Tuesday, May 29, 2007

At the concert

One of the singers was a man with the general build of a Tolkien dwarf and a bald crown. Another was a pale thin hollow-cheeked woman who seemed to tremble a bit. A third was a grumpy young black man who kept tilting his head to the side as though he had a toothache or was trying to listen to a ball game on his radio.

This was the high school choir concert. There were various choirs, with the freshmen going first. One choir ditched their robes to do a pop number. Their robes made them look more dignified and mature. In their street clothes (well, one of the dancers had a skirt slit almost all the way up--not quite street clothes) they looked much younger. (and the male soloists needed some power in their voices)

The pop medley was lively, and the Gloriana competently done. The choir director's child was a senior that year, and she picked the Gloriana Masque partly as a salute to her husband--they'd had it in their wedding.

Route 66 and "What shall we do with a drunken sailor" and "Three little maids from school" and "Somewhere" (by Jasmine Christian, one of the students) reflect a little of the variety. The traditional salute to seniors ("May the road rise to greet you") was nicely done.

A good time was had by all: possibly because they made up an exclusion list beforehand. I saw the "do not admit" flier for the ticket seller, but didn't get the names. Some kids had apparently brought stink bombs before, but some preemptive action saved the day.


Irregular verbs are the bane of language students, but the textbooks ignore some other important conjugations completely. Herewith some simple examples:

First personSecond personThird person
I am frugalYou are a penny pincherHe is a miser
I am adventurous in bedYou are kinky He is perverted
I am wittyYou are funnyHe is a joker
I am justYou are strictHe is harsh
I am empatheticYou are emotional He is gushy
I am apprehensiveYou are fearful He is a coward
I am eloquentYou are wordy He is bombastic
I enjoy lifeYou overindulge He is dissipated
I am flexibleYou are fickle He is unreliable
I am colorfulYou are salty He is coarse
I am unconvincedYou are doubting He is cynical
I am stableYou are prosaic He is boring
I am virtuousYou are ethical He is strait-laced
I am generousYou are lavish He is extravagant
I am nobleYou are dignified He is a snob
I am playfulYou are a trifler He is not serious
I am pertYou are flippant He is insolent
I am courageousYou are a daredevil He is reckless
I am authenticYou are transgressive He is hateful

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Youngest daughter was assigned this in school, so I read it. It is classed as a Young Adult book.

Ed is a taxi driver with no prospects and no ambition, with a mother who dislikes him, friends without ambition, some of whom are on the dole, and a platonic love for a woman who is afraid of love and so substitutes sex. The book opens with him face down on the floor during a bank robbery by an incompetent bank robber, whom he soon finds himself capturing. In the flurry of publicity, he receives in the mail an ace of diamonds with the lines 45 Edgar Street, midnight; 13 Harrison Avenue, 6 pm; and 6 Macedoni Street, 5:30 am.

He investigates and finds that, Amelie-like, he is to intervene in the lives of others. When he finally finishes, another message arrives.

The plot is pleasantly surreal, the language (first person) is grungy, and how he eventually figures out what to do on each occasion is left mysterious. An almost supernatural insight points him to his targets, and he (after watching and figuring) seems almost supernaturally guided into the right thing to do. I missed a detail or two, and thought for a long time that the story was set in Britain (actually Australia). The story arc is the maturing of the hero.

The story has some flaws. The priest he is supposed to help seems a bit uninterested in the supernatural, but perhaps that's the kind they get in Australia. Keith and Daryl seem to represent some kind of karmic balancing, but they don't mesh in the story well at all. The biggest howler is the penultimate chapter in which the author makes an appearance, wrapping up the mystery by saying that he managed everything. Perhaps Zusak is trying to make some point about God and omnipotence here (author=God), but more likely he is being self-indulgent.

You could do worse. I don't plan to buy it.

Divided by Faith by Michael O Emerson and Christian Smith, Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

I put off assessing this book for quite a while. I saw it referred to in Christianity Today, with the anecdote that it was given to pastors in a megachurch, one of whom was in tears after reading it. It sounded important.

The book is a history, with lots of survey information, of the modern racial reconciliation movement and how it ran aground; as told through the stories of some key figures. A key passage in the analysis is a description of two letters to Christianity Today:

But there are some perhaps subtle differences in her expression of reconciliation as compared with the black writer's letter. First, the letter from the black writer uses the vehicle of a personal letter to communicate from one race to another; the white writer, though, quickly individualizes the letter, claiming that she cannot speak for other whites. She also asks to be seen as an individual, not a member of a race, and says her goal is to treat individuals as individuals, regardless of color. This seems perfectly reasonable, but it has an important effect. The need to work for social justice and social equality between races is minimized, even dropped. If we are to focus on individuals only, then justice does not mean working against structures of inequality, but treating individuals as equals, regardless of the actual economic and political facts. Equality is spiritually and individually based, not temporally and socially based.

And in another place:

As Wellman noted, most white Americans honestly desire a color-blind society, and often oppose the color-conscious for that reason.

What is more, because most white evangelicals perceive racism as individual-level prejudice and discrimination, and do not view themselves as prejudiced people, they wonder why they must be challenged with problems they did not and do not cause. As they communicated to us over and over, they do not have much interracial contact, but when they do, they are friendly toward people they meet from other races, and some even claim healthy interracial friendships.

The idea is that the individualistic approach to salvation and sin and punishment makes whites unable to “see their advantage” while the corporate approach leads to a “social justice” based (and therefore inevitably political) religion.

The authors make the correlations clear, and their preferences come across clearly too. An inadvertent side effect of evangelical theology reinforces perspectives on race that are incompatible with “black” social justice theory, and which make communication much harder.

The work is limited in scope, of course, and there remain questions the authors did not deal with.

  1. Is focusing on individual behavior the right thing to do? The authors, not being even amateur theologians, are not competent to address this question; and don't try.
  2. What are the sources of advantage and of disadvantage? Only the most superficial analysis would say that these are due to current racism. There is a vicious feedback at work. The fruits of ghetto culture are crime and loss; the fruits of crime and loss are extra surveillance and distrust; and the extra surveillance and distrust feeds the ghetto culture. Don't bother trying to call me racist—history has seen this pattern many times: go look up NINA.
  3. Once you have found the sources of advantage and disadvantage, what just means are usable to deal with them? “Affirmative action” is the tool everyone seems to talk about in the book, but a full theory and review of experience isn't possible in the scope of the book.
  4. Is equality of opportunity or equality of result demanded? There isn't agreement on this in the political arena, and the answer informs all planning.

Fundamental political differences are sometimes outgrowths of theological differences. The traditional Muslim concept of the nature of law and the role of religion is not reconcilable with Western democracy. One can tweak it—magnifying the principle that “the ummah is never wrong” and that fallible men are required to interpret holy law—to create a concept that might be compatible; but that isn't what's being preached by the most influential groups.

I'm told Greek Orthodoxy also has issues with Western concepts of liberty—rulers are supposed to mandate, not just encourage, right behavior—but I need to study them more, and I may have this wrong. Certainly theological claims about the divine right of kings to rule as God's regents are part of Western history—and not compatible with democracy.

So one question is: To what extent ought we allow these theological/political differences to separate us?

Some differences make it impossible to worship together—the nature of the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion being one. We have to accept such divisions for the sake of peace. To the extent that a church is involved in attempting social change, it is hard to see how a single body can speak with two voices. Political involvement seems to require division.

One fundamental political division is between those for whom the basic rights are negative—the right to be protected from abuse by others; and those for whom rights include positive ones—the right to demand food or other basic services. It is easy to argue a duty exists to meet other's needs as a religious obligation, but rather a leap to assert that having these needs filled is a right enforceable against the non-religious, and chutzpah to claim that there is only one possible method of filling said needs. Enforcing the “positive rights” is necessarily more contentious, and must result in church divisions insofar as churches get involved in pushing for them.

You'd think that the “negative rights” would be less contentious, but this turns out not to be so. The right not to be killed (anti-abortion) is demanded by some denominations and given no better than lip service, if not downright opposition, by others. I've read some who said that abortion is evil but bans are unenforceable (though bans on sexism somehow are enforceable), and another who said that it was evil but – apparently he didn't like the company he'd be keeping if he supported a ban.

Read the book and think about the questions it asks. And the questions it doesn't.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Clash of Civilizations and the New World Order by Samuel Huntington

I suppose I'm the last person to have gotten around to reading this.

I can see why he's controversial. Telling the truth usually is.

Before I review the work, I should go over an aspect that's implicit in the book but never quite spelled out.

A nation is not durable if people are not willing to sacrifice for it. A man is willing to sacrifice for his wife and children, for his extended family, for his tribe—for those he feels a bond with. He will spend money on them, spend time on them, spend effort on them—if necessary risk his life for them. A nation lives by the same bonding. The citizens must be willing to pay taxes to aid other citizens they don't know, and be willing to risk life to defend other citizens.

Some governments rule largely by fear—pay or be beaten, join the army or die—but such conscripts tend to melt away or clutter the battlefield while the professionals fight. Or they can be bribed by the prospect of loot and slaves, but that's hard to maintain in a defensive war.

Of course not everybody has to feel such a bond, but enough have to be willing to fight for the country for it to be able to beat off enemies.

The commonality behind that bond varies. Friendship is a strong but very local bond—we have very few real friends, and not all that many acquaintances. Family bonds are farther reaching, and tribal ones reach still farther. Some nations are giant tribes—a single related people—like Japan (tiny minorities excepted). Some (like the USA) are both ideological and tribal. Some are religious and tribal—like Israel. Some nations are cultural/linguistic and tribal—like France, which is nominally (but not entirely) willing to welcome anyone convinced of the superiority of French culture and language.

If there is no common bond I doubt that the result is stable. Many empires through history simply disintegrated when the imperial force diminished. Think of Charlemagne's empire, or Alexander's. Even within a nation, if regions or groups stop thinking of themselves as part of the whole, the nation risks civil war and disintegration—think of China.

Where a commonality exists, whether of tribe or language or religion or ideology; it is possible to find some center for the people to rally round. Of course it doesn't have to be the central country—Pakistan is a good example here. The country was founded as a Muslim state, and is held together by religious adversity to its neighbors and inertia. The various tribes hate each other, but if they perceive an infidel threat they can unite—sometimes in extra-governmental ways.

When that commonality subsides, the nation starts to disintegrate. Somalia is a tribal nation, and you'd think that a single tribe with a single language and a single religion would be stable—but the sub-tribes vie for dominance, and it isn't. Ideologically-founded states (and to a lesser extent religiously based ones) face a similar threat. If the population loses enthusiasm for the ideology, it seems likely to split into tribes. The USSR was an ideologically based nation, and so is the USA. (Religions change more slowly than ideologies, since they are more all-encompassing descriptions of reality.)

With that preface understood, Huntington's book is a largely accurate description of the big international picture as driven by conflicts between major cultural groups. One might quibble with his divisions, but I don't plan to. I don't know enough of the interaction of Orthodox Christianity with the government to understand why “Russia” is supposed to be radically enough different as to be irreconcilable with the Catholic/Protestant West.

Huntington sees a rough division of the world into 8 civilizations: Sinic (China and its traditional client states), Japanese (sufficiently large and different enough from China to be distinguished), Western, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, African, and South American. “African” is sort of a geographic/racial catch-all, and South America leans strongly Western; but the rest have fairly distinguishable characteristics. A civilization often has a central state (like China or Russia), and partners/clients at several levels removed. These partners are sometimes enemies, of course—think of Vietnam and China. Vietnam's culture derives from China's, and their histories are intertwined—and Vietnam isn't always happy about that. He points out from recent history that the Orthodox states, despite apparent similarities to Western ones, have tended to band together rather than with their Catholic neighbors. Western civilization does not have a single core country, but instead 3 or 4.

Cultural influence is linked with military power which is inextricably linked with economic power, and the rise of non-Western economic power has allowed non-Western civilizations to wield influence they haven't seen in hundreds of years. The result is a multi-polar and substantially more volatile international scene. Every civilization can point to a time in its history when it was king of the hill, and regards that time as normative forever. Huntington doesn't give a lot of weight to ideological influence, or to the possibility of having central tenets of a culture change. They can change, as history shows. Christianity replaced paganism, and Islam destroyed the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations (as well as a lot of Eastern Christendom). It just took time (and some force).

Islam has a central location among the civilizations, and perhaps some of its “bloody borders” can be attributed to its being “in the middle,” but it seems clear enough that quite a bit of the conflict is intrinsic to Islam. At the moment the Islamic civilization has no core state, though several are vying for that position (Iran, Saudi-controlled Arabia, Pakistan, and Turkey being the main contenders). It is unusual among the battling civilizations that it has virtually no economic productivity—oil is pretty much the only thing it has going for it.

The writing has some little gems: If Muslims allege that the West wars on Islam and if Westerners allege that Islamic groups war on the West, it seems reasonable to conclude that something very like a war is underway. This was pre-9/11, of course.

If the West is in relative decline, who will be the next big winner? Huntington thinks China, and marshals some reasonable arguments for that. He implicitly assumes that the Chinese economy won't collapse under the weight of political/personal-deal bad loans, and he may well be right. The penchant for Chinese to Chinese deals rather than transparent contracts increases the relative clout of Chinese in other societies, and the traditional approach of Chinese culture societies (weak states strive for position by allying with strong ones, rather than trying to maintain independence) also feeds into increasing Chinese dominance.

In any event, around the world we are learning that what we Westerners thought were universal values and rights aren't even close. Rule of law? Abolition of slavery? Individual autonomy? These seem to be as Western as Esperanto.

Perhaps. History shows us that cultures don't like to change, and can resist it violently. And it shows us that cultures sometimes change. Kemal's changes may not have taken root. But they still might, if something displaces the Islamist parties in Turkey. In a few generations. . .

If you haven't read the book yet, do so.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fury by Henry Kuttner

A little light reading for a change. This is set in the same Venus as "Clash by Night," where the refugees from a destroyed earth live in undersea domes because the land is too hostile. An Immortal (long lived mutant families) baby is modified and raised as an ordinary man--with an overwhelming urge to power.

Kuttner was a very creative and thoughtful writer, and he took a hard look at what kind of man a Barbarossa or an Arthur might be. Sam's early years aren't adequate to explain his nature, and Kuttner would have been better off just describing him and saying that some people are like that. When he leaves Sam's early history behind and goes on to tell what happens when Sam's ambition meets the last hope of the fading Keeps, the story works well.

Of course his Venus is all wrong, and the technology sometimes a little off, but these are trifling matters compared to the telling of a good story. And it is a good story, with some wonderful little asides, such as the Logician's explanation of why prophecies have to be obscure.

Using radioactivity to grow

No, not giant ants. There's a hint that radiation can make melanin structures process some chemicals faster. The study report discusses fairly obscure metabolic processes, and has "it is possible that"s in it, but the results (suggested by the presence of lively growths of fungi in the Chernobyl reactor!) are things like

Melanized Wangiella dermatitidis and Cryptococcus neoformans cells exposed to ionizing radiation approximately 500 times higher than background grew significantly faster as indicated by higher CFUs, more dry weight biomass and 3-fold greater incorporation of 14C-acetate than non-irradiated melanized cells or irradiated albino mutants. In addition, radiation enhanced the growth of melanized Cladosporium sphaerospermum cells under limited nutrients conditions.


Exposure of melanin to ionizing radiation, and possibly other forms of electromagnetic radiation, changes its electronic properties. Melanized fungal cells manifested increased growth relative to non-melanized cells after exposure to ionizing radiation, raising intriguing questions about a potential role for melanin in energy capture and utilization.

Well, why not? We have extremophiles that reduce iron, others that oxidize it, oxidize sulfer--why not some that finesse ionizing radiation?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Macbeth: Shakespeare Made Easy by Alan Durband.

Edited and rendered into modern English

Of course Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, but we can't let little facts get in the way of the advertisement, can we?

Shall we compare? Look at a central scene, and a random passage.

Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee stillIs this a dagger I see before me? With its handle toward my hand? [Speaking to it] Come—let me hold you! [He snatches at the empty air] Nothing there. Yet I can still see you
I go, and it is done: the bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven, or to hellNow I'll go, and it's as good as done. The bell is my invitation. Do not hear it, Duncan! It's a bell that summons you to heaven—or to hell!
We have willing dames enough; there cannot be that vulture in you, to devour so many as will to greatness dedicate themselves, finding it so inclined.there are plenty of willing wenches. The supply of obliging maidens must far exceed even your appetite

In the first passage Shakespeare has Macbeth use the word “clutch” when reaching for the dagger. I'm not sure about his era, but in ours to clutch carries the meanings of both greed and insecurity. There's a touch of uncertainty in Macbeth yet—not quite sure if he's going to carry out the murder. This vanishes in Durband's rendition. It would have been easy to keep it.

Durband's word choice in the second passage is astonishing. A “knell” is a death-bell—and the word is still well-known. Why not use it, and keep the connection between ringing and heaven/hell?

In the third passage Shakespeare's “devour” image, while in keeping with Malcolm's self-indictment, is likely to seem a bit over the top to modern ears, and Durband flattens the phrasing accordingly. But he turns “as will to greatness dedicate themselves” into “obliging.” Shakespeare's phrase describes the motives of women who cluster near the powerful—they actively seek association with greatness. Durband's women are more passive—they oblige.

Why read (or better yet, watch) Shakespeare at all?

  • Because he told good stories.
  • Because he had good insight into human nature.
  • Because his writing often had wonderful language.

Durband's version

  • Is the same story: check
  • Includes more scene direction than the original (useful)
  • Sometimes loses the insight (as in the third passage above) (½ check)
  • His language is pretty pedestrian

So why did I even bother to look at this rubbish? Because Sun Prairie High School assigned it to their Sophomore class. The only good feature of the book is that it is in parallel: Shakespeare's text on the left, Durband's on the right.

To be fair, the Introduction says that Shakespeare is untranslatable, and that the work is meant to give the “dramatic aspect.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Some proverbs we use to help us get through hard times; like "It's always darkest just before the dawn." These are coping saws.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


I was at Borders this afternoon, and while waiting for Middle Daughter to finish finding a birthday gift for her friend I perused the science fiction collection. Things have changed.

Vast swaths of shelving hold Star Trek franchise books, and Star Wars franchise books (The Making of Star Wars is classed as SF!), and copies of Tolkien's unfinished works. It seems as though they don't allow anything on the shelf thinner than ¾ inch thick, and most books are volume M of N. Covers include lots of horses, dragons, swords, and implausibly clad Amazons.

When I was a teenager the fashion was to use psychedelic covers with no noticeable meaning, or wild combinations of motifs and characters from the book. Most books were relatively thin, and most of the contents had something or other to do with space travel or aliens. Not all—the psychological SF novel was also fashionable, and we had DeCamp et al for fantasy, and quite a few authors were experimenting with alternative social/moral/religious worlds.

I can't say the quality of writing was better years ago—I've no good way to tell, since I generally remember only the books I finished, and I relied on advice. Some was very good then, and some (Pratchett, for instance) are enjoyable today. But I'm suspicious. Someone once said that within every novel is a short story trying to get out, and I suspect that the 5 volume paperweights are not very well edited.

I was urged to read The Phantom Menace. I plowed through about 10 pages and decided that it was even worse than the movie. The His Dark Materials series is inconsistent, sloppy, and surprisingly malicious—and it won awards and a stage deal. I read a review of Wicked (including a few quotes): and concluded “same old, same old.” When the first Star Trek collections (short stories from the TV show) came out I saw that authors trying to work with other people's characters generally wrote paper dolls and unconvincing stories; and spot checking the vast shelves of franchise novels hasn't modified my conclusion much. To be fair, Zahn's Star Wars books were good. But the Dune prequels don't even make good compost.

You might point out that this is genre fiction, and suggest that perhaps my tastes matured—perhaps I should look at mainstream fiction and the “modern classics.” I regret to report that these are no better, and often quite a bit worse—genre fiction is required to at least tell a coherent story. Most modern literature I've struck doesn't pass Twain's test: I dislike the good characters, am indifferent to the bad ones, and wish they'd all fall down a well together. Why the hunger to describe life as though nothing were real but stupidity and suffering?

It feels strange to look over a section that used to interest me and see nothing that I'd care to spend ten minutes on, much less ten dollars.

It is even stranger to find myself talking with someone who has so immersed himself in SF and fantasy that he seems to actually believe that we'll one day invent a warp drive, and that societies can be run on principles and mores from SF novels.

Monday, May 07, 2007


A horse-whisperer who doesn't use reins but instead guides his horse with polite suggestions is a requestrian.