Tuesday, August 19, 2008

City Assessor

It was time for the city assessor to come by to inspect the house and review the assessment. Camera, clipboard, laser measuring device, questions and questions. For some reason I feel like King Hezekiah with the Babylonian ambassadors.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Garage Sales

There's a "city-wide garage sale" this weekend, and lots of people have goods out on the driveway. Our next-door neighbor put out a nice selection of children's toys, but had no takers. This isn't the rich side of town, so maybe fewer buyers come through.

Some folks put out colorful signs; others put a valuable-looking item at the street end to catch attention (one on Bird Street put out a plasma TV!), and others make sure the tables are colorfully laden. One sale on Windsor Street sported a couple of busty young ladies dancing on a table. They can't have been doing that all day, though, so maybe it was a coincidence.

We tried to run a garage sale once, and after considering the hours of work we put in and the minuscule return, we decided that in the future we'd give stuff away.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Edwards scandal

I was a little curious what kind of man Edwards was, and this seemed like a test--what does he do when his misdeeds are uncovered? Ok, now I know. I already knew that he had done shameful things--he's a human like the rest of us.

The cover up had several parts, and right now there's some digging around the campaign and the newspapers--who covered up what and when? I'm not terribly interested. Reporters don't go digging as hard for dirt on people they like: not exactly a stop-the-presses story. Whether they didn't dig because they liked Edwards or felt sorry for his wife I don't know.

Perhaps more interesting is the meta-question: are these scandals, whether real or fabricated (NYTimes McCain story), important news? Do they tell us anything important?

All in favor of flogging reporters who ask "Boxers or briefs?" say aye.

Always dress well

A tuxedo is always impressive, and can sometimes win the wearer some unexpected honors. "Call me sir when you speak to me!"

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Flying Cr-p

It is no secret, except to the artistic "elite", that degrading art degrades the culture and degrades the soul. Evidently it can also damage the neighborhood.

Did you read the shirt before you put it on?

In a Walmart, a short Hispanic woman with jet-black hair sported a t-shirt that read "Blondes do it better."

I could see wearing something like that at the laudromat when it is the last clean shirt in the house, but I'd wear it inside out.

Swimming at Olympics

In the IHT: Swimming records fall: Is there something in the water?. I don't know, but it is probably easier to breathe than the air. It isn't due to lower gravity because of elevation... Maybe it is the suits and the pool.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Wars and Rumors of War

So Georgia overreached and Russia imagined a pretext and you and I probably won't know what's really going on for another day or so. I gather that the invasion route is easily defended (some of the discussion is useful here), but Russia is apt to rule the skies unless they kill some American advisors. I wonder what the Turks will do.

Apparently the Russian army involved is the same one that worked over Chechnya. If they follow through this is going to be a mess.

It seems possible that this has to do with control of the Caspian oil pipeline...

That's blindingly obvious by now (a week later) ...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Anthrax conspiracies

I haven't seen the government case against Ivins, but I gather there are a few thorny points: How did he get to the mailbox? Saying he obsessed about a sorority because he was rejected once in college doesn't magically transport him to its doorstep. Why would a Democrat be sending poison letters to Democratic senators?

NPR steps in here. Ivins was Catholic (horror!), his wife worked for a pro-life organization (how evil!), and he may have seen a letter that complained about the pro-abortion record of several of those senators (therefore he must have decided to kill them). I'm serious; I heard the story and that was their argument.

This is seriously creepy. Somebody at NPR has a hunger to link pro-life groups to murder, a hunger strong enough to overcome all proportion and logic (if Ivins was that upset about abortion senators, why was he still a Democrat?). It has the same smell of insanity as that coming from Egyptian TV, which made a serial out of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Bias I can account for and deal with; madness I can't.

My guess? Access to the anthrax was probably so sloppy that shame and CYA tangled the investigations (which you'll have noticed have taken quite a long time). Agencies were afraid to admit how many people might have had access. Almost certainly few people did have access, but bad procedures would mean you really couldn't know for sure. And if sloppy procedures involved accounting, they might not be able to account for all samples or even know how many there were--and I'd bet the FBI would be willing to help keep it secret: it avoids panic and gives time to try to track down ambiguities and possibly mislaid material before other bad guys find it. (Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.)

Of course, somebody meant murder; somebody who apparently didn't realize that the spores were small enough to fall through paper. Either he suffered remorse, or he shot his bolt (no more anthrax), or he died in the interim, since we haven't had any more attacks (and they'd be horrifyingly easy to do). Somebody with access or a friend of someone with access. Maybe Ivins. Maybe the janitor's girlfriend. The 9/11 link seems a little far fetched--there are far more efficient delivery means if you are using a suicide attacker.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Battles that Changed History by Fletcher Pratt

With illustrative maps by Edward Gorey. Yes, him.

I was only aware of Pratt's fantasy and SF, but apparently he wrote far more extensively in history, and devised a naval war game that filled his apartment floor. When I read (via Pournelle) that he'd written at least one history, I fetched it from the library immediately.

Pratt wrote well, and his explanations are lucid. He liked to find the forgotten aspects of history and show why some unremarked factor made the difference.

Pretty much all of the battles he writes about are Western or Middle-Eastern; which is perfectly reasonable since no civilization until the Western has had a global reach, making its history much more central to the rest of the world. Probably the best way to start to give a flavor of the book is with a list of the chapter titles. followed by my quick explanation

  1. Arela and the Man Who Would Be God Alexander beating Darius--but with a lot of leadup history
  2. The Red King at Beneventum Pyrrhus creamed by the Romans
  3. Fighting in the Streets and the Future of Order an attempted revolt against Justinian in Constantinople
  4. Kadisiyah and the Cost of Conquest Moslems beat the Persians
  5. Las Navas de Tolosa and Why the Americas Were Conquered Moslems defeated in Iberia--hundreds of years before victory was complete but this was a turning point
  6. Jeanne d'Arc and the Non-Conquest of England how a saint could beat the English hedgehog--and why it was probably good for England in the end
  7. Vienna and the Failure to Complete the Crescent who knew that the French had such common cause with the Turks?
  8. Leyden and the Foundation of Sea Power William of Orange and privateers against the Spanish
  9. Gustavus Adolphus and the End of the Middle Ages Sweden was once a mighty military power, and brought a new way of organizing
  10. Interlude; the Day of Inadequate Decisions Learning the wrong lessons made for a drawn-out 30 years
  11. Frederick the Great and the Unacceptable Decision Tiny Prussia's tightly disciplined army makes a difference
  12. Quebec, Quiberon, America the French and Indian war, and a failed invasion of England
  13. Why the American Revolution Succeeded part of the answer was on the opposite side of the globe
  14. Trafalgar, Austerlitz, and the Fall and Rise of Empire the Holy Roman Empire becomes a ghost, the French rises
  15. The Things Decided at Vicksburg less famous than Gettysburg to the public, but well known to historians
  16. More than Midway everybody knows about this battle

For a taste of his prose--his explanation of why a revolt almost nobody hears of in Constantinople was decisive:

It was called the "Nike sedition," but in reality it was a military operation, with a staff, a plan of campaign, and an organized body of troops, the humane Blue-Greens being irregular auxiliaries and the fires a surprise weapon. If Theodora had not talked the council out of their discouragements, if the Justinian-Belisarius team had not acted with lightning efficiency after she did, there would have been a siege as well as a campaign. We do not know who planned the operation, because whoever it was died in the Hippodrome, but it is clear that the planning was good and the campaign came perilously near to success.

Perilously: for the issued involved were far beyond the question of whether the empire should be Monophysite or Catholic, nationalist or imperialist. This issue had its importance, to be sure, and though nothing could have solidified the churches of Rome and Constantinople, they were brought far closer together than if the East had gone fully Monophysite. But it was particularly important that the emperor should remain Justinian, the man of wide vision and immense projects. The Nike sedition was directed against only one of these projects, the African invasion; but in a sense it included them all, it was a revolt in favor of provincialism, the narrow view, and fragmentation.

Justinian's conquests in Africa and Italy did not succeed in reuniting the empire, and his military adventures in the West have usually been treated as unproductive acts of aggression. But it is worth looking at what they did accomplish. They destroyed the Vandal kingdom in Africa and fatally crippled the Gothic kingdom in Italy. Sentimental regrets over the downfall of these noble barbarians cannot alter the fact they they were Arians, peculiarly determined to see the triumph of their own sect. Whether they used persecution, like Humeric in Africa, or, like Theodoric in Italy, toleration combined with a firm determination to make all major decisions for a church of which he was not a member, the result was the same. The Arian Church was gaining, it was the official church of the court and upper classes; and it was not a universal church, it had no focus. In a religious sense it was what the Monophysites were in a political: the thing whose greatest effort was turned back by the Justinian-Belesarius-Theodora team in the Nike sedition.

This is not all. It was perhaps not of vital importance that one of Justinian's large projects was the construction of that new Church of St. Sophia, which even yet remains one of the wonders of the world. But it was of the greatest importance that one of the officers whose dismissal was demanded by the mob was Tribonian, and that a dismissal would have been a warrant of execution. For Tribonian was in charge of the most monumental of all Justinian's projects and the most permanent--the codification of the Roman civil law.

The first section, the “Codes,” or index of what was to come, had just been published at the date of the Nike sedition and work was just beginning on the more complete classification. It was beginning primarily because Justinian had examined the Codes, decided they were nowhere near good enough or complete enough, and sent Tribonian and his law committee back to start all over. (Nothing was every good or complete enough for Justinian; his projects were always beyond the human, and partly because they were, what was left of them lasted perdurably.) Some idea of the size of the work done by Tribonian’s committee can be gained from the fact that the law had to be extracted from more than 2000 treatises, comprising 3 million sentences; reconciled, arranged, fused. That law had fallen into inextricable confusion, and it was challenged in various areas by barbarian custom. But after Justinian had sent Tribonian through it, it stood; and the whole of Western civilization was different and better and more just. This was the world that hung in the balance during the Nike sedition.

Someone said that you don’t know the present if you don’t know the history, and there’s some truth to that. Certainly history helps keep you from blindly trusting in the procedures and armies that worked last time.

Read the book. I’ll be looking around for more of his.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

NRA mole?

Not all news stories have any foundation in reality, like that "undiscovered tribe" from a few months back. I'm dubious about this story also, purportedly from Mother Jones, in which a woman allegedly joined some gun control groups to spy on them.

I can understand this sort of thing:

She infiltrated an animal-rights group in the late 1980s at the request of U.S. Surgical, and befriended an activist who was later convicted in a pipe bomb attack against the medical-supply business, U.S. Surgical acknowledged in news reports at the time. U.S. Surgical had come under fire for using dogs for research and training.

That's obvious and urgent self-defense.

But I'm not sure exactly what use a spy would be to the NRA.

But as for any secrets she might have been privy to, the gun-control groups said they have little to hide, since they put their message and information about their budgets on the Web.

Strategy sessions? (What exactly was going to be new--it's all same old same old.) Budgeting (Online, they say). Influenced congress-critters? (Everybody knows who's who). Given the popular trends towards things like open carry laws it doesn't seem as though the NRA would be desperately worried.

"Sweeping their offices for bugs" seems overkill--and since it contradicts their claim that everything important is already publicly available I suspect somebody is grandstanding. Bryan Miller provides a little humor, though: "In the battle of ideas with the gun lobby, we're at a constant disadvantage because we're honest." (Michael Bellesiles, etc) I'm not saying that the whole lot are dishonest, just that the claim to be more honest is amusing

If this turns out to be true, I'd guess it means the NRA has a little more money than it knows what to do with. Or somebody has Nixonian levels of worry. Watergate was such a weird joke: with McGovern the nominee he didn't need to worry about Democratic party strategy, so why did his team bother?

Monday, August 04, 2008


A story from Soviet-era Russia goes:

In the year 2445 a teacher asks her pupils: "Who was Leonid Brezhnev?"

One child answers: "He was a ruler of Mother Russia during the Solzhenitsyn era."

With Solzhenitsyn in one corner, Korolev and Gagarin in another, and the likes of Benjamen of St. Petersburg in another, the Russians may find something to celebrate out of the horrifying 20'th century. I hope it isn't dreams of empire instead.