Sunday, December 25, 2005


There's no time like the present.

There's no present like the time.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve in Wisconsin

Mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, juncos, goldfinches, purple finches, starlings (8 in a square foot patch of grass!), city sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and some kind of sparrow we didn’t recognize showed up at the bird feeders and the snow beneath this morning. We watched for a while, and then called Eldest Son, who walked a couple blocks over to see.

Of course, they were all gone when he arrived. He hung around a few minutes, and then left. 10 minutes later the crowd was back out front. Birds are still dripping out of the trees to the feeders this afternoon.

I took Youngest Daughter to buy a present for Eldest Son. She isn’t exactly swimming in cash, so her choices were a bit limited. I made suggestions, but she said “I want to buy him a Star Wars book.” “You don’t have enough money for that—look at the prices,” I replied. “Well, I’ll buy him a short story,” she answered.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

Short version: Go read it.

Long version: This is a collection of essays by Dalrymple, in two related categories: Arts and Letters and Society and Politics. The purpose of the book is explained at the end of the preface:

Having spent a considerable portion of my professional career in Third World countries in which the implementation of abstract ideas and ideals has made bad situations incomparably worse, and the rest of my career among the very extensive British underclass, whose disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics, I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it.

The first essay is his famous The Frivolity of Evil. If you haven’t read anything else by him, read this essay, which is available on the web.

This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread in life's rich tapestry?

The work is rich with insights, such as

There is something to be said here abou the word “depression,” which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one’s state of mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a belief that must deprive human existance of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.

He does recognize true depression, but that isn’t the issue here.

A Taste for Danger speaks about war photography, the search for dangerous situations, and how we overestimate the importance of our feelings; ranking things as more important when our emotions are stronger. I think you know what Why Shakespeare is for all Time is about. He loves Shakespeare, and defends him against nonsense. He introduces Zweig and Turgenov and Gillray to the reader, and shreds Virginia Wolfe and D.H. Lawrence (“Lawrence’s prose manages the difficult feat of being leaden and overwrought at the same time.”)

He addresses the coarsening of the culture, and the utter lack of any sense of shame among the critics and “artists,” and sees how this trickles down to permeate the rest of the culture. “Culture” sounds vague and arbitrary, but culture is the way we think about each other and act towards each other. A coarsened culture is one with more rudeness and even exploitation, since we are taught to think of each other in animal terms rather than ethical or spiritual terms.

One “artist” canned his own excrement and called the result “art.” Galleries paid thousands of dollars for the cans (2/3 of which have since exploded), and his fame is immense. This is beyond parody. The saying “virtue is its own reward” has a flip side: some vices are their own punishment—these “aesthetes” have blinded themselves. And the culture that honors this sort of nonsense loses the capacity to see beauty. If you listen to teenagers, do you hear them talk about whether a woman is beautiful, or instead whether she is “hot” (sexually attractive)?

Dalrymple moves on to look at What We Have to Lose.

I saw the revolt against civilization and the restraints and frustrations it entails in many countries, but nowhere more starkly than in Liberia in the midst of the civil war there. I arrived in Monrovia when there was no longer any electricity or running water; no shops, no banks, no telephones, no post office, no schools, no transport, no clinics, no hospitals. Almost every building had been destroyed in whole or in part: and what had not been destroyed had been looted.

I inspected the remains of the public institutions. They had been destroyed with a thoroughness that could not have been the result of mere military conflict. Every last piece of equipment in the hospitals (which had long since been emptied of staff and patients) had been laboriously disassembled beyond hope of repair or use. Every wheel had been severed by metal cutters from every trolley, cut at the cost of what must have been a very considerable effort. It was as if a horde of people with terrible experiences of hospitals, doctors, and medicine had passed through to exact their revenge.

But this was not the explanation, because every other institution had undergone similar destruction. The books in the university library had been one and all—without exception—pulled from the shelves and piled into contumptuous heaps, many with pages torn from them or their spines deliberately broken. It was the revenge of barbarians upon civilization, and of the powerless upon the powerful, or at least upon what they perceived as the source of their power. Ignorance revolted against knowledge, for the same reasons that my brother and I smashed the radioi all those years before. Could there have been a clearer indication of hatred of the lower for the higher?

In fact there was—and not very far away, in a building called the Centennial Hall, where the inauguration ceremonies of the presidents of Liberia took place. The hall was empty now, except for the busts of former presidents, some of them overturned, around the walls—and a Steinway grand piano, probably the only instrument of its kind in the entire country, two-thirds of the way into the hall. The piano, however, was not intact: its legs had been sawn off (though they were by design removeable) and the body of the piano lay on the ground, like a stranded whale. Around it were disposed not only the sawed-off legs but little piles of human feces.


Appalled as I was by the scene in the Centennial Hall, I was yet more appalled by the reaction of two young British journalists, also visiting Monrovia, to whom I described it, assuming that they would want to see for themselves. But they could see nothing significant in the vandalizing of the piano—only an inanimate object, when all is said and done—in the context of a civil war in which scores of thousands of people had been killed and many more had been displaced from their homes. They saw no connection whatever between the impulse to destroy the piano and the impulse to kill, no connection between respect for human life and for the finer productions of human labor, no connection between civilization and the inhibition against the random killing of fellow beings, no connection between the book burnings in Nazi Germany and all the subsequent barbarities of that regime. …

If anything, they “understood” the destruction of the piano in the Centennial Hall and even sympathized with it. The “root cause” of Liberia’s civil war, they said, had been the long domination of an elite—in the same way, presumably, that poverty is often said to be the “root cause” of crime. The piano was an instrument, both musical and political, of that elite, and therefore its destruction was a step in the direction of democracy, an expression of the general will.

This way of thinking about culture and civilization—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies.

Other chapter titles: How to Read a Society (introducing Custine and his visit to Russia), Why Havana Had to Die, The Uses of Corruption (Italy vs Britain: “corruption is a strange sort of virtue, but so is honesty in the pursuit of useless or harmful ends”), The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations (Princess Diana), The Starving Criminal (self-inflicted malnutrition!), Don’t Legalize Drugs (a pragmatic answer to idealist idiots), All Sex, All the Time (“No one seems to have noticed , however, that a loss of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth.”), Who Killed Childhood?, A Horror Story (about an infamous pair of criminals), The Man Who Predicted the Race Riots (Honeyford and “multiculturalism’s problems and contradictions”), and When Islam Breaks Down (“the anger of Muslims . .. is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness … of Islam in the modern world”).

He ends with After Empire, about Zimbabwe. “The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their offical opportunities might provide.” The same social network that shelters you in time of trouble saps you and corrupts you if you have grand opportunities. Benign European ideas (how about a marketing board to buffer small farmers against bad years?) brought about disaster instead.

Go read it. I’ve got to return this to the library (its overdue), but I’m looking for my own copy.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Birds at CERN

I'd almost forgotten. My eldest asked me to keep an eye out for birds while I was in Switzerland. Since I spent most of my time indoors, this wasn't all that easy, but I heard (didn't see) something that had a quick "chirp chirp chirp" call (all one pitch), and saw some things that looked like large crows with a call like coughing up a hairball. Eldest son says they may be rooks.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What a wonderful phrase!

OK, it's lunch time. What's on offer? Roti de boeuf mince, poisson--the roti looks like Salisbury steak, so poisson. Now 2 veggies (I'm getting closer to the head of the line.) Let's see: mashed potatoes--that'd be pommes de terre something-or-other. I could just say pommes de terre, or just pommes--but I'm not in the mood for mashed potatoes. Carrots I recognize, and I can say that alright, but what's that mixed stuff? It has chickpeas in it, but I can't translate that. Maybe I should just call it a melange. So gear up the old tongue to list them off. But wait! Look at what the fellow in front of me just ordered!

"La meme chose."

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I don't have a narrative for this; just scattered observations.

The light switches are all rockers, with a tiny night light and operating backwards from ours. The French power sockets look terribly shocking: big round holes with a large ground plug sticking out at you. (Swiss ones are also recessed, and nobody else's plug fits them, but they're a pretty sensible design.) The roads wouldn't meet US driveway codes—too narrow and not quite sturdy enough. There aren't any water fountains to serve the public. All the plumbing, including the toilet tank, is behind the wall—you wonder how anything ever gets repaired. (The flush button is a large push pad on the wall.)

When the fog lifts you can see the clouds spilling over the Juras. I did get to see Mount Blanc for a few minutes, but most of the time it is shrouded in fog. The food at the cafeteria is quite good. Not terribly cheap—the cost of living is quite high here. Everybody is either drinking coffee or wine or bottled water. Some places stink of smoke, but you'll find a startling number are no-smoking buildings.

Meyrin is far grubbier than I remember—lots of identical concrete apartment blocks, some looking moderately well kept up but some with gang signs and cracked concrete and underwear hung out to dry in the damp and even a flag with a a sword between crescents on a green background, with white diagonal stripes on red beside it.

I see familiar faces from time to time: CMS has 2000 collaborators, and people come to it and Atlas from all over. I also hear lots of unhappy people, worrying that they won't make the deadline in 2007. And they're probably right; most detector groups won't be ready. But I saw some of the same thing at CDF years ago; and people took pride in their ability to make do. And were confident that the accelerator wouldn't start quite on time either. This is a bigger project, and there's a lot more national politics involved, so disaster is a bit easier to find. Some of the people I'm with delight in grousing, so maybe I hear too much bad news and too much reaction to bad news.

I have a bad feeling about this set of experiments. They're the biggest science projects in history (nobody knows the relative size of the old pre-Incan agricultural research work)--and so very visible at the level of line items in national budgets: and without any sort of obvious dollars and cents payback. This may be the last of the high energy experiments, and we'd better make it work. On the other hand, the Ice Cube project was approved, and that's neither cheap nor (as far as I know) very general: it is a lot of bucks for a handful of measurements.

The muon alignment meeting was 4 hours long. One of the speakers looked just like Agent Smith from The Matrix, though he didn't defend himself nearly so well. Just about everybody brings laptops to the meetings, and works on odds and ends during the dull spots. Me, I kept nodding off: it was about 3 in the morning my time.

Odd little curiosities in no particular order: The Airbus that brought us from Chicago to Paris had video screens in the back of each chair, and one of the features was a map with the airplane position and flight parameters. As we took off you could watch the airspeed and altitude numbers climb, though they left that feature off during the descent. (Three guesses why) The hotel bed is very low to the ground—why waste space under the bed, I suppose. Safety ads abound. The bus service is still very fine. I see almost no clocks on the walls at CERN.

I moved to the CERN hostel for the last couple of days. Smaller, a bit cheaper, a lot more convenient. I've been so busy I've not been shopping. I shot off all the film I had, but I don't know if anything will come out. The weather's been very mild; not really below freezing.

I'd the use of a rental Hyundai for a few days—a tiny stick shift. Running a stick came back to me, and I only ground the gears a couple of times, though I raced the motor a lot. I was never very good with manual transmissions. I made a point to keep to the speed limit, even with cars lining up behind me. I guess the locals know where the radar points are.