Sunday, April 23, 2017


You've probably heard of Caldwell's review of Christophe Guilluy's work trying to explain what caused the fissures in French society. A crude summary is that globalization and the "information economy" left the working class un/under-employed and made the centers so expensive that they were pushed out to the "periphery," often literally. (Periphery in particular means distance from the active economy, but high housing prices mean that this is "away from Paris" as well.) The housing built for the working class now houses immigrants and second generations of immigrants, who work cheaper, but are often hostile. The successful class is essentially oblivious--everyone they know is doing fine, and they enjoy life just fine.
While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to bus tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies, and change bedpans. Immigrants—not native French workers—do most of these jobs. Why this should be so is an economic controversy. Perhaps migrants will do certain tasks that French people will not—at least not at the prevailing wage. Perhaps employers don’t relish paying €10 an hour to a native Frenchman who, ten years earlier, was making €20 in his old position and has resentments to match. Perhaps the current situation is an example of the economic law named after the eighteenth-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say: a huge supply of menial labor from the developing world has created its own demand.


Upwardly mobile urbanites, observes Guilluy, call Paris “the land of possibilities,” the “ideapolis.” One is reminded of Richard Florida and other extollers of the “Creative Class.” The good fortune of Creative Class members appears (to them) to have nothing to do with any kind of capitalist struggle. Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them.

That may sound somewhat familiar, and the article makes the connections, but the focus is on France and its unique situation.

One line struck me: "French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency."

I hear an echo of another famous delusion current a century ago: elan, "offensive รก l'outrance." I hope the consequences of this delusion are not so deadly.

Both the new and old attitude seem essentially religious, both with the volk as the god. "We are too pious and good for bad things to happen to us." Of course "common decency" can be made into an extremely low bar.

I work in one of those elite groups: an international collaboration at a world-class university: knowledge-based and cosmopolitan. The folks here are smart and honest, and by and large extremely nice people. "Nice" is not the same as "good," but from inside the bubble it is easy to make that mistake.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


A Russian does Spike Jones one better with an innovative variation on a glockenspiel.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hunting the wild

Scott Van Zyl was hunting crocodiles by the Limpopo, and apparently they found him first. Three were killed, and DNA testing verified that one at least contained Van Zyl.

I'm sorry for him and his family. Closure is a good thing, but I wish they hadn't killed the crocs.

Not that I have any fondness for the creatures. If the last tiger on Earth were killing people in my neighborhood, I'd join the posse to go kill it. But Scott's case is a little different.

I want no wild threats to my home, and will be as thorough as I need to be to make sure of that.

A farmer who wants to harvest a steer or three wants as little fuss as possible.

A subsistence hunter needs food. If there's something dangerous out there, he would prefer that it either be elsewhere or be made incapable of harming him and his tribe. Man-eating bears interfere with the hunting he needs to do to keep his family alive.

A deer hunter wants the challenge of outwitting a deer on its native ground. He's not looking for danger, just the venison and the challenge. Similarly with geese, turkey, etc. If a pack of wolves started stalking hunters instead of just spooking deer, I think most of us would go along with relocating them--either far away or to the tanner's. Man-eating wolves would interfere with the sport.

But a crocodile hunter is hunting it precisely because it is dangerous. Likewise a lion hunter, or a grizzly hunter--only a jerk would go to a lion farm to shoot a quasi-tame lion. If the hunter has a very bad encounter with something wild, that just emphasizes the wildness and danger for the next hunter. Killing the dangerous animals to make it safe again interferes with the sport.

I wonder what Scott would have thought about it. I'm pretty sure his wife and kids wanted closure.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The peaceful sea

Some varieties of sea urchins, when disturbed, turn loose some of their stinging appendages (pedicellariae) to float around like little mines--mines that bite instead of explode. Bee-sting like.
Many people are familiar with the spiny appearance of sea urchins, but most have probably never noticed the pedicellariae that grow between the spines. Each one is less than a millimeter across, and they come in several different types, some of which are more suited to cleaning away algae than fighting off predators. Collector urchins have a particularly fearsome variety of pedicellariae consisting of stalks topped with biting jaws. The three sections of the jaws open outward like flower petals, each one ending in a venomous fang. A dense forest of these structures covers the collector urchin's shell, waving and snapping in response to touch, chemical signals and looming shadows.


Four of the urchin species kept their pedicellariae, but the collector sea urchins released a continuous stream of the biting appendages. In the original experiments, collector urchins released tens of pedicellariae per trial, but in subsequent tests, which have not yet been written up and published, they spewed hundreds over the course of 30 seconds

Apparently fighter drones aren't a new invention.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Restricting traffic is an old idea, and everything old is new again. After a container-truck accident killed a popular performer, there are calls to restrict the trucks to night-time operation in Monrovia. The article includes plenty of insinuations that the trucks are not road-worthy--an accusation I'd cheerfully believe--but includes no claims that the drivers are careless; a curious oversight. I sort of doubt the truck drivers would be better drivers at night, with mediocre street lighting and pedestrians even harder to see.

I found this hilarious: "“Has the LNP put any speed bumps to prevent unnecessary over-speeding and death at the road where the young musician Quincy B met his fate?” a young man asked." On most roads they're not necessary, and I thought one of the jobs they wanted Ellen to oversee was to fix the infrastructure.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Peter had a confusing career. He told Jesus to go away, because he (Peter) was a sinful man. Jesus called him anyway. A little later Jesus called him Satan. When Peter swung a sword to come to His defense, Jesus rebuked him. Peter, along with the others, swore he'd never deny Jesus, and then he lied like mad when his poor spy scheme was uncovered. He had a decided tendency to fall asleep when praying (Gethsemane, Joppa): one man called napping "The Prayer of St. Peter." After the Resurrection, the angel said "Tell His disciples, and Peter." Ouch. Though maybe he already felt like an outsider. Even after the Resurrection, Peter thought the best thing to do was go fishing. And then Jesus grilled him.

He was clearly not the head honcho at Jerusalem; James was. Paul had to call him on the carpet at one point.

I'm not at all persuaded that he was appointed head of the church, but I think one might do worse than appoint a klutz who's been through the fire a time or three--somebody who's had to learn a bit of humility.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Problems and solutions

But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him.

Our church has decided to try to help address the problem of "the achievement gap" in Madison. There's a problem there, true. And perhaps there is something we can do to help, though I seriously doubt that we'll have any grand solutions. Even a few lives are worth a lot, though.

I don't know the history of the decision, but I wonder how it evolved. It sometimes seems as though we see a problem and glom onto it, work up a plan and advertise for volunteers.

Do we wind up in a different place if, instead of looking at problems, we ask "What solutions do we have? What skills and enthusiasms do our people have?"(*) One fellow in our church wasn't very bright, and his skill set was pretty limited, but he put together a list of people to call, and when he heard that someone in church was moving, he called people on the list to assemble a team to help. That's not the sort of thing I usually hear when the church says they need people to help. (Typically they're short of child care workers.)

I tried to rouse interest in a "What I can do" list at our last church: a list of things people say they're willing to volunteer for. Ideally this would be pooled by local churches, since one church may not have a critical mass of people able to address a problem that needs a team. In practice I couldn't get ours interested. Possibly this had to do with liability issues, possibly the concept has serious flaws, and possibly I'm not very good at salesmanship.

I finished Organic Community tonight, which is about how much better the results are from collaboration and encouraging people to develop their own activities than from "cooperation" (aka do it my way) and central planning. The last time I checked a body needs both flexible flesh and solid skeletons. Still, quite a lot of the appropriate work of a church goes on through informal or almost informal networks of friends. The liturgy, whether high or low, is only part of the work.

(*) I do not mean those spiritual gift questionnaires.

Sunday, April 09, 2017


WHO Report: Over One Million Liberians Suffering From Depression.

I hope this isn't true. I expect millions are stressed and very unhappy, and that's a very big deal, but depression is more than just that.

Saturday, April 08, 2017


I gather the makeup artists for horror movies work hard to make people look suitably gruesome, without going that extra inch that makes them look silly.

Hollywood is missing a bet. They could simply hire DMV photographers.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Days of Rage by Bryan Burrough

I will find it difficult to write a more interesting description than David did. You should definitely go read that.

It was rather disconcerting to think how close some of this was when I was in Chicago. I had read the news, but forgotten most of it, just like everyone else. This is a good reminder of what madness can lie just around the corner.

The year Several years before I first arrived at college, student riots had burned down Old Main. The main computing facility was in a limited access building that permitted defense in depth. (They opened a new and more open facility while I was there.) Iranian students did some demonstrating, but there was very little drama otherwise--a big crowd assembled on the rumor that a sorority had scheduled a streak, and the student government was dominated by a party which ran on the platform that they would bring the Grateful Dead to perform. I think there must have been a bit of a reaction against politics.

Chicago Circle had more diversity of weirdness. I had a few letters to the editor published under the pseudonym of Ho Lee, Chairman of Reeducation Committee, and cosigned by Korean War Veterans Against Admitting Hawaii as a State and others of that ilk. To give some flavor of the dialog on campus: I overheard people who thought the letters were real. Nothing was too crazy.

Some of those crazies stayed crazy.

You should read the book. A couple of things jumped out at me: the Law tended to only catch the bombers by accident, and the revolution runs on money. Friendly lawyers, ECUSA, or bank robbery--somehow revolutionaries had to get the bucks. And one other thing--no matter how weird things are, they can get worse.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017


The story read Who sold embassy in Spain for $1m? "Liberian officials say “a crook” in Spain has sold Liberia’s embassy there at over US$1m, but Spanish government have already seized proceeds of the sale and were trying to return the buyer’s money and give back Liberia its foreign mission property."

I just had to follow up on that kind of story, and found a new story from a few hours later: Govt to close embassy in Spain? In that we learn that the illegal sale was in Sweden, not Spain, and that both buildings are in such derelict condition that the Liberian government wants to sell the Spanish one in order to pay for repairs in the Swedish one.

I wonder what tomorrow's story will tell, and what the Spanish think of this type of triage. Neither story said who bought the place.

FWIW, when I wanted a visa I went to a Liberian Consulate on the south side of Chicago--and just barely caught the officer before he went out on a long lunch. The address turned out to be a back room in a rug store. It has since been closed.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

What makes you angry?

I ran across the "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize" line attributed to Voltaire. Since Voltaire made a fairly successful career doing just that, it didn’t sound quite his style--and apparently the line is of fairly recent coinage, and is attributed to a fellow who doesn’t like Jews.

The first time I ran across it, it seemed a little extravagant but mildly plausible—but I remembered reading about complaints in the army, and the principle started to seem less than universally accurate: more of a matter of "who are the favored ones" than "who rules." They aren’t the same people. In academia there most certainly are people who, if you criticize them, you risk your career. Mentioning some topics will kill it dead. Anybody remember Lawrence Summers?

To say it more accurately: "To find out who the favored ones are, find out who you aren’t allowed to criticize or make fun of." Zzzzz.

Still, the idea of probing the structure of something with humor or criticism might have some potential.

Who do you really worship? I know a number of people who, if you mock God, will have a very mild response. If you mock their president (current or previous, depending on their tribe) they go ape. I get it that we have an obligation to protect the honor of family and friends, and think it reasonable to rise to their defense. But realistically, the president is only your friend in abstract. Maybe you met him once, but you don't know him. If, on the other hand, he is the one you put your trust in, the symbol of all you hold dear, perhaps you are putting him in a role only another can fill.

Screwtape wrote of "God And" as a tool to pry people away from God. Do my reactions tell of my God or my And?

I often hear of some Muslims going ape when someone disses Muhammad or the Koran, but rarely hear of them getting angry when someone complains about God. (It does sometimes happen.)

Some of us get bent out of shape by lies. We often get more bent out of shape by lies about us or our tribe, of course, but insofar as we try to be even-handed this seems like a love of truth and a good thing. But when you jump to oppose some lies and not others, perhaps you've let your "And" rule.

I feel a strong urge to jump in when somebody starts munging(*) up something about physics or astronomy, but it generally doesn’t make me angry. On the other hand, when somebody starts claiming that the moon landings were faked, I find that I start with some invidious (and usually accurate) assumptions about his willingness to review evidence. It doesn’t mean that I think the moon landings are more holy than F=ma. So my reaction doesn’t map neatly onto deeply held beliefs; it’s a mix of my gut reaction to the issue and my reaction to you.

When I mentioned in one circle the rather obvious fact that Hillary was a bad candidate (**) the others assumed that I meant that I disliked her character and her politics. That is true, but not what I was talking about--their reaction was also to an assumption, that I was announcing membership in a different tribe.

So I think this probe is most useful in self-examination. It is too easy to make mistakes applying it to other people. Though one is sometimes tempted to draw conclusions from obvious cases...

(*) Mung: recursive acronym for Mung Until No Good

(**) Just count the signs up for her in Madison vs those for Obama 4 years earlier, and compare with the number for the senate candidate. Reliably Democratic Madison wasn’t very enthusiastic at all. Not a good candidate...

More tame foxes

From the fact that PBS did a story on them, I gather that interest has not subsided, and from the low price ($9000)(*) I gather that the supply end is doing OK.

The changes in behavior have been remarkably rapid--less than 60 years to effective domestication. Andrew Wagner warns that there may still be some residual issues.

"[You can be] sitting there drinking your cup of coffee and turning your head for a second, and then taking a swig and realizing, ‘Yeah, Boris came up here and peed in my coffee cup,’" said Amy Bassett, the Canid Conservation Center’s founder. "You can easily train and manage behavioral problems in dogs, but there are a lot of behaviors in foxes, regardless of if they’re Russian or U.S., that you will never be able to manage."

"Never" is a long time.

(*) That doesn't seem too crazy for an exotic. Some rare dog breeds are up there too: e.g. a saluki for $2500.