests every night carried well in the thick air... especially the brown sweet tang of fresh garlic from Mama's Sicily booth (another place only an idiot would try to hold up, for obvious reasons... I hear a Vietnamese actually owns the chain, but who's gonna risk their lives on a rumor?) We'll have to see if a salaryman gets drunk and stupid and wanders down the wrong alley tonight... the smell makes me hungry.

We were participating in our favorite pastime, mainly shooting the shit, watching the hookers pick up johns, dealers deal smack (drugs and sex, is there anything people won't risk for them?), and listening to this rad fundie standing on his ammo box preaching the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, or some other kind of crap over the muted roar of the crowd and the hawking shriek of the Chinese rice merchants. We didn't even jump when an AK-47 cracked thunder from an upper story window across the street and blew him ass-first into an alley.

You can always spot the newbies because they always try to take potshots at the fundies, thinking they're a little bit of easy target practice. And it is fun, as long as you hit their body armor. A well-aimed shot from a good 7.62 round will plink one about ten meters if he catches a good bounce. The fundies consider it "part of the risks of Working for God."

But God (or Buddha, or Allah, or Jaweh, or whoever) help you if you headshot one. "He" might not protect them, but fundieman got friends you see. Lapsed Russian Baptist gangsters, converted Jewish drug lords with a few too many dead rabbis on the conscience, even the occasional Yakuza who'd burned his last temple and found the face of Jesus in the blood of the nun he raped. Jose says it's because all the different countries unloaded all of the wackos on us way back when, and that other places have the same problems with a different name being prayed to. All I know is, the last new guy the Jewboys were initiating "missed' his marksman test, and they found him crucified upside down with his scrote in his mouth. God may forgive, but fundieman's friends sure as hell don't. An eye for an eye indeed.

Well, whoever it was got lucky this time, hit the chest instead of the head. We hooted and jeered as fundieman herky-jerkeyed out of the alley and down the street like a broken marionette. What's a few shattered ribs in the name of God's Work anyway?

It was as he fumbled from light pool to light pool that I saw the Caddie. I couldn't believe it when it appeared. One of those long, black, lean monsters from the 90s, gleaming smooth like midnight water on a flat roof. Silent except for the burble of its genuine 100% fossyburning engine... and when's the last time you saw one of those outside of a TV kiosk show? Came around the corner big as you please, plowing through the electroscooters and boylecarts like a muscled panther moving through the grass. Just about everyone stopped to stare at it... hell you couldn't help but stare at the goddam thing. Couldn't even see the driver inside... just the impression of pale hands on a wheel.

Jesus and Brahma on a stick these guys had balls. Probably some diplomat up from NewUN or some sort of major player checking up on his troops. My droogies lost interest pretty quickly (if it doesn't explode, fuck, or shoot back they usually do), but I just kept watching it as it oiled its way down the drag. It finally purred into a puddle of leflight in front of Nanz, one of the newer (and nicer) whores that Six-Finger Jonny was running. Damn... had to be a diplomat, those guys will do anything to fuck a black chick (Jose says that means he's British and then laughs a lot to himself... gotta get that kid a life). Well, it certainly was gonna be Nanz's lucky night tonight, or at least his (or, for that matter, hers). I watched as she climbed right in. The Caddie oozed off into the night, taillights a pair of coals as the black trunk flashed in the leflight, lasering back and forth across the fender.

They found Nanz a few days later. Well, part of her anyway.

Flak said that he heard what they found looked like it had been eaten...


Well, if you've got this far you're either my mom, my wife, or someone who thought it was a bit interesting. Regardless, please leave comments. This was my one and only attempt at writing for money. I may yet finish this damned thing.

Posted by scott at 09:29 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
Day of Reckoning

Self-Proclaimed Pundits Consumed in Sudden Conflagrations
Spontaneous combustion implicated in fiery deaths of blogging elite, entire communities feared incinerated

Washington D.C. (XNN) - The blogging world today mourned the deaths of at least seven of its best-known personalities: Wil Wheaton, Glen Reynolds, Rob "Taco" Malda, Jeff "Hemos" Bates, Jonathan Katz, Dawn Olson, and "N. Z. Bear". All appear to have fallen victim to the as yet unexplained phenomena of spontaneous human combustion. Other blog authors, such as Scott Johnson, Aaron Hawk, and Meryl Yourish, were reportedly only rescued by the quick thinking of spouses, friends, and, in one case, the strategic urination of a family cat.

"Classic cases of a terminal buildup of hot air", said medical examiner Ima Quack. "It's only unusual in that they all went at once. But really, did you read any of these sites? I mean, all Wheaton seemed to do lately was write about his dog. Sure, Dawn was cute, but shaking your fanny on your website will only take you so far. And those slashdot guys? Oh please! It's a wonder Katz didn't take out the whole building. They had it coming."

"I haven't seen anything like this since the great Congressional fire of 1973", said fire marshal Bob Smokesalot. "But we managed to install personal sprinkler systems in the capitol to avoid that happening again. These guys didn't have a chance. Glen Reynolds' head got so big just before he went we'll probably be picking skull fragments out of buildings in the next county." He then added, "all we could find of (N.Z. Bear) [real name withheld pending notification of family -- ed.] was a sad mug fragment bearing his logo."

In what appears to be a related phenomena, thousands of readers of the web sites "slashdot" and "fark" also burst into flames and were quickly reduced to ash. "Elitist hacker wannabes and a demented rabble of photoshop asshats", said a source close to the administrators of both sites, only wishing to be identified as "D.C. Squirrelnuts". "I remember this one time when I... uh... when someone farked up the user database and nobody could comment on FARK, it was like they had no air supply. It was a mercy, really, considering the dark and sad lives they were leading."

"It really is a terrible, terrible tragedy", said Lawrence Simon, webmaster of Amish Tech Support, from his hospital bed in Houston Texas, where he was being treated for an accidental gunshot wound. Mr. Simon refused to comment on the strong smell of kerosene and large numbers of burned matches found in and around his vehicle.

In other news, Rachel Lucas filed a police report on an attempted arson, which she foiled by shooting at an unidentified man with her gun...


Don't blame me, blame Simon, he started it!

Posted by scott at 02:36 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
September 19, 2002
In a Not-Quite Perfect World

Palestinian Groups Unite
Seven Factions Declare Non-Violent Movement
November 11, 2005

Ramallah, West Bank (CNN) - At least seven Palestinian factions, lead by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Fatah, have joined forces today declaring a unilateral cease-fire and the start of a non-violent "Salaam" movement. Thousands of unarmed Palestinians all over the West Bank and Gaza have begun defying Israeli imposed curfews by assembling outside their homes with signs containing the Arabic word "salaam", which means "peace", in the day, and candles at night. "We have grown tired of radicals causing the needless deaths of our children", one protester is quoted as saying. "Yet we must end our suffering. If it is God's will, we shall prevail peacefully, or perish trying."

Three Palestinian Protestors Shot Dead at Crossroads
Group was marching on settlements, refused to stop at checkpoint
November 13, 2005

Outside Kiryat Arba, West Bank (Washington Post) - Three unarmed Palestinian protestors were shot dead today and at least thirty others were wounded at a checkpoint outside this Israeli settlement. Witnesses reported that the protesters were marching arm-in-arm toward the settlement chanting "Land for Life, Peace for Life" when Israeli troops fired into the crowd.

"The natural boundaries of the new Palestinian state must lie within the west bank and the Gaza strip, but this is impossible with well-armed groups of radical settlers scattered throughout the area" said Faria Maheess, newly appointed leader of the Salaam movement. "We must call attention to this injustice, but we will do so only through peaceful protests. The tragedy today shows the current Israeli administration is incapable of accepting our proposals."

An Israeli army spokesman claimed this was a tragic accident caused by one nervous soldier, but also said there would be an immediate investigation into the incident.

Palestinian Protestors Arrested after Blocking Main Settlement Square
Other Settlements Occupied by Protestors
November 14, 2005

Bet El, West Bank (CNN) - A group of approximately two dozen unarmed Palestinian protestors peacefully occupied the center of this Israeli settlement early this morning. Men, women, and children seated themselves on the ground, blocking all access to local streets. Israeli army units moved in immediately to arrest the protestors, but no violence was reported.

Israeli media is reporting several other settlements being "occupied" in this fashion. In all cases protestors were quickly arrested without incident.

"We will continue to occupy these illegal encroachments on the new Palestinian state until they are removed", said Salaam leader Faria Maheess. "We will never again resort to violence, but this situation is intolerable and cannot be allowed to continue."

Settler reaction to the encroachment was not as peaceful. "We are living on land given to us by God", said Rachel Ya'al, spokesperson for the settlers. "We will never leave these sacred places. These encroachments are dangerous trespasses on our property and must be stopped immediately at all costs."

Salaam Movement Declares East Jerusalem Capital of New State
Provisional Headquarters Closed Immediately
November 18, 2005

East Jerusalem, Israel (AP) - Faria Maheess along with several other members of the Salaam movement briefly opened a "provisional capital" of a new Palestinian state today in an East Jerusalem residence. Israeli police quickly arrested all members of the movement, but again, almost incredibly, no violence was reported. "East Jerusalem must become the capital of the new Palestinian state", a spokesperson for Salaam reported at a press conference later that day.

The "dove" factions of the Israeli government appear to be gaining considerable strength as Salaam's declared creed of non-violence has held fast for the past week. Several organized protests have occurred in Israeli cities in support not only of pro-peace factions of the Israeli government, but the Salaam movement itself.

Peace Breaking Out Across West Bank
Provisional Palestinian Capital Playing Cat-and-Mouse with Israeli Police
November 23, 2005

West Jerusalem, Israel (New York Times) - The remarkable non-violent movement amongst the previously intractable Palestinians continues to gain strength. Protestors continue the dangerous practice of marching on well-armed and deeply antagonized settlements with only chants and songs to protect them. In the meantime, the Salaam movement continued to open its "Palestinian Capital" for the fifth straight day, only to be closed down again immediately by the Jerusalem police. The Sharon government continues to lose credibility as it proves increasingly unable to deal with this new style of protest while at the same time pleasing its own extreme right wing.

Salaam Movement Blocks Settlement Construction
Sharon Government in Crisis as Support for Peace Movement Grows in Israel
November 25, 2005

Hebron, West Bank (CNN) - Several dozen members of the Salaam movement placed themselves bodily in front of bulldozers and backhoes in a peaceful attempt to halt the construction of yet another settlement near the Palestinian town of Hebron. They were quickly arrested, but construction was halted for the day. As with all such protests recently, no violence was reported.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the Sharon cabinet continued a series of emergency meetings in an attempt to head off a no-confidence vote in the Knesset. However, with the extreme right wing of Sharon's own coalition becoming increasingly strident in its demands for an immediate crackdown on the Salaam movement, an acceptable solution is seen as unlikely.

In related news, an unprecedented rally of Israeli peace advocates and Palestinian Salaam members is being planned for next week in Rabin Square, where the famous prime minister was assassinated by a radical right-wing Israeli eight years ago.

Settlers Massacre Protestors
At Least Thirty Dead, Hundreds Wounded, in Unprovoked Attack
November 28, 2005

Mt. Hebron, West Bank (Washington Post) - A small child could be seen crying next to his slain mother in the gory aftermath of an unprecedented and unprovoked attack by two armed Israeli settlers in this small West Bank settlement just outside the Palestinian city of Hebron. Witnesses claim shortly before sundown two Israeli men armed with M-16s began shooting into a crowd of Salaam protestors who had peacefully taken up residence in the settlement's square this morning. In spite of the slaughter, the protestors refused to fight back and instead attempted to flee. Several were given protection by other settlers when they were whisked into their houses, and eventually the gunmen were subdued by the very guards meant to protect them.

Sharon Government Collapses
Coalition Government Disintegrates Amidst Charges of Cabinet-Level Collusion in Massacre
November 29, 2005

West Jerusalem, Israel (CNN) - Support for the Sharon government completely evaporated today as Israeli police arrested the leaders of several extreme right-wing parties that made up much of his core support. The Israeli media is quoting several sources close to the investigation as knowing of "solid evidence" that at least some of these leaders had direct knowledge of settlers planning massacres such as the one that occurred yesterday near Hebron. The plan appeared to be to force the Palestinians into another cycle of violence, but the Salaam movement seems to be holding steady.

Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of nearly every city in the country to protest the violence and voice their support of the Salaam movement. Chants of "Palestine Now" were heard not only on the streets of Hebron and Gaza City, but also in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.

In related news, the Jerusalem police finally allowed the provisional capitol building of the nascent Palestinian state to remain open in East Jerusalem today.

PEACE

Unprecedented Agreements Signed Today
January 3, 2006

East Jerusalem, Palestine (Reuters) - In what is seen as a largely symbolic recognition of facts on the ground, the new Israeli government signed agreements allowing the formation of a Palestinian state inside the areas created by its withdrawal to its own 1967 borders. In return for the withdrawal of all settlements and the creation of a capital inside the recently redrawn borders of "new" East Jerusalem, the provisional Palestinian Congress agreed to rescind all demands for a "right of return" and immediately recognize Israel as a sovereign nation.

In related news, negotiations remained tense as thousands of well-armed radical settlers continued to barricade themselves in the final remaining settlement on the West Bank. Negotiators are deeply concerned leaders inside the settlement are planning a symbolic mass suicide to protest...


Yes, I'm a fool. But I really think it could happen this way. If only it would happen this way.

Posted by scott at 04:53 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
September 18, 2002
Eugenics

Saw this on one of my mailing lists:

Accidents are Good.

Danger is nature's way of eliminating stupid people. Without safety, stupid people die in accidents, since the dead don't reproduce our species becomes progressively more intelligent (or at least less stupid).

While I hope it was intended as a joke, I know there are probably a lot of people out there who really think like this. Which just goes to show dumbasses can end up on either end of a finger pointing session.

By this reasoning, our greatest achievements should've been made millions of years ago, when we were all in the middle of a food chain dominated by leopards and heyenas and all sorts of other critters who quite patently made our ancestors's lives a lot shorter and sharper than they otherwise would've been. Yet when you look at the archeology, you find real innovation moving slowly, if at all, for hundreds of thousands of years at a time. It's our modern "safety-crazed" world that spits out innovations like some sort of monstrous pez dispenser.

We all laugh at the Darwin awards, shaking our heads at spectacularly stupid death. Good riddance, and let's have some more! Yet these represent real tragedies, examples of the almost criminal neglect of a society for one of its members. I'm not saying the vendor is at fault when some kid drags a coke machine on his head, I'm saying it's the parent's fault for not teaching the kid common sense in the first place.

Why am I getting so worked up about this, you ask? After all, haven't I gone on record time and again about how dangerous stupid people really are? Aren't we just culling the gene pool, albeit in a rather brutal way?

Sorry chief, doesn't work that way. Humanity hasn't relied on its genetic heritage to survive for at least thirty-five thousand years, probably longer. Ever since our ancestors figured out you could teach and learn just by talking to each other, it's been societies that have been driving our success, not our genes.

Societies are participatory. The only way to succeed is to contribute. In fact, history has proven time and again that the more participatory a society is, the more successful it becomes. The reverse is also true, especially in the long term. By preventing any member of a society from making a contribution, whether from neglectful disaster or outright discrimination, it prevents that entire society from advancing.

Of course, it's also society's job to turn negative contributions into positive ones. Ultimately, that's what criminal justice has always been about. Willfully stupid people seem to always end up running into the law eventually. By sticking them in a cell we not only protect ourselves, we also give them another opportunity to contribute. Some eventually wise up and contribute in positive ways we all recognize, others contribute simply by being an example of what happens when you're stupid. No, I'm not advocating paroling murders and molesters here... it's quite possible, sometimes preferable, to make positive contributions to a society from behind bars.

Everyone should be given a chance. Hell, everyone should be given as many chances as they need. It's our job as a nation, a society, and a people to maximize each chance's effectiveness. Ultimately, that's what liberty is all about. Yes, yes, we have to be careful we don't give clever people a chance to goof off, but we can't let that worry get in the way of our goals. Genius knows no boundaries, no blood lines, no color, no class. It can manifest at any time, any place. When we let our own ignorance and prejudice turn a potential positive into a definite negative, we all take one step closer to the abyss.

Because there's nothing more stupid than waste.

Posted by scott at 04:42 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
September 17, 2002
Cluebat time

I consider myself an adult nowadays, much as I hate to admit it. Yet when I look around I see lots and lots of people who have the external trappings of adulthood (children, a house, a car, a riding lawnmower with headlights), and yet believe some of the most patently ridiculous things, mostly stuff they've just never really examined all too closely.

So, as the self-appointed cynical ass of the month, I feel it's time to take a brickbat to these illusions everyone seems to hold so dear deep inside (and sometimes not so deep inside) their souls:

  • Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster (and all the monsters like them) do not exist.

    I really believed in scary monsters like these for a long time, until I started learning more about endangered species. Depending on who you ask, pretty much any species of multi cellular life needs at least two to three hundred individuals to be viable in the wild. Anything less than this and they eventually inbreed straight to extinction.

    What does this have to do with scary monsters? Everything. It's quite exciting and credible to imagine a single monster giving us all the slip for hundreds of years, but two thousand monsters? We may never have seen giant squid (archeteuthis) alive, but the ammonia reek of their corpses is a regular feature of some beaches around the world. Yet nobody, not a single person, has ever found a Nessie corpse, or a dead Yeti, or the bones of a Bigfoot. All those interesting pictures, wild films, and footprints? Fakes. Every. Single. One.

  • There's no such thing as ghosts

    I catch hell over this one regularly at home. Nobody, but nobody, has ever provided conclusive evidence such things exist. However, there's lots of evidence of people faking this stuff. So much so that nowadays I treat ghost "documentaries" like magic shows... I sit and try to figure out how they're faked. Most of the time, hell nearly all of the time, I can come up with an extremely rational reason for what is going on. Usually the reason is "money", or "attention", or "make rich, cute kids on MTV freak out". When I can't, it's more because the people faking it are more clever than I am (which, sadly, isn't all that hard) rather than an incontinent poltergeist rattling the windows.

    I tend to get a "money where your mouth is" challenge whenever I bring this up at home. Would I spend the night in a haunted house? Nope. I'm quite capable of scaring the beejezus out of myself without any help at all from creepy surroundings. But it's me scaring me, not some wobbly goblin. I also wouldn't put it past people who use "haunted" reputations to make money or attract attention to pay a few strong lads some extra money to sneak into that house at night to "help" the ghosts along with a bat or two across my head. I have an extreme suspicion this is the ultimate fate of nearly all the "ghost hunters" who "disappeared" trying to prove houses weren't haunted.

    This doesn't mean ghost stories aren't fun, or haunted houses aren't creepy. It just means they're fake.

  • Horoscopes predict nothing but chance

    The zodiac calendars and books used by modern astrologers are all based on Aristotle's Almagest, a first-century A.D. almanac of the stars. The problem with the Almagest is the earth has a bit of a wobble. Two thousand years later, the sun has moved almost exactly one sign ahead of the calendars Astrologers use. That's right, you've never been the sign you think you are, you're the next one up. All the stuff people have been telling you about yourself that's predicted by your sign? The stuff that seemed to be describing you to a "T"? Wrong person. If it can be so convincing and yet so wrong, how can it be relied on at all?

    I distinctly remember a program on Nova years ago about psychic phenomena hosted by James Randi. They went to a high-school classroom and handed out horoscopes to everyone. Earlier, students had submitted some basic personal information, and Randi explained this information was used to create a specific horoscope for each member of the class. After a few minutes, Randi asked how many people's horoscopes matched them nearly perfectly. Slowly, almost every hand went up. He then asked them to pass their horoscope to the person behind them, so they could compare.

    Every horoscope was exactly the same.

    Astrology is fun, yes, and sometimes a horoscope can sound eerily familiar. But this is only because they're so general it's nearly impossible for them to be wrong. They're next to the comics in the newspaper for a reason.

People sometimes accuse me of trying to take all the magic out of the world when I say things like this. Personally, I think the world is an amazingly magical place. The vastness of the universe, the bizarre "foam" of quantum mechanics, the amazing subtlety of life itself, are all riotously colorful expressions of the wizardry that surrounds us all. What's even more amazing about them is they're real. The whole point of science is to prove stuff wrong, and all these things have been found to be true time and time again.

So please, don't waste any more money on astrology books, or bigfoot documentaries, or haunted houses. Go out and buy Stephen Hawking's latest book instead. When you open your mind to the way the universe really works, the wonder just happens.

Posted by scott at 03:12 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
September 12, 2002
Welcome To My World

There are lots of you out there who think you're bad with computers. I know several of you personally. I am here to tell you that compared to my regular users every single one of you looks like Bill Gates and/or Steve Jobs and/or Linus Torvalds. Here's an actual conversation I had today with one of my users:

The Setup: A user, let's call her Z, is having trouble with her e-mail. She walks by and stands in my doorway:

Z: "Hello, Scott dear", she always calls me dear. She calls everyone dear. Makes us all want to strangle her slowly with several small rubber bands, "I'm having tremendous trouble today"

Me: "Really? You are having trouble with...?" (The time of day? Remembering where you work? How to breathe?)

Z: "Umm..." (c'mon... c'mon... forget what you came by here for... *THIS IS NOT THE TECH YOU'RE LOOKING FOR... I CAN GO ABOUT MY BUSINESS... MOVE ALONG... MOVE ALONG*) "My e-mail you see dear, it's just not working."

Me: "Really? Not working at all?"

Z: "Well...", BIG, theatrical sigh, "Not exactly not working. You see it's..." (cogs... slipping... Must. Get. Traction...) "well, I'm trying to open an attachment and when I do I get all this squiggly stuff."

Me: "All of your attachments?"

Z: "Yes, dear, every single one, for quite some time."

Me: "Every single one?"

Z: "Well"

Move eyebrows all Spock like, Me: "yes?"

Z: "No, not every single one."

Long, drawn out pause, me staring at Z while I watch the hamsters spool up...

Ok, time to throw darts... maybe I'll get lucky this time... Me: "Well... are they... um... from a certain person?"

Z: "Oh yes," Huzzah! Bullseye on the first toss, "they're from Y. They're very important. You see I can't do my job at all if I..."

Ah, I say to myself as the buzzing continues, excuse #71... If I Don't Get This Useless and Trivial Thing on My Desk Yesterday We Might as Well Lock the Doors and All Go Home Me: "Yes, yes, ok, do you have this e-mail thing up on your screen right now?"

Z: "Well, yes, actually I--"

Me: "Ok then, let's see" industrious tapping while I call up my remote control widget, allowing me to see what is exactly on her screen "come over here for a minute"

I watch Z walk over, wishing I had one of those "trap door" things like on MAD TV. Oh, to press a button...

Making sure Z can see my screen Me: "So it'll be a recent one, yes?"

Long pause... her mind must be six steps behind her head... Z: "Well, yes, I do believe so... there's one right there!"

So I look at it. Netscape mailers have a funny thing sometimes when they "attach" a message someone is forwarding. The user will see an attachment, but the contents of that attachment also show up on the bottom of the "regular" message.

Me: "Ah. I see your problem. The attachment is the same thing as the message. There's no need to look at it."

Z: "Yes, but I really need to see what's in the attachment."

Me: "Well, yes, but you see, the thing at the bottom of the message is what is in the attachment... you don't need to ope--"

Z: "That's all well and good dear, but I'm going to need to see what's in that attachment and if I open it in Word it'll all be squiggly."

Me: "That's true, yes, but you see this message here?' Motioning mouse to bottom area of message, which contains the forwarded message, which is what is in the attachment

Z: "Yes"

Me: "That's what's inside the attachment. They're the same thing."

Z: "Oh that's very helpful. But I'm still wondering what's in that attachment."

Must... Control... Claw... of... Death... Me: "There's no need to open the attachment Z. This stuff at the bottom of your message is what's in the attachment. They're the same thing."

Z: "Well, yes dear, I know," dramatic sniff... I am a PhD. "that's what you just said, but if I go back to my desk and try to open that attachment--"

Me: "Z... This", circling the attachment, "is the same as this", circling the bottom of the message. "You don't need to open the attachment. They're. The. Same. Thing."

Z: Very doubtful "Well... Ok... But how do I see these 'forwarded messages'?"

Me: "You scroll down. They'll be at the bottom of the message"

Z: "But how do I scroll down?"

Fondly remembering how Darth Vader simply pinched his fingers together, and realizing why the dark side really is seductive, Me: "Well, you can use the wheel on your mouse, or you can just click the scr--" yeah right, speak more Greek to her "just use the scroll wheel."

Z: Extremely doubtful "Well, OK, but if there's anything wrong can I call you?"

Me: Lady, all I'm doing is buying myself the five minutes of peace it'll take you to get back to your desk "Of course! I'm here to help!"

Z walks out my door. Opposite direction of her office. Good, she's going to torture someone else! 15 minutes pass.

RING! RING!

Me: "Hi Z!"

Z: "Scott dear, I know you told me what to do, but you see I'm still getting these squiggles when I try to open the attachment in word..."

Posted by scott at 09:16 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
September 09, 2002
Let Freedom Ring

The latest development of humanity's communications resources is of course, the computer. The creation of a mechanism to exchange information of all types nearly instantaneously has introduced unprecedented freedoms and brought consequences and implications we are still dealing with today.

It may seem a bit redundant, but to become a powerful industrial nation a nation has to first build a powerful industry. Not just factories, but transportation networks to move stuff in and out, giant power stations and wire grids to feed the monster machines, and the logistical sophistication required to pull it all together to provide a product people want at a price they're willing to pay.

As if this weren't hard enough, you have to do it in the shadow of countries that have already set up their own huge, expensive industries and are doing their level best to get you to buy their stuff instead of your own. An ugly truth about free trade is that it's much more about opening developing markets to established industries than it is about allowing developing industries access to established markets. You have to be extremely clever to survive in an unregulated, pre-established business market, and nobody gives out those kinds of lessons for free.

The rise of information technology as the driving force behind industrial might short-circuited this entire process. For the first time in history software, sequences of ones and zeros that can't really be said to exist in any one place at any one time, is what actually drives a first-world economy. And you don't need a steel mill to make software.

Instead of building huge factories and the amazingly complex infrastructures required to support them, all a country really needs to do to join the software game is build a reasonably reliable residential-level power grid and some big air-conditioned rooms to house people and computers. Education suddenly becomes the true key to success, and it's far easier to build a good mind than it is to build a good factory.

It's precisely because writing software requires education, and lots of it, that computers can be seen as utterly liberating to the peoples of developing nations. Because it's not just any sort of education that works. You only learn to create software by thinking critically, by questioning assumptions, by synthesizing ideas in new and novel ways.

A country building a software-based industry cannot oppress its people in the same way a developing industrial power can. Well-educated people practiced in the art of critical thinking are merely future gulag residents to a "traditional" developing nation, because anyone can work in a factory. But when education is the engine that drives your country's economy these people cannot, will not, be ignored.

The benefits are enormous. Unlike most other products, software is not a low-margin industry. The margins are almost obscene; especially once the development costs have been "paid off". Since the "machine" that ultimately created these products has legs and a mind of its own, profits are quickly distributed to employees to keep them with the company. And even if a company implodes completely and throws hundreds, or even thousands of these people out of work, smart people don't stay unemployed for very long.

This isn’t some theoretical construct. It works. Ireland was once a completely hopeless backwater of a country, with unemployment levels routinely exceeding 20% each year. Today it's considered the "silicon valley" of Europe, with employment levels so high cities are completely gridlocked with people just trying to get to work. India may yet surpass the United States as the home of the most innovative software developers in the world. Already most software companies have huge, and hugely important, divisions there, oftentimes the only profitable part of some of them.

And these are just two examples. All anyone really needs to start a profitable software business is education, skill, and an idea. You don’t even need to own a computer… any will do.

Now there are some who will say this is a gross oversimplification. You also have to contend with business plans, marketing, copyrights, patents, and no end of other complications. But these are rich peoples’ problems. There are millions of people, millions of educated people, who would love to help deal with these kinds of problems.

And that’s how economies get started.

Posted by scott at 08:38 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
September 05, 2002
Follow the Money

What seems to have been lost on our pressmonkies, probably because nobody's handed them a release about it lately, are the real reasons behind why the Palestinians went to Oslo, and why they don't seem to be interested in going back today.

Until 1991, Palestinians had been quite successfully portraying themselves to the rest of the Arab world as oppressed innocents being ground under the boot heel of a global Jewish conspiracy. No, really, that's what they believed (see Historical Forces), and because of this successful PR campaign all the various Palestinian "liberation" organizations had essentially unlimited funds to play with.

That all changed with the Gulf War. As they have throughout their history, the Palestinians weighed all their options very carefully, then chose the one diametrically opposed to their own best interests. By blithely deciding to publicly embrace the man who had directly threatened their dearest benefactor, the near-magic "bucket o' endless money" suddenly dried up.

At heart what brought them to the table was not their inability to fund their little terror campaigns, or buy food and goods for the downtrodden. What happened was the leadership of all these organizations suddenly found themselves unable to pay for their jaunts to the Riviera during the summer months, the three high-maintenance European mistresses, the two Mercedes, the vacation homes, the twenty cousins needing work, even the loyalty of their own bodyguards.

So, facing the loss of their cushy perqs, they (eventually, with much gnashing of teeth, tearing of shirts, and beating of breasts) decided to sit down with the Jewish devil and see if negotiation would actually give them more than waving their fanny at the world had.

And at first damned if it didn't. The money fairly squirted out of the briefcases they pointed toward Switzerland. Not only could they afford trips to the Riviera again, they could actually own the helicopters! Now you could support sixty of your cousins, allowing you to really gear up for the war you knew you'd have to fight when Arafat (finally!) kicked off.

It didn't last. Now that they were back in country and supposedly in charge, the common people started getting this weird notion that their leaders really aught to be trying to make a difference in their lives. The impudence of such low-born non-relatives to even think such a thing was simply beyond belief! Then there was the problem of all these religious wackos, who wanted it all for themselves, starting to get the idea maybe they were planting bombs in the wrong houses.

Unfortunately it was around this time Israel's own homegrown wacknuts crept out of their holes and pissed in the gearbox. Rabin's assassination was followed by the election of an eloquent conservative who had no choice but to deal with the nutballs who had perpetrated the tragedy in the first place. You could almost hear the gun they'd pointed at their own foot go off.

Netanyahu had to give the ultra-orthodox parties, the ones everyone in Israel thinks are nuttier than a Manson family reunion (and only slightly less homicidal), the authority to slowly push the Palestinians into the sea on one side and the Jordan river on the other. This played right into the hands of the Palestinian Authority, and they never looked back.

Then came the great "I-told-you-so" of September 11th. Of course now that our pressmonkies have got it in their head that Israel really is a sort of "big brother", it's turning out to be surprisingly difficult for the Israelis to get their message through (using a TOW missile when a sniper rifle would do just as well doesn't help). And that's too bad, because Israel knows something we don't. If they were to completely roll over tomorrow, drag their screaming wack-nut settlers inside the 1967 borders, and let anyone who happened to be a second cousin to a Palestinian into the territories, nothing would change.

You see, the current Palestinian leadership wants one thing and one thing only: the complete and total destruction of Israel. These old men are addicted to the money and the power and the privilege expected, no, due a "true" Arab country's leaders, and they know they'll never be able to have it with a functioning liberal democracy right next door. Now that the money taps have turned back on they have no particular reason not to hold out for exactly what they want. Certainly until Sharon was elected it wasn't their sons and daughters getting blown up.

So the Israeli's aren't kidding when they say the Palestinians must change their leadership before Israel can seriously talk peace with them. Unfortunately, history has proven the only real way to get any of them to talk is to cut off the money, and everyone knows whose keg that particular spigot is connected to.

Posted by scott at 04:40 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
September 02, 2002
Siege Warfare

To an American, perhaps to any person living in a completely industrialized society, war is all about movement. We expect huge set piece battles with massive amounts of hardware decisively determining an outcome. The West has fought wars this way for two hundred years, and most of our strategy involves trying to manipulate the bad guy into one of these massive Ragnarok-style apocalyptic confrontations.

But, taken from a longer perspective, these kinds of fights are extremely rare. And, as time passes and situations change, the time between 1802 and 1945, after the development of a controllable, professional army yet before the creation of nuclear weapons, will be seen in the future as an aberration in the standard methods of warfighting throughout human history... the raid and the siege.

In spite of the perception you get from William Shakespeare and Monty Python, medieval (actually all cultures back to the beginnings of agriculture) battles were almost never about giant gatherings of knights and infantry facing off across a field of clover. You weren't supposed to conquer. You really weren't equipped for it.

If you actually did want to conquer the land, take it from one people to give to yours, you had to resort to the unbelievably expensive strategy of siege. Basically you camped outside the walls of a keep or castle (where everyone with any brains had lit out for as soon as they heard about you and your peeps's plans) until you talked your way in, starved everyone inside, bribed the gatekeeper, or, very rarely, managed to overwhelm the defenses.

The advantage a defender had was both powerful and surprisingly simple: time. Until very recently armies were composed of people who had patently better things to do than sit around in muck and drink from a stream being used as a latrine by the guys in the next tent. This could go on for months, even years at a time. If a defender planned his fortress well, he nearly always had enough food and water to hang on until the bad guys got fed up playing "supporating sore of the week", broke up and went home.

This all changed with the invention of the cannon and the rifle. Walls could be knocked down with relative ease using a big-bore cannon, and it only got better from there. Each subsequent technological development allowed fewer people to wreak greater havoc with unheard of speed. Europeans, being the lucky people to synthesize all of these developments first, effectively ruled the world for about two centuries using tactics and strategies that flowed from the end of a gun.

But a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. By first conquering the world and then using the fruits of that conquest to immolate itself not once but twice, Europe created and then spread enough cheap weapon technology to make the naked conquests of the eighteenth and nineteenth century impossibly expensive to any would-be imperial power of the twentieth.

The abject lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan put every world power on notice that basic mechanized weaponry had become simple and self-contained enough that a small, determined, and wiley opponent could hold back an industrialized juggernaut a thousand times its own size. World conquest was simply too expensive to ever be seriously considered again.

The siege had returned, with a vengeance. Satisfying and decisive setpeice battles had been replaced with unwieldy coalitions, which almost literally encircled an opponent in the hopes of starving or forcing them out. And, as before, a defender's most powerful weapon became time. The Gulf War will prove to be to modern warfare what Agincourt was to its medieval counterpart... a rare alignment of wit, will, and weaponry manipulating an arrogant and headstrong foe into playing the wrong game with the wrong toys.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. By denying industrialized nations the ability to unilaterally impose their will on other peoples by force, by making all forms of warfare too expensive to simply start on a whim, the world will eventually become a much more stable place.

However, the events of 9-11 have revealed in horrifically beautiful detail that this stability also allows psychopaths to claw their way to the top of organizations powerful enough to cause serious trouble yet organized in such a way as to be expensive, even impossible to remove. Unfortunately the modern world cannot simply sit back and wait for the inevitable revolutions (that keep not happening) to remove these maniacs from within.

Because with modern germs and modern bombs, we're not talking about one unwashed nosepicker taking his buds out and making a few hundred peasants' lives a little nastier, more brutal, and shorter than their neighbors's anymore.

Posted by scott at 09:50 PM | Comments (9) | eMail this entry!
August 29, 2002
Booya! the Sequel

So the boss sends me an e-mail today sez "last weekend" [what? And you couldn't tell me on Monday because...???] "the board of directors decided they needed a place to maintain ongoing conversations electronically." [exactly like they've wanted every year, for seven years, and have never used each time I provided them with something, you mean?] "They've left the details up to us, but they need it in two weeks." [Two weeks from last Monday, in other words.]

Well. Ok. So to translate: the board wants a BBS system, a "message board". Yeah, I can do that. Two-weeks-minus-one-week deadline? Sure, no problem.

So's I goes lookin. First stop, simhq. I use their message boards all the time, nice & easy (for me, which means 2 weeks of beating my head bloody with our "gee, what is this funny oblong plastic thing next to the keyboard? Why does the little arrow move around on the screen when I touch it?" board). Unfortunately, InfoPop isn't free, and I have received a THOU SHALT SPEND MONEY ONLY WHEN DRAWING BARB-BED WIRE THROUGH THINE NETHER REGIONS SEEMS PLEASANT commandment from on high.

So I go look elsewhere. Wheaton has a BBS, bastard gets like 200 posts a day on it. Slicker than Sam Donaldson's hairpiece too. If a washed up so-liberal-he's-going-to-fall-off-the-left-side-of-the-planet actor can set it up anybody can set it up. This leads me to phpBB, a very nice and most importantly free system.

Of course, Wheaton set his up on a server configured in pretty much a sane manner. The server I have available is the one I built a slash site on. You know, the slash site that does everything they need, for free, on Linux, the one I taught myself perl to run, so they can go and spend $280k on consultants and another commercial system, on Win2k, and tell me not only can I stuff all this work down a toilet but oh by the way we're going to trash the entire network for Win2k on this paper MCSE's advice? That one? But I digress...

Anyone who's ever dinked with slash knows you have to do strange, perverted things to the Apache web server and mod_perl engine to get it running (DAMN YOU TACO! DAMN YOU TO HELL!). I bank-shot Cold Fusion engine support into it about six months ago so our makes-dried-oatmeal-look-smart membership could sign up automatically. Which they still manage to screw up daily. Did I write down how I did that? What's the challenge in that?!?.

So now I gotta fold PHP support into it, without breaking the "Kiss me, I'm psychotic" slash site nor my cold fusion signup widget. The default documentation sounds easy enough, so I follow it right up to the point of "Make Install".

"Self", I says to myself, "if you install this thing over what you already have working, you know what will happen?"

"Umm... it'll all work just grand and we'll get to dance around the flowery hill with Tinky, Winky, Dipsy, Laa-La and Po?"

**SMACK** "WHAT DID YOU SAY RECRUIT?!?"

"Umm... it'll blow up so colorfully I'll be picking shrapnel out of the database server for the next two weeks?"

"THAT'S BETTER. BACK IT UP, MAGGOT."

Sure enough, my drill-sergeant conscience was correct... a standard install results in an apache server that doesn't even start. Just gives wimpy "configuration incorrect" errors and falls on its face with a PHP-shaped dagger sticking out of its back.

So I go over to the slashcode site, and look up the install how-to. Sure enough, there's my old friend the cryptic three-line mod perl statement you need to get it running. Says "if you need to install other modules you will, of course, need to modify this statement accordingly." Does it say how to do that? Geeze, if we did that then you might actually get something to work without spending three hours poring over our oh-so-cleverly commented code ("# Bite My Shiny, Metal Ass" is only funny the first time you try to figure out what a function does). You're obviously not even intelligent enough to hold the hem of our pizza-stained robe. Away with you!

So after cutting open the install routine like a three-week-dead armadillo, I figure out how to specify extra clauses. And sure enough, it all compiles and installs beautifully. After six tries. With fingers crossed I checked the slash site and the cold fusion widget, and both seemed to have survived the experience intact.

So I go test the PHP system. I mean, it went in without any errors, so it should work just fine, right?

"HAVE YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION, MAGGOT? HAVE YOU EVER INSTALLED OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE AND HAD IT WORK EVEN THE TENTH TIME?" my conscience shouted at me.

"But all the guys on Slashdot keep going on and on about how easy this stuff is, how powerful and wonderful it is. How hard can it be?"

"FOR SOMEONE WHO DOESN'T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND AND SPENDS THEIR FREE TIME ARGUING IF THE ENTERPRISE COULD BLOW UP THE DEATH STAR IT'S REALLY EASY. ARE YOU ANY OF THOSE THINGS?!?"

"Death Star versus Enterprise... ah geeze that's an easy one. Obvious--"

"ANSWER THE QUESTION MAGGOT!"

"Well, umm, no. So I guess we better go test..."

Sure enough, it'd feed me PHP code, but not a PHP'd page. After an hour's tinkering I discovered I had to put the proper statements in the slash site's config file, not the main Apache file. BINGO! Up it comes in a flash. HOO-RA!

So I gave them what they wanted not in the ten-days-minus-five they gave me, but in four hours. For free. On a server which by rights should barely be able to hold a slash site, let alone a slash-cold fusion-php hybrid. BOO-YA gramma... BOOYA.

Of course, they'll never use the damned thing. If they can't get their son or their secretary to hold their hands each time they need to use it ("ok, right click here. No, right click. The RIGHT side mouse button. OPPOSITE the one you're clicking now"), they won't. So it's ultimately doomed to failure like nearly everything else the higher-ups cook up when it comes to IT projects.

But it was a lot of fun to tinker with. :)

Posted by scott at 05:27 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 28, 2002
Cultural Traditions

I'm getting real sick of the rest of the world telling us their "traditional" cultures are right and we need to just mind our own damned business and leave them alone. They all tell us we should try to understand and accomodate each one. I'm here to tell you it's all crap. Traditional cultures are, not to put too fine a point on it, dinosaurs doomed to extinction because they are quite patently inferior to the industrialized systems most commonly referred to as "western values".

Probably the best thing that ever happened to the world was the invention of the transistor radio. Before, to get at the cultural benefits of the industrial revolution you had to have power plants and telephone poles and factories and an entire expensive and sophisticated infrastructure for it to work at all. This was something any government could control easily, and many simply refused to participate.

But with a transistor radio, you don't need any of that. Even the first ones, big as toasters, were extremely portable and ran on batteries. No wires, no roads, no poles, just a single self-contained unit. You pointed the antenna at the sky and the world came to your door. With this single invention, again a fundamental improvement in humanity's ability to communicate, anyone could learn just how good other folks had it across the sea. The transistor radio represented an unstoppable vector spreading the disease of modernity.

You see, it wasn't the values of "liberty", "freedom", or "democracy" that set the world on fire. It was the values of "cars" and "appliances" and "air conditioning" and "fancy shoes". It was the concept that anyone was entitled to these things, not just the rich, the old, the well-born, or the male. As bizzare as it is to think about, it's Pier-1, McDonalds, Nintendo, Sony, and General Motors that are bringing a real, functional form of liberty to the masses, not the Washington Post or the U.N.

Of course since "traditional" socities are all run by cranky, smelly old men (a.k.a. "honored elders") who just want to play "hide the salami" with their concubine/mistress/female slave, suddenly it was a "western invasion" coming to "destroy our values". Values like honor killing, where "honored elders" (i.e. men) can mutilate and murder wives and daughters because of the loss of that extremely concrete concept of "honor". Values like exposing babies, leaving newborn infants to scream themselves to death on a remote rice paddy because they happened not to be born with a penis. Values like consigning 90% of your population to grinding, desperate poverty to support the 10% who just happened to be born with the right last name.

And anyone who says they can't, won't, or shouldn't adopt Western values because it would result in the "destruction" of their culture is just full of horseshit. Germany and Japan proved themselves so dangerous to world stability they had Western-style democracies imposed on them, literally at the point of a gun. Sixty years later, are they any less "German" or "Japanese" for the experience? Are they not the two most powerful countries in their region? Do you really think this is a coincidence?

At heart, humanity is a practical species. We experiment, we learn, we take what works and discard what doesn't. "Western" cultural values are kicking the crap out of "traditional" Arab, African, Mediterannian, and Asian cultural values because they are fundamentally superior to them. They work better. They help more people keep their bellies fuller and their kids alive longer.

The only time they don't work is when the "traditional" government screws it up with corruption, cronyism, and totalitarianism. Which is most of the time, because the people in power (stupid old men who inherited, stole, or murdered their way to the top) are the ones with the most to lose, and, for now at least, it's too expensive for the west to impose this structure on every single country in the world.

Make no mistake though, change is coming. I think the Indians hit it right on the head when they made Vishnu, one of the Hindu religion's three main gods, the god of transformation and destruction. Embrace the former and you get to avoid the latter. Ignore the former and you trigger the latter.

There is no third choice.

Posted by scott at 04:03 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
El Clon!

A few months ago I did a small blurb on El Clon, a soap opera that I cannot understand since it's in another language, but found myself hypnotized by the visuals. * it also has belly dancing in it *

Apparently, that small blurb has created the MOST (and still comming) comments! *keep them comming people!!! :)* Many people still ask what El Clon is all about, whats going on that week in the soap opera ect.. Well, I don't know whats going on in that show. I STILL can't understand it. (I also did not know what was really going on until today) I decided to do some research for those who want the BACKROUND of El Clon and came up with this. *thank the gods for a translation guide and cut and paste!*

Controversy always has been the mark of Glória Perez. Next to the creators of Terra Nostra, it returns with this extraordinary Brazilian production that touches a deep subject thoroughly: the clonaje of human beings, that is to say, the production of one copies identical of a person from a cell common removed from its own skin, while it recreate the loving relation of two young people of different religions, in the CLONE.

PLOT: The CLONE has been beginning for about eighteen years, when Jade, daughter of Muslims - been born and bred in Brazil, is forced to change itself to Morocco after the death of their mother, Sálua, and happens to live the typical conflicts on adaptation to a so different culture .

In that distant earth, Jade knows the Brazilian Lucas, that travels by the country in company of its twin brother, Diego, of its father and the fiancèe of this one and the Albieri scientist. Lucas and Jade fall in love at first sight and will be arranged to face all the obstacles by that love.

While Lucas and Jade live that prohibited love, Diego decides to return to Brazil after a discussion with the father, because he does not accept to his madrastra, to whom considers an opportunist. But something unexpected happens: already in Rio de Janeiro, Diego dies in a helicopter accident, affecting the life of all the personages of the plot.

The death of the godson provides to Albieri the value to complete an old dream: to experience the human clonación. From cells of Lucas, the geneticista makes the first clone human, that will be called Leandro.

PRODUCTION:
The CLONE took part from the equipment to the African continent, to distant Morocco, where the first scenes were rolled, as well as, registered unpublished images in a Brazilian soap opera. Were thousands of crossed kilometers and near forty days filming in five cities of the country, faced the intense Moroccan heat, the cultural and lingüísticas differences and all the difficulties of foreign earth production.

The soap opera will show to scenes of Lucas and Jade in the ruins of kasbah Ait Horseradish tree Hadou, in Ouarzazate, the "Hollywood of the desert", scene of films like the Gladiator, the Jewel of the Nile and the Last Temptation of Christ; sequences filmed with a caravan of 25 camels and 12 Bedouins in Erfoud, the doors of the desert of the Sahara, under a sun of 53 degrees; the enchantment of Marrakech, where the market of camels was recorded that will appear in history; the beauty of the Portuguese cistern of the Jadida, an underground construction of the century XVI, that extends from the entrance from the city to the inner door of the sea (used by Orson Welles in some takings of the Otelo film); and scenes made in the millenarian Medina de Fès, dated from the century IX, that served as reference for the construction of the Moroccan escenográfica city in the production power station of this history.

Posted by Ellen at 07:37 AM | Comments (88) | eMail this entry!
August 27, 2002
Reality Check

Ok folks, I'm here to talk a bit about the World's Most Useless Invention. Yup, you guessed it... the car alarm. Putting a burglar alarm on something that is meant to move around is like handing out pornos at a Southern Baptist convention. Stupid and inappropriate.

There are three reasons a car gets broken into: to be cracked up for parts at a chop shop, to have its radio jacked, or to take a ride in. The guys who work for chop shops will usually save a step and buy themselves a tow truck. How many times have you seen a car being towed with its alarm blatting away like R2D2 on a bad acid trip? Did you do anything about it? Didn't think so.

Stereo jacking is more common amongst the teen moron crowd. Your whistleblatt snakecharmer 2000 might actually stop them from ripping the stereo out of your dash, but it won't stop them from bashing the window in to try. Ever wonder why you see so many cars around with trash bags duct-taped to a window? There isn't a car alarm made that will stop the good ol' mark-1 heavy rock.

The last reason is to take a ride. A New Jersey "waste management professional" needs a place to stuff a body, some dipwad kid needs to score some dope after his mom takes the keys to his, or some bangers need something a little less conspicuous than their current chopped-dropped-neon-purple-colored Honda HX (complete with Si stickers). Your car alarm might slow some of these people down, but again it's nothing that's going to stop them from trying.

And really, who would want to steal some of these cars? Cluebat time: if you own anything that cost less than $50,000, is more than 5 years old, has more than 2 doors, or has gone through three or more owners you got nothing to protect. I never will forget the time some mouth-breather's alarm shorted out in the parking lot at 3 am one Tuesday morning in my building's parking lot. When I look out my window, what do I see? A f***ing 1981 Datsun 280Z with two different colored fenders and a rust hole in one rocker.

And these cars were everywhere in my old neighborhood. Corollas, Civics, Saturns, Geos, Escorts... ten year old Toyota Minivans, would bark, howl, shriek, and fart throughout the night, every night, until they shorted out because the owner got their cousin to install it to save $20. You couldn't sleep with the windows open because of it.

The cold, hard truth is if someone really wants to steal your vehicle, there's not a goddamned thing you can do about it. And really, what the hell do you think insurance is for anyway? Want to keep your car safe? Take the keys out of the ignition. Simple as that. Keep valuables out of it, or out of sight at least, and you don't even really need to lock the damned thing*. If you've got a fancy radio get one you can yank the faceplate off, or put it behind a compartment lid or bezel, or just leave a bag or something in front of it.

Modern cars come with amazingly sophisticated anti-theft devices already built in. My wife lost the keys to our PT Cruiser and it took an hour and a half to get keys re-made that would actually start the car. Car alarms are now basically protection rackets to prey on the congenitally paranoid. Do us all a favor. Take the keys out, lock the doors if you must, and use the money you'd spend on that goon-b-gone mk. 5 to take your significant other to the fanciest restaurant in the city. Twice.

Trust me, the rewards will be far more pleasing, and maybe for once I'll get to sleep through the night.

Posted by scott at 10:38 AM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 26, 2002
Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Police I Learned from Watching Cops

  • A cop's ideal job is to preserve order, help people, and enforce the law.
  • A cop's real job consists mostly of being mommy and daddy to grownups who many times just need a good smacking.
  • Not being able to smack stupid people is one of the reasons why cops have one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
  • The difference between a good cop and a bad cop is the good cop finds ways of dealing with wanting to smack stupid people that does not in fact involve smacking them. A bad cop starts seeing everyone as stupid people and tries to smack as many as possible.
  • A good cop knows stupid people come in all shapes and sizes, and makes an effort to figure them out.
  • A bad cop uses skin color as a judge of intelligence because it's easier than actually trying to do their job.
  • The vast majority of what to you seem insulting and threatening behaviors from a cop are really just them ensuring their own safety so they can do their job.
  • Running from the cops is like running from a big dog with no leash. A big dog with a gun, a radio, a whole bunch of other dog friends with guns and radios, and sometimes even a dog in a helicopter.
  • Running from the cops guarantees your arrest. Stand there and you might get to sleep at home tonight.
  • When running from cops, try to give up somewhere soft. Don't give up while standing on concrete or asphalt.
  • Cops are not psychic.
  • Do not take handcuffs personally.
  • If a cop decides you've broken the law, you will be arrested. That is their job. Professional cops do not take or intend this as a personal insult.
  • If you are being arrested, shut up. The cop has already decided you have broken the law. "Anything you say can and will be used against you" isn't something a scriptwriter cooked up.
  • Do not try to talk your way out of being arrested. A cop has seen and heard it all. Usually you end up looking stupid and saying something that'll get you in even deeper trouble.
  • Do not try to cry, whine, wheedle, or plead your way out of being arrested. It makes you look like a three year old, and it won't work. Again, the cop has already decided you've broken the law.
  • Once arrested, there are only four words you should say to a cop: "I want a lawyer".
  • Once arrested, do not trust the police. You have become a Bad Guy to them, and they to you. Ideally, nobody should take this personally (but everyone usually does).
  • After being arrested, assume everything and anything a cop tells you when not in the presence of your lawyer is a lie. This is not a reflection on the cop's character. They think you've already broken the law, and it's their job to gather as much evidence as possible to prove this. The very best evidence will come out of your mouth, and they will tell you absolutely anything to get it out of you. Absolutely anything.
  • If you have a gun in your car, and the cop asks "do you have a gun in your car?", the proper response is not "no", or "I don't think so" or "I don't remember". The proper response is "yes I do officer, it is in [wherever the gun is], and I'm going to keep my hands on this steering wheel until you tell me what to do".
  • If you find yourself in a "situation" which involves the cops, stay calm and predictable and you will go far.
  • You are not smarter than the cop.
  • Even if you are smarter than the cop, do not under any circumstances attempt to prove it by saying something... anything. This seems to be a particular problem with women, who when confronted with the overwhelmingly male profession of policing seem to treat cops like their husbands. The difference is a husband has to take it. Learn the difference.
  • Cops are human beings. They have emotions, they make mistakes, they can get excited, angry, upset, or even violent just like you can. The difference is a cop has a gun.
  • An excited, angry, or upset cop is a Very Bad Thing.
  • Do not anger, excite, or upset a cop. If they arrive in your vicinity in one of these moods already, in general just do what they say and stay very quiet.
  • When dealing with cops when you are not under arrest, honesty is always the very best policy (under arrest? see above). Truly honest and helpful people are a refreshing surprise for cops. You seem a lot smarter when you're honest, even after you've done something stupid.
  • Cops will forgive the most amazing things if you are honest and helpful. Actual conversation seen on Cops: COP: "Were you going to that house to buy drugs?" MORON: "Yes sir, I sure was, but they didn't have any so I was going home." COP: "Well, don't do that anymore. Go home."

Note: while this essay was triggered by an event a friend of mine went through recently, it is in no way directed at that friend or their family.

Posted by scott at 12:30 PM | Comments (15) | eMail this entry!
August 23, 2002
Down to the Wire

People in America just sort of take for granted that our mainstream news outlets are, or at least should be, relatively objective, simply reporting news events as they happen. We're also used to knowing what is happening all over the world at the instant it ocurrs. Actually, this so-called objectivity, and the ability to learn what's happening in the next town, let alone the next country in less than a week is rather a recent phenomenon, really only about a hundred and fifty years old

Before this time, all the way back to the invention of the printing press that made news papers possible, objectivity in news reporting simply wasn't a consideration. Newspapers were by and large (in the US at least) seen as mouthpieces for the political viewpoints of whatever party the editor-in-chief happened to be a member of. The bigger the newspaper was, the bigger the party that ran it. They all claimed to speak the truth, but hardly any claimed to be objective about it.

The Associated Press got its start through a consortium of New York City papers. Before the telegraph was invented most news, especially news from Europe, traveled via ship. To ensure a "scoop", these papers would put reporters on rowboats to meet ships as they pulled into harbor. There were so many, and the competition so fierce, many times reporters would end up in the harbor, becoming news instead of reporting it. The idea was to send just one reporter out to a ship, after it had docked, and then share the news with whoever was part of the consortium.

This consortiums didn't really come into its own until the telegraph, coincidentally invented just a few years earlier, began to spread.

It's difficult to emphasize how magical the telegraph seemed at the time. Unlike the printing press, which was essentially just a mechanized method of copying written communication, the telegraph represented a fundamental change in how people communicated with each other. Suddenly people were able to "speak" with each other just as if they were together in the same room, even though they were sometimes hundreds of miles apart. When Samuel Morse tapped out "What hath God Wrought" from the US Capitol to Alfred Vail at the B&O Railway Station in Baltimore (39 miles north), the world became infinitely smaller in an instant.

News that once took weeks to transmit from one place to another now took just a few seconds. By placing specially-paid "Morse operators" in every city as it got wired up, what initially started out as a method of keeping reporters from drowning turned into a powerful method of transmitting news from one location to another. Because very few papers could actually keep reporters in every single city around the country, other newspapers would quite gladly pay for the services', well, service, and so it became an extremely lucrative method as well.

But there was a problem. Different cities had different newspapers, and therefore different political parties, "in charge". If a reporter in one city wrote copy from, say, a Democratically controlled news paper's normal point of view, it would be completely unsellable to at least half the rest of the newspapers across the country. You wrote what happened and not what you thought or you couldn't make any money. The economics of the telegraph itself, where you weren't charged by the minute, you were charged by the word, also lead to an extreme economy of reportage which didn't lend itself well to "spin" and "slant".

The invention of the printing press turned general information into a commodity. The invention of the telegraph turned news, time-sensitive information, into the same sort of commodity. The "wire service" changed that news from something that suited the agenda of just one group, even just one man, into a tool of freedom.

People were able to learn what happened rather than what they were supposed to think about it. They were able to cross-check their own local paper against a national organization which literally reported "just the facts". They were able to care about what was happening on the other side of the country, eventually even on the other side of the world, because what they learned didn't happen last week, or last month, it was happening right now, when they could actually do something about it.

While it can be said the modern age started with the printing press, the information age, this constantly changing, obsolete-before-it's-invented world we live in now, started with the telegraph.

And, once again, the world would never be the same.

Posted by scott at 04:43 PM | Comments (11) | eMail this entry!
August 21, 2002
In the Shadow of Rome

One of the things you learn when you study history is how much of it isn't actually dead, but instead is still living and breathing in the present, just in a form we don't suspect or don't notice.

Most people think of Rome, ancient Rome, as this fairy-tale like moment in time when Russel Crowe hacked people up in the arena; Charlton Heston was running around a stadium in a chariot; and Mel Brooks was telling jokes in front of Dom Deluise. Everyone wore bed sheets instead of proper clothes, and it was dusty and violent and dangerous and weirdly chock-full of statues. It was all a very long time ago, and with the exceptions of roads and ruins, it is all very, very dead.

Rome is very much alive, and very much with us, hiding in plain site. The hats and sticks, funny robes and weird chants, soaring spires and vast wealth... the majesty and power of the Catholic church are often considered medieval relics, but they're not. When you attend a mass, or watch the pope speak, or wander the halls of a basilica you're seeing an organization whose origins do not trace back to the kings and castles of the middle ages. You're looking at an organization whose leaders once walked with emperors, who knew Rome when she was a glittering white metropolis the likes of which were not seen before or since, who spoke Latin and Greek because Latin and Greek were what person on the street spoke.

The triple-tiered layout of a cathedral wasn't adopted for churches because bishops just liked the extra space. The basilica was actually a garden-variety Roman administrative building, a kind of cross between a market and a city hall. There were several in pretty much any large Roman city. When Christianity was legalized and then subsequently made the official religion of the empire, the Christians needed an appropriately grand structure to house their places of worship. The emperors, being emperors, granted these buildings to the church, and they've been using them ever since. Later on a "transept" was added to the floor plan so the building would resemble a cross, but by and large the layout is still a rectangular one which would've been familiar to any plebian looking for groceries two thousand years ago.

The brief chant nearly every Catholic speaks during the Liturgy on Sunday, "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible..." was not cooked up by a pope or a group of cardinals in some twelfth century discussion group. It was created by a council of bishops in 325 with no less a figure than Constantine the Great, the last truly powerful emperor of a united empire, looking on. He took an active role in the controversy that triggered the council, and, depending on whom you ask, significantly influenced the creed's form. There have been some subsequent changes, but, spoken in Latin, it would be recognizable to him to this day. If you're Catholic and you go to church, every Sunday you speak the words of an emperor.

And it's not just Christians that carry the empire with them. The form of Judaism we know today, rabbinic and torah-centric, became prominent only when the Romans burned Herod's temple in 70 A.D., and predominated only after the complete destruction of Judea in 132. Without these two events, most of what a modern Jew would recognize as Jewish religious practice probably wouldn't exist, certainly not in its present form.

Even if you're not a Jew or a Christian, the machinations of the Roman empire still affect you to this day. When Bar Kochba defeated Publus Marcellus and Tinneius Rufus in 132 A.D., making Judea an independent kingdom for the first time in nearly six hundred years, it set off a chain of events that resulted in the complete destruction of Judea and the scattering of its people to the corners of the earth. Without this Diaspora, this dispersion, there would be no pogroms, no forced migrations, there would be no Holocaust. The events that turned two modern marvels into a monstrous hole in the ground began here, at this point. Without the decisions of an emperor of Rome, one man nearly two thousand years ago, our world would literally be unrecognizable.

The reason we should all study history isn't so we can memorize a bunch of dates and place names, or remember a dry sequence of presidents or emperors. We study history to learn that our world didn't have to end up the way it did.

Realizing that means realizing it can become anything we want.

Posted by scott at 04:40 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 19, 2002
Sally Field Syndrome

The United States is the only major nation I know of that doesn't want to be loved, doesn't want to be feared, really doesn't even care about being respected. More than anything else, we seem to want to be liked. It'll probably surprise anyone who is on the outside looking in, but whenever we hear that some country or another doesn't like us, well, it kind of hurts our feelings, and always surprises us.

The causes of this phenomenon are many. We've only been a real world power for about sixty years; just a fraction of the time European countries owned that title, and just a blip on the radar screen compared to China or the Muslim empires. Naiveté plays a real role, and this tends to drive most of the rest of the world bonkers. From the point of view of, say, a Frenchmen, Americans as a whole are impossibly ignorant of how the world really works. They regularly elect the most ridiculous people to lead them, and seem to want only to bleat in their loud voices, take pictures of things they can't possibly understand, and grin at the rest of the world.

People in the United States, those who don't travel abroad or who don't follow international news and history very closely (i.e. most of the country), also don't understand that the folks who represent us in the international community are usually people with the scruples of a rabid weasel on crystal meth. Yup, you guessed it, businessmen and marketeers.

Nearly every awful thing people in the rest of the world associate with America can be laid directly on the doorstep of big business and marketing. They've built deadly-dangerous polluting plants, knowingly employed slave labor, even overthrown whole governments a few times, all in the name of making a buck. I often wonder why some of these people don't just explode when the words "business ethics" are spoken out loud.

Of course, it isn't all our fault. The French recently protested the presence of listening devices on military bases in Europe. It took some digging, but ultimately they were upset because we clued everyone (not just our own businessfolk) into their schemes to bribe government officials of other countries into signing defense contracts with them. A lack of ethics is something our ancestors brought over with them on the boats that dropped them off.

There are also a lot of people who hate the United States because they aren't us. It's not that the United States builds better products, runs its economy more efficiently, or makes better use of the natural talents of its citizenry. That's not why we're on top, no sir. It's because we cheat, we steal, we conspire with (or are being manipulated by) the global Jewish/Imperialist/Catholic/Atheist/British/French/Belgian (pick any two) cabal that really runs the world. That's why we're in charge. All the United States needs to do is join us so "with our combined strength we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to [the world]." Failing to recognize this self-evident truth is just further proof of how soft and decadent we are, and it's just a short hop from there to flying airplanes into buildings.

It's these people who bother me the most by far, mainly because it shows just how stupid the rest of the world can be sometimes. We don't like our businesspeople any more than you do. In fact, we're tossing their soulless little diamond-studded asses into jails as fast as we can grab them. Ask Kathy Lee Gifford what happens when you get caught with your businesses' sweat shops showing.

Unfortunately it's way more important for you to understand us than for us to understand you. It's not fair, but there it is. You should take heart though; because when it comes right down to it we're not really all that hard to understand. We want people to play fair but work hard; we want underdogs to win and overlords to have a heart of gold; and as obnoxious as it sounds we really do want everyone to be happy. Our biggest problem is the world is a very large, very busy place, and our "ethically challenged" representatives can be very, very sneaky. That's where the media comes in.

The US media is probably our saving grace. Trust me, that frightens us almost as much as it frightens you. These unpredictable self-righteous arts-and-crafts majors have a love/hate relationship with their own country not even they completely understand. That we allow them to run about willy-nilly and report to the world whatever happens to catch their fancy literally beggars the imagination of most dictatorships. But when they do manage to get traction on something that matters, they can change the opinion of an entire nation.

Feeling oppressed? Want us to help? Look to Martin Luther King. By using the media, and by sticking to his non-violent methodology even when it got innocent people killed, he placed black people in the public mind as underdogs, people working hard against oppressive bosses. He held up a mirror and showed that while the north may have treated black people like second-class citizens, the south treated them like animals. As hard as it is to believe, most of the nation didn't know that. It was a situation that the media would not allow to be ignored, because it was wrong. And so things changed1

You don't have to even be American for us to pay attention. One of the greatest tragedies of the latest uprising in Israel was that until the Palestinian leadership got impatient and greedy and righteous and started strapping bombs to kids, we were actually listening to them. We really were2.

Because, ultimately, that's all it takes... getting our attention. Sometimes even bad guys can work the system. Afghanistan was, is, a damned dangerous place, and most of our news monkies didn't want to go anywhere near it. Someone in the Taliban got the bright idea of putting out daily news releases outside their embassy in Islamabad, and suddenly they were getting front page stories and prime-time news specials about how many "innocent Afghanis" the United States was blowing to bits. The common citizenry of the United States aren't the only ones who are naive about the rest of the world, and hell they all had deadlines to make, so until Pakistan closed that embassy down the Taliban got all the free publicity it wanted.

So listen up world. Stop treating us like the enemy. We're not. We're ignorant, we're reactionary, and we're naive, but, as a nation, we're not the bad guy. Unfortunately, a nation is made up of people, and we know far better than you we have grain silos full of individual bad guys (and girls) itching to run around loose and cause trouble. It's your job to drag a press monkey or two over and get them to shine a light on your particular American troll. They'll nearly always scatter like the roaches they are, and the ones too arrogant, stupid, or slow to do so will be squashed presently.

Because a nation that just wants to be liked by the world has to like itself first.

Posted by scott at 05:56 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
August 16, 2002
Pressing Time

No increase in the ability of mankind to communicate has ever resulted in a loss of liberty. Every single invention has resulted in real gains in both personal and national freedom.

The ability to transmit large amounts of information from one generation to the next is a hallmark of our species. The first innovation was biological... around 200,000 years ago it appears humanity first gained the ability to speak.

The pressures and requirements of agriculture lead to the next innovation, a comparatively recent 6,000 years ago. At first developed solely as a means of bookkeeping, and making damned sure the recipe for beer was never lost (proving men haven't changed that much in 10,000 years), writing turned out to have almost mystical powers. Suddenly the dead could speak, and their ideas could last forever.

The biggest problem with writing was it was such a pain to create copies of things. Each one took nearly as much effort as the first, and the only way to make sure the copies were correct was to be very, very, very careful. This made scrolls and (later, after about 500 AD) books really expensive, and only what the society (i.e. the government) considered important ever got written down.

Libraries were a necessity because only governments and the extremely rich could afford a large number of books. In fact, many times a library was the only place a book existed. Think about that one for a second. Imagine holding the only existing copy of, say, Shakespeare's collected works, knowing the information in your hands existed nowhere else in the whole world.

When the main library at Alexandria burned after being inadvertently set on fire by Caesar's forces in 48 B.C.1, every single copy of thousands of books were destroyed2. The loss was incalculable, and today we can only wonder what those books might have contained.

Writing helped humanity without a doubt, but by itself it was too fragile. Entire cultures, the built up knowledge of centuries, could be completely erased simply by setting fire to a few buildings.

It took nearly the rest of history, 5500 years, for the next real innovation in communication to take place, but when it did it changed the world. Gutenberg's combination of ink, movable type, wine press, and paper technologies into the printing press is rightly considered one of the most important inventions mankind has ever made.

Instead of ten people making one copy of one book per year, those ten people could now make five copies of five books in a day3. And things only got more efficient from there. The cost of books dropped by a factor of ten almost overnight, and kept falling. Suddenly anyone could buy a book, and because they were so cheap suddenly everyone had a reason to learn to read.

The effects of this single invention on human liberty were profound. The first institution to feel its effects was the great Roman Catholic Church, which had held a stranglehold on European thought for fifteen centuries. The church had been abusing its power in the most egregious ways possible for more than three hundred years by the time Gutenberg nailed his machine together. It took one German cleric with one sheet of paper to light a match to that fuse.

The difference with Martin Luther's movement wasn't about how charismatic, forceful, or bull-headed Luther was (although those things certainly helped). What happened to make it different was even before his 95 "theses", proposals for church reform, were torn off that church door there were ten thousand copies scattered all over Europe. The forces of the Church literally couldn't burn them fast enough.

More than anything else, the printing press unchained information from its cloistered benches, scattering it on the wind like so many dandelion seeds. A pile of books as high as a man could be turned into a bonfire on the whim of a bishop or a king just because he didn't like what it said, but it wouldn't matter. A thousand copies of each book had already been printed and hidden under the baseboards of countless peasants' hovels, in the attics of thousands of merchants' houses, and behind the stones of a hundred castles. Given just a single month another thousand would be printed from just one workshop, and there were thousands of workshops.

Everything we know and are in this modern world, every single thing, flows in an unbroken river of paper back to Gutenberg and the dozens of other printers like him in the medieval towns of Europe in the 16th century. It took nearly 6,000 years to reach this milestone, but the next innovation, the first one made after the printing press (the telegraph), would only take 300, and the next after that, wireless, just 50 more.

And just 77 years later, the space of a single human lifetime, we would be walking on the moon.

So the next time you're standing in line at a Kinkos, or waiting for the laser printer to warm up, stop for a moment and wonder at it all. Realize you're not looking at a machine, you're not looking at information, you're not even looking at squiggles on paper.

You're looking at liberty.

Posted by scott at 03:04 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
August 13, 2002
Skool Daze

One of the things that irritates me the most about racist attitudes is how difficult they can be to argue against. At least at first. Certainly black folks and Hispanic folks seem to be causing all the problems, right? I mean, that's what we all see on the TV news in the evening, isn't it?

Race would seem to be the easy answer, but it's not the right one. The genetic sequences that control the color of our skin are completely separate from those that create our brains. Once you get beyond the differences that are literally cosmetic, we're a whole lot alike. Nearly identical, in fact. With the right set of bones, I can tell without a doubt whether or not a person is male or female, because that really is a fundamental, physical difference. But I can only make an educated guess as to race, and only if I have the whole skeleton.

What we're doing is mixing up skin color with ignorance. It's stupid people who are dangerous, and jerk knows no color.

We're simply not that far away from our primate roots. If you judge by the art left behind, we didn't really start becoming cognitively human until about 50,000 years ago, when cave paintings and rock carvings suddenly started appearing all over the world. Before that time, as much as six million years depending on how you count it, it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say our ancestors were not much more than a particularly weird looking variant of chimpanzee that had got good at banging rocks together.

One of the problems with an intellect as new and different as ours is its lack of pre-programming. Lobsters don't have to learn how to be lobsters... they just are. Same with frogs, fish, wasps, lizards, and untold other types of critters. Oh the higher up you go in sophistication the more you actually have to learn how to do things, but even then it's mostly figuring out the sequence and putting the finishing touches on what's already written in the genes.

Humans aren't like this at all. We have to be taught how to be people. When we were all living in groups of 30 or less, children learned by watching their clan hunt mammoth, gather blackberries, make hand axes, or tan leather. The development of agriculture about fifteen thousand years ago triggered several innovations, most of which we still use today. Guilds, apprenticeships, schools of basic learning and colleges of advanced instruction all were created at this time as ways of coping with the new requirements of an urbanized agricultural society.

However, it was still quite possible to teach a child all they needed to know to function on, say, a family farm, just by keeping them on that farm. As long as they didn't want or need to do anything else, they could be productive and even flourish.

Industrialization delivered a very nasty knock to all these systems. Population densities exploded to unprecedented levels*. At first everyone had to work in the factories, but eventually technology and rising wages allowed most of the family to remain at home. Revolutions in agriculture meant there was more food to go around. Advances in medical science dulled and eventually broke the scythe of diseases that regularly harvested thousands of babies before their first birthday.

These changes signaled the death-knell for pretty much every form of "traditional" education created up to that time. Kids couldn't watch mom and dad to learn their trade, because mom and dad worked in a factory far away. Eventually mom was able to stay home, giving daughters at least someone to emulate, but boys continued to be a very real problem.

Cultural mores were still advocating the huge families once required to ensure enough surviving children to work a farm. Instead of having eleven children and seeing three of them survive, people were having thirteen children (because parents were living longer as well), and having ten of them survive. In the cities this resulted in infestations of children with little more to do than eat and cause trouble.

These were the pressures that lead to the development of the public school systems. A large number of children who raise themselves are a flat-out menace to society. The boys rapidly coagulate into youth gangs, threatening the safety of everyone not willing to shoot them all. The girls end up gravitating toward the strongest of these bright chimpanzees, getting themselves pregnant with unsupportable, untrainable kids, perpetuating the problem.

The answers found to these mid-19th century problems would ultimately become what we all know as the public school system. They not only provided a kind of baby-sitting service for working-class families, they also allowed the rapid enculturation of these children into the society, and gave them the skills needed by industries to grow and prosper. A public university system enabled the gifted and talented to continue far beyond the skills required to work in a factory, thereby setting the nation up for another wave of innovation and cultural development.

Of course this is how the system works in a perfect world. Problems crop up all over the place when you dump in real people. The existing power elite usually try to limit the mobility of certain kinds of children in a school, a ghastly methodology codified in the United States until well into the 20th century. This one practice can be traced directly to the root of most minorities’ cultural distrust of structured learning. What good is it going to school when, no matter how hard you try, you are doomed from the start to failure simply because of the color of your skin, the country or even the part of town where you were born?

There's also the opposite problem of fanatics clinging desperately to the old ways. A frighteningly large number of Americans still believe the only good place to raise a child is in the home, or in a church. That these methods of teaching were almost completely invalidated nearly two centuries ago is of no concern. A modern school is a vector for rational, scientific living, and it is extremely effective at spreading this contagion. When a subculture's belief system is incompatible with rational, scientific living, the only way it can survive is to remove its children from exposure.

The school systems themselves are imperfect to say the least. Corruption, chronic under funding and underpayment, and the political bloodsport of faculty, administration, and parental interaction all combine to make public schools nearly impossible to truly run well. In some cases it's so bad parents don't have a choice but to teach their kids at home, which really is no choice at all for most folks**.

These are all symptoms of a 200-year-old problem that still hasn't been completely solved. While it may not be perfect, it does work in many cases, and each new idea, each interesting technique, catches more and more kids.

The ultimate truth is genius doesn't always run in family lines, and hardly ever follows "breeding" or "class" or "color" or any other stupid artificial distinction we make about ourselves. It can spring up anywhere, not just in the richest homes on the hill but in the poorest barrios deep inside the city. The only way we can discover and train and harness this undiscovered talent is through the public school system, otherwise we may miss them.

Because there's nothing more tragic than a brilliant drug dealer.

Posted by scott at 06:11 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 08, 2002
Not with My Daughter

As Ellen and I get more nestled into this "blogger community", I have discovered the concept of "warblogging". Because we have a lot of readers who don't come from the wider political blog community, I will explain: warblogs are given the title (by themselves or others) because their authors openly advocate starting up wars, right now with Iraq. Some are professional newsies who should know better.

My dad gave me what I consider the ultimate litmus test of whether or not a war is supportable. You'd have to set the "way back" machine to 1986, when I had dutifully signed up for selective service (i.e. the draft, which they never used... do they still make people do that?) We were talking and he said something like "You know, whenever I see a story on the TV about the US going to war over something I ask myself, would I be willing to send my kids to die for that?"

And that's something I'm noticing an awful lot about the warbloggers I've found. They seem (in my travels) to be young, childless, and civilian. If they have children, they seem to be very young, younger than 13 so far. To me, not to put too fine a point on it, this positively reeks of armchair quarterbacking. It's easy to place wagers when you have nothing to lose.

Because war is an ugly, ugly thing. It's ugly because no matter how shiny and sexy and sophisticated the machines are, it's all about killing people and breaking stuff. And the problem with killing people and breaking stuff is these people, not surprisingly, take exception to your killing them and breaking their things. They do their level best to kill you back, and most of the time they'll succeed, if nothing else from dumb luck.

Death for a soldier is never a pretty thing. It's actually kind of unusual for someone to just be blown to bits, or have the top of their head taken off. Far more frequent are the "mortal injuries", things that do eventually kill you but take their own sweet time about it. An arm gets blown off, a belly gets ripped open, an artery gets cut, all are things that, in a combat situation, will pretty much doom the victim. But not immediately. Sometimes it takes minutes, but many times it takes hours. In any case it is an eternity, and it is a horrible, willful waste.

And it's not just the person who's dying who becomes a victim. The people around them, their buddies, the medics, the rescue squads, are all subject to unspeakable trauma because they're the ones left behind. They're the ones who have to deal with what's left. They're the ones who carry the memories of someone holding their intestines in with their hand while they walk, of someone pleading with them to save their life when their legs have been blown off, of someone slowly, gently, calling for their mothers while the last of their blood seeps into the ground.

So to me, the questions are not "does Saddam need to go" or "will it be safer when he's gone" or "should we do something about it?" Those are the all-too-easy questions of these so-called warbloggers. My questions are would I be willing to subject my own child to the infliction of violent death on the deductions of a group of politicians? Would I be willing to subject my own child to witnessing violent death on the assumptions of a group of rear-echelon intelligence officers? Would I be willing to offer my own child up to a violent death when there are no plans for an aftermath that would make that death meaningful?

I don't see any of you even asking these questions, let alone answering them. Many of you have nothing to risk, and so seem not to feel the need.

I don't have children right now, but I will one day.

My answer's in my title.

Posted by scott at 03:58 PM | Comments (38) | eMail this entry!
August 06, 2002
Historical Forces

The United States is the only major world power whose origin can be traced back to a single date in history. A single date less than eleven generations ago. Think about that for a second. Your grandmother's great-grandmother probably was alive during the Civil War, and her grandmother's great-grandmother would've been old enough to serve beer to Thomas Jefferson outside Constitution hall on a particularly hot July day. As far as nations go, the United States is only relatively new, but as a people, Americans haven't even had time for the shine to wear off. And it's not just America that's relatively new. The way of life characterized as "western" (industrial, urban, information driven) originated at about the same time as the American state, in the mid-18th century.

The lessons you get in history classes don't really emphasize that before about 1500, "the west" (i.e. Europe & England) really wasn't much to write home about. For ten centuries they had done little more than build thick-walled castles on every hilltop they could get their hands on and set each other's peasants on fire. Even when they managed to unite they were at best a force among equals.

For more than a thousand years, a thousand years, the true centers of learning, culture, and refinement in the west weren't in London or Bonn or Paris or Milan, they were in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul. For fifty generations if you were a scholar or a scientist or an artisan you headed straight toward the caliphates and kingdoms of the Islamic empires. It certainly beat the hell out of a monastery.

You see, Western Europe wasn’t the direct inheritor of the cultural climax of Rome. Barbarian invasions and a general lack of urbanization caused a collapse of this area so thorough many local peasants believed the marbled columned ruins were built by gods.

The heavily urbanized, and therefore highly literate and well educated, section of the empire was in the East. When the Bedouin exploded out of their wasteland home they conquered an area holding libraries of knowledge ten centuries old. They carried with them a religion and law that emphasized all learning as valuable, and so these libraries were saved, expanded, and eventually bettered in every way. Islam began to be seen by its adherents as a force of history, which was self-evidently better than any other lifeway it encountered. For a thousand years it met, matched, and overcame every obstacle thrown at it, and was better for each challenge.

However, for reasons not entirely clear, something went very, very wrong. The last great Islamic empire, the Ottomans, stood at the gates of Vienna for three months in 1688. If they had broken through those walls Europe would've been open before them, and we all might be chanting "God is Great" today. But they didn't, and this watershed event represented a zenith that would not, and in fact could not, be equaled again. In a little more than one hundred years all the rules of warfare would be changed, and for whatever reason the Muslims never got the new playbook.

So it's important to note that unlike Western Europe, the cultures of Islam have fifty generations of being the paragon of western cultural achievement. This supremacy lasted so long it invaded every part of their culture, became part of the fabric of their existence. Islam ended up being all about looking to the past, because the past was where everything important was.

In the space of just a little more than a hundred years, just two human lifetimes, this entire world order got stood on its head. Europe didn't just field bigger armies, or figure out better tactics. Europeans figured out how to build fighting machines which were literally undefeatable by anything the cultures of Islam could create. Napoleon humiliated the Mamaluks in Egypt at Shubra Khit and Imbabah in 1798, and the world would never be the same.

Because Europe didn't just create new ways of fighting wars, they created new ways of living life, of thinking, of believing. Liberal democracy, capitalism, and material science didn't just make Europe supreme, it made Islam irrelevant. In a little more than a century fully one thousand years of history and achievement simply ceased to matter.

The shock of this is something Arabs are still dealing with. At first Islamic cultures attempted to co-opt western ways, but fully embracing the things that made the west powerful would've required them to repudiate everything they felt made Islamic culture valuable. Europe had nearly four hundred years to come to terms with this brilliant, horrible engine, but they only gave the rest of the world a single generation. And with one single exception (Japan) no pre-existing culture managed it.

Truly, the center did not hold for the Muslim world, and it in fact ended with a whimper. The cold truth is that were it not for the geographic coincidence of petroleum and the logistical convenience of using natives to pull it out of the ground, Islamic culture would have been largely destroyed a hundred and fifty years ago. The Czars of Russia wanted an Orthodox mass spoken in the Hagia Sophia, the church of the Holy Wisdom in the center of Istanbul, and if it weren't for the British there would've been little the Ottomans could've done to stop them.

Islam, especially the Arabic heart of Islam, has simply never come to terms with these events. The native leadership, the ones who "own the Arab street", still wait for Islam to retake its rightful place as the epicenter of the world. They are to this day taught in midrasas from an early age that one day the West will see the light of Islam and all will fall down at their feet. The fact that it keeps not happening is something utterly incomprehensible. And when the human animal is confronted with the failure of an idea loved to the core of its soul, violence is a natural result.

But Islam must come to terms with this. By insisting on refighting a war lost eleven generations ago, by refusing to embrace change, by denying the need for a fundamental restructuring of beliefs, Islam cannot and will not succeed. By using violence as a method of political advancement, by embracing outrageous expressions of destruction as leitmotifs of a belief system, Islam makes itself worse than irrelevant. It makes itself a clear and present danger to people who are rapidly gaining the technological capability of dismantling and destroying it by remote control at no risk to the conquerors.

Because there's a problem with power derived from oil. We're already importing nearly as much oil from the former Soviet republics as we are from Saudi Arabia, and combined with the North Sea and South American fields, Arab oil is very rapidly becoming a convenience instead of a necessity.

All terrorism and fundamentalism does is teach the west to fear Islam. And without the brickbat of embargo to threaten the us with, what, exactly, will we have to fear?

Posted by scott at 04:07 PM | Comments (10) | eMail this entry!
August 05, 2002
Suburbia

We have in our office an immigrant from Sierra Leone, a small country on the Atlantic coast of Africa. We had a lunchroom discussion one day about the various differences between how kids get raised in Sierra Leone versus how they're raised here in the US.

One of the points he brought up is something I've known for awhile: in more "traditional" societies, the whole family takes care of the children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, even cousins all take part. In fact, he said what you had to be careful of was to make sure you got a chance to raise your kids. Apparently, if you let them, your relatives will raise your kids so well they won't know who the hell you are.

America used to be like this. Big extended families, which stayed in the same place for generations at a time, were commonplace, especially before WWII. If a mother was having trouble with a baby she simply walked over to her own mother's house for help. A cousin could be drafted to watch the toddlers while an uncle took the oldest son to the fields or store to learn the family trade. Daycare was a non-issue, since you had a huge supply of free or nearly free family members who wanted to help. The elderly didn't need to worry about their future either, as the web of family relationships formed a safety net as they stopped being able to care for themselves.

The changes began slowly, with the invention of the automobile and accellerating in the 1930s, as a national roadway system started to be built, first with privately owned turnpikes and parkways1, and then later with the national interstate system.

It was this freedom of movement that created suburbia. Before, a new family starting out, say, in a big city would first move into a small apartment, all they could afford with the high housing prices so common in an urban environment. Only slowly, with increasing incomes and the demise of older generations, would larger and larger houses that are the hallmark of the American dream be within reach.

The automobile and the improving road network short-circuited this process. What would get you a one bedroom apartment in a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan was more than enough to secure a two bedroom freestanding house, complete with enough land to form a sizeable yard, in Levittown.

Of course, the elders of the family already had what they wanted in the cities or the farms, and they weren't about to move out just because their kids found a cheap house. Suddenly your mother and aunts and uncles and cousins weren't next door, they were a two-hour drive away. Childcare became a real issue because you didn't know and couldn't trust neighbors with your kids.

At first life was cheap enough that you could halve your income and leave one member of the family, mom, home at all times. But without the support net of the extended family mom slowly went insane. I often wonder if the women's movement arose in part as a reaction to the sudden and unprecedented requirement of 24x7 childcare from a single human being. And of course as life got more and more expensive you simply couldn't afford to have half of your income potential working for free at home.

Mobility didn't just affect individuals; it affected the corporations that employed them. Suddenly you didn't need your entire factory in one spot. You could distribute it in pieces wherever costs or environment or opportunity presented the best deal. The company would usually offer to move your family where the work was, but now instead of a two hour drive you had a two day drive, and now the kids were only seeing grandma twice a year. Sometimes you didn't get moved and the only place you could find work was on the other side of the country.

This affected the other end of the family as well. Before modern medicine, grandparents would usually stick around long enough to help get the grandkids past their first eight or nine years, and then move on to whatever reward their religion promised them. The ones who stayed around longer were always healthy enough not to be a burden, the ones who weren't, well, died.

Advanced geriatrics changed all that. Suddenly families were confronted with the task of taking care of an elderly member who was every bit as much work as the kids they were supposed to be helping out with. Rest homes aren't callous warehouses for inconvenient elderly, they're daycare for people whose problems are too complex for a family with children to handle by themselves.

Of course, the cities didn't just dry up and blow away. For immigrants, they are usually the start-point of the American experience.

One of the reasons why immigrants seem to do so well in the inner cities where "natives" seem to fail is it allows them to transplant their own support net of extended family members into an environment that was grown to suit it. Everything's within walking distance and there's plenty of relatively small, tolerable places to live. The parents can hold down three jobs each because they've brought the grandparents (healthy, otherwise they wouldn't have survived in the old country) to take care of the kids. And in spite of what you may have read in the international media, if you're willing and able to work that hard there's very little America can do to stop you from becoming successful, even if we wanted.

And that's the engine that drives this place. That's why we're so amazingly powerful and innovative and resilient. Every gangster or terrorist or malcontent the papers bray about hides the dozens of Asians and Africans and Europeans who are busting their asses to make it here. At one point we may have been a dumping ground, but the miracle of America is how we've managed to turn that on its head. Today we're the recipient of every hardheaded self-starter who couldn't make it back home because they were the wrong class, the wrong caste, the wrong color, or the wrong family.

Before America these people would've ended up on the discard pile, never even allowed the chance to fail, let alone succeed. Not everyone does. This is no paradise. Nothing is ever given to you and there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of clever people doing their level best to make sure you don't get anything for yourself. But you are given a chance.

And for some people, a chance is all they need.

Posted by scott at 05:51 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
August 04, 2002
T&A

This seems to be an ongoing discussion among many women in a group. I know I have heard it, been part of it, very curious about it ect..

WHY do men either prefer tits OR ass. From what I have been told by many men, they prefer one or the other. It's almost NEVER both.

Recently in a past issue of Playboy magazine *yes, I got Scott a subscription* there was a small excerpt saying that the models they pick are not surgically enhanced with silicon. *yeah right* My question is this. How come EVERY model is the SAME size. 36D, 24W, 36H. No matter what she looks like, even if she has really small boobs *very rare* or these giant ga zungas that are bigger than the average human head. They are all the same size. Mind you that all the women *most* in Playboy have gravity defying boobs. Especially in the *thin* girls. I have seen average looking women, with soft lines ect..but you can TELL they are not a size 6* for one they have the natural "sag"*.

Why don't they just fess up that they use the same size for each woman? Is this the IDEAL proportions that men want? As long as they read it as the measurement all is OK right? Playboy would NEVER lie to you, all of the women they get are built in a factory since they are all the same size.

Obviously its mostly about the tits for Playboy.

What about the girls out there with a nice ass and no tits? An ass is something that you can enhance in only 2 ways. 1. Exercise till you drop and your ass cheeks hurt so much its sheer agony to sit on the toilet. or 2. Padded underwear. ALL women are GUILTY of checking out other women. Sizing her up, and wondering if that woman SHOULD be allowed to wear the outfit she is sporting that day. Lots of women out there SHOULD NOT.

You have chicks with flat asses, no asses, shelf asses, well endowed asses, the J-Lo ect.. The names are endless.

You really have to work for a nice ass too. It's not like a set of boobs that you can pick out from a series of photos in a surgeons office. So then why don't they have a magazine exclusively to show off a chick's ass. I KNOW Playboy does flaunt it a bit...but not as much as the upper half. Unless there are OTHER magazines out there that flaunt them much more. *usually the kind that has 'spooge' or other happenings going on about it*-Usually the kind of magazine that you open and go :"holy shit!" and promptly close it, because you have been scarred for life and will forever see that image in your head every time you close your eyes.

So WHY do guys like one or the other? Is it just a preference? Something on a more deep personal level? All married men will tell their wives that they like the whole package *which is bullshit*. Pay attention to what they fool around with more. You'll see. Ever try to ask the question of : "honey? do you like my boobs? or ass better?" You get this blank stare, see the wheels grind and if it takes more than 5 seconds, they have FAILED the question. The beatings will then commence.

Scott once told me if he had his own set of boobs like a woman, he would NEVER leave the house. Are all guys like that? Or was he just teasing me? What if guys wanted a nice ass? Would they sit around the house and play with their ass all day too? So what is so exciting about T&A? Is it just a sex thing or what?

Posted by Ellen at 07:47 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
August 01, 2002
Snake Oil

I'm always surprised at how otherwise intelligent people still end up believing in the oddest stuff. John Edward (talks to dead people) and Sonya Fitzpatrick (the pet psychic) have hot TV shows; Ms. Cleo rolls a Jamaican laugh (with a California birth certificate) all the way to the bank at $4.99 a minute; Peter Popoff to this day thumps people on the head using Jeh-HAY-zuss to heal them of their troubles; and the suburban American landscape is dotted with palm readers and psychics who, for a fee, promise to help you with your troubles.

These people succeed because we want to believe in them. Most folks who read this site probably don't realize just how cold and frightening science can seem. We all have unexamined beliefs we've held on to since childhood. If you're not used to your beliefs being challenged, the ones that connect you to your past and the past of everyone who came before you, life seems to die a little each time someone shines a light on a belief and tells you it's wrong. Especially when things get desperate, when a parent, spouse, or child just isn't getting any better, the pull of the quick fix is powerful indeed.

We also have the more recent phenomena of angry people who think the world owes them whatever they want whenever they want. The words "personal responsibility" generate at best blank looks and demands for more. "Gangstas" to blacks and "trailer trash" to whites, they all seem to end up doing the same talk show circuit together (there must be a club somewhere) screaming the same obscenities together, forming the background noise of a modern society that allows a human being to reach adulthood without actually requiring them to grow up.

Sometimes it's laughably easy to detect the scam. Sometimes it's not. Always remember just because you can't explain it scientifically doesn't mean there's not a scientific explanation for it. Human beings are fiendishly clever critters when it comes to fleecing each other, and their inventiveness can astound. And it always plays on your assumptions. A psychic who allows you to tie his hands to a chair will amaze you when the spirits he summons in the dark move things around. You'd probably never noticed the hinged chair arms that come loose in the dark. A faith healer who walks up and tells you your name, your age, and what is wrong with you is unbearably exciting. You'd probably never think to look inside his ear for the radio that connects him to an assistant reading from cards in a back room.

Personally I have no idea how John Edward does what he does. He's darned good at it, whatever it is. Always charming, usually funny, at times even profound, people are left gasping at what he tells them, visibly moved. Personal "readings" bring individuals to tears and laughter and almost physical relief. People walk into his shows vibrating like coiled springs full of grief and despair and leave gratefully with peace and happiness.

Which brings up an important point. We all know about the placebo affect. When drinking "vite-a-tonic" relieves some people's symptoms, does that make it wrong? If visiting a tent revival coinicides with someone's own immune system sending a cancer into remission, was any harm done? If what a psychic makes up and puts in your dead child's mouth helps you sleep at night, is it really a crime?

The problem is all of these people charge you money. Up front. Usually a lot of it. This has throughout history implied the promised trade of the truth of something real for the truth of real money. And yet the people supposedly just trying to help you already know all of these things, all of these things, are lies.

These people are leeches on a society, providing little if any good while sucking away sometimes the entire life savings of those they purport "help". The harm comes from all the people who drank the tonic instead of taking their medicine, or who saw the faith healer instead of the doctor, or who visited the psychic instead of the therapist. If all you're going to give me is gambler's odds, what the hell good are you?

Some of these people may be at heart kind, decent folk who think they're just helping ease people's minds. I have a feeling most of them are not. But if you really do think you're helping people, really making a difference by telling them what they want to hear, giving them what they already have, teaching them what they already know, and hell maybe you are, that's fine.

I'm sure if your customers agree they'll have no problem at all dropping a donation in your box as they leave.

Posted by scott at 07:48 PM | Comments (8) | eMail this entry!
July 29, 2002
Fanfare for the Common Man

I've already gone on record that it's not evil I'm worried about, it's stupidity. But I find myself stuck in a quandary. If we all have the same brains, if I can't fall back on race, religion, gender, or sexual preference, then how can I account for a world that is quite patently covered thicker than mayflies on a Louisiana houseboat with stupid people?

First, we have to qualify our terms here. We're all stupid once in awhile. You get distracted and don't notice the light turned red, or you whack an oven-hot pan on a counter and grab it with your bare hand, or you tear the house half-apart trying to find keys that are sitting in plain site on the dinner table. These kind of "stupids", and hundreds others like them, are just part of the human condition.

There's also the stupidity of youth. People who have the intelligence of a person but the wisdom of a squirrel on crack generally shouldn't even be allowed outside the house. And in most "traditional" cultures, they're not. What to do to keep stupid kids from doing stupid things is a problem "modern" cultures still haven't figured out. (See War and Peace for more on this topic.)

What I'm talking about here is the kind of stupidity that burns a cross in a yard, or keeps Ms. Cleo rich, or thinks Jews are at the root of a vast, global conspiracy, or decides skin pigment determines intelligence, or believes praying to the wrong god makes murder a blessing.

Actually, I don't think there really are all that many truly stupid people out there. Oh the pundits may rend their shirts at how ignorant the masses are, but time and again I've found that everyone can be amazingly intelligent about something.

This was not an insight I won easily. It took getting pole axed many times over many years before I clued into the fact I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was; and most people were quite a bit smarter than I had allowed. Once I learned to nurture my spiritual side I was deeply ashamed that I once thought myself better than these so-called "common" people.

So if everyone is smart, why do they all seem so stupid?

Most folks want only a few things: a steady job, a full belly, a comfortable home, and safe, happy kids. There are millions, perhaps billions of people all over the world who find deep satisfaction and personal fulfillment with just these seemingly simple things.

There's also the matter of leadership, and the fallacy of the "expert". Trusting our own judgment seems to be something that doesn't come easy to our species. When confronted with strange, frightening, puzzling, or just downright unusual things, most folks will seek out a person whose opinion they already trust. Across all cultures, this person tends to be a religious leader of some sort. This is the person the society "pays" to be wise while everyone else is busy making a living. And when that person is in fact wise, learned, and holds the interests of the community above themselves, the system works pretty well.

Unfortunately history has proven that leaders of any sort are usually the people you should be least likely to trust. Belief is much more powerful than wealth, and power not only corrupts, it attracts the corruptible like an ambulance driving past a lawyer convention. Power plays its own games, with its own rules, and it's a very rare bird indeed who doesn't start seeing people as pawns in a chess game.

My grandmother, who was as smart as they came and was nobody's fool, believed that communism was a plot to turn America's children into atheists. One of my best friends in college had a father who managed to keep up a farm, a regular job, an alimony payment, and still practice enough to play a mean steel guitar. He went to court to get custody of his step-grandson because his new wife's daughter was gay and they didn't want her "recruiting" the boy. These weren't things they cooked up on their own, they were given to them by men who had agendas far beyond the well-being of their souls.

Education is also a problem. In many ways the mind is a kind of muscle; it takes training and practice to learn to use it well. Education doesn't just teach you stuff, it teaches you how to learn stuff. You may think your local preacher is selling you a bill of goods, but if you've never seen the inside of a library, let alone learned how to use Wilson's Guide to Periodical Literature, how are you going to tell? If you don't even know how to read, how are you to know you can't get bigger boobs (or wangs) from a pill?

There's also more than a little laziness involved. It's a lot easier to ask someone what to think than to figure it out for yourself. Thinking critically is hard, especially if you don't practice at it. There's always this point when you're trying to learn something new where you look up and realize just how far you'll have to climb to reach where you want to go. Many people just aren't interested enough strap on a helmet, grab a rope, and start up.

We also have to deal with what is essentially a failure of nerve. It takes a lot of courage to question your own beliefs, let alone modify or change them. Most people, even scientists and engineers, would rather defend what they "know" to be true than accept proof to the contrary. A value system is a very comforting thing, something people fall into easily, like a set of flannel sheets. It's frightening to have things you love, even if they're just ideas, attacked. Fanaticism is a tragic, if understandable, result.

But this is far from a hopeless situation. Unlike the equipment between your legs or the coloring of your skin, minds are things that can be changed. Like learning to play tennis, the more you practice thinking critically the easier it gets. The sense of freedom you acquire from being able to pick apart an argument and find the reason it is wrong is tremendous. The feeling of accomplishment you get from building a new idea from the blocks of your own knowledge is almost breathtaking. The ability to defend that idea against all comers is the triumph that makes climbing the mountain worth the struggle.

Because let me tell you, the view up there is amazing. And, as with any great journey, all you have to do to start is put one foot in front of the other.

Let's go for a walk...

Posted by scott at 05:33 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
July 24, 2002
Pieta

One of the things that bothers me a lot is when people say "If you're not X, you won't understand Y". Certainly if I know nothing about X, figuring out what Y is will be impossible (unless you happen to be a member of the media, in which case you'll probably just make it up). But if you've observed enough and read enough different things over a long period of time, I think that while you may not get the details of understanding Y, you are certainly entitled to claiming the basics of Y.

The Y I'm talking about in particular here is being a parent (put the bat down, Aaron). No, I don't have children right now. But I once was children, and I've watched my parents raise children, and watched other people raise children, and watched my brother raise children, and read countless accounts of raising children.

So, being the kind of guy I am, I'll speculate that having a child is like having your own heartbeat standing outside you, which you have only at best tenuous control over; which can cause love and terror and hope and rage and pride and disappointment of incredible intensity all at once; which has a mind of its own that soaks up the most alarming and amazing and embarrassing things from you and then tells them to your mother (honestly mom, I don't know where she learned "asshat"... must be daycare); which holds the handles to levers in your soul you never knew existed and can barely articulate even to yourself; which will one day be the only thing left to prove you ever existed.

Yes, yes, I know, I still don't understand it. But I'll wager you don't really understand it yourself. This is not at all surprising.

I doubt there's a parent in the world who will disagree with the statement "children are the biggest pain in the ass in the whole world." Oh, they're wonderful and beautiful and miraculous, yes, but when they detonate a big gulp1 they insisted getting inside your car, or when they upend their bowl of choco-coated-sugar-bomb cereal on the dog, or when they get in a screaming fight with their sibling over which identical toy belongs to who, they're a pain in the ass.

And kids have always been this much of a pain in the ass. We owe this fact to our mammalian ancestors, who found adaptive success by having relatively few offspring and lavishing relatively large amounts of care on them. Dinosaurs seem to have taken this route as well, and if the birds left to us are any indication their kids were just as much of a bear (as it were) to raise as mammals' are.

So what's a prospective helpless infant naked ape (or kitten, or puppy, or sparrow, or elephant) to do when your parents are too stupid to read Dr. Spock? Well, successful infants will, one way or another, find ways to make their parents take care of them. We are, all of us, the ultimate product of billions of years of evolution aimed at one goal: making sure babies are able to make more babies.

If you think about it, this only makes sense. We've already established babies are a pain in the ass. If they don't have the ability to force their parents into ensuring their survival they will die. If they do have this ability, they will survive and pass these manipulative genes to their own offspring. The infants who have maximal control over their parents will multiply and thrive, while those who don't, well, won't.

So long before we were able to think about how wonderful babies were, babies were busily making sure that we would have no choice. The fact that we are able to articulate how we feel is just a bonus. Now there are things uniquely human which make human babies uniquely valuable (to us at least). The ability to see the world with new eyes, and then tell you what it looks like, is just cool beyond description. But the deep feelings you "just can't understand if you don't have a child" are happening on a level of consciousness that was old when we were all eating bugs and dodging T-Rex feet.

I really do think this goes a long way toward explaining the horrors of child abuse and molestation. Not excusing them, but explaining them. Everyone's heard stories about mother cats eating their kittens, or mother birds abandoning their nests full of fledglings, or zoo-bound bears killing their cubs. These animals aren't evil, they've just had something go wrong inside them. When child care is hard-wired, that wiring can be incorrect or go bad or wear out from stress, and then babies die.

Because our children's requirements are so much more complex than, say, a kitten's, we require a lot more than just hard wired instinct, but instinct does still play a role. Any nursing mother who's had an embarrassing moment in a mall when a child cries near them will attest to that. And so I would submit that at the very least the most egregious examples of abuse and neglect are the results of instinctual behaviors which have gone wrong or gotten out of control. When I watch other people with children, or hear what they say, or read in books what they've written, I can simply find no other explanation. And for the most part neither can anyone else.

Does this excuse such horrific behavior? What, do you really think a kid deserves such a thing? But in my opinion it means we should try to help as many of these people as possible. One of the main experiences of the human condition is rising above the imperatives of our biology to reach for something more, something different, than our genes have dealt us. I firmly believe there are ways to break out of the cycles of abuse and neglect that seem to circle some families like red-clawed ravens.

But it also means we must accept there are certain individuals in our society who must be forever locked up very very far away from any child, no matter when their prison sentence happens to run out. And the more incomprehensible the crime, the more likely this should be. It takes the Wisdom of Solomon to know the difference between the two camps, and I do not envy judges who have that job.

I'm sure there are a lot of you who still think I just don't get it. That it will take my having a child before I really understand it all. And maybe you're right. But if you do think this way, if you really believe I still haven't gotten it at least a little right, I better not ever catch you rolling your eyes when someone says to you "you'll never understand, because you're not black." Or Asian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Italian, or whatever.

Because if I don't have the right to understand the Y of children because I don't have any, what makes you think you have any right to understand the Y of anything else?

----

1 For those without a 7-11 near them, a "Big Gulp" is a titanic fountain soft drink. A small Big Gulp is 32 ounces (not quite one liter) of soda. And they get bigger from there.

Posted by scott at 05:02 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
July 21, 2002
Intellectual Arrogance

It may be surprising to those who know me, or who read this site a lot, but I really don't think I know everything. I would at least like to think I'm conscious of the boundaries of my own knowledge, and will quite readily admit when I don't know the answer to a question. This leads to very amusing looks from people who work with me, I guess because they're so used to me knowing the answer. More frequently than I'd like to admit a person will walk into my office with some obscure or bizarre question. When I say "I'm sorry, I just don't know" I get this look like I've hit them with a brick between the eyes. One executive was so disturbed by it she sat down and rehearsed a "proper" answer before a big conference. Apparently, "I don't know" is not acceptable in certain political situations.

Oh, I used to think I knew a lot of stuff. Certainly my head is stuffed full of completely useless crap about any number of obscure things. But it took reading Plato's Dialogues (or at least trying to... I've lost both copies before finishing them) before I really understood the difference between knowledge and smarts.

The Dialogues are Plato's tribute to his master Socrates. Written between 390 and 347 BC, they are easily the most accessible of Plato's works1. Socrates was the original gadfly. Were he alive in the United States today, he would probably be an extremely effective lawyer for, say, the ACLU, and would think nothing of defending even Osama in court. He was brilliant, abrasive, argumentative, ugly, and almost rabidly a-political. It eventually killed him.

Unfortunately nothing Socrates himself wrote has made it down through history to us. All we have are what Plato, his most brilliant student, chose to record for us. Because of the ancient's ambiguous sense of "the truth" and their tendency to fabricate dialogue if it suited the spirit, if not the letter, of the character in question, we cannot be completely sure if Socrates actually said the things Plato puts in his mouth. But even if the words are not "jot-and-tittle" correct, the spirit certainly is.

One of Socrates' main points was, in spite of common perception, he knew nothing. He could talk at length about pretty much anything that concerned men. He could, and regularly did, embarrass contemporary self-styled "intellectuals" with his logical constructs and philosophical arguments. But he maintained that when confronted with something as vast as the cosmos, his knowledge was infinitesimally small. Further, he argued quite persuasively on more than one occasion the only true sign of intelligence ("smarts") was the admission that one knows nothing. Even 2500 years later you can feel the consternation of his intellectual foes when they are beaten by a cranky, smelly old man who claimed to know less than a beggar on the street.

I took this argument to heart, and have kept it as a guardian ever since. Before, if confronted with a question on a topic I knew little or nothing about I would pontificate at length by pretty much making it up as I went along (having a large vocabulary and a quick wit can make you sound intelligent about any damned thing). Today, however, I will quite readily admit I know absolutely nothing about, say, CPU micro code or Sri Lankan history or differential equations or any other thing under the sun. It was not an easy habit to break, the "faking" of knowledge, and I have to keep close watch on myself to this day.

Now, I'm not completely inside the Socratic ideal. When I do know something, I'm not at all shy about pointing it out. And I know a lot of stuff. I would like to take pains to point out that in no way does this make me smarter than anyone else. My wife for one will very quickly point out that I quite regularly do things that even six year olds know not to.

But growing up with a brother who is easily as, if not more, intelligent than I am taught me again and again to only argue from absolute authority. He has probably forgotten it, but I learned a deep, hard lesson one day arguing over the performance of WWII aircraft2. Every single statement I made with incontestable older-brother authority was refuted in that oh-so-subtle "you're wrong and you suck neener-neener" 10-year old style. And the little squeaker quite gleefully pulled the books out he needed to back him up.

So I was fortunate enough to grow up with someone who was different, but equal, and wouldn't let me get away with anything intellectually just on principle. Combined with my own later learning of the great philosophers and religious thinkers, it trained me to become a kind of argumentative ninja, striking only when absolutely certain of victory, and retiring instantly when proven weaker.

But there are a lot... a lot of "smart" people out there who haven't learned the hard intellectual lessons I have. I can spot them instantly in a crowd. Large (even when physically small), loud, arrogant, and typically pontificating nonstop, they stand out like Springer guests at a MENSA meeting. The funnest thing about these people is they think just because they know a lot about one, or even a few, things, they know a lot about everything. It's usually trivial to manipulate them into stepping out of the narrow bounds of their real knowledge into the vast desert of ignorance that surrounds it.

I live for these moments, and have ruined more than one dinner party swooping in for the kill. Because these people think they're better than you and me. Because they have a degree in Computer Science, Psychology, Electrical Engineering, or run their own successful business, or make a million dollars a year, they think they've given themselves the right to judge who in this world has value, and who doesn't, in their own mind or in the minds of others.

There's nothing more savory than to publicly, either in person or via the internet, take these people down a notch or two, to expose the crosses burning behind the lofty rhetoric, the brittle crystal fanaticism behind the loving words, the reactionary goals behind the conciliatory gestures.

I know it is very bad karma to take glee in watching these people squirm impaled on pikes of argument they know nothing about. I know I should feel compassion for the most gibbering demon of belief, even when its ugliness is exposed to the light in front of friends. I know it is a faux-pas at least to hold those appointed to be our leaders and elders in front of the on-coming steam locomotive of real life. But I do it anyway. I enjoy it.

Because I may not know much, but I do know the difference between intelligence and knowledge.

Posted by scott at 07:06 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
July 18, 2002
The Sex Trade

For those of you who haven't read it, I highly recommend the blog Ellen linked up in the naughty bits post below. Firstly, it's a damned entertaining look at life behind the counter of a porn video store. Secondly, there are no pictures. In a funny sort of way it reminds me a lot of the kinds of stories my parents used to tell when they ran a liquor store years and years ago.

When it comes to sex, the United States is one messed up country. Personally, I blame the British. No, really, think about it. For about a hundred years the US was Britain’s dumping ground for people too pigheaded, weird, dangerous, fanatical, or crooked to be left on their doorstep. With the Enlightenment giving both the continent and Britain a bit of a conscience, it ended up being a lot easier to stick all these folks on boats rather than hang them from trees or burn them. Much less mess, and sometimes they actually would end up paying taxes.

Oh, some of them would promptly hop boats back, but the ones who were dumb enough to do this were usually dumb enough to head right back to their old villages. Once the constable found you out (and they always found you out... even London was a smallish city in pre-industrial times) it was a quick trip to the gibbet for you.

Now, the first puritans are actually well known for thinking sex was just fine, as long as you were either married (to each other) or unmarried. They did have big, hairy problems with it if it was your neighbor's husband you were playing ride-the-pony with out in the woods, and usually the penalties were pretty darned unpleasant. But overall, sex was seen as just another natural part of being a human. And of course you couldn't have kids if you didn't have sex, and in pre-industrial societies procreation was felt to be an almost sacred duty.

But something really weird happened on the way to the brothel, and this one I can't pin on anyone but ourselves. As late as the 1860s the bawdy business of sex rollicked along in America. Big cities, D.C. and New York especially, had entire city blocks given over to “houses of entertainment”. Every wide spot in the road had "special ladies" that were available for discreet and not-so-discreet encounters. Oh, sure, there were temperance unions and reform leagues and revival crusades, but those were mostly dried up raisin people too bitter about the world to really enjoy it.

The Civil War changed all that. It's really hard to understand from this distance in history, but the Civil War represented not only a physical trauma, but a mental, spiritual, and emotional wrenching beyond experience before or since. September 11th was an event which brought the country together. Imagine an event with that much emotional intensity tearing the country apart. Now imagine events like that happening with that much intensity again and again and again for four and a half years.

When it was all finally over pretty much everything was turned upside down and inside out. Permissiveness, tolerance, and the old "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" attitude were seen as casus belli to the event, and so suddenly the dried up raisin people started to get listened to. America went through a tremendous moral retrenchment, and the whole country was swept end to end with a fervor that represented the beginning of fundamentalism as we know it today.

And so the brothels started to be outlawed and closed up. Morality police stalked the streets of the cities and the halls of government. Comstock got his act passed and suddenly even attempting birth control was illegal. In a way that would be strikingly paralleled eighty-five years later, people had had a bellyful of chaos, death, and destruction, the panicked fears and pitiless wastes of war, and they were quite willing to legislate calm and order if that's what it took.

It wasn't all bad. The people that took away the red light districts and briefly took away all the booze also gave us child labor laws, public education, and the idea that a prison was a penitentiary, a place to learn from your mistakes, instead of just a holding cell until you got turned loose or sent to the gallows.

But the Civil War cast a long, long shadow on the generation that lived through it. The few good things that the reformers came up with were probably more than outweighed by the systemic oppression they felt necessary to impose as part of their security blanket against the bloated corpses of the battlefields. Overt sexism, racism, and plain old upper-class snobbery on a scale that must be read to be believed held our country in thrall for the rest of the 19th and most of the early 20th century. At some points it was so stultifying to our intellectual climate that entire communities of expatriates sprang up in places like Paris and London.

And each time a generation would start to crawl out from under this onerous weight of reactionary self-protective custom, another war would manage to impose itself, and a whole new generation would want to keep the old ways because it was all they had left to remind them of a time when they didn’t know what happened to a horse, or a man, when they got shot in the stomach. It wasn't until war itself got so expensive that it was simply impossible to involve entire generations in it at once that we started to really become socially liberal again.

And yet we still live in the shadow of the moralists. To this day prostitution, the archetypical victimless crime, is illegal throughout most of the country. Pornography is caught in an Oruborous of desperation drawing desperate people to do desperate things and perpetuate a desperate image. Proper use of contraception is still not taught in most schools because too many people believe that teaching how to prevent pregnancy somehow promotes the attempt. We have a very long way to go.

But I think I'm still going to blame the British. Anyone that can come up with Benny Hill has to be guilty of something. ;)

Posted by scott at 09:21 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
July 13, 2002
Philosopher's Lament

Sometimes I really think stupid people have it made. It would be so much easier to believe that people are bad just because they have dark skin, or funny-shaped eyes. Or that they're bad because they go to a synagogue instead of a church. Or that they're bad because they don't go to church at all.

I really wish I could believe that hanging a teacher's pet outside their window would actually cause them to change my grade. Or because I'm good at athletics I don't have to learn a thing and can beat a kid to death just because he likes guys and not girls. Or because I drive a fancy car and live in a fancy house that makes me better than the kid who has neither. Or if I make a lot of money the rest of the world can go fuck itself while I and my friends barbeque on the porch of my yacht.

It would be so much nicer to think because I live in a crappy neighborhood and have dark skin fathering seven kids with six women makes me more of a man, or because I carry a big gun and a lot of drugs I can shoot at policemen. Or since my boyfriend will leave me if I insist he wear a condom I should just forget about it and have some fun.

It would be so much simpler if I could believe that since I watched grinding poverty go in and out of my store every single day for years that it was the color of the skin that made the idiot. That I could quit school at 14 and hang with my buds and lift my fist in the air when I heard a great man try to speak for me and say "content of their character", and then pull an AK-47 out and shoot at a kid walking down the street because he's wearing blue instead of red, and still be a part of that man's vision. That just because someone has light colored skin when they remark on these facts they are a racist.

I just wish I could believe in my heart that Jihad means strapping bombs to my child and sending them to kill other children. That only through slowly strangling a people by driving tanks down their streets I will be safer. That only by flying this airplane into that building I can lift the oppression of a people.

It would be much more comforting if I could teach my kids it was the Jews who killed Jesus and black people are black because it's the mark of Cain and we can do whatever we want to them because of it. I only wish I could believe the only reason Africa is in such a mess is because there aren't any white people in charge any more. That this is a white, Christian nation threatened on all sides by immigrants and liberals and blacks and Jews, and Jesus knew it was OK to try to kill these people if you had to, even if he didn't actually say it.

I only wish I could say "nigger" casually in conversation, any conversation, even if it were just me and one other person. I only wish I thought "nigger" was OK to say because I am black. Or because Hispanics like to gather on street corners and talk with each other it makes them dirty and dangerous and if only we could send them all back to wherever they came from life would be better.

But I can't say those things. I can't believe them. I can't. Once you've held a dozen human skulls in your hand and only noticed how much they look alike, it's impossible. Once you learn that you can definitively tell a woman from a man, or a grownup from a child, just by looking at the bones because those are real. physical. differences. but can only make a provisional, educated guess about race, forget religious belief, because those are made up, it's impossible. Once you understand that there isn't any biological test on the planet that can definitively tell the race or religion of one completely healthy human being from another completely healthy human being, it's impossible to believe any of these things.

Because believing these things, believing any single one of these things is just stupid. And yet I know that we all have the same brains. I know it. We are all, under the skin, very, very much alike. There is genius in all of us, a god in every soul.

And yet the world is filled with people that hold ridiculous beliefs. Stupid, crazy, ignorant, here-please-wear-this-stupid-sign-around-your-neck-so-I-know-not-to-bother-talking-with-you idiotic beliefs. What I want to know is, given the incontrovertible fact that we all have the same size and functional brains in our skulls, how come there are so many people who are so goddamned stupid?

Philosophers all over the world throughout history have pondered why, if there is a benevolent god, evil exists. My question is why, if we all have the same brain between our ears, stupid people exist.

Because, as far as I'm concerned, if you eliminated all the stupid people evil would just take care of itself.

Posted by scott at 07:39 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
July 12, 2002
Igia Hair Braider

I love getting my hair to braid. I think it's a neat thing. Always stylish, formal and funky at the same time.

So I picked up this gadget, hoping it would make my life easier.

My fingers hurt from it. But I have a full head of braids. I don't know how many I have. But Scott will say I look like Medusa. *more so than usual*

If you are considering this gadget, take in mind it's NOT as easy as that damn commercial makes it. It does not braid your hair. It twists the hair on itself, then retwists it in a pattern. It does not look like a normal braid.

The gadget itself is rather large *it looks like a scary fetish type vibrator*. It is bright pink, with 3 prongs on the end. When you push up these special tabs, you clamp your hair in it and braid away. 2 braid selections too.

It comes with hair twists for the end of your hair so your braid stays in place, even some beads. *I'm not doing the Bo Derek 10 look*

It's an OK gadget. When my hair gets longer, I'm sure I'll enjoy it more.

Posted by Ellen at 02:30 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
July 11, 2002
A New Ancestor?

Ok, by now nearly all of you have heard about this (link courtesy Jeff). Since the press monkeys are all working from the same press release, here's some stuff you may not know from your not-quite-a-real-anthropologist:

So, what does this mean?
Well, it depends. Since the guy that wrote the press release obviously works with the guy that found the skull, it sounds pretty earth shaking. But, since it's just one skull and some teeth, in reality we can't be all that sure what it means.

That's not very damned helpful.

Ok. Please keep in mind that I am to a real anthropologist what Alton Brown is to a gourmet chef (we know what we're talking about to a certain extent, but we also know who the "real" cooks are). The skull is interesting because:

  • It's old. Really old for a hominid1. The next oldest one we have, Ardipithecus ramidus2, is probably 5-6 million years old. This one is 7 to perhaps 10 million years old.
  • Chimps and people were thought to have split off from each other between 10-15 million years ago, so this fossil is really close to the time when that happened.
  • It looks funny. If it'd had a really "snouty" face (technically, a large amount of prognothesis), it would be interesting, but not earth-shattering. But it doesn't. It has a relatively "flat" face, which makes it seem a lot more "homo"-like than anything ever found that's close to that age. And it's a lot earlier than the earliest clearly homo fossil ever found (~2.5 million years).
  • It's a relatively complete skull. A lot of hominid fossils are represented by just a few teeth or a jawbone (the toughest parts of any animal's body). A near-complete skull of any age is always a find.
  • It's in an area we didn't know hominids lived. In my own opinion, this is at least as important as the fossil itself. There could be other, better things out there not yet found because we just didn't know to look for them there.

So why aren't you dancing in the streets?

  • It's just one skull. In spite of what the press monkeys are saying, you can't easily overturn an entire chronology based on just a single skull. It may yet, but it's still really early.
  • No postcranial3 remains. Skulls are interesting, but the postcranial stuff can tell you just as much. The things that made Lucy and the Turkana boy so fascinating was the postcranial stuff. Before then we didn't know, for example, that Australopithecenes had long arms and curved fingers4, or that Homo Erectus could get so tall (6+ feet).

So is this the "missing link?"
As we have found more and more hominid fossils, the whole concept of a "missing link" has pretty much gone out the window. It's becoming increasingly apparent that in ancient (Miocene) southern Africa there were a lot of different kinds of bipedal apes wandering around. It changes from time to time, but I think we're up to at least four different species co-existing at one point about three million years ago (from memory: Australopithicenes, Homo, Paranthrapacenes, Aridipithicenes). Our family tree is a lot "bushier" than we originally thought. And this is several million years after the critter that owned the skull we're all talking about became leopard food5. Our family tree may have been even "bushier" at that point, so figuring out just exactly which bipedal ape ended up going to the moon is a lot harder than was once imagined.

So you're saying this poor thing had to worry about leopards and rhinos and who knows what else?
Actually no. Until about 3 million years ago, Africa, and most of Europe as a matter of fact, was covered from end to end in forests. There really wasn't much savannah to speak of. During the time period we're talking about our ancestors were flinging poo at each other through trees instead of across grassland. Them and all the other apes.

You mean chimps and gorillas?
Yes, but a lot of others too. Something not widely understood is that apes and monkeys evolved at roughly the same time, one did not spring from the other6. And at one point there were a lot of apes. Instead of the four pitiful remnants we have today (gorillas, chimps, orangs, and us), there were once more than a dozen different kinds of apes swinging through the trees of Africa and Asia. When the climate changed about three million years ago, ape species (along with everything else that lived in the forests) had three choices: stay put, adapt, or die. The vast majority of them took the third option, a few (at least one) took the second, and three took the first.

Monkeys had a different adaptational strategy that involved having more, dumber offspring that took less time to reach adulthood (and thereby make more monkeys). Smaller brains, more offspring, and quicker growth cycles apparently fit the savannah far better than what apes had (roughly opposite), and so eventually the monkeys took over.

But not all at once. As noted above, at one point there were perhaps as many as four species of bipedal apes motoring around the savannah. The shorter, skinnier ones seem to have taken a crack at scavenging to make a living, while the larger, heavier ones seem to have tried grazing on grasses. The big ones did pretty well for awhile, some had molars as big as the end of your thumb and massive muscular jaws. But eventually, for reasons that are not at all clear, all but one of these savannah apes died out.

There are some indications that the rest of the apes that survived by staying put in the forests (gorillas, chimps, and orangs) were on their way out too, without any help from us at all. We are the spectacularly successful offspring of what is otherwise a dead genus.

So there you go. Human origins in 1000 words or less. A lot of this is from memory, so hopefully I didn't get it too badly wrong. Please feel free to comment with any questions you may have about this stuff, and I'll do my best to answer. For further reading, a great place to start is the talk.origins hominid FAQ. The entire talk.origins site is well worth browsing, especially if you have questions about evolution or want to take your fundie friends down a notch or two.

Posted by scott at 10:01 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
July 10, 2002
Cult of Personality

I've always been something of an iconoclast at heart. I've never respected someone just because I was told to respect them, or because they expected it, or society expected it. I respect people who can do things I can't, or who do things I can but better than me, or who try really hard to learn to do new things, or do things well that I already know are hard. I also know from my own humbling experiences that just because you know a lot about one thing doesn't mean you know a lot about everything (also known as the "engineer's disease").

So I've always found fame a bit of a puzzle. If I'm interested in knowing how to create, produce, and promote a blockbuster music album, then Madonna is obviously someone I should try to talk to. But why should I give what she thinks about, say, the President any more weight than I would give to any other person on the street? Who cares what Michael Jordan's cologne is? Why should I care who Julia Roberts married this week, or who Tom Cruise happens to be boinking this month?

But on some level I do. And I'll wager you do too, about some celebrity. I almost hate to admit it, but I find it interesting that Harrison Ford is smooching Callista Flockheart. I'll bet you've mentioned something gossipy to someone else this month about one celebrity or another. True Hollywood Stories and Behind the Music are big hits, and everyone I know has seen at least one episode of each at some point. It's like watching a fish tank... you just can't stop yourself. I bet every one of you has glanced through a People or an US or an Entertainment Weekly some time in the past six weeks. People who say they don't read such trash are like anyone over 40 who says they never went near a disco (somebody out there was buying all those Abba and Bee Gees albums, it wasn't just one psycho family in Portland). But why?

A lot of celebrities, the ones who have brains to go along with their talent at least, are puzzled by it all too. Creating entertainment in this industrialized age is an extremely artificial process. It's not until you are forced to step through the various histrionics involved in getting a motion picture, music album, Broadway production, or sporting event made that it really sinks in how fake it all is. The gun is made of rubber, the orchestra lives in a machine, and it all stops for a TV time-out every time you go to commercial.

Many of them don't understand why we care what they think about things outside their craft either. And yet we do. And even they do... celebrities are still people. Bill Clinton got in a little hot water for a while because he found out that as president you could just phone up Barbara Streisand and damned if she didn't come over to your house right away.

Fame as we know it, the screaming hysterical sort that makes politicians pay attention and teenage girls do unnatural things with trout, is in fact largely a modern invention. Ancient examples do exist, but they are remarkable for their rarity. What, exactly, is it about celebrity that makes people who control nuclear arsenals and clone the dark dreams of lonely Scottish shepherds care if Britney Spears's boobs are fake? What makes otherwise intelligent, well educated people-in-the-street read the headlines of tabloids in the checkout lane and speculate seriously on how true they are?

They key lies in an unexpected direction... the movie close-up. It took nearly sixty years for scientists to come up with a name for what D.W. Griffith did to turn Lillian Gish into one of the first movie stars. E.T. Hall's "proxemics", a term he coined in 1963, codifies the distances which delineate our own public, social, personal, and intimate spaces. These spaces form "spheres" around us. People are allowed comfortably closer only if we feel they belong in a given space. If they're not, we take steps to cope with it, from simply staring intently at elevator numbers to punching someone in the nose.

The distances these zones take up vary from culture to culture. Americans have relatively large zones, while, to pick a random example, Turks have relatively small ones. Which is why a US tourist tends to think Turks are really friendly and why Turks tend to think we're kind of stand-offish. The distances themselves vary all over the world, but they do exist, everywhere.

What movies do is manipulate these spheres for emotional effect. By zooming in to the face of an actor as they portray a powerful emotion, we are on a subconscious level forced into accepting this person as an intimate associate. The fact that the image on the screen is usually many times larger than a real face merely serves to magnify the effect. But because it is an image on a screen, the non-visual cues that would accompany an actual confrontation aren't there, and so we're able to accept this sudden forced intimacy without it overtly disturbing us.

A skillful actor can portray a wide variety of emotional states in an extremely convincing fashion. When coupled with the forced intimacy and emotional manipulation of a director's camera shots, the effect is to force us subconsciously to accept their character not only as real but as an intimate personality. Deep down, we begin to think of this person as a very close friend, or sometimes an extremely dangerous enemy (because they make us feel fear at such very close range). It is from this psychological effect the motion picture derives its enormous power.

But what happens is some of this artificial familiarity "bleeds over" in to real life. Because it's all happening on a subconscious level, most of us are hardly aware of it at all. So an actor in a successful movie will suddenly be confronted with thousands, sometimes millions, of people who just assume they are intimate associates when they have never in fact met.

Since the actor didn't get to experience us in such a safe yet intimate fashion they often, not surprisingly, feel extremely uncomfortable when confronted by their "fans" in unstructured situations. Such discomfort is very often interpreted by the fans as cold, dismissive, sometimes even mysterious, when in fact it is just a simple, natural human reaction to strangers literally getting too close.

Television, and to a somewhat lesser extent radio before it, relies on the somewhat different proxemic of territoriality to foment its magic. Because televisions are placed in our homes, we are on a subconscious level allowing total strangers into our most intimate of spaces.

Actors who "cross over" from television to movies, or visa-versa, often comment that the fans of one medium are very different from fans of the other. Movie fans often treat the actor in a near worshipful way, in no small part because they experience their performance in what amounts to a temple of popular entertainment. The fans of television programs usually treat the actor like a long lost friend, a "buddy" with whom they can shake hands, tell their life stories to, or gripe out in the most personal of detail.

Since we obviously can't all get to know this new "friend" we've made in person, we get proxies, the media, to know them for us. Because we feel we "know" this person on the most intimate level, we think nothing of having our proxies go to the most extreme lengths to find the intimate details in their lives which we require to fill out our internal portrait. Of course this only serves to make our real-life encounters even more surreal for the celebrity involved, because now not only are they confronted with people who think they know them, they actually do know things about them only their own intimate friends should have ever found out about.

We're often uncomfortable standing in an elevator with someone who is just a bit too close. When you try to imagine what it must be like to have thousands, even millions of complete strangers who know your life in amazing detail constantly trying to get this close to you, it becomes obvious why so many celebrities turn to drugs or alcohol, if nothing else just to escape from the desperate crush of well-intentioned others they constantly find themselves surrounded by. Couple that with the fact that, historically, humanity's most artistically talented individuals have been what can only charitably be described as extremely weird, and Mariah Carey suddenly starts making a lot more sense.

So the next time you're in a diner, or a pub, or a restaurant, or just walking down the street and see someone "famous", step back for a second. Realize that in spite of the fact that you know them, they don't have any idea who you are. Try to put yourself in their shoes... how would you like to be approached by a total stranger? When would you consider it appropriate? What would you want to talk about?

And then be sure to get their autograph for me.

Posted by scott at 11:48 PM | Comments (2) | eMail this entry!
July 04, 2002
Do the Revolution, Baby!

It's funny to think about, but the United States actually represents the first, most successful revolt of a colony against its imperialist overseer. Listening to both the world's media and our own left wing here at home you'd hardly realize it, but we are in fact the very first to throw off the "yoke of imperialist oppression".

The thing that isn't really emphasized much in history books is how lucky the United States was. Historically, revolts and revolutions pretty much always seem to fail in one way or another. Most are doomed from the start. The Jewish revolt, from 66-74 AD, was probably one of the most tragicomic examples.

In a classic case of "dog-catches-car-now-what", a group of malcontent priests and upper-class party boys decided that if Rome wasn't going to protect them (because Nero was busy boinking yet another senator's wife... usually in front of the senator), they would bloody well protect themselves and by the way we also think we'll be keeping this big pile of gold instead of giving it to you as tribute. They told the "king" (a Roman lackey) to sod off and tossed him out when he wouldn't, and completely destroyed the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem itself.

Now, Palestine itself was actually part of the province of Syria, which is where the legion (more than 5000 crack troops) assigned to protect the province was stationed. The problem was Cestius Gallus, the governor assigned to Syria and therefore the commander of that legion, actually was more of a pencil pusher than a sword swinger. What followed was an abject lesson in why politicians and bureaucrats should never lead an army. The legion was destroyed and poor Gallus himself, who wanted nothing more than to skim the provincial tax horde and spank the occasional virgin, ended up dead.

The "common" people, who like the "common" Palestinians two millennia later on a certain September afternoon (their time), were just as dumb as a box of rocks and rejoiced thinking they were about to conquer Rome. The upper classes were numb from shock. The initial plan was almost certainly to cause a bunch of trouble, oust the lap-dog king, and wring some concessions from the governor before going back to business as usual. But now anyone with any sense knew Rome was going to crush them all like a walnut under a steamroller.

And that's exactly what happened. Rome considered itself amazingly tolerant of this incredibly stubborn, pig-headed, disagreeable people since they'd taken over the place about 120 years earlier. Pave their streets, clean their water, feed and protect them for this1? Not only did Rome re-conquer the province, they crucified men, women, and children by the thousands, razed Jerusalem to the ground, tossed out whoever was left, renamed the place and moved a different group in2.

And that's pretty much what happened to revolutions and revolts for the next seventeen hundred years. A government oppressed, the people revolted, the government didn't take them seriously, a small army got defeated, the stupid people rejoiced and the smart people ran for cover, the government sent a huge army and utterly crushed the movement, put the leaders' heads on sticks, and sent everyone else home to start it all up again in a hundred or so years.

What puzzles me is why the US ended up being so successful, and, more importantly, why so many subsequent revolutions weren't.

The nascent United States had a number of things going for it that these earlier revolts didn't. First and probably most important of all, there were 3,000 miles of ocean between us and Britain. News, supplies, and reinforcements took months to arrive. If you screwed up in America, you couldn't just expect the cavalry to march up behind you. There was also France's help, but they were far more interested in kicking Britain in the nads than in supporting some upstart nation. We also had competent, if not exactly brilliant, military leadership3.

But those things just tell you why we won the war. Why did the we win the revolution?

Our revolution started at what ended up being the peak intellectual period of the pre-industrialized world. I don't think this has really been emphasized enough. Things were already beginning to change. Watt's improved steam engines were beginning to make an impact on the English countryside, and soon would power the world into the industrialized era. But the differences between 1550 and 1776 are nothing compared to the differences between 1776 and 2002. In many ways the founding fathers can be seen as medieval merchants done good.

People weren't talking about class struggle and who controlled the means of production; they were talking about liberty and the control of government. They weren't reading Marx and Engles, they were reading Hobbes and Locke. They weren't pondering the inevitability of the rise of the proletariat; they were questioning whether people were actually able to rule themselves.

The mid-to-late eighteenth century would be the last time it was possible to have a group of people really concerned about these issues. In a bit more than fifty years the world would be nearly unrecognizable, and the causes and concerns of rebellions even twenty years after our own would be profoundly different.

So for the first, and perhaps only, time in history a group of intellectuals were handed the reigns of power at nearly the very last moment that "liberty and justice for all" was considered the most important issue of the day. They had crystalline lessons of the abuse of absolute power in England's Glorious Revolution less than a hundred years before. And they had an entire continent?s worth of resources, nearly a quarter of the planet, at their disposal.

From this distance in history it looks like they did a superhuman job of coming up with a near-perfect government. It ain't so. The constitution was in essence a fatally flawed document. Its acceptance of slavery and lack of an explicit forbiddance of secession pretty much destroyed the country the founding fathers built less than a hundred years after they built it. The United States was lucky enough that when it immolated itself in civil war a benevolent tyrant had ascended to power, one who had the good graces to get himself shot just after the war's successful conclusion. The country that Lincoln and subsequent congresses built is the country we live in today.

In spite of this very significant detour, the United States has had a remarkably successful revolution, certainly the most successful of any colonial territory to date. Latin America remained a basket case, in no small part through our own meddling, until about twenty years ago. Africa, with one significant exception, is just a sad joke. The Middle East isn't much better. Asia has a five thousand year tradition of ruling with laws, and it is serving them well. But the only functioning democracies out there are ones we set up less than sixty years ago (South Korea, Japan).

There are two exceptions: South Africa and Iran. South Africans, to perhaps even their own surprise, have so far managed not to destroy themselves. They have enormous natural resources (something like 90% of all diamonds and much of the world's gold comes from there), and a century and a half of British rule to guide them4. They were also the first revolution to happen after the fall of communism, when the US started to become rational again and stopped seeing third-world tyrants as proxies to flip the USSR the bird. They got lucky and fielded an amazing statesman as their first president, which is what gave the US its great start, and their constitution seems complex enough to be relatively despot-resistant.

But South Africa is a long way from a success. There are a lot of South Africans that think what Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe is what should be done in South Africa. They're all conveniently not noticing that his actions are starving the country. Grinding poverty and a complete lack of infrastructure hangs heavy weights on the new nation, because democracy can only survive in the midst of an educated electorate. But of all the countries on the continent, on both side of the desert, South Africa seems to have the best chance.

Iran is an almost unique case. They managed to build themselves a reasonably functional democracy in the middle of the cold war, with the US doing its level best to screw it all up. They may yet be the first people to figure out how to successfully incorporate ancient religion with modern government and industrialized technology.

But Iran's constitution contains, like our own once did, a fundamental flaw. By giving enormous power to unelected clerics, they are relying on the wisdom and benevolence of people they have no direct control over. History has shown that you can usually expect one, perhaps two, generations of autocrats to have any damned sense, but inevitably some wack comes to power that thinks rule by fiat is vastly superior to this bloody inconvenient rule of law, and that's when people start to disappear. Once that happens, civil war is sure to follow. I hope for the Iranian's sake, and really the world's sake, they find a way out of it before it's too late.

Because the world could use a few more good democracies, ones that did it all on their own and manage to keep it creaking and wheezing along through their own blood, sweat, and tears.

You don't really want us running it all, do you?

Posted by scott at 02:59 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
July 03, 2002
Loving-Kindness

It's become fashionable today in many scientific circles to question just what, exactly, makes us human. The more we research, the fewer things we find about ourselves that are truly unique.

For a long time, it was thought that tool making is what we do that nobody else does. It took sending a determined, if somewhat naive, 26-year old woman alone into the Gombe forest before we found out that no, we aren't the only ones using tools. And if you think sticking blades of grass into a mound and fishing termites out is just too easy to count as tool making, be sure to read this (taken from google's cache because the original seems to be down right now).

Perhaps abstract thought then? Well, no. Research is proving that at least some dinosaurs (birds) and mammals can solve very complex problems just by thinking about them. Octopus, which don't even have a spinal cord and have green blood, are able to solve remarkable puzzles as long as, apparently, there is a lobster involved in the mix somewhere (lobsters unfortunately do not seemed to be equipped for anything other than tastiness).

Our intellect? Aside from its ephemeral quality and our consistent inability to measure it with even a taste of objectivity, research has shown that up until about three years of age, chimpanzees actually develop faster than humans.

More and more documentaries and books are emphasizing that we are only different in degree, and not in kind. This attitude tends to make Christian fundies go bonkers. Bring this up at any tent revival1 or really in any conversation with a Christian fanatic and I can guarantee something along the lines of "God created man separately from the animals, and they were created for us to use as we saw fit" will come popping right out (as with most strongly held fanatic beliefs, this one's wrong2).

But the scientific belief that we're just a bunch of apes that happen to be a little brighter than the rest of the animal world is also every bit as wrong. What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is not our ability to build better mousetraps, or think more complicated thoughts. It's our potential for nearly infinite love.

Don't roll your eyes! I'm serious! Humans will love anything. There are millions of people out there who feel deep, serious emotions about bits of glass, stitched cloth and stuffing that just happen to be bear-shaped or cat-shaped or soft and full of plastic beans. People give affectionate names to big hunks of metal containing enough flammable liquid to blow up a house and an electrical source powerful enough to weld metal.

Our intense love for living things lead directly to our earliest religious beliefs. It's an uncomfortable fact for pet lovers that their pets enjoy tormenting and playing with the living things they have caught and will kill. Predators all over the world look specifically for the weak, the helpless, the young, and only kill quickly when not doing so endangers them in some way. Orcas, "killer whales", routinely toss baby seals around until something important gets broken inside them and it stops being "fun".

And yet our own ancestors turned their hunts into religious events. Some of our earliest gods were the creatures we killed because killing them was the only thing that would keep us alive. Nearly all hunter-gatherer cultures paid homage to the spirit of the animals they had to hunt. Shrines to them can be found everywhere, and some of the deepest, oldest myths that survive are about their spirits.

And it doesn't even have to be a thing that we love. We have so much to go around that we've figured out how to love ideas, things that you can't even touch. Without this propensity, science would not exist. The inventions of writing and printing were in no small part attempts to immortalize our love of ideas.

Of course, it is ridiculously easy to pick out examples where we are most definitely not capable of infinite love. When you think about it, this is actually not all that surprising. Unthinking reflexivity and caring only for our own young has been a hallmark of evolution for hundreds of millions of years. A creature with such an amazing capacity for love has existed for just a few tens of thousands. We carry those instincts, those reflexes, along inside us, and our new capabilities fit with considerable discomfort.

Learning how to really love everything isn't impossible, but it's pretty close to it. Religions are, at their core at least, attempts to guide people, ease their way, into figuring out universal love. It's still not easy, but it needs to, must be, done. Because this capacity we have is a tool of unspeakable power, and like all tools it can, and quite regularly is, perverted and misused. In some ways religions are also an attempt, however prone to failure, to prevent this from happening.

Because hate is in many ways simply love turned inside out. We cherish the things we love, and wish to protect them, sometimes at all costs. Hate arises from the mistaken belief of that which is outside us is attempting to destroy us and the things we love. Hate is when we turn the ape inside us loose with the tools of a human in its hands.

The logical conclusion of universal love is that people who hate are deluded, and therefore must be pitied instead of destroyed. Of course, those that hate feel no such compunction and so life tends to be short, sharp, and colorful for those who truly follow and believe the doctrine of loving-kindness. Most of the past six thousand years of human history has been about trying to find a balance between loving all things and not getting the crap kicked out of you by them.

Fanaticism and Nihilism are the two real enemies of our modern age. Fanatics represent a failure of nerve in humanity, an inability to cope with the sudden overwhelming rise of the third leg of our existence, raw intellect. Their explosive, if otherwise essentially futile, lashing out at the "modern" world is in many ways an attempt to preserve the things that once worked for them, but can no longer stand in the way of the never-ending steamroller of progress.

Nihilism is the other end of this continuum, what happens when a society completely embraces raw intellect and the things it provides. By ignoring the spiritual part of our existence, which is older and more deeply rooted, we provide ourselves with a very pretty, very comfortable, but ultimately very cold and very frightening existence. Fanatics quite rightly point out that there are hidden brutalities in the modern world, shocking mechanized cruelties that aren't even remarked on by those who live around them.

Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

But love of all things is the first, best, and in many ways only thing that really makes us human. No matter how you find your way there, you must find it.

If not love, then what else makes you different from a bright chimpanzee?

----
1. Yes, tent revivals do still happen in America. I think the last one I personally knew about was back in the late 80s in my fundie-infested home town in Arkansas, but I'm positive they're still going on today. Terrorists would do well to consider that large chunks of the US population think sitting in an un-airconditioned tent in the summer working themselves into a religious frenzy is fun.

2. The first Genesis account, from the "E" source, actually has man and woman created simultaneously at the top of a chain of creations. The older "J" account in Genesis 2, which is basically a retelling of an even older Sumerian myth, is the one with the waters and adam's rib and all that jazz. Yes, Virginia, there are two completely different stories of Genesis in Genesis, and they don't agree with each other one bit. Put that in your "jot and tittle" pipe and smoke it.

Posted by scott at 11:06 AM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
June 21, 2002
Past Participle

I think I can fairly say that one of my talents is teasing out memories, perceptions of the other, things that would normally be lost to other folks. It makes it a little weird to live inside my head, but it does tend to give me insights that perhaps some have lost.

The Washington Post noted a few days ago scientists think the reason why most people can't remember their childhood all too well is because it's all pre-verbal. Think about it... probably nearly all of the memories you have which are easy to recall involve some sort of internal dialogue. Humanity has language literally engraved in its genes, and without language we have difficulty even recording the world around us in our own heads.

For some bizarre reason, I don't have this problem. It's not exactly a gift. I feel my inability to work with regular mathematics, and yet still excel in geometry, is because of the strong non-verbal component I still carry within me. This led to untold misery in many a primary school mathematics class. But it does give me the ability to do this:

The summer of 77 is still vivid to me, with heat like a mallet wrapped in a wet paper towel to the face.

I get that way a lot with music. We're listening to Abba right now, because Ellen likes Army of Lovers and I insisted that AoL was in no small way an homage to that juggernaut of a 70s Swedish quartet. So she bought an Abba album. But while Ellen is listening to funky boppy silly music, I'm not. All I have to do is switch a gear in my head and...

I'm sitting alone in the middle of our the playroom in our old house, now long gone. The plastic-wrap-in-acid reek of modeling cement surrounds me swirling with the almost strawberry smell of drying enamel as I lean over my second B-17 plastic model kit. I'm sitting Indian-style on the brown/tan/white soda fountain patterned indoor-outdoor carpet I won (at age 9) in a silly drawing at the carpet shop. My legs are aching a little as the tight nylon weave scratches soft sandpaper patterns on my legs. I'm surrounded with curling Star Wars posters taped on the dark paneling of the room, and Star Wars toys, in 1977 worth their weight in gold, are scattered in the distance.

Or I'm in the back of a blue Oldsmobile station wagon, as the 8-track plays through the stereo. The morning sun is caressing my brother and me as we play with our Star-Wars pop-up out books, silent in our agreement that, at age 10 and 8, we are grown up enough to re-visit Florida by ourselves with our rather excitable mom without making her go insane with our fights. A truce is called through the chords of "mama mia" that will only last as long as the trip. A pope dies as I exit the heavy-doored motel room in Orlando with the semisweet tang of hotel soap in my nose.

History is funny that way. We only personalize what we lived through. But what we see on the television, or read in books, is just third person-- two or even one dimensional representations of things that we know in some abstract sense happened, but deep down are no different, or real, to us than watching Friends on Thursday nights.

So now whenever I watch or read anything about the past, or even the present, I try to take those nonverbal images with me when I re-create the landscape in my mind. It helps me realize these things aren't just abstract descriptions on some old book that smells like dried tea, and aren't just something you put on the tube while you vacuum the floor.

I see guys standing in trenches in the summer sun with bullets whizzing over their heads and I remember the feel of light and heat on my own face, and it becomes real to me. I watch a CGI reconstruction of an Allasaurus stalking a Brontosaur on a salt flat and I recall the caked dust up my nose walking down a dirt road and I'm there. I read about the death of a king and remember what it felt like when the towers fell, and I understand the kind of loss that yanks the world sideways.

So the next time you watch or read history, if you don't already I want you to try to literally put yourself in that place. Don't observe and be interested in what is happening... look at what is going on and step outside yourself. Find a place in your own memory that mimics even a little what you are reading or seeing.

You'll be amazed a the result.

Posted by scott at 09:31 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
Men and Lingerie

Men like or love lingerie. They let you know with a definite yes or no.

You have men out there that will actually BUY it for the chick in his life. MOST of the men are like, "Why bother? It ends up on the floor anyway?" Ok dumbass, if you have not figured out, buying your chick something sexy is a definite way of getting lucky that night.

For those of you that are totally clueless on how to buy the right size. Check that site out. It gives you some decent ideas. Snooping around in her panty drawer can help too. * ok, take face out of panties and pay attention to essay ok??*

Remember, its all about the fantasy of it all ok? Even if it lasts less than a 1/2 hour and you both get what you want. Word of the wise, make sure when you buy the goods for your chick, it will be complementary to her body. Don't get something you saw in a magazine and assume it will look good on her. Chances it wont. Those chicks in the magazines are airbrushed mannequins, your girl is real. Unless she is a Real-Doll. *shudder*

ASK questions at the store if you buy it that way! That’s what the people are there for. You are not asking for directions. You are asking for something that your chick will wear for you. Get it in the wrong size or style and you will not get what you want. Hence, you will have a date with your hand and not the chick. Remember, there is NO map in a lingerie store.

"But Ellen, I don't know what kind of lingerie to buy? I'm just a stupid guy, I have not direction in life. Help!" No problem there. Go with what you like. Ya like naughty fantasy type stuff? Go there. Like more of a contemporary look? But what a variety in choice? Check that out.

The choices are endless. Remember, buying sexy stuff is not rocket science.

Posted by Ellen at 08:50 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
June 19, 2002
Firefight

It would be very easy to blame our current troubles on Islam, and many have. But Islam was in no small part created as a belief system to break the virulent, violent culture of the Bedouin. At heart Islam is a gentle, extremely rational belief system. It's full of admonitions along the lines of "pray 5 times every day, but if you can't pray 5 times every day, that's OK, God understands, give a little more money to the poor", and "fast during Ramadan. But if you can't fast, that's OK, God understands, give a little more money to the poor".

So what went wrong? No matter where we look, the people really causing trouble and justifying it with clear eyes and loud voices seem to be carrying Korans and "killing in the name of..."

What we're doing is mistaking religion for culture. Pretty much all modern religions proscribe a belief system that, if followed with a true heart, fly in the face of behaviors deeply engrained into the chimpanzee in all of us. It works at first because the community is small and there's a leader with enough charisma, intelligence, and passion to hold it all together. It starts to fall apart because the community gets bigger and the prophet ends up dead.

The thing that differentiates a cult from a religion is the way it handles its believers. Without exception, the core of a true religion tries to get its believers to think about its beliefs, challenge them, test them, and through the testing faith will be found. Cults gauge success only by the number of bended knees that can be counted.

But finding faith this way is hard, harder than any other thing an individual can do for themselves. It's so hard that huge numbers of people, across all cultures, simply never attempt it. The unfortunate fact is it's all too easy to think your life is hard enough without having to challenge the comforting hatreds and habits you grew up with. My brother once said army basic training convinced him the human body can do amazing things when the mind allows it. I just wish people would understand the human soul works in the same way. Believing what the preacher tells you just because he's the preacher is not what Jesus wanted.

So what always happens, especially with the religions "of the book", is the culture ends up controlling the movement. And the culture of the Middle East was one that demanded unquestioning loyalty to the tribe, reacted to the slightest threat with overwhelming force, never ever forgot an insult, and encouraged acts of personal violence as a method of political advancement. Arabs were like this for thousands of years before Mohammed, and they would be like this for more than a thousand years after.

Arab culture wasn't just about these things of course, but I would argue strongly that the good parts of Arab culture, the ones we should all rightly cherish all over the world, were given to it in no small part through the Koran, and the Koran was written in no small part as an attempt to overthrow the dominant cultures of the time.

But unfortunately there was just one prophet and millions of lazy, too-accepting believers, and once the prophet died the society used the movement as a vector to spread the violent culture of its birth.

"Ah ha!" you might say, "Christianity came from nearly the same place, and it's not known for the same level of terrorism!" Notwithstanding the wacknuts living in America's heartland and the memorial in Oklahoma City, this would at first seem a valid point. However, it must always be remembered that while the Jesus movement got its start in the Levant, Christianity is primarily a Roman invention. The two core branches of Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, both were set up, survived, and thrived under the aegis of the emperors of Rome.

And, as with Arabs and Islam, the culture of Rome hijacked the Kingdom of God and used it to spread its beliefs. Male dominance, absolute loyalty to doctrine, subservience to hierarchy, and the abject inferiority of women, none of which, not a single one, can be found in anything Jesus actually said, are now deeply engrained beliefs far beyond the borders of Rome in both space and time.

It's not the belief systems that are causing the problems. It's the people. Powerful men are perverting a beautiful doctrine of justice and peace not to bring liberty to a downtrodden people, but to gather more power to themselves. Weak people are allowing this to happen by believing instead of thinking, allowing rage to dictate their religion, and trusting the words of men instead of reading the words of God.

It has ever been thus. The physical spawned the spiritual, and the spiritual spawned the intellectual. Science has proven to be the key to human liberty, but science is intellect laid bare, thoughts naked and cold. Rather than see the triptych existence of body, mind, and soul, and nourish each in turn, too often the ape falls back on what it knows... that it and its kin are superior to all others, that the tribe keeps it alive, and that there is only victory or death.

The true prophets of humanity were those that chose to fight the ape, often at the cost of their lives. Each has in turn helped lift us up with their vision, challenged us to make more and better things out of our lives, taught that victory is death, and only by breaking out of our habits and deceits can we ever reach the divine.

Humanity's greatest problem isn't famine, or war, or disease, or religion, or death. It's our overwhelming, seemingly uncontrollable urge to bend our knees rather than use our heads.

Posted by scott at 05:26 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
June 16, 2002
Turnabouts

Nowadays we're all finding new (and, according to TV executives, ever more worrisome and criminal) ways to not watch commercials when our favorite programs are on. And yet time and again what fascinates us most about old TV shows is not the programming itself, but those selfsame commercials that we tried so studiously to avoid when they were first shown.

Through commercials, we can watch the evolution of modern culture with a much less self-consciousness style than "normal" programming provides. Game shows, the infomercials of the sixties and seventies, are a particular source of fun. Who would've thought that a big TV was a 19" set (and was a freestanding piece of furniture), or that avocado green was once considered an attractive interior color, or that a really nice car would only cost $3500? It seems a little surreal to watch someone get completely hysterical over winning $10,000 until you realize that amount of money would get you half-way to owning a house in 1971.

After awhile even the programs themselves begin to take on this quality. I didn't notice it as much when I was growing up in the 70s. At that point, the only "old" programming we had came from the stilted, self-delusioned, stylized late 50s and early 60s. Ozzie and Harriet seems timeless because it comes from no time, no place that ever really existed in America. You may laugh at "I Love Lucy" (and right you should), but there's not much in the program that would fix in your mind anything about the period it was created in.

Thirty years later we now have a much broader range of far more realistic portrayals of modern life. At this point shows from the 70s are the most interesting (although the 80s shows are closing fast), because that was when TV stopped trying to create some sort of stylized Shangri-la of Americana and started really trying to portray life, warts and all.

And what a life it shows us. Who would've thought that a guy could get evicted from an apartment because he moved in with two women? The women's movement, the struggle for racial integration and equality, the Vietnam war, are all given an immediacy, a level of detail, a tangibility, that you just don't get watching a documentary on any of those subjects.

Again, it's the lack of self-consciousness that really strikes you. "That 70s show" tries to make fun of the "me" decade, but anachronisms creep in everywhere you look (I'm sure there were millions of high-school couples in 1978 who wished their parents would leave them in a bedroom alone to "study"). It feels fake because everyone knows how it turned out, what happens in the end, what stuff had a future and what stuff ended up being, well, stupid stuff. The Partridge Family didn't have this problem because it was the 70s. Nobody knew what the hell was going on, and it shows in everything from the topics they chose to the clothes they wore to the cars they drove.

This is why ancient texts can be so much fun to read. Watching a History Channel documentary on the Roman Empire will give you a nice overview of what happened, but it's nothing like the immediacy, the level of detail, or the downright bizarre feel you get reading a documentary about the same stuff from someone who saw it happen, lived just down the street from the emperor, and really did believe there were gods on Olympus. Someone today describing what the Parthenon looked like when new is nothing compared to someone who was scribbling on a scroll in front of the thing when it was new.

And ancient authors don't just tell you what things look like. They give directions. How to get there, where to stay, which inn has good beer and which temple has the best hookers. A modern history of Augustus will tell you what he did, but a contemporary will tell you what he was like, who he slept with, and which particularly colorful method he used to off one of his more annoying critics. This is stuff you just don't get in a modern history book, and it makes it all live for you.

When Seutonius describes the forum or Pliny talks about defending a case in court yesterday or Herodotus describes the pyramids, it makes you want to get up and go look at these things yourself. You have to stop and remind yourself that these people are dust, and the places they talk about are rubble.

It's at that point, when you realize the things they loved, cherished, worried about, or fought for exist now only on the pages of the book you're holding, that history has truly come to life.

Posted by scott at 04:33 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
June 13, 2002
Economicon

Everyone loves to piss and moan about how awful things are today. The boomers complain about how lazy their kids are (usually only after their own parents are safely in the grave, lest said kids become puzzled by Grandma and Grandpa suddenly spasming over in laughter), kids complain how tough it is, environmentalists complain how greedy it is, religious wacks complain about how decadent it is, the liberals complain about how restricted it is while the conservatives complain about how unsafe it is.

It's also pretty fashionable to admire all the stuff that ancient peoples accomplished. Show after show comes on the History Channel and Discovery and A&E talking about how bloody amazing these ancients were by building stuff that we can't build any more.

It's all crap. Every bit of it. In some places it's bad, yes, but no worse than it has ever been before, and in most places without question we are living in the best of all possible times and best of all possible places. We build things so outrageously amazing that it would simply be beyond the comprehension of anyone born before about 1850.

It wasn't always like this. Because of the cyclical nature of agrarian societies, a surprisingly large portion of our ancestors were born, raised, and passed away surrounded by the ruins of civilizations they knew were better than what they had. You'd end up with cities that were built and rebuilt on top of each other, again and again. The piles got so high that in many places today you can still see them, huge mounds rising out of the desert wastes like the overturned hulls of half-sunken luxury liners.

There were two reasons this kept happening. First, the warfighting technology of the times was primitive enough that brains, charisma, ruthlessness, and a life on the steppe were all you really needed to crush even the brightest civilization. And so barbarian hordes would periodically rush through civilized lands like a hurricane through a Louisiana trailer park.

The other reason was economics. Ancients really knew only one form of true wealth, and that was land. Everything they worked toward was meant for one purpose only: real estate. The problem with land is that you either have it or you don't. You can't make more land just because you're smart, and you can't make more land just because you have a clever idea and want to work hard. As the land became more and more scarce it got more and more valuable, to the point that in the really highly developed ancient civilizations landowners commanded wealth on a scale that we literally cannot comprehend.

But this obsession with dirt caused wonky things to happen to a civilization. Everyone today knows that real estate is a money sponge. It gets more and more valuable until eventually you end up with this asymptotic growth curve where all the money in the world literally won't get you any land. But the ancients never got their heads around this fact, and so when the bubble burst it took the whole economy with it.

If all you care about is land then when land is unaffordable money becomes worthless. Unfortunately in an era before nationalism most really advanced civilizations paid cash for their army, and no cash meant the army started to take the land (causing the civilization to collapse in the ketosis of civil war), or would simply walk away, typically just in time for Chuckles the Barbarian to start his latest world tour.

The real genius of the Renaissance was not the rediscovery of ancient learning, but the development of increasingly sophisticated economic models that valued cash more than land. Unlike land, you can make money, sometimes with nothing more than an idea (c.f. "Gates, Bill"). And just because you had a lot of money didn't mean your neighbor, and his neighbor, and his neighbor, couldn't have just as much. And there were so many different ways to make money in so many different places that failure at any one point simply couldn't tear the whole thing down. And the really funny thing was that if you spent money and were clever about it, you'd make even more money.

A feedback loop got started in the shops and harbors of a bunch of Italian towns with funny names and bad attitudes that is still spinning up today. Suddenly it paid to take risks, so for the first time money began chasing ideas. People would work, and work really hard, because unlike land they could always get more money. At first the money got spent paying clever people to come up with more interesting and efficient ways to turn your enemies' insides into outsides, but the piles just kept getting bigger and started squishing out all sorts of unexpected corners, like golden play dough.

Eventually war with your immediate neighbors just got too expensive, because all your neighbor had to do was jingle a few more coins at your clever people and the bastards would go work for them. You didn't want to kill the clever people, because then you wouldn't be able to jingle even more coins to get them to come back. So instead you turned your guns outward toward all those dark, scary places where the heathens and barbarians lived, and gave them a taste of gunboat lovin. Since the rest of the world simply hadn't caught on to all this economic nonsense (and in truth the Europeans were barely in control of it at that point), they were helpless before the onslaught. And the rest is, as they say, imperialist history.

The cycle of barbarian destruction and economic collapse had been broken, and it gave the civilized world a cultural continuity simply unheard of up to that point. The Europeans equaled, and then surpassed, the achievements of their ancestors about three centuries ago, and the world has never looked back. The philosophical explosion of the Enlightenment was as much about the west coming to terms with this fact as it was about some sort of flowering of a "superior" European culture. Rome had come so far that they'd been living in its shadow for a thousand years, and being better than them took getting used to.

And money-driven economies made things happen fast. In the old days it took awhile to buy, borrow, or steal enough land to turn it into a power base, but it only took one lucky ship full of spices to turn a beggar into a burgher. Since it was all running on ideas and information, there were powerful pressures to make communications faster and better. Printing presses allowed more and more smart people access to more and more information, and with no barbarian hordes to worry about this information never got lost.

And so instead of an intellectual revival that lasted a few decades, we got one that (so far) has lasted more than five and a half centuries. We stand not on the shoulders of giants, but rather of countless generations of men and women whose thoughts, dreams, and ideas simply weren't allowed to be forgotten.

A pyramid is quite impressive, yes, perhaps even more so considering the tools they used, but when compared to the Petronas Towers the pyramids are just big piles of rock. A katana sword may be the finest medieval weapon ever invented, but an entire army of samurai are simply helpless against one man in an F-15. And the lighthouse at Alexandria may have been a wonder of the ancient world, but a Saturn V is taller and it goes to the freaking moon.

And when it comes right down to it, we're not as brutal as our ancestors. We're just not.

The media makes you think we are, but that's just because they were sleeping off their frat beer bash during history 101. Rwandas and Somalias and Ethopias and Croatias used to happen every day. It was once considered routine to hack the penises off your conquered foes and allow them to bleed to death, or kill every man, woman, and child in a village just to inconvenience a guy in a castle. Dashing babies heads against rocks is enshrined as "pleasing to God" in the bible.

And it's not just acts of mass terror. Jack the Ripper isn't remarkable because of the brutality of his crimes, but because it marked the point where it became unacceptable to do that sort of thing to a prostitute. When a child dies before they're three it's treated as a tragedy, and if the mother dies in childbirth it's treated as a crime.

The closest anyone's come to a real sack of a city in modern times is the Rape of Nanking. And that's still remarkable because what was once considered merely a perk of the conquering army is now so vilified the country that promulgated it is too ashamed to even admit some Chinese may have been inconvenienced during the affair.

So are we there yet? What, do you live under a rock? Every age of humanity, from cave man to hoplite to sultan to victorian to space man is still being experienced by someone somewhere to this day. Just because it's not as bad as it used to be doesn't mean we can't make it better. It properly is a tragedy for the world when a child dies or is drowned because it doesn't have a penis or is taught to believe rather than think. This new economy runs on ideas people, and anyone that isn't given a shot at having some cheapens us all.

And we must never forget, the barbarians still rattle at the gates. There are still those who would take, rape, and destroy just for the sheer pleasure of it.

And unfortunately there are far too many people out there in the world that would help them.

Posted by scott at 06:58 PM | Comments (4) | eMail this entry!
June 07, 2002
On-Line Love

There are a lot of you out there that visit us from on-line chats, "talkers", or instant messaging systems. As a person young enough to have gone through his dating phase with the internet but old enough to remember when text chats were where it was at, I have some very hard-won lessons on how to make on-line relationships work. Please note that while it all may sound funny, I am deadly serious about this. To cheesily semi-quote from another favorite movie of mine, "I would spare you that pain".

Now, being a guy, most of this will be for guys. Ellen can reply with her "for girls" advice. So:

  • Online relationships never work. I know, I know, you've heard this dozens of times, most especially (and particularly cluelessly) from your parents. And I want you to know that this advice is coming from someone who ended up marrying someone he met online. Even though he swore off online relationships from several only semi-humorous mis-encounters.
  • REPEAT: Online relationships never f*cking work. Repeat it after me, out loud.
  • Now do it again.
  • That said, you can meet some darned interesting people online. It's not all just pimply-faced 108-lb. (49 kilo) men or 180-lb (82 kilo) women. Or, it can be, if you're looking for that sort of thing. But, ultimately, you can meet some bloody attractive people online.
  • Stupid men and stupid women tend not to hang out all that much online. Figuring out chat rooms and instant message clients takes a certain amount of smarts. If you're not looking for a Guido or Guidette, you could do a lot worse than cruising online.
  • Trust your instincts. Really trust them, because they're all you have in this medium. People lie online. And, like singles bars, there's more than your fair share of psychos and predators out there. If it doesn't feel right, or if you're not clicking, no matter what the description says, no matter what the website photos look like, just walk (as it were) away.
  • NEVER give out personal information until you've known someone for at least two weeks. You don't want to have to explain why your parents have to change their phone number, or why they're getting six "hang-up" calls a day.
  • If you're about to break up with a guy and he says "I swear I'm going to kill myself if you do this", please for the love of Pete don't believe him. Guys do this as a ploy, and will be convincing. I have seen this with my own eyes, and am not kidding! You DO NOT want to stick around with this loser. Say "fine, sorry to hear about that" and hang the fuck up. If they actually do off themselves (and they won't... losers don't remove themselves from the gene pool that easily), it'll do us all a favor.
  • Don't try to start anything real with someone who lives more than a 4-hour drive away from you. If they do, say "aw crap, this really sucks" and walk away. You can't make it real if it costs $400 every time you want to see each other. You'll end up feeling really stupid and being really poor.
  • If you're a guy, listen up real quick: the really attractive (personality or otherwise) ladies out there have had about six dozen "wanna netsex?" propositions in the past 15 minutes. I am not kidding. The quick, simple route does not work. If it does, you're talking to a guy. Trust me on this. There's nothing that impresses a lady more than having a guy that actually wants to talk to them. Sure, it's a pain sometimes, but having real reactions is worth it.
  • If you're a girl, and some guy says "wanna netsex?", just do the easy thing and hit IGNORE (or whatever it is with what you're using). You don't want to dink with these losers, and all the really good guys out there don't want you to either. And there are really good guys out there. But if a guy spends a few hours talking to you and then wants to know what you look like (and goddamit measurements = what you look like, OK?), don't think he's a pig, just tell him. And don't lie.
  • Found one that sounds or looks interesting? Be patient. Even if all you want is some racy talk, take your time. You don't want some dipwad 14 year old beavis lookalike feeding you lines, laughing with his buddies at what a moron you are. And the only way to tell is to take your time.
  • Got a girlfriend or boyfriend already? Well folks, hate to burst yer bubble, but its still cheating. Never give up or screw up the real for the imagined. Got a husband of eighteen years with two kids, but are feeling the pinch? Good god woman, talk to what you have, don't screw it all up over what you think you might have. The saddest thing I've ever seen is people taking what they thought they had online as real and then dining on ashes when they lose the real and the illusion. And this happens and it could happen to you.
  • Don't lie. Just do us all a favor and don't lie. The whole thing works on trust, and if you lie even a little bit it ruins the whole thing. 3' 9" and in a wheelchair? Tell them! The one you want will accept it. I'm not kidding... don't even say you have brown eyes when you have blue ones, or that you're excited when you're not. Its evil to lead people on in real life, and its evil to do it online.
  • Please, please, please, never say "I love you" to someone you've never met in person. I will repeat: Never, ever, ever, ever say "I love you" until you've met them "IRL" (In Real Life). Even typing those words will have an effect beyond your ken. Re-read the first two bullets of this essay!
  • Meet "IRL" sooner rather than later. Sooner means you don't have as much baggage, as many expectations, or as much riding on it all. Meet when you think you're friends and it could turn out really well. Meet when you think you're in love, and it always ends in disaster.
  • Exchange pictures before you meet. It gets really ugly when his/her eyes drop when they first see you. You're under enough pressure as it is, don't let this be the deal breaker after all this effort. If you haven't already, get some new pictures made of yourself and either post them on a web site somewhere (http://www.geocities.com if nothing else), or e-mail them to your prospective date.
  • Pick neutral ground, somewhere public, and always have a backup plan. Ellen and I had only known each other three weeks when we first met, but she had a return train ticket in her pocket and I had three hotels I could put her up in that night. No kidding.
  • Expect awkwardness. I mean, really expect to be weirded out by each other. You both have chimpanzees inside you that work on circuits that you don't even know about. When you pull away from the person you've been (sort of) intimate with when they're actually in front of you, it hurts badly if you're not expecting it.
  • Meeting "IRL" is starting over. No matter what you've told each other, no matter what you've said, no matter what you think you've experienced, you're starting over. Talk some, then talk some more. Don't expect to jump in the sack the moment you meet them. If they want that, put them up in a hotel and send them home the next day. Otherwise you'll end up in a pit in a park.
  • Try to have interesting things "scheduled" for your first meet. It makes getting to know the physical person a helluva lot easier when you're experiencing something together.
  • Clean your damned house, and make sure your psycho ex-boyfriend is out of town. Nothing is a bigger dampener on an evening than having a complete whacko confront your on-line guy claiming to be your husband. Trust me on this one.

It can work. It usually, well, really hardly ever, does, but it can. Expect the worst and you get the best. Walk into it with wide trusting eyes and you might end up another headline in a local paper "HOMICIDE VICTIM FOUND TO HAVE MET KILLER ON-LINE".

No shit.

Posted by scott at 08:54 PM | Comments (1) | eMail this entry!
June 04, 2002
The Origin of Taps

My mom sent me this one today. The "origin of Taps". I've edited it a bit to shorten it. The entire thing can be read under the "MORE" link at the end of this story:

We have all heard the haunting song, "Taps." ... But, do you know the story behind the song? ... Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. ... During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier [who was] wounded on the field. ... Captain Ellicombe decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier ... When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead ... In the dim light, he saw the face of his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when war broke out [and had] enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status ... He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of [his son's] uniform. This wish was granted. [What we] now know as "Taps" ... was born.

While a nice story, it's not true. The actual story is here, from West Point's own website. As per normal, it's not anywhere near as romantic as the one above: In July of 1862 General Daniel Butterfield, who was displeased with the "normal" bugle call to end the day (which was ultimately borrowed from the French), himself wrote a new bugle call to honor his men after the Seven Days Battle at Harrison's Landing in Virginia, with the help of his own bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton.

But there are some very interesting details that can tell us at least a little bit about the author of our romantic fiction, and the tools we use come to us from those greatest of textual detectives: modern historians of ancient texts.

Our modern concept of "historical truth" is actually quite recent, really only about two hundred and fifty years old at best. Before this time "history" was considered just another avenue to make political points. Even ancient authors that tried to write history as we understand it (Herodotus, Pericles, and Tacitus being the best-known) thought nothing of name calling, misquotes, even outright fabrication to get their point across. Other writers of "history" like Plutarch, Josephus, Augustine, and Einhard were quite unapologetically biased. And those are just the things we know were attempts at some sort of fact-based chronicle. Things like the Bible, the Homeric epics, and the tales of Gilgamesh all purport to chronicle actual events but also include things that were quite patently fabricated.

So ancient histories can at best be seen as what we would today consider "historical fiction" -- they certainly have facts in them, but a lot of the detail, sometimes most of the plot, and nearly always all of the dialogue, was probably fabricated from whole cloth.

One of the ways you can tell "fact from fiction" in ancient accounts is by reading the texts comparatively with other texts and picking out the similarities and the differences. As far as I know, this technique was, if not developed by, employed to its first, best extent in the modern era by Dr. Albert Schweitzer in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

Now, by doing these sorts of analyses on something as elaborate as the four gospels of the Bible you come up with all sorts of interesting facts such as:

  • Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke were written afterward with both authors having access to and using Mark.
  • Matthew and Luke both used a second source, now completely lost to us, called by modern historians the "Sayings Gospel Q".
  • John was written much later and used sources not available to the first three "synoptic" gospel authors.

And those are just the easy ones. Gospel research is an extremely interesting field, very much active today. There are still gems to be mined from those texts.

Now, of course our little story isn't anywhere near elaborate enough to glean all that much information. Still, we do get a few things:

  • The author seems to have known the real story. Note that the dates and the place of the battle are the same, and are correct.
  • The author is familiar enough with the era to pick a convincing-sounding name for the protagonist.
  • The author does not appear to have had access to, or at least have bothered to read, actual rolls of the battle, because as far as anyone can tell nobody named "Captain Ellicombe" served on either side, at least during this battle, maybe even during the entire war.

So who was the author? Well, at least one person claims to have traced the story all the way back to 1949, to a guy named Robert Ripley.

Yes, Ripley. Believe it or not. ;)

Here's the entire "story" (NOTE! STORY IS NOT TRUE!):

We have all heard the haunting song, "Taps." It's the song that gives us that lump in our throats and usually creates tears in our eyes. But, do you know the story behind the song? If not, I think you will be pleased to find out about its humble beginnings. Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison's Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or confederate soldier, Captain Ellicombe decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the Captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead. The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. Captain Ellicombe had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral. The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. But, out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him only one musician. The Captain chose a bugler. He asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth's uniform. This wish was granted. The haunting melody, we now know as "Taps" used at military funerals, and at the end of each day on US military bases was born. Day is done.......Gone the sun........From the lakes....... From the hills.........From the skies. All is well, Safely rest.......God is nigh........ Fading light..........Dims the sight........And a star......... Gems the sky ...Gleaming bright From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night. Thanks and praise, For our days, Neath the sun, Neath the stars, Neath the sky, As we go, This we know, God is nigh. I too, have felt the chills while listening to "Taps" but I have never seen all the words until now. I didn't even know there was more than one verse. I also never knew the story behind the song and I didn't know if you had either so I thought I'd pass it along.

Posted by scott at 05:28 PM | Comments (3) | eMail this entry!
May 30, 2002
Glass Houses

I'm getting damned sick of all of you people out in "the rest of the world". Supposedly you're all grownups, certainly most of you seem to think you are, and yet you've all proven incapable of acting like grownups.

Time and again Americans get patronized and criticized by the "intelligencia" (self-appointed, by the way) of other nations for "not having perspective" on a crisis or "not understanding the historical roots" of a people enough to make a judgment.

I think the situation is on its head right now. I want someone to please explain to me why the only way to get groups of "old world" peoples to get along and not gleefully kill each other is to sit on them 24x7 for decades at a time, using our tax dollars and risking our children's lives? Europe bled itself white twice and had to be divided and sat on by the two most powerful nations the world had ever seen for fifty freaking years before they stopped.

Of course, they didn't really stop, not completely. The Balkans are still filled with adults... grownups, not teenagers or school kids with a grudge, but grownups with jobs and houses and kids of their own, that have to have someone else's tanks pointed at them before they stop sneaking into each other's houses with guns and knives to kill babies. There are huge groups of Irishmen that think it's their god-given right to march down streets they know they're not welcome in because of some damned three hundred year old battle. And there are still places in northern Spain that you don't hang around in because a small group of bloody-minded people have been throwing bombs trying to get themselves a country for, what, a thousand years?

And this is supposed to be the civilized part of the old world. The rich part, with what you'd think would be the most to lose. The rest of you are just hopeless. Ask any half of you why you hate the other half and you don't get an explanation, you get a goddamned history lesson.

I used to really try to educate myself about the situations behind these conflicts. I really do want to understand why the world has turned out this way, because I think figuring that out leads you to solutions.

But after digging through a hundred history books about dozens of different subjects and making untold forays to libraries and web sites, I've pretty much found that all of these conflicts have one, and only one, common thread: a set of people too greedy, stupid, infantile, and stubborn to get along with anyone but their own mothers (and only then if they happen not to be hung over that morning). Yeah world, I'm calling you all a bunch of stupid gits, because you are.

I really have stopped caring if the world thinks we're taking over. You see, we can't win playing their game. If we stay out of these stupid never ending four-hundred-years-ago-he-stuck-a-stick-in-my-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandad's-eye things what do we get? Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, Somalia. If we try to help? Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, Somalia. It never changes and it never stops. For at least the past twelve years America has tried to understand you and get along with you and figure it out with you. No more.

Because the rules changed after 9-11. Before, we could with a clear conscience and a smile on our face let you bleed yourselves dry and kill each other's children and blow each other's houses up and gather each other up into death camps and gas yourselves to hell over your stupid little grudge matches. Oh, there were parts of America (mostly left-wing boomers that didn't have a domestic cause to push that particular day) that would get horrified and start rattling politicians' cages until we hosed down one area or another with food and troops. Usually all that accomplished was to give all of you a great warm-n'-fuzzy feeling of unity while you were shooting at our children until we left. Whereupon you'd promptly go back to your regularly scheduled fragfest.

But we have a big hole in the middle of Manhattan now to show us the consequences of ignoring all you violent little bastards. That's what we got for trying to understand you all and let you figure it out amongst yourselves and only come running with band-aids and iodine when you'd let it get completely out of control. So yeah World, it does, thanks to your actions, and (EUROPE!) inactions, mostly boil down to "with us" or "against us".

This should scare the bejeezus out of you. Remember how incomprehensible and inconsistent we were in the cold war? Nobody'd bombed us then. But you all should take this as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

And some of you are. China, Russia, North Korea, and Libya, countries that used to be on the short list, are learning quickly that "with us" leads to potentially immense rewards. Not just in monies or weapons, but in that oh-so-valuable area of getting the US to mind its own damned business about their internal affairs, hell, even help out with them. Do they trust us? What, are you stupid? Of course not. But they are "with us".

And anyone "against us" is in for a bumpy ride. Nope, it's not fair. But you've all been so bloody stupid and stubborn and bloodthirsty that you've forced us to become you're damned parents, and like my Mom always said, "of course it's not fair, life isn't fair."

Posted by scott at 01:58 PM | Comments (5) | eMail this entry!
May 29, 2002
Bad Dog, No Biscuit!

Ok, yeah, I'm a juvenile, I watch the occasional cartoon. I'm listening to a pirate of one of the best fusion jazz CDs, well ok probably the only "fusion" jazz CD, I've ever heard, the soundtrack from the show. I want everyone at RIAA to know that I was only thinking about buying this CD until I heard a really badly recorded pirate version, now I probably will buy it. Hear that you greedy bastards? It's 'cos I got to listen to the goddamned thing first that I'm buying it.

It also seems to be completely freaking out one of our cats, who has been "singing" the entire time it's been playing. Apparently according to Magrat, computers should only make funny noises, not music. She's been howling and rubbing (got no claws) and "bunting" and otherwise expressing confused opinions about the entire adventure.

Any damned way, just because it's animated doesn't mean it's no good, or even that it's meant for kids (MOM). Anime is most meant for grownups. Certainly some of the stuff I've seen isn't even meant for grownups, at least not normal ones. A lot of it doesn't make any damned sense. Partly this is because the Japanese have a very different method of telling a story, and partly because Anime is a lot like porn... most of its crap, but a very small amount is absolutely amazing.

The first anime I ever saw, and apparently this goes for a whole lot of "30-somethings", was Battle of the Planets on WTCG (what you all know as WTBS, the thing that got Mr. Turner started) every afternoon. I only found out much, much later that it was based on a much darker, different, anime series.

My brother and I had never seen anything like this. The hardware alone (and, as the first generation of Star Wars fans, we drooled over hardware) was to die for. But even slashed up like it was for the "American Child", it was still a better story, with more interesting characters and plotlines, than anything Hanna/Barbarra (bless their scooby souls) ever came up with. For god's sake, one of the main characters dies half way through the story arc!

I can remember being blown away by how much got done in the first 4 minutes of the half hour. I also distinctly remember "taking a bullet" for the team by griping my dad out that he was dragging the cub scout meeting out too long and making us miss the third-from-last episode of the series (this was before VCRs). Nobody rushes my dad when he gets started, certainly not some snot nosed kid! :) Of course, none of my buds had the good graces to acknowledge it. Actually, I think my brother and maybe one other guy were the only ones that "got it" and watched the series.

I'm just damned lucky to have married someone that's even nutsier about Anime than I am. She has watched pretty much everything that's available here in the US. Don't even get her started on Sailor Moon or Project A-Ko (toldja she liked the wierd stuff).

Is there a point? Well, no, not really. If you like fusion jazz, jazz, soundtracks, or funky instrumental rock & roll then at least four of you out there should buy the damned soundtrack by clicking through our website so we can get the measley $5 per and buy it ourselves.

Because this thing I downloaded has really crappy sound quality, and I want to get the real deal.

NOTE TO RIAA CD POLICE!!! No! Really! I didn't download anything! I just kinda.. figured out... what it sounded like... umm... nono, please, don't get up, please no, I promisetobuy... @#$*&(&*(

@#$!@!$54

NO CARRIER

Posted by scott at 08:25 PM | Comments (0) | eMail this entry!
May 26, 2002
If God Didn't Want Me to Gamble, He Wouldn't Let Me Win