Sunday, September 27, 2009

Childhood's fairy-land lost

Our childhood has a fascination for us, and most of us have a sense of longing for something lost in those years. Some path or toy or cloud reminds us of a fragment of what we used to feel, and we want it again. Perhaps the mood is a hunger for the wholehearted emotions of childhood, so uncomplicated and simple. Perhaps it is a sense that our more adult minds have chosen so much evil that childhood seems innocent. Your parents wouldn't agree about your innocence, having seen your character from day one, but that age seems less thoroughly tainted, and so pure by comparison. Perhaps it is lost wonder from the years when everything was new and we knew how to discover.

I think a part of it is a hunger for unity. Our lives should be whole, and most of our childhood's memories and perspectives are now lost to us. I do not easily remember even what life was like before I was married, though with effort I can retrieve it, and now and then I feel a little twinge of regret that parts of my life are fragmented and faded. I do not think we were made to lose our pasts so.

The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins

The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died

First a complaint: The first couple of chapters could stand some tightening up and getting rid of repetitions. He makes many assertions without adequate examples. And at some point, even if it meant putting in an appendix, he should have laid out the main events in a clear timeline, with explanations of why populations were estimated to be thus-and-so.

I have never read a historian citing Charles Williams' Descent into Hell before to explain the interaction of ancient and modern faith; and I'm delighted to see it (one of my favorite books) though not thoroughly persuaded.

A critical point to bear in mind is that the so-called Nestorian church did not actually follow the condemned doctrine of Nestorius, and apparently was perfectly orthodox on the point of Jesus' nature in the 8'th century. I am not expert on these matters but Jenkins asserts and some others seem to agree that the Nestorian church would be considered as Christian as any other today. Other groups such as Monophysites are a little more problematic technically, though I notice that in practice many Christian churches today wouldn't know how to tell the difference.

So to first order he is writing about Christian churches, even if some of them are supposed to be heretical and had been suppressed within the Roman Empire (West and East). That suppression actually helped some of them spread, because Persian rulers thought that they'd be useful “allies.”

Think of the situation shortly after the church is attacked in Jerusalem. The church is mostly Jews, situated in the eastern section of the Roman empire. To the north are Syrians, and north of them are Greeks, and north and east of them you are outside the boundaries of the Empire among smaller kingdoms. To the south is Egypt and Arabia, and south of Egypt the Nubians (outside the Empire) and beyond them the Ethiopians. The west we know pretty well, though it bears repeating that the Roman empire ran along north Africa as well. To the east is Persia, and beyond Persia India and the plateau Asian tribes, and beyond them along the Silk Road: China.

The Christian gospel went in all directions—and Mesopotamia was far closer than England.

What this account claims is that Christianity reached Edessa very soon after the death of Jesus (*), and that the earliest missionaries stemmed from Antioch. Given the relationships of the cities and trade routes, that general pattern is overwhelmingly likely. The third and fourth leaders of this church were of the family of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and early historians like Eusebius confirm that kinship wish Jesus gave a special warrant for authority in the earliest church. Near the end of the first century, the Roman emperor Domitian sought out the “relatives of the Lord,” the desposynoi, whom he suspected of sedition. On examination, though, the surviving relatives proved to be hard-working small farmers, whom the emperor judged to be unworthy of his attention, and so he let them live. That investigation might well have persuaded any remaining kin to migrate beyond the limits of Roman power, to Parthian Cresiphon—which is just what the Nestorian record suggests. The story also fits well with what we know about Jews relocating to Babylonia in these same years. The account is plausible, in a way that European legends of early apostles and saints are not: no serious historian thinks that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, Mary Magdalene to France, or the apostle James to Spain. But the Nestorian sequence does, in contrast, suggest a trajectory that is perfectly credible for the first and second centuries.

(*) an odd choice of words on his part.

The Eastern churches also provide an unexpected witness to current Bible controversies:

The Syriac Bible was a conservative text, to a degree that demands our attention. In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminine leanings.

The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them early because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatssarion assumes four, and only four authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians or Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels of scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. The Syriac Bible omits several books that are included in the West (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation).

Remember the history of the silk industry? In 550AD some monks smuggled silk worms from China to Byzantium. Since the silk industry was supposed to have been tightly guarded in China, the monks must have been there for some time already—which gives an indication of how early missionaries must have arrived there. A formal mission was established in 635, and monasteries spread—but apparently the faith did not have deep roots, for it faded after a Taoist emperor closed the monasteries and expelled officials in the ninth century. (He also got rid of Zoroastrians and Buddhists.) Christianity arrived again after the Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth, but when the Mongols were expelled so were all the “foreign religions” the Mongols had tolerated.

Jenkins describes the church in India as fortunate in not having a lot of history to report. There was a lot of friction when the Portuguese arrived, of course. And not just in India.

So bizarre were the customs of these Easterners, so puritanical, that Ethiopians even looked askance at the Portuguese habit of spitting during church services.

Latins were troubled by the pretensions of these threadbare Christians, who nevertheless claimed such grand titles. In 1550, a Portuguese traveler reported that the forty thousand Christians of the Indian coast owed their allegiance to a head in “Babylon,” the catholicos. Bafflingly, they had not so much as heard of a pope at Rome.

Of course I skipped a block of time here: about a thousand years between Nicea and the Portuguese. That era is the core of this book. The churches had been slowly declining under Muslim rule. Life was harder for dhimmis, and although Jenkins is reluctant to say so outright, quite a few of the attacks on Christians came from below, not from above: the rulers found they had to protect the Christians and Jews from attacks roused by imams. There was an intrinsic conflict that could be roused in times of crisis or austerity. Still, there were something of order 20 million Christians in the Middle East through India at about 1000AD, compared to perhaps 30 million (very much notional) Christians in Europe.

Jenkins says “Though Muslim regimes could tolerate other faiths for long periods, that willingness to live and let live did fail at various times, and at some critical points it collapsed utterly. The deeply rooted Christianity of Africa and Asia did not simply fade away through lack of zeal, or theological confusion: it was crushed, in a welter of warfare and persecution.” The Ottomans came. Their rulers picked Islam. Perhaps they decided they had to be more Muslim than the Arabs to establish religious/political bona fides: at any rate they tried hard to exterminate Christianity. It does not make pleasant reading. The Mongols arrived on the scene a little later. At one point it was conceivable that their rulers would decide to be Christians: some were. Of course this made Muslims think that Christians were 5'th columnists, which naturally made the Christians hope for external relief. When Timur did overrun the place, it was as a Muslim, and once again Christians were attacked. Timur didn't even treat fellow Muslims well: Christians were really in trouble.

Now came the rise of Europe, and once again local Christians wound up being thought of as possible traitors. The European powers were largely driven by self-interest, but there was some interest in helping fellow Christians: but on certain conditions; such as reorganizing the churches to look to Rome, and changing doctrines and practices: causing new conflicts.

The twentieth century brought the final erasure. The fall of the Ottoman empire seems to have opened the door for both semi-secular powers like the Turks driving out Armenians and extremist Muslim groups like the followers of Wahab and Qutb. The fragmented groups of Christians have been murdered and expelled, and as transportation gets cheaper, have emigrated. Bethlehem now has a fraction of the Christians who lived there only fifty years ago. Turkey and Greece arranged a population swap based on religion. Lebanon is an unstable compromise, and the Christians are now a significant minority in that tiny land.

Jenkins tries to give the Muslim groups the benefit of their excuses: they feared for their religion when outsiders pressed, or they were merely acting the way everyone else did when they aggressed. And he's not eager to admit the long-standing violent streak in Islam. This gets annoying after a while.

He goes on to ask what happens when a religion dies, and dodges around it by suggesting that Christianity left traces in the lands where it vanished. He mentions art and architecture, but realizes that that doesn't cut much ice, and goes on to point out the relationship of Sufism to Christianity: and there are some pretty clear borrowings. He points out that the underground Christians of Japan kept the religion alive for centuries, though when it resurfaced in the twentieth century it had changed a lot. And he notes that because a religion vanishes from a region for a few centuries that doesn't mean it will never return, provided it stays alive elsewhere.

The hierarchical churches could be crushed by decapitation, provided the authorities kept it up long enough. With nobody to consecrate new priests, pretty soon you run out of priests; and nobody gets baptized into the faith, nobody offers communion, and the lay believers, left alone, worry along without what they regard as critical elements of their faith. Jenkins doesn't think that less structured churches are necessarily more robust against persecution, and I suspect he is correct: no organizational scheme is going to be an adequate bulwark.

The more closely a church allies with secular authorities or with some ethnic group, the more protection it has against enemies—but when the secular authorities fail, the church's fate is apt to mirror theirs. A persecuted church may find that the only places it can survive are remote or difficult regions where it runs the risk of growing tied to a particular tribe and losing catholicity.

The great question is why? With no obvious infidelity or besetting vice—or at least none worse than any other—the church in this land or that was driven out and the gospel hidden from the people for centuries. Jenkins has no answer, except to note that centuries come and go and with them kings and empires, but the church is still around and is larger than ever. Just not in its ancient home. And who knows about tomorrow?

I have no answer either, but I know God is just and judges us on what we know; and where the land was taken from light to darkness He will judge the people by how well they follow what little glimmers remain.

I'm looking for more information on the subject, but for an introduction read this book.

"If you liked this book..."

Amazon has a feature that uses your purchase record to try (sometimes with odd results) to predict what other books you might like. They're trying to sell more books, of course, but they give it a polite and helpful feel; and sometimes it is helpful. But there's no substitute for exploring in a library or used book shop, and lighting on the book you never guessed you'd like or the subject you didn't realize you needed to know. I'm still discovering the world, and still discovering me.

Friday, September 25, 2009


My better half and I went to see Up at the bargain theater(*). Everything I'd seen from Pixar had been good, and the reviews were all good. They were right. The opening sequence is a poem in images of a man's life. Pixar meant for the kids to like it, but there are many touches than only an adult will see and a bittersweet tone the kids may not notice. And there's an adventure, of course, with hair-breadth escapes.

I'd have made the villain just a hair more crazy, to see if he could be more pitiable, but that's a quibble.

See it, and stick around for the credits.

(*)I seem to remember when first run ticket prices rose to the price of the bargain ticket. Am I showing my age? Maybe I should invest in some balloons.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

How the Romantic Generation discovered the beauty and terror of Science

The Romantic Poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Blake et al—were roughly contemporary with the likes of Willian Herschel and Humphry Davy and a surge in exploration and discovery.

It hardly seems fair, but we all study (or used to) the romantic poets in high school but unless you read the sidebars in the science book you'll not remember Herschel (built a major observatory and discovered the first new planet in thousands of years) or Davy (discovering iodine, disinfecting power of chlorine, miner's safety lamp, etc). You have to hear about Faraday's Law, of course, and a jazzed-up story of Franklin testing lightning. And if you follow up on Franklin you find a scientist and ambassador and writer who made his mark many ways; and you might wonder “Were they men of such huge genius that they could do anything?” (and where are their like now?), or “Were the pluckings so easy that anybody could make discoveries?”

It is true that what they worked so hard to find out is taught as elementary knowledge now, but when you are starting from nothing or even from misconceptions (fire, earth, air, and water); it is very hard to make those first discoveries. A detachment of soldiers to help you explore is all very well, but when untreatable diseases attack and human enemies outnumber you ten thousand to one a few muskets won't keep you alive.

This book is a story of some of those scientists and explorers—British or living there—from the late 1700's through the early 1800's, illustrated with some of the comments and poetry of the romantic poets—who were very familiar with and often wrote about the discoveries around them. In fact Coleridge knew several of them very well, and appeared at scientific meetings.

The main characters are

  • Joseph Banks who was with a team exploring Tahiti. He was President of the Royal Society for decades, and sponsored numberless researches.
  • Ballooners! The hot air (and hydrogen) balloon craze opened up a new way of looking at the world, new excitements, and new ways of dying.
  • William Herschel, a musician who dedicated himself (and his sister!) to astronomy; to better ways of seeing with the best instruments in the world (which he made) and methodical searching of the sky.
  • Mungo Park explored in West Africa, and told a fascinating tale of unheroic adventure after his first trip. Scholars tried to figure out what happened with his second.
  • Humphrey Davy, who almost invented anesthesia with laughing gas and went on to a grand career in chemistry; though his great love may have been fishing.

The romantic poets were fascinated by wonder and mystery, and they could find it in the exotic creatures painted by the explorers (no cameras); in the growing realization that the universe was far huger than anyone had dreamed, with vast emptiness holding scattered islands of light; in the mysterious new rules hidden inside ordinary processes; and in the expectation of continued growth of innocent knowledge and power to drive away all human ignorance and misery. And superstition—could men be like gods? The science of the day was reflected in the poetry of the day. And opposed: Blake hated what he thought was dissecting beauty.

Holmes does not just quote the famous poets. The scientists themselves wrote poetry, for this was an age when education was supposed to be broad. I suspect that we would have more polymaths if we wanted them, and if they could survive our entertainment-soaked dissipation with their concentration intact.

Herschel's discovery of a new planet (Uranus) was earthshaking. None of the ancient astronomies or mythologies mentioned any but the five, but now we knew more; we thus must know more than all the ancients with their stories of stars and gods. Examined so, the conclusion does not follow, but this was the kind of symbolic impact the discovery made. Holmes seems sympathetic.

Davy's first major job was with a clinic whose philanthropist creator meant to try to heal diseases with gases. Davy discovered the properties of nitrous oxide (after experimenting with things like carbon monoxide!), by testing them on himself and eventually on volunteers. But eventually chemistry beckoned, and he went on to discover new elements, and when called to help miners he carefully worked through the properties of “firedamp” to discover how to keep it from igniting. Wire mesh conducts heat away from a methane flame well enough that even when there is enough methane in the air that the mesh glows red hot the fire fails to propagate into the room beyond.

Herschel's sister Caroline gets her due in this account. She seems to have been a dedicated and able apprentice who contributed to his work and made discoveries on her own account as well.

Electricity seemed to have some connection with life, since little jolts could make dead muscles twitch, and so they had great debates about the soul and Vitalism. In response Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (partly based on some real people), which has colored the picture of the scientist ever since. Is he a searcher of truth or tampering with things he doesn't understand?

The end of the book comes at the end of an era: Banks is dead, Davy is dead, and “natural philosopher” is explicitly redefined as “scientist” by a new generation of scholars and specialists.

Bank's stay in Tahiti involved much danger and sex, but he stayed with them enough to learn of the patterns of their life, and of their institution of arreoy in which men and women indulged in “free love” with the stipulation that all children born were to be destroyed unless a man was willing to acknowledge and raise it, at which point the man and woman were out of the group. I find this a chilling echo of the current American scene.

There's lots to learn, and it is a fascinating book. Read it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


This story is scary. It sounds nice at first--an oil discovery off the shores of one of the poorest countries in the world: don't they need the money? But we already know what happens when free money pours into a place like this: the powerful collar the money; and if the country is really unlucky warlords start fighting over the take. Little goes into infrastructure or development, and even in the countries where some does it isn't taken seriously--isn't valued. The important thing is to get money, not to earn it; and if it is easier to siphon from the money stream than produce, who will aspire to build anything? (Cue the joke about Saudis never lifting anything heavier than money)

Sierra Leone already has diamonds and gold, and the free money from that gave them a horror of a civil war. I'm not sure how far Sierra Leone exists as a state even now, years after the war. Can they find the upright men they need?

Monday, September 14, 2009


A great man was slowly taken from us. He did more good in the world than the whole House and Senate's worth of politicians put together.

I pray that God sends us more like him.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Whatever things

I have not been commenting a lot on the events of the year: "Was Wilson rude or was he 'speaking truth to power'?" or "Was the release of the allegedly ill bomber compassionate or to cement an oil deal?" or "Are Americans forgetting was 9/11 was about?" and so on. Partly this is because so many of the answers are so obvious that it seems a waste of time to try to craft a response. Partly it is because I'm kind of busy--or at least that's a handy excuse.

But it is also because I've been studying Philippians a bit, and the mendacious spectacles in DC and London (and Hollywood, etc) are neither true nor noble nor right nor admirable, and I find that contemplating them does not benefit anybody. They sour my attitude and I can't do anything to cure them. And so I try to think of other things.

Monday, September 07, 2009


I get a Liberian newsletter that aggregates news stories about the country. It said this evening that Julius Kanubah reported that the Liberian House passed a bill directing the creation of a new capitol inland, on the grounds that it would be more spacious and would be much cheaper than rebuilding Monrovia.

I suspect somebody has some land he wants to sell. Monrovia is Liberia's main port and largest population center, and rebuilding isn't optional. A new capitol is a silly luxury.

Haze and neighbors

As I drove this morning the sun shone brightly, leaving only a faint haze behind. Everything nearby was sharp and clear—or perhaps only slightly faded; but the mists distanced the farm houses across the fields.

What was near was clear—the car, my youngest daughter, the road, the sunlight and the mailboxes by the side: my little part of the world. The distant houses hold fathers who clearly see the sunlight and their roads and their daughters, but it is all hazy to me. I can know it, but not see it until our little parts of the world converge.

I mustn't forget that their skies are clear too, but I can't pretend that I see their roads, or value them the same as the roads I see--until they become my neighbors.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Discovering God by Rodney Stark

The origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief

As usual, Rodney Stark is quite readable. This time he is doing a merry tap dance on the toes of received wisdom about the history of religion. He starts by pointing out the research showing that primitive societies do not have primitive religions; that in fact very many have a “High God” with an interest in people’s moral behavior. The standard approaches to the evolution of religious belief are nonsense, and easily seen to be nonsense—but things like “totemism evolved into polytheism evolved into monotheism,” or the “Bicameral Mind” gibberish (conclusions drawn merely from studying Homer and deciding that people changed between the Iliad and the Odyssey!), or Boyer’s self-defeating claim that religion is merely an evolutionary adaptation (so then is science): all these and more clutter the landscape and obscure the obvious facts that religion is universal and sacrifice is a rational deal.

The “Temple Religions” (Sumer, Egypt, MesoAmerica, etc) are for him a devolution. They are generally state-supported and state-supporting, meant for the elite only; and carry essentially no ethical component whatever.

He insists on what on reflection is quite obvious—changes in a religion (or in any other great cultural attitude) originate in a handful of individuals who persuade others. The great “Temple Religions” were pretty stable (Akenaten notwithstanding), because of the entrenched conservatism and self-interest of both the state priests and the state.

The single most important element in the religiosity of a society he considers to be the competition among religions and sects (considered as “high-intensity” offshoots of religions), and examines the effect this had in Rome. Competition meant that each group had to vie for attention and legitimacy, not resting on its laurels. He notes that Rome persecuted not just Christians but Jews and Cybelians and even deprecated volunteer fire departments—anything that smacked of community organization.

Then he moves on to the “Axial Age” and the rebirth of monotheism via Zoroastrianism and Judaism. His discussion of the Deuteronomists won’t win him any plaudits in my church, but in the end he can’t seem to find that they did much substantial re-writing of history. Here the theme of evolving revelation comes up again.

India comes next, with the old Vedic religion transforming into the Upanishad religion in the time of considerable upheaval and religious competition, which competition survives to this day; as innumerable Hindu sects vie for attention all over India. I hadn’t realized that Buddhism had been so forgotten in India.

China and the “Godless” religions come next. The truly “Godless” religions are the elite versions—the popular versions of Taoism worship many gods, including (no doubt to his unutterable surprise, LaoTzu). Confucius and Buddha are likewise worshipped—Buddha in form of Buddhism so modified with the addition of a Heaven and Hell that one might call it a new religion. Behind the scenes, for the millions of common folk, are the Folk Religions with legions of gods responsible for all the details of life. Some Chinese, if the sacrifice to the god doesn’t bring the desired results, have been known to whip the idol in retribution.

The Rise of Christianity is the next chapter, and he again points out the obvious—that Jesus was real, the New Testament is not a late forgery (he approvingly quotes arguments dating John to circa 40AD and the Synoptics not much later), that the Gnostic “gospels” are not remotely Christian (if you read them you’ll see they’re not even the same kind of literature!), and so on. He reiterates what he said in other books: mass conversions don’t exist: the spread of Christianity is consistent with a 3.4% yearly increase and conversions occur through influence of friend and family; Christianity, like all sects, began largely from upper classes (once you get past the first few years, I suppose—Peter wasn’t rich); and the different ways Christians treated women, the sick and the poor made it very much more attractive than paganism. If the Roman Empire was 10-15% Jewish (conversions and “all-but” conversions) as some estimates say, then Paul’s missionary travails seem more understandable. The fall of Christianity he dates to Constantine, as the time when, as a state religion, it lost the need for competition and began to corrupt the priesthood. He cites studies suggesting that medieval Europe was even less religious than modern Europe.

The next chapter is about Islam, of course. He points out influences of Nestorianism on Muhammad, and gives a history of the early years. Islam didn’t have mass conversions either, and he cites studies showing 250 years or so to convert half the population—faster than Christianity did in Rome, but then Islam had the power of the state behind it.

The final chapter “Conclusion: Discovering God?” asks whether the various religions contributed to a discovery of God (no—just ask Confucius), whether there is an “Inspired Core” of religions which advance the understanding of God (yes—including Zoroastrianism but leaving out the most recent monotheism), and whether God actually exists (yes).

There’s one large gap in the history, which since it involves prehistory is probably unfillable: how do you go from the primitive religions (often with a High God) to the polytheisms and Folk Religions with no particular High God and no ethical component? The fact that this appears everywhere suggests that it isn’t a matter of diffusion. The fact that it appears in Folk Religions and in Greek-style (non-state) polytheisms and in state Temple Religions suggests that it isn’t a matter of the form of government. I’d guess that it has something to do with merging tribes, each with their own High God and retinue developed from the experiences their own ancestors had with the numinous. Either one tribe wins or you compromise. To make everybody happy you have to treat everybody’s gods the same, and you wind up with a polytheism that nobody believes deeply and which loses any ethical importance. Guessing.

Read it.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Andrew G Bostom

I give up; I can't finish it—this is bad for my blood pressure. This is 800 pages of chapter and verse demonstrating that the vaunted Islamic “toleration” is a myth. Sure, the Turks welcomed Spanish Jews—but treated the local Jews like slaves. Some rulers were moderate, but they frequently succumbed to pressure from below. The roots of Jew-hatred run deep in Islam. Muhammad didn't like them much, and the writers of the Hadiths over the next few centuries seem even less fond. It was no accident that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was good friends with Hitler—they shared common enemies: The British, the French, and the Jews.

This is a good reference, but not exactly beach reading.

The Story of the French Foreign Legion by Edgar O'Ballance

The book is exactly what it purports to be: a history of the famous legion from its origins in 1831 through 1960 when it was heavily involved in the civil war in Algeria. The author was a British historian/journalist who'd served in the British and Indian armies, and who wrote from a decidedly sympathetic viewpoint. He frequently wrote “unfortunately” some disaster or another befell the Legion.

The French government didn't at first have a clear notion of what to do with their idea of a legion of foreign volunteers, and didn't always (often) supply and support them well. After their service in Spain (where the last major battle pitted the French Foreign Legion against a Spanish foreign legion), the legion was disbanded in 1838. But there seemed to still be a need in Africa, and the concept was revived.

Some of the folklore about the Legion's incredibly harsh punishments actually pertains to the punishment work divisions, which weren't associated with the Legion at all.

Some things were true—the Legion (as you might expect from a corps of volunteers) was generally quite good at fighting. This went together, oddly enough, with high desertion rates; which is also not terribly surprising.

The Legion wasn't keen on acquiring criminals, but after a background check to make sure you weren't wanted in France they'd accept anyone (except perhaps blacks) with whatever name they chose to use. It was discovered early on (and had to be relearned during the World Wars) that putting men from the same country together in a unit was a very bad idea.

During World War I a group of Cossacks volunteered. Nobody could speak their language, but they were mustered in anyway—but became obviously disgruntled after a short time. After a few weeks someone was found who could translate, and they discovered that the Cossacks had been eager enough to volunteer—but for cavalry; they were fed up with infantry slogging. (They were released.)

The Legion also tended to be good at finding the right men for the jobs. In quiet times commanders, fearing idle soldiers, had them do construction work; and some of their buildings and roads still find good use.

Camerone is a name to conjure by for the Legion, and O'Ballance tells the story for us. The Legion was fighting the Mexicans, and trying to maintain a narrow corridor. The Mexicans got wind of a gold shipment guarded by the Legion, and a farmhouse became famous as the 3rd Company fought against overwhelming odds (with the upper floor of the house occupied by the enemy!). They fought until overwhelmed (muskets take a while to reload), and killed 10 for 1.

The Legion had victories as well, but over the years most of their battles were hit and run conflicts with guerrillas, in North Africa, Mexico, Dahomey, Viet Nam, and so on.

Legion fought Legion in Syria during World War II—and saluted each other.

The writer's friendly viewpoint is not exactly PC—he assumes that bravery isimportant, that the Dahomey slave empire deserved to fall, and that the Arabs were rebels. Some small conflicts take a chapter, but the more massive battles of World War I are briefly described.

Interesting, but not riveting. It was “bathroom reading” for a couple of months.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Health Care Bill and Programming

I'm a physicist who spends most of his time programming, so I suppose I can claim two professions. In my capacity as a programmer, I contend that it is trivially obvious that the proposed health care reform bill will seriously damage the American health care systems. It represents far reaching changes to the laws (including granting the administration access to all IRS records) in a way that is not only uninspected but untestable. Each clause acts like a statement in a program, adding to or replacing other action statements in a huge body of laws--and we have on offer is a thousand pages of patches to tens of thousands of pages of laws and perhaps hundreds of thousands of pages of subsequent regulations and legal rulings. Nobody has (or IMnsHO can) do a code walkthrough on this heap. It gives a whole new meaning to "Blue Screen of Death."

I have no say in this, of course. My CongressCritter (Baldwin) considers it her pride and joy and is only sad that it doesn't more explicitly compel state control. If she held "town hall meetings" I could try to join, but I'm under no illusions about the welcome given unscripted comments. The core of the district is Madison, so there's no need to hire outsiders to shout down contrary views.

I'm not claiming the system we have is perfect. (For example, I can prove that palmistry is worthless. If it weren't, insurance companies would use it to figure out when to cancel policies.) But the systems mostly work (the quoted number of 47 million uninsured is a lie). They need some work. Carefully analyzed work. This bill isn't.