Tuesday, December 24, 2002

It is Islamic doctrine that the Koran is not truly translatable, and some (perhaps all) schools hold it blasphemous to even try to translate it. By contrast it is a glory of Christianity that the New Testament is translatable, with the unsurpassed parables of Jesus helping define things. ("Who is my neighbor?" he asked, and Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan.) When God sent angels to us, he didn't demand that the men and women who heard him first take a crash course in Arabic--He spoke to them in their own languages.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

I received this letter:

"The holiday season brings several images to mind. Laughing with visiting family and friends, cozying up to a warm fire, trimming the tree and sipping hot chocolate are just a few. I hope that you and your loved ones are already enjoying these simple pleasures and that your home is providing you with many happy memories during the holidays and throughout the year."

"Now is the perfect time to reflect on what truly matters. I want you to know that I value your business relationship. If you ever have questions regarding your mortgage, please feel free to call or stop by my office."

"You have my warmest wishes for a joyous holiday season and a new year filled with happiness.

Sincerely," Name removed to protect the guilty

I'm thankful for the hint to what truly matters. . . . I suppose I should change my life accordingly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Fish and Visitors Stink in Three Days

Its beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, and aren't you fed up with it already? The daughter who works at WalMart yelps if somebody starts playing our CD of Christmas songs. She says the store plays a 1-hour Christmas music tape on endless repeat, and she can't stand any more. She voices, loudly, what the rest of us feel--I don't know anybody who doesn't start feeling bored with the caroling long before the 25'th. When I worked at Sears in Chicago, we had the same Christmas muzak tape every year, including a dreary flute instrumental of "Christmas in Killarney." At least the rhythm was regular. The WalMart tape plays a lot of pop Christmas, and the singers can't count. And they think sliding all over the note sounds cool. E.

Why do we have to be bored? I'm told there are thousands of carols to choose from, in many variations--the music should be a feast! OK, OK. A large chunk of the songs are in Latin and French, and quite a number use musical styles not very common these days. They might be a wee bit tough to understand.

  • The holiday is schizophrenic. The core of it is a one or two day celebration of Jesus' birth. This celebration is the focus of the vast majority of those afore-mentioned carols. But in order to sell lots of stuff, we've parlayed a 2-day festival into a 2-month potlatch "Season." You can gird yourself up to smile and be happy for a day when somebody else is celebrating, but 2 months worth of "Happy Holidays!" will bust a gasket somewhere. And what's the deal with "Happy Holidays" when I'm working hard through 90% of the "holiday season?" OK, OK. Jesus said we were to love each other, and I suppose people are trying hard to work up some appearance of love using smiles and gift giving. "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."
  • The religious carols and the older secular carols are very much more focused on "the day," and so feel out of place when Christmas is still many weeks away. Imagine how you'd feel with people singing Happy Birthday at you for a month before your actual birthday--it feels pretty meaningless after a while, doesn't it?
  • The modern secular carols fall into only two categories: the I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas fed-up-with-Christmas-carols carols and the unremittingly happy Silver Bells type. Frankly, I never feel any of Rudolph's pain--the song is far too peppy. Two months: no, two days of White Christmasy songs makes me long for a touch of reality.

    Compare the lyrics for yourself:
    "A thrill of hope--the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn"
    "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know, where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow."
    If I must sit through either song a dozen times, I'd rather hear the one that knows about the sorrow as well as the joy, and that talks of active hope rather than foggy reminisces.

  • To make matters worse for the secular carols, there really aren't very many good ones. Most carol collections used on the radio and shopping centers pick from the secular set and a very restricted set of very familiar religious carols, presumably to keep from offending non-Christians and from giving Christians unmerchandisable ideas ("ye who seek to bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing" from Good King Wenceslas). The result: I can't think off the top of my head of more than 50-80 songs I hear regularly.

    At from 2 to 3 minutes per song (ever notice that the stores play shorter versions?), that comes to less than 3 hours of playing time, and more like 2. Visit 4 stores (15 minutes each) and you're already likely to be hearing the same tune repeated, not counting what you hear on the radio and on commercials and ... and ... Of course, the stores don't want you paying attention to the music, so don't expect dramatic themes.

  • Can things be more dismal? Every singer thinks she needs to inflict her own style on the old carols in a Christmas CD. It stands as a testimony to the quality of the originals that they hold up as well as they do under the onslaught of the random stresses and tempo changes that pass for emoting. It is the aural equivalent of putting the Mona Lisa in a circus pink frame.

I suppose I'm being a tiny bit unfair to the merchants. We use Thanksgiving and Christmas to honor families. That's not a lot of time for people so important, so we try to stretch it out a bit. The two months of sweet songs isn't entirely a sales ploy. Some of it is because we feel guilty for neglecting our families and try to make it up. I guess I shouldn't complain too much: we mean well. Sometimes.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Everybody puts up cartoons or other amusements on the door of their office or work area around here. No one artist provides the majority of the work, but Dilbert is very popular--except in the Business school. I wonder why.

I know that journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones Dead" to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.
G.K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown

Friday, December 06, 2002

Reporting the Earthquake

The San Jose (Loma Prieta) earthquake of 1989 coverage illustrates a fatal problem with the way our news media work.

We have friends in San Jose, so as soon as we heard of the earthquake we turned on the TV news, which ran steady coverage. We couldn't call, since some phone lines were out and the rest jammed, so we had only the broadcasts to tell us where the damage was.

The talking heads didn't have a lot of info at first either, and had to keep urgently repeating what little they knew for the benefit of people who had just tuned in. The Goodyear blimp found a real use for a change, turning the camera away from the ballfield to the damaged city.

A building had caught fire, and the blimp kept its camera zoomed in on that house for the next few hours, oblivious to the rest of the city, until the blimp ran out of fuel and started getting blown out to sea. No doubt this footage told a story--of trouble and struggle and eventual victory. Cute. But what I, and the rest of the country wanted to know was: is that typical? Was the whole city burning? Or was it unscathed and this the only problem? What was going on?

By focusing on the dramatic, the news producers effectively lied to us about the city.

What should they have done? Panned the city of course. Sweep back and forth, and zoom in on random spots. Once that footage is in hand, then select the hot spots. Intersperse current footage of the hotspots with rerunning that whole-city pan: that would have satisfied their lust for exciting footage with our desire for accurate information, or at least a representative picture of the troubles.

They could also have put up a map with little colored stickers to show where they'd had phone calls from (telling which regions had phone service), color coded to tell how much damage the informant had seen. That would have been simple and effective, and maybe even useful to rescue workers.

Of course, any time you read a news report (or watch one) of a situation you have detailed knowledge of, you're astonished at how inaccurate the result is. I served on a grand jury once, and never did the news report of a crime closely resemble the testimony we heard later. When the science reporters unburden themselves of a story on a field I know something about, they never get it straight--not even the biggest name newspapers (though they do make fewer and subtler mistakes).

Its an old story: reporters have to get the story fast and and make it interesting, and accuracy loses. Trying to make the story exciting (over and above interesting) makes it even worse. And when you spend months trying to make a measurement accurate and understand the errors, to see it hawked out of context as a barely recognizable claim . . . you can despair of the human race sometimes.

Bat Ye'or's The Dhimmi

is not a book to read if you have a short temper. She clearly documents that in the heartlands of Islam hatred and oppression of non-Moslems is built into the culture and the law--and in Islam law and religion are not clearly distinguished.

She does not address Islam in Asia or in non-Arab Africa or the Pacific, which makes it difficult to determine how well the doctrines requiring such degradation travel. That would be a very interesting data point--is it Islam that is intolerant or Arab culture? I see today some tantalizing references to sharia elsewhere, but haven't read the book he refers to. A researcher would have to exclude recent history, dating from the era in which Saudi-funded madrasa-type schools have spread Wahabism.

One of her claims is that the dhimmis ("protected person") holds his protected status not by right but by withholdable grant, and that the protection is from the righteous punishment they would otherwise receive at the hands of their Moslem neighbors. Another observation is that there was a collective aspect to the dhimmi's abasement, and if a Christian or Jew held a position of authority, dhimmis responsible for the insolence, and thus liable to death for breaking the covenant.

The application of the rules dhimmis to the current conflict with Israel is obvious--Jews ruling part of the heart of dar alIslam is seen as an arrogant attack on holy law and a violation of the dhimmis contract of abasement, and collective punishment (execution or enslavement) must follow.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Words, words, words

I'm tired of hearing meaningless or useless words; and I plead for us all to let them lie fallow for a few decades, until they rebuild their vigor and meaning.

RACIST It could be a useful word; it describes an attitude still not that uncommon in the world. I don't hang around with racists, but I've met a few, and the newspaper keeps me informed about others. Unfortunately the term was so overused in the 80's and 90's that it became merely a term of generic abuse. To this day if I hear the word used the odds are overwhelming that it is either used by a black person to refer to a non-black person who dares disagree, or by an Arab about a Jew.

LIBERAL I have no idea what this word means anymore. In the senses used at the start of the 20'th century, it could refer to Reagan. US reporters in other countries use it to refer to people they like. In this country, what does it refer to: economic policy, social/cultural policy, theological position, or somebody who gives generously of his money when a friend is in trouble; or some combination of these? Or is it just a term of abuse? I give up.

MILITANT Newspapers use this promiscuously to describe people ranging from a mother carrying a sign in a street parade to ben Laden. This utterly obscures the real differences among advocating change, advocating violence, being destructive, being a soldier, and being murderous.

NAZI Yes, there are a few real Nazi's around, and it is hard to understand history without it, but with calls of "Feminazi" on the one hand and "Bush is a Nazi" on the other, we can safely conclude that the word has no meaning any more beyond abuse.

Some words and phrases aren't likely to ever acquire useful meanings.

HOMOPHOBE An attempt to use the language of psychiatric illness to defame someone who disagrees with you about the morality or desirability of homosexuality. It hasn't any discernible meaning beyond abuse. I can safely ignore most of what you say if you throw around abuse like this.

PRO-CHOICE Why not be frank, and say pro-abortion?

PRO-LIFE Actually a little more frank than pro-choice, but still, why not say anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia? OK, it takes more syllables...

My youngest daughter was making up a story about zebras eating flowers the other night when it occurred to me that I haven't seen as many holes gnawed in flower petals as in leaves. Are flower petals as nutritious as leaves? My first guess is no, since there's no obvious chlorophyll, so presumably not much sugar available. On the other hand, pollen is supposed to be mostly protein, which is a plus: bees seem to like it. However, bees are designed to get at the pollen without eating the flower petals, so maybe the petals are unpalatable. Some flowers are edible as that excerpt from Edible Flowers suggests. This site notes that some can be poisonous; though it makes lots of claims about healing which I won't vouch for. The author suggests avoiding the flower internals and concentrating on the petals.

So I tentatively conclude that petals are somewhat nutritious, but designed to be unpalatable to bugs.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Ever notice that "gym clothes" is an oxymoron?

Monday, December 02, 2002

Whenever I start feeling happy about our culture, something comes up that leaves me sick. Webcams in a coffin. Death is humiliating enough. For the love of God, or for the love of humanity, or for the love of courtesy, please don't gloat over a man's humiliation. Executive summary of article, which will become inaccessible: Some people are putting webcams in coffins, a movie has been made already; interview with a man who wants to and his family members.

Saturday, November 30, 2002

I've noticed a number of bloggers running down France. While it seems true that the French become annoyed when they find that our interests coincide, since it deprives them of a chance of doing us one in the eye, their recent dickering and stalling looks more like they are trying to build the most influence they can for themselves. While I don't have to like it, it isn't actually a crime.

Den Beste again

Den Beste concludes too much from an absence of evidence, but his description of medium-term strategy seems sensible. I've two caveats: one I mentioned before; that trying to seduce moderate Moslems away from radical Jihadism with materialism/secularism is not going be be very successful. Materialism is just not a very substantial religion, and reaction against "the great Satan (deceiver)" will feed and not starve the fundamentalist urge. We need to have a plan to modify Islam itself.

The other caveat is that we have no good picture of what goes on behind the scenes. The claim "all politics is local" has some validity, and any time we rely on locals for assistance in war or government (all the time) we put our interests at stake in local disputes for power. It isn't all that hard to find cases where a plan goes awry because one person figured he would be better off, never mind what happens to his own country (and our soldiers): the infamous French leaks during the Balkan war springs to mind.

Thus I'd not expect us to take India into our confidence. We might tell them some things, but nothing that could be used to ruin our plans.

Friday, November 29, 2002

Woody Allen is supposed to have quipped that "Bisexuality doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." Actually, it announces that you are going to be unfaithful, and who wants that?

I've seen a bit of pontificating about a benign empire, and the Pax Americana, and it worries me. Suppose we tried to assemble an empire. I don't doubt that most of us, including most of our leaders, have good intentions, and would maintain these for a while. What does worry me is what happens to the folks who run empires: they breed people who assume that they are superior, and thus specially entitled to all the power and all the goodies. Anybody care to claim we don't already have quite a crowd of citizens who think they are entitled to the moon? About 12 years ago I saw a very scary bumper-sticker: Prosperity is my birthright.

We already have a surplus of arrogance. We're rich, partly because we tried to set up procedures to keep the economic system as free as we could consistent with justice, partly because we lucked out with a land with good soil and good minerals, and also because of Deut 8:18. So, we claim that if the rest of the world will just do things our way, they'll be rich and free also. Well, maybe: a lot of countries don't have a just economic system (read _most_ of them), and they'd doubtless benefit a lot from changes. But we forget that they will also have to make some of the same compromises we did along the way. And some of them have problems with natural resources that are hard to work around.

We're hypocrites as well. We demand that other countries crack down on Moslem extremists, but let them run around in our own country with essentially no supervision (unless the FBI has gotten its act together in the last few days). We trumpet free trade as a great thing, and then destroy Ghana's small farmers with subsidized rice exports.

The moral code we advertise leaves a lot to be desired. Because we fund programming with commercial advertising, we send their message: that getting stuff is the key to all happiness. We claim that abortion is good, when everybody else knows it is despicable; that "alternative sexuality" is normal when it is known to be perverse; that radical individualism is proper when everybody else knows that you owe a great deal to your family and friends. You and I know people who don't believe these claims, and maybe even live by fairly strict moral codes, but the rest of the world never finds out about them.

Don't misunderstand me: We have a number of virtues as well, and I can't think of any other culture that is better--and most are horribly worse. But whenever a man stands up to lecture me about my faults I'm quick to spot his defects and ask "Who died and made you God?" Generally the lecturer doesn't respond with due humility, and I tune him out. Likewise the rest of the world with us.

The "blame America first" confessional approach doesn't help make lectures go down any better abroad. And we do have some answers to hard problems in the world. We have some wrong answers as well, and quite a few answers that need a little local tinkering to make them work.

So I'd be very afraid to see us starting to run large chunks of the world. We'll screw up some things, but on the whole the lives of people in our protectorates would get better. At first. But we will become still more arrogant and detested, and as our sense of entitlement grows so also will our exploitation of the protectorates. Maybe they'll still be better off by the third generation than they would be otherwise, but I hate to think what kind of people we'll be.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002


If you haven't read G.K. Chesterton, you've missed some wonderful writing, and a marvelous sideways look at the world. If you're up to a book, try Orthodoxy (don't be put off by the name, it is autobiographical). If you want something shorter, try A Piece of Chalk, or poke around in Ward's Chesterton site.

Universities and Mastery

Hang around a university long enough and you'll run across students trying to grind out a thesis on "The Influence of Rabelais on Goethe" or "A PostModern Analysis of Achebe" or some other apparently nonsensical labor. Such theses stand as conclusive proof of a mis-spent youth.

The purpose of these things is really not as insane as the result. Students are supposed to learn from teachers, books, and each other; and then be able to show mastery of the subjects they studied.

The trouble comes in with the "show mastery" part. Different fields of knowledge use, or ought to use different ways of proving that you know what you're doing. Take a few examples: Swahili, ancient Greek drama, polymer chemistry, and pre-Kantian philosophy.

  • The student of Swahili should be able to translate to and from accurately, be familiar with the literature, and if he has any creative bent at all, be able to write poetry in the language. To prove this his professors give him tests to demonstrate his ability to translate to and compose in Swahili. If his skill is greater than theirs, it will be difficult for them to test. They also will require that he show a knowledge of works of Swahili literature or oral works with which they are familiar; and if possible that he be ready to introduce them to new ones which have come to his attention. Ideally the student will be able to prove mastery by creating an original work using some Swahili genre, though the best the professors can usually hope for is that he'll produce mediocre junk.
  • The student of ancient Greek drama had best know his Greek, his Greek history, and all the Greek dramas and fragments (and something of the modern revivals of them). There aren't very many Greek dramas left, so a diligent student can learn all of them. Over the years they have been translated and adapted by much more skillful artists than your average student. The professors have not many useful methods for testing the hapless student. They can test for knowledge of the entire corpus of Greek drama, make sure he knows Greek and is familiar with the history. The student cannot create a new ancient Greek play (though he might be asked to try to redo a scene from a modern play in Greek style).

    But the professors can require that the student be able to compare Greek to Egyptian drama, or trace the evolution of drama and show the Greek influences. Here the devil creeps in. The first time someone studies the influence of Greek drama on Medieval passion plays, it is a breakthrough, all fresh and new. Alas, there are only a finite number of schools of drama you can compare with each other, and the comparisons are soon exhausted. But maybe you can squeeze one more analysis out, or find something to criticize in some earlier analysis--something you can do that is novel. And so the expectation grows that a student will be able to prove himself great by finding some undiscovered similarities between ever more obscure artists' most obscure works.

  • The student of polymer chemistry is in a different situation. He must understand the principles of chemistry and chemical engineering as they apply to polymers, but he cannot know everything there is to know about polymers because nobody knows it all. There is always something else to discover. At work after graduation the graduate will need to be able to design synthesis systems (requiring a thorough knowledge of the existing methods) and be ready to develop new polymers or understand something new that turns up. So the professors must expect that the student not only show breadth of knowledge of the field, but that he will show himself able to do or participate in original research. It being impossible to completely understand the field, they will heavily weight the ability to experiment and analyze new data. Contrast this with the Greek drama student, for whom "original research" means dusting off old books.
  • The student of pre-Kantian philosophy is in a different situation from the others. He has to have the same familiarity with what people said that the other disciplines require, but the philosophers meant different things. A thorough understanding of them requires that our student be able to understand the conflicts between them, and interpret each in light of the others. He won't find much he can seize on as proven in a mathematical sense. Worse yet, our student will find that he is unable to improve on the wisdom he is studying, unless he is one of the very rare great thinkers.

    He must demonstrate his mastery through debate, through finding similarities and through explaining differences.

We mustn't expect the demonstration of mastery suitable for one type of study to be appropriate for a different type. In fact, using the "original research" model in some fields is actually poisonous. Remember the Greek drama student. A few years of "original research" and "scholarly publications" will fill the field with so much useless rubbish that the whole point of the study becomes obscured.

Consider this a plea to let the demonstration fit the type of scholarship. Let the University recognize that some fields are utterly unsuited for "publish or perish," and accept breadth of knowledge or acclaim, instead of the number of pages, as the standard for a degree, or respect, or tenure.

Words of wisdom for today: "Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity".

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Prairie Home Companion

Long ago I used to schedule my Saturdays to make sure I would hear A Prairie Home Companion. The highlight was generally The News from Lake Wobegon, with a wry but affectionate view of archtypical Minnesotans.

The show stopped when he ditched his lover/helpmeet for a rediscovered old sweetheart and moved to Europe for a while. I rather selfishly regretted more the loss of the show than the damage to the lives of people I'd never heard of before.

My Saturdays reorganized (having children will do that for you), and when the show returned with a New York home it wasn't so convenient to listen to any more, but I tried. The "Hear the Old Piano" opening seemed a trifle tasteless, under the circumstances, but the big change was the bitterness. Garrison didn't seem to like the folks in "Wobegon" any more, and it showed. I haven't tried to put a finger on a word choice and say "He used to do it this way, and now its changed," but I probably could. He also seemed a bit more impersonal with the guests, but that might just have been the pressure of a New York venue.

I'm not over-fond of bitter humor, so I quit bothering to make the effort to tune in PHC, but I'd hear it off and on over the years when driving at night. He seemed to have lost some of the bitterness over the years. I hope it is true.

Friday, November 22, 2002

I'm reading Learn to Grow Old by Paul Tournier, who also wrote The Meaning of Persons, A Doctor's Casebook in the Light of the Bible, and others. So far I find it quite good. In one chapter he quotes about Hubert Beuve-Mery, then recently retired editor of Le Monde that "Everyone stresses the independence of mind with which he runs his paper, 'without ever being afraid to take a line that runs contrary to the views not only of the powers that be--which is nothing--but also contrary to those of its readership.'"

This shows courage in a land with variety of points of view among the newspapers, but is wearyingly patronizing in a land with a monoculture in the newsroom. We have two daily newspapers in town: a somewhat leftist journal and a socialist one. The University student dailies are likewise a Democratic paper and a Marxist/"transnational progressivist" rag. Nothing conservative, or even Republican.

At any rate, Tournier says that old age displays what we always were. When at work we may have many co-workers and acquaintances who give us the illusion of having friends. But retire, and you don't have anything to talk about with them anymore. If your hobbies were just amusements, they will bore you when you have nothing else to do. If you use grumbling and grousing to motivate yourself (be honest), you will have nothing left but the grumbling when your powers decline. If you are interested in people as persons and in things because of people, you will likewise retain these interests and habits into old age.

As you might expect, retirement day is too late to try to cultivate a new character; or better say that it is now very hard to change.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

I wonder what they teach at journalism schools these days. A clue for the clueless: If a lawyer says his client is innocent, it isn't news. The company spokesmen will always say that the latest product is marvelous. Lists of the "100 best xyx of the last century" just tell what's in fashion at the moment. Spare us.

From Beirut to Jerusalem

I recently read the 1995 edition of Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem. I was rather surprised at how angry he was at the Israelis in the first few chapters: as though he'd been betrayed. He moderates his tone as the book progresses, and his proposed solution is very similar to that which was tried, but he wasn't quite so clear about what to do if the Palestinians rejected peace: retaliation was implicit, though.

He observed, and I remember from other sources, that the Israelis (in general) treated the Palestinians as cheap disposable labor: "like niggers" Not his term. This violation of Deut 10:19 seems to have had the result of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

On the other hand, how else can we describe the Hamas/Fatah Palestinians except to say that they are sowing the whirlwind? Who wants for a neighbor people who provide and cheer on suicide bombers with a taste for killing children?

Thursday, November 14, 2002

On a lighter note: Our 3'rd grader's report card carries the message: "He has a high vocabulary and a low tolerance for things he isn't interested in." Aside from the slight mangling of the language, I agree....

How do you win a religious war?

Stomach and Motivation

Den Beste regularly tells us that wars are won by men and not machines, and I'm afraid he's right. On our side we have "a few good men" supported by lots of training and machines. On the other side we have a large pool of highly motivated opponents with opportunistic tactics trying to fight asymmetrical war.

I'll accept as given the claim that our soldiers are able and motivated; certainly those I've known are. Osama said we had no stomach for serious fighting, and Afghanistan did not prove him wrong. We didn't have to find out how deep our support for war was. I honestly don't know what fraction of our young men are willing to go fight, or how far the rest of us are willing to tighten our belts to pay for our expensive machines of war. How many high school boys do you know who'd sign up? I seem to run into a lot of Goths and fake anarchists, but that's due to sampling bias.

We know when can bring our advantages in technology and supply to bear we can win any given battle against Taliban-like enemies, and most of them against Iraq-like enemies. But we can't defend everywhere at once, especially against men eager to get at those 72 virgins. Most of these enemies are going to be too jumpy to fit into sleeper cells here, but with Americans and American interests around the world they'll have no trouble finding targets.

These Wahabite foot soldiers aren't going to be discouraged by a few years of setbacks. Their masters may get discouraged, especially if we can get at those masters now and then. But the ordinary fighters are going to be dedicated, and become extra-ordinary the way dedicated men can be.

What motivations do we bring forward to match the dedication of the Wahabites? They may supply it for us in the form of revenge for repeated massacres. Revenge is a dangerous motive, though, and it tends not to be precisely targeted. That's important.

Our war is currently with the volunteers of the Wahabite sect, and not with the rest of Islam. One of the rest of the Moslems in the world is most likely to think that remote battles are no skin off his nose, but if he has to get involved he'll support his fellow Muslim unless there's a pressing reason not to. Untargeted revenge reprisals will bring more of these semi-neutrals into covert opposition. Most of their support will be providing money and cover for the Wahabites, but a few will join.

We can try to fight under the banner of multi-culturalism, but that's a rather attenuated ideal. A man will fight for his life, his family, friends, tribe, or faith; but I don't recall any but mercenaries fighting for somebody else's faith.

How about secularism, in the sense of "the American Way" of being left alone in matters of religion? That motive has some traction. However, there's an implicit contradiction between "staying out of religion" and confronting a religion. If history is any guide, just as we regarded Germans and Japanese as suspect during WWII, we will regard all Wahabites and almost certainly all Moslems as suspects with allegiances incompatible with citizenship. I do not say this result is inappropriate. Insofar as classical Shari'a is integral to the faith, to that extent Islam is incompatible with citizenship in the Western sense. Notice that we have given up on complete secularism; it is now secularism for everybody except...

How about materialism, which seems to be the ideology we have on tap for export? "Go and die so you can get stuff" is a pretty stinking way to motivate a soldier...

How about Christianity? I strongly object to the government trying to manipulate Christianity--it guarantees the corruption of both church and state. A grass-roots Crusade is not impossible, but it seems a bit unlikely. Most denominations have been on the peaceful and pietist side anyway, and if we can't get a firm consensus on a simple life and death issue like the morality of abortion, I doubt we'll get a firm consensus on waging a crusade. In any case, the original Crusades had rather restricted aims, and conversion of the enemy wasn't high on the list. Forced conversions of Wahabites would be futile, and we all know it.


Our main objective is pretty simple: We want them to stop attacking us.

If we can smash the masters of the Wahabite soldiers and cut off their supplies and funding, we can slow down the attacks, and maybe stop them for a while.

Unfortunately the Wahabite ideology serves as a weapon perpetually aimed at us. We have a range of ways of dealing with this, some immoral and some impossible.

  • We can try to exterminate Wahabism the way the Assassins were exterminated. This requires a world-wide war with intervention in many countries, and lots of executions. I think we have to rank this one as both impossible and immoral.

  • We can try to corrupt/seduce the Wahabites with Western ideas and commercialism, or at least a lot of Islam, drying up the pool of converts to Wahabism. This is part of Den Beste's approach. I don't believe it can work. Our offering can only tantalize. Some people will have the means to enjoy our goods or our freedoms, but most won't, and, angrier because of what they can't have, will be more vehement in rejecting them. In addition, our civil ideas and materialism cannot provide the personal integration that a religion can. Our highly individual-based philosophies are deficient in understanding corporate (tribal) relationships and responsibilities, and this hasn't gone unnoticed in the MidEast.

  • We can try to change the nature of Islamic practice. No, I haven't gone nuts; it is possible, if not always desirable.

    For example, we could capture Mecca and Medina, open up the Great Mosque and expose and destroy and disperse the Kaaba. In theory this shouldn't matter, since God is everywhere, and this is merely a special shrine, but the rituals around Mecca have been an integral part of the religion, and the direction of prayer and the pilgrimage are pillars of Islam. Moslems would be in somewhat the same situation as the Jews were after the Romans destroyed their temple. The Jews had to revise the practice of their religion to fit the new situation--and so would the Moslems.

    Unfortunately, they would also never forgive us and we'd be looking at perpetual war--not quite our aim.

    Islam is very concerned with the forms of religion and obedience: with law. One rather odd way this plays out is that although Moslems are deeply offended to be called Mohammedans, if you insult God they'll sneer at you, but if you insult Mohammed they'll kill you. So which do they hold more sacred?

    The foundations of Islamic law were fixed from three sources: the Koran, the Hadith, and the traditions. As I understand it (I am not a historian), the Koran is the most important whenever it speaks to a subject, with later pronouncements taking precedence over earlier ones if they contradict each other. Since the Koran doesn't address all the issues of society, collections of largely bogus quotations of Mohammed and descriptions of his actions were searched for guidance. (The business of trying to sift out the "unreliable" {bogus} from the true {fairly reliable} quotations consumed a lot of effort. Unfortunately even a lot of the sayings known to be "unreliable" seem to have been hallowed by their antiquity and are quoted approvingly.) The third source of clues the scholars used was the traditions of the tribes of Arabia, on the grounds that if God didn't think them good Mohammed would have objected.

    With these three sources to draw on the scholars created the Shari'a body of laws on how to live. The Sunni scholars declared the job finished, and only interpretations have been allowed since. The Shiites are more willing to innovate. Notice the lack of any reference to the sayings of other recognized prophets, including David, Moses, Jesus, etc. The official line is that the Jews and Christians deliberately rewrote their scriptures to avoid reference to Mohammed; but it is hard to see how this makes them less reliable than the Hadith.

    This suggests an approach to reshaping Islam--broadcast the scriptures of the Jews and Christians, and the Koran, but leaving out the Hadith, as part of regular VOA or other outreach programs. We cannot ourselves reopen the debate on Shari'a, but after some years there will be some Moslems dis-satisfied with Shari'a and educated about the full range of scriptures who would be willing to try. Whether there'd be enough support isn't predictable, but if we can manage to keep the option quietly open there is a chance.

    Our hope would be for a shift in the center of gravity of Shari'a, and of Islam, from the rigid and punitive system with an emphasis on rules and war towards one with more personal piety and aid. This would not change the Wahabites, but would reduce their appeal and the number of Moslems feeding into it would decline. Such a change might spark inter-Muslim wars, but at least they wouldn't be fighting us, until the conservative backlash if that faction won.

    We can also encourage American Moslems to develop a rigorous school of thought that separates the demand for Shari'a from the fundamentals of Islam. If this is successful, then adherents to this fifth school of Islam could live peacefully in DarAlHarb using the pillars of Islam and a "personal" rather than universal obedience to Shari'a.

  • We can try to keep the lid on the Wahabites until they begin to fight each other. This is risky. Some groups have splintered during a struggle, but others only while quarreling for the spoils of victory. Other groups (the Assassins, for instance) stayed together.


Clearly we have to cut off the money supply for the Wahabite missionaries. This is tricky, since directly invading Saudi Arabia is almost certainly going to rouse violent opposition around the world. We need proxies, and we can't rely on native Saudis.

We have to isolate or eliminate Wahabite outposts in this country. The most urgent place to clean up is the prisons, as Charles Colson pointed out, where they can and have easily recruited foot soldiers for sabotage and terrorism. To be continued later

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

I know, the Turks were infidels who bested the Arabs and Persians, and became the definition of ruler in the area eventually; but they did this by

  • Becoming not just Moslem, but "better" Moslems
  • By ruling the area for centuries.

Neither approach seems attractive, and they had to do both.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Religious war

Whether we want it or not, we're in a religious war. It only takes one side to make a war, after all, and our enemies are the Wahabites with an explicitly religious set of goals.

However, as with most of the religious wars I can recall, the war isn't guided by religious goals. The foot soldiers are inspired by Wahabism, but the religious fervor is only the means to the end.

Suppose we threw blankets over every woman, girl, and cow, deported all Jews, demanded mass conversions to Islam, and nuked Tel Aviv. This wouldn't end the war. It might soothe a little of our offense in the eyes of some of the foot soldiers, but the essence of Wahabism is to always be more austere and holy than the other fellow; and we would never be able to completely catch up to the changing standard of perfection.

In any case, the hatred doesn't come only from religious differences. Their greatest humiliation is that they were bested by infidels. That they are poor and we rich forms only a little part of the humiliation, and if we gave them all our wealth it could only seem condescending and even more humiliating.

There are only two ways they can recover their precious self-esteem:

  • To take our goods and lands (and persons: the Wahabites believe in slavery) by force
  • To destroy us if they cannot rule us
Either victory demonstrates the power of their culture and religion over our tribe and culture.

Friday, November 08, 2002

For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays. From The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis.

So of course I write short essays...

The teacher's union is agitating about benefits for domestic partners again. I'm afraid I don't understand why the state has an interest in taking a relationship seriously if the man and woman don't take it seriously enough to make a commitment.

If there are children involved, then call it a common law marriage and enforce the usual penalties if someone deserts, but two people just shacking up doesn't seem to me enough of a relationship to trigger the state's enforcing laws about benefits.

I notice that when I try to hard to be succinct, I become obscure. I'll try to do better.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Perhaps I should explain the title I picked.

I believe that understanding the limits of knowledge is almost as important as the knowledge itself. I'm not thinking of Godel here, but of simple everyday facts and principles. For example, the recent election provided numerous examples of confident projections with subsequent rationalizations. I know many things about my neighbor, but I don't know a lot of other things, and I never will. A scientist will spend about as much time estimating the error on a measurement as in determining the measurement--sometimes more.

The person I know most about--me--is still capable of surprising me. I think I know what I'll do under stress, but . . .

On the same theme, I refuse to develop a theodicy. To claim that I can tell what was God's meaning in arranging/allowing some event seems a bit presumptuous, absent a direct revelation. I bite my tongue when I hear pious explanations of some deep pain: "It'll help you minister to others" or "It will strengthen you" (ouch). I rather suspect that there can be many purposes for some loss, some of which we are currently in no position to understand.

Nevertheless, I do know a few things. I know something of the physical world, something of human relations, something of how the society works, something of the spiritual world... "Nothing human is alien to me," and I can understand other people's joys and pains. I cannot always find words for some of the things I've experienced, but I can communicate anyway. I reject the solipsistic claim that we can only know what our own senses tell us, and never truly know what another person means. I can communicate, and if you don't believe I can, you verify my assertion by your rejection of my claim.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

I remember from elementary econ that monopolies are supposed to be bad because they can cause economic distortions that cause the usual supply and demand reactions to fail; and to fail in ways that increase the power of the monopoly. From history I note that large concentrations of money have a tendency to corrupt politics and still further concentrate money and power at everyone else's expense. So far, so bad, but I haven't heard warnings about the effects of failure. Maybe I just haven't read the best econ texts, but...

Sooner or later, every company will fail. Companies are run by people. The Peter Principle applies. People screw up. Men "drunk with sight of power" fail to take advice.

If the company is primitive (dig ore, haul to market by oxcart), it isn't too hard for somebody else to pick up the pieces, but when a complex firm bails, it can take a lot of time to glue it back together. Teams break up, shops get sold off, notes come due with nothing to pay them with...

If said company is vital: a monopoly of something essential, or carrying so much debt and so many orders that it will take down a large fraction of the other firms in the land when it fails, then your economy is in deep danger. Korea had a few firms that were "too big to fail," except they did. I hear Japan is in the same boat.

So, for economic safety, you need to discourage large monopolies, and worry about mega-mergers. As well as the other reasons I used to read about.

Monday, November 04, 2002

The local Kinko's copy services displays its name in blue light on the sign outside. Just like every other blue light sign I've seen over the years, it is blurry. This can't be because of my aging eyes, since I remember them looking blurry 20 years ago.

Red light doesn't conflict with the eye's 'dark adaptation' as much as other frequencies, which is why we used a red night light for the baby's room. We could see what we were doing, without blindly stubbing toes on the way back to bed later. If blue light strongly reduces the 'dark adaptation' of the eye, then natural jitter of the eye, by moving the image around on the back of the eye, will create a desensitized zone where the image of the blue light lands. The blue sign isn't intensely bright, so it relies on contrast with the dark to create its effect--but that contrast has been partly destroyed, and so the image is not sharp, which I see as blur.

Maybe, maybe not, but it seems plausible.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

This past September many papers asked people how their lives had changed since 11-Sept-2001. Many told of shattered complacency. When I think of my life, little actually changed beyond reading a lot of Bernard Lewis and more of the news from the MidEast.

I claim no prescience when I say that I knew we'd be targets. It was just a matter of time for the haters to build up the infrastructure they needed in this country, and then we'd experience the same horrors that others have; and face the same questions about rights that other countries face (as we also once did, but have forgotten) in times of war and terrorism.

I did not feel less secure after the attacks than before. I take the bus to work every day. A few years ago I opened the paper to find that a hate-filled lunatic had taken a pail of gasoline on board a bus and tried to kill, and nearly succeeded. The victims are still recovering. The 9-11 attacks by the Wahabites did not add significantly to my watchfulness.

Friday, November 01, 2002


When children are left to their own devices, the Halloween costumes are pretty reasonable. When the adults get into the act, competing for the palm of the most horrific, the results are at best thoroughly tasteless. Most of the kids I know are happy with ketchup and imagination, until they go by Spencers and see the rotting corpse outfits.

I know that imagination doesn't move product, and that the holy dollar can always be made to move a little faster; and so we will always be afflicted with vendors trying to catch our eyes with ever more shocking merchandise. Still, if you must give a potlatch, why not skip the plastic tombstones and spiders and give out full-sized candy bars and pop? The kids don't really care much about hands reaching out of the lawn.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Researchers recently found that women preferred a different type of man depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle: a "stronger" man when fertile and a "gentler" man the rest of the time. The researchers interpreted this as meaning that women wanted a strong man to engender a strong baby, but a gentle man the rest of the time to nurture the child.

This seems a bit too pat to me, as though men were cardboard cutouts only able to be one thing. I propose an alternative interpretation: that when fertile a woman wants a different role from her man--that he be more "take-charge" when her body wants to get pregnant. This seems to explain the evidence about as well, without the problem their interpretation has that the risks of infidelity are at least as high to the children as the purported benefits. ("Not my kid, why should I support it--or you, either?")

The greater the difference between the father and the husband, the more likely the child is to be recognized as not the husbands; but the smaller the difference the smaller the presumed differential "fitness" of the child--so why bother?

The more things change... We've all read of the superstious tribes in which a chief would bury his fingernail and hair clippings at night to keep enemies from using them in spells to cause him harm. Nowdays the equivalent would be for an enemy to drop one of your hairs at a crime scene to finger you as the culprit via DNA testing.