Tuesday, April 29, 2003

On the road this morning I saw a fairly new car with a Van Halen 1984 bumper sticker. I hope the owner kept it as a souvenir of his work with the group's tour, because otherwise it seems rather sad. Was the most dramatic thing in this person's life an entertainment 20 years ago?

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Lest you think that all I read are histories and books about current events, let me introduce you to Terry Pratchett's Night Watch. For those not familiar with him, he is a science fiction/fantasy writer who has most recently been writing novels based in his Discworld: a magical flat world carried on the back of four elephants riding on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. You should already get the idea that whimsy and satire are his stock in trade. Pratchett also rejoices in a pleasant writing style and a love of humorous asides and literate in-jokes.

There are many different regions and groups of characters on Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (a large and very grimy city, home to the wizards acadamy and the Night Watch), Ramtop (up in the mountains, rural with witches), Uberwald (kind of medieval, with werewolves and vampires), anywhere (Death, a Tooth Fairy, etc), and so on.

Vimes is the commander of the Night Watch, which is Ankh-Morpork's police force. (The Day Watch is a bit more political.) He stars in number of the books as the man who tries to arrange for some kind of order and justice in a city with an official Thieve's Guild and less than a dozen watchmen with no tradition of public service. As time (and books) go by he acquires more loyal watchmen, including dwarves, werewolves, and the incognito/unwilling heir to the throne.

In this book Pratchett throws Vines back in time to a critical time of revolution when the young Vines had just joined the force--and a worthless crew of corrupt doughnut-snarfers it was. Unfortunately, it looks like history has been changed, and young Vines will "go to to the dark side" unless the older Vines can figure out what to do.

Sure, it sounds unbelievably complicated, but this is all happening on the back of a tortoise, remember?

Vines indulges in too much irritable introspection for my taste, but I enjoyed the book anyhow.

I prefer the books with the Watch or the Invisible University (and Rhincewind the runaway wizard) to those with the witches, but I can tell Terry prefers the witches--they get the good lines. One series of books deals with Death, a skeleton with the job you probably expect, and his attempts to understand human life. I think the best of those I've read is A Thief of Time. I get annoyed with his dislike for religion (he uses Andre Norton's idea that gods get power from their worshipper's belief {doesn't sound a bit like Exodus, does it?}); and he's as careless with metaphysics as he is careful with logic (believe it or not) and physics.

From Pyramids this nice bit of physics:

Light moves slowly, lazily on the Disc. It's in no hurry to get anywhere. Why bother? At lightspeed, everywhere is the same time.
Or this observation about Egyptian-style embalmers
Possibly thirty-five years in the funeral business, which had given him a steady hand, a philosophic manner and a keen interest in vegetarianism, had also granted him powers of hearing beyond the ordinary.

I'm back to Bernard Lewis again with his The Crisis of Islam. (Please forgive me if I don't stick in links to Amazon--I get most of my books out of the library. Three cheers for the South Central Library System of Wisconsin!) This is Lewis' first book since September 11 (What Went Wrong went to the printers before that date, though it was published after).

The book is an expansion of an article for The New Yorker in which he brings to bear his understanding of Middle Eastern history to explain why bin Ladin's views of the world are so popular. Earlier works have been more generic: this one is focussed on how the attitudes in the Moslem Middle East, and to some extent elsewhere, developed the form they have.

He reviews the nature and purpose of jihad, the shock of not just stopped in advance but losing ground, the shock of losing control of all but the most sacred lands in Islam to colonial powers, the shock of losing the Caliphate (felt even in Indonesia according to another source), and the failure of almost every attempt to create their own governments. The Arab response has essentially been to assume that

  • We have been betrayed and tricked by the West. The solution is to oppose any Western solutions and ideas, which merely seduce us from the true path. All Westerners are liars, especially the newspapers. The great Satan (seducer/trickster) is the United States.
  • We have not been holy enough (following Qtub and Wahabbi), and so God is punishing us. The solution is to be holier in following God's law, with no exceptions.
  • We have been betrayed and tricked by false Moslem leaders. The solution is to consider them infidels, especially if they work with the West.
  • The Jews are behind all our troubles.

The self-deception and hunger for conspiracy theories of the "secular" Arab population make it hard to communicate with them, and the Qtub/Wahabbist influenced religious Arabs don't want to hear us at all. Terrorism is an old tool in the Middle East, but the confluence of Khomeini's interpretations of Shiism and the exigencies of the Iran-Iraq war (in which Iran used volunteers to run through mine fields in advance of their soldiers), together with the demand for more effective terrorist attacks against Israel, formed the cult the suicide bomber. This is novel in Islam, but attracts very little condemnation.

As usual, Bernard Lewis is knowledgeable and clear, and gets my thumbs-up. If there is one flaw in his analysis, I think it lies in his treatment of the centrality of the Arab/Israeli conflict in Moslem thought. I am not convinced that the reasons are purely political and historical--this doesn't seem to give it enough force in non-Arab regions. I think we should look to Bat Ye'or for another part of the answer: It is because Israel is Jewish that it is such an affront. Israel is not a Western colony, and not a followup to the Crusades, but a revolt by the oldest group of those given a Divine revelation against the "Seal of the Prophets" (TM). It is felt as a betrayal, since the Jews were nominally given respect and protection and "their place" in the world (see Bat Ye'or for how this worked out in practice).

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Blood Diamonds, by Greg Campbell, tells the story of how diamonds in Sierra Leone fueled one of the most bizarre civil wars in history. Increasingly corrupt governments failed to address basic needs and basic responsibilities (such as control of the borders), and a flourishing smuggling trade grew up. The diamond cartel (founded by the infamous Cecil Rhoades) had and has a strong interest in buying up all the rough diamonds it can, in order to keep the price from collapsing, so these all-too-easily transported rocks always had ready buyers.

The RUF was formed as a thin veneer of revolutionary rhetoric over an organization designed to smuggle the diamonds that they mined using slave labor in the conquered territory. The proceeds bought more guns, helicopter, cars, and drugs. Even AlQaida took an interest in the trade, buying large numbers of rough stones (which can't be traced through bank transaction records).

The RUF is best known for their intimidation campaigns, in which they attacked civilians and chopped off hands of the people they left alive. They had no affinity for any local ethnic group, no ideology, no plans for government, and no long term schemes for keeping the wealth they accumulated--most of which seems to have gone for guns and drugs. They were vicious thugs looking only at short term money and power.

The groups that opposed them tended to become like them. The Kamajors were tribes from near the border with Liberia that armed to fight the RUF, but they soon found that they needed money, thus they needed diamonds; and they got into the smuggling and intimidation business. The governments troops were not controllable, and often banded together with rebel groups. The ECOMOG (West African economic community military forces--mostly Nigerian) peace keepers were venal and careless, and came to represent "Every Car Or Movable Object Gone." The UN peace keeping forces (in the most expensive peace keeping effort in UN history) were ill-coordinated, ill-equipped, given ill-considered mandates and generally ineffective.

There were only two bright stars in this ugly mess: Executive Outcomes (a mercenary company!), and the British government which sent in paratroopers to straighten out the mess the UN had gotten into. In an absolutely staggering oversight, Campbell completely omits the role of the British troops in salvaging the peace. If you read his book you'll think the UN troops and workers eventually saved the day--and it wasn't so. The UN was in deep trouble until the Brits arrived and put the fear of real armies into the combatants, and started training real police instead of the freelance shakedown artists.

Campbell names names and sources, and I learned a few things (I'd been keeping an eye on events here for some years, so it wasn't exactly new to me). Yes, find and read this book. And see if you want to buy a diamond again, even if only 3% of the share comes from bloody regions. Who says "Diamonds are Forever?" (Answer: The folks trying to keep prices artificially high by monopolizing the supply. DeBeers cannot have 3 executives in the US at the same time or they become liable to arrest and prosecution under US anti-monopoly laws.)

Friday, April 25, 2003

We've had some arguments with teenage daughters about radio stations and TV shows. When is it reasonable to pick out the good stuff and just turn off the bad, as opposed to chucking the whole thing and leaving the TV off completely?

I think this ties in with the book of Judges. If you will forgive an illustrative short story....

Three Israelite brothers, Moesh, Tulax, and Jesh moved to a small valley to farm. They worshipped God, held the feasts, and gave tithes to the Levites, and tried to do what God wanted. In this valley lived a few pagan families who worshipped several different gods: one of fire, one of harvests, another of rain, and so on.

Moesh thought that some of the pagan women were very pretty, but he remembered that he was not supposed to marry a pagan woman, so he married another Israelite from several valleys away, and they started a family. Sometimes he traded food with some of the pagan families, and sometimes they got together for dinner. He noticed that his neighbor Sulla would always splash a little of his drink out onto the floor before he drank any. Moesh asked Sulla why, and Sulla said that this was what they always did--it was one of the customs of the country. When Moesh ate at Sulla's home, everybody splashed a little out of their drink, from the grandfather to the baby (who splashed a lot!). The only one who didn't was Moesh, and he felt a little uncomfortable.

One evening he sloshed a little bit himself when everyone else did, though he tried to make it look like an accident. The next week he did it again, and pretty soon he was splashing a little out just like everyone else.

When their families ate together, Moesh's son BarMoesh noticed that his daddy was splashed a bit of milk out on the floor with the Sulla family, and asked why. Moesh told his son "That's nothing, its just the way they do things here." So, BarMoesh cheerfully splashed his milk too, and not just with the Sulla family, but sometimes when he was alone as well. He asked his friend BenSulla one day why: he'd never thought to ask before. BenSulla said "Oh, that's just so it will rain."

When BarMoesh grew up he married and had children of his own, and at every meal and every time they drank water outside they splashed a little on the ground first--just to make sure the rain would come. One day his son Mobat asked his friend Sulbat about splashing, since Sulbat seemed to know more than he did. Sulbat told him that the splashing was an offering to Ba-el, the rain god; and that every year you were supposed to sacrifice a sheep on an altar in the hills as well. Since Mobat knew the splashing was all right, and helped the rain come, because his daddy said so, he supposed that the sacrifice in the hills was OK too. And so, when Mobat grew up, he took a sacrifice to God at the tabernacle and another one to Bael in the hills. But the altar to Bael was closer, and it even had a statue of Bael he could look at, so he liked it better.

Tulax (remember, Moesh's brother), when he moved to the valley, also saw the pretty women, and decided that one of them was too pretty, and too good a cook to pass up, so he married Murpa. Murpa was a very nice woman, and she loved their children, but she insisted on keeping some of her family's customs, such as going up in the hills once a year to an altar that Tulax needn't bother going to and always putting the chicken head in the fire. Tulax wanted peace and quiet in the house, so he let Murpa do what she wanted.

Murpa told their children BarTulax and Melpa stories about people, and about the land, and about the spirits in the stream, and about the gods. Tulax told them about God and how Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, which always impressed the children, but Murpa told them most of what they heard, so when they grew up they thought there were many gods. So they went to the tabernacle with their father, but they more often went to the altar in the hills with their mother, or offered a chicken to the fire god themselves.

When BarTulax and Melpa grew up and had children of their own, they told their children about all the gods and spirits they knew, but the real God was only one, and He seemed a bit far away, so their children didn't pay much attention to Him.

Jesh saw the pagan women, but he knew he wasn't supposed to marry one, so he eventually found a wife several valleys away. He made friends with his neighbors, and traded food with them, and sometimes ate with Sulla. Sulla would splash a little out of his cup before drinking, and Jesh asked him why. Sulla said it was just the custom of the country. Jesh asked, "Why is it a custom?" Sulla said, "Well, it is to make sure it rains."

Jesh asked "Why does that help make it rain?" Sulla said, "It is a little offering to Ba-el to remind him that we need rain."

Jesh said, "I can't do that; I can only worship God." Sulla didn't say anything.

But after that, Jesh felt more and more uncomfortable eating with Sulla and his family, and so he tried to only meet with them at times when they wouldn't be eating. Sulla thought Jesh was being standoffish and unfriendly, but Jesh wouldn't eat with the Sullas, nor would he let his family eat with them anymore.

When Jesh's children asked Jesh why the Sulla family splashed milk before drinking it, Jesh explained that the Sulla family was worshiping an idol, and that he wanted his family only to worship God. When Jesh's children grew up and had children of their own, they told them the same thing, and told them the stories of Moses bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.

So, three Israelites came to the valley. One was a compromiser, one was disobedient, and one was faithful. The grandchildren of the compromiser became idolaters. The children of the disobedient man became idolaters, and their children as well. Only the grandchildren of the faithful man were still faithful. It was so easy for the compromising man to compromise, and so easy for the disobedient man to give in to his pagan wife, and so easy for the children to worship nearby idols; that it is no wonder that so many of them became idol worshippers.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Deuteronomy 23:24-25 says "If you enter your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor's grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain."

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 says "When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this."

When I lived in Aurora, the apartment complex was at the edge of the city, next to a farmer's field. If the inhabitants of our complex had tried this kind of "snack harvest" we'd have taken out about a full row's worth of grain: two if the folks from the complex a few blocks down had joined in. Maybe the farmer could stand the loss, but it wouldn't be trivial.

So set aside the literal application of this. Never mind about trying to find modern equivalents (the grocer survives on a thin enough profit margin as it is). What is the principle to follow, or the attitude we're to cultivate?

I think both passages are really aimed at the owner. The first asserts a limited claim of one neighbor on the produce of another. One principle is that the owner is not entitled to demand the entire produce of his land. The second passage asserts the same principle, though in a slightly different context. The first passage says that neighbors have a share, and the second that the helpless have a share. The owner of the land is not the absolute owner.

We are accustomed to seeing this principle in a different context: property taxes. The owner is not the absolute owner because the state has a permanent lien on his land for taxes.

In this case in Deuteronomy the limit on ownership is not so easily calculated or predicted. Neighbors may come around frequently, or there may be more poor around than usual (Ruth 2:15-16). You can think of this limit as creating a certain fuzziness about what is mine and what my neighbor has a claim on. My neighbor is not entitled to steal: going into my vineyard with a basket goes beyond neighborly commonality into greed and theft. But I am not entitled to demand every kernel of corn from my field.

Interestingly enough, if I plant to the edges of my land and harvest every grain, I leave no room and no food for the overlooked birds and insects that pollinate and help keep my land fertile and versatile. If I plant every year and don't let the land lie fallow now and then I'll have to drag in extra fertilizers. Once again, if I assert absolute ownership I run into troubles--not with God's law this time (at least not explicitly) but with ecological law.

Can this sort of fuzziness ever be made part of statutory or common law? I can recall instances when this would have been a useful principle. Recall George Lucas and the "Phantom Edit" revisions. However amused Lucas may have been by the revisions, he had no choice but to assert his property rights over the material, on pain of losing it all. There was no room for fuzziness--and there ought to have been some. Changing the law would have all sorts of unintended consequences, and I'm not advocating such changes; merely showing that justice and art would have been better served with less claim to absolute ownership in this case.

At any rate, the intent of the Deuteronomy passages seems clear enough: I am not to consider myself as absolute owner, and am to consider my neighbor and the helpless as having liens upon my increase/income. This falls short of the New Testament view, but it is hard enough to obey the Deuteronomic rule.

I've found the secret for growing luxuriant grass in my yard: plant a garden.

Monday, April 14, 2003

"Of beauty I am not a star.
There are others more handsome by far.
My face: I don't mind it
Because I'm behind it;
Its the ones out in front that I jar."

I bought a hat recently, without my wife's input. For some reason she winces when I it on. I don't know why--it keeps the sun off quite nicely.

Friday, April 11, 2003

I don't watch much TV at all. The last time I turned ours on at home was for the shuttle crash, and even then I only watched for 10 minutes every hour or so. The incremental benefit of another minute's worth of "news" was very small--nobody was going to know anything new for another hour or so, so why not do something useful and check back in an hour?

No, I didn't even turn on the war news. I knew what to expect: reporters with exotic backgrounds, stock footage, the most dramatic footage they could tease out of the can, and breathless magnification of each burst of gunfire into hopeless failure or overwhelming victory. I want to know what's going on overall. Embedded reporters are nice for human interest, but don't tell me much about what's really going on--even with their particular unit. This is partly because reporters as a class seem to be trained for dramatic writing rather than careful observation, and also because really critical details are probably kept secret.

Last week I took a couple of daughters down to visit grandparents. They have cable, and had the TV on a lot. So, I finally got to see the Emerald City of Oz. And the same footage of artillary on at least 4 different networks. And lots of sameness. And far less information in an hour than I could pick up in 15 minutes on the web. And commercials (and commercials and commercials and ...).

The BBC is bitterly anti-US and anti-UK in this campaign (the headline for British forces destroying 14 probing Iraqi tanks had the word victory in quotes!), and relying on it as your sole source of information is stupid. However, relying on American TV is likewise stupid. You'll see endless footage of the rescue of Jessi and statues falling. You'll miss a lot of the problems, and get no context whatever. Whatever your source, you have to weight the reporting by the bias of the agency that reports it--and sometimes discount what's said. When a US general said we had full control of the Bagdad airport, I discounted that to mean "enough troops to mop up and gain full control," and I was right. When ArabNews writes of thousands of Iraqi children murdered, I discount that to a handful of accidental deaths, and I suspect that I'm again right. (I complain about US reporters, but I find I have to completely disregard most Arabic news sources. One is stupid but honest, and the other knowledgeable and lies.)

Plainly there's a lot in this campaign that's been hidden behind the scenes. Some people agreed to stay out of the fight, others helped in one way or another--and they won't want these things known. I probably won't live long enough to hear the whole story. Knowing that I won't know enough, can you understand why I don't care very much about the TV coverage? I know how hard it is and how long it can be to get the full story and get it right. That's my job.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

On the lighter side of things, I recommend Umberto Eco's How to Travel With a Salmon. It is a collection of mostly short essays on society and life taken from a column he wrote. He writes of the epic adventure of trying to get a replacement driver's licence in Italy, of how to survive riding an American train, of coffee, and how to buy gadgets. In the essay on gadgets, just describing the contents of one of those in-flight 'magazines' is enough--you don't even need a punchline.

I had fun--and learned a bit about Italy. I don't know if Eco does his own translation or someone else does it for him, but whoever it is has good word sense.