Wednesday, September 24, 2003

NASA? Or AnyLab after enough time?

If you haven't seen the comments of NASA folk on the Columbia accident report, have a look. Quite a few comments are anonymous and frank; and some situations sound vaguely familiar.

The Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield

I'm reluctant to try to give a synopsis, since the twists and turns are part of the fun. Plutarch mentions a war between Athens and Amazons, and Pressfield took that ball and ran with it. He invented a culture for the Amazons, basing it partly on other nomadic tribes and partly on the mythic image of the female Amazon warrior. This time he doesn't forget the centrality of religion and custom, and once again (as in Gates of Fire) shows how an alien and sometimes horrible culture has a human core. His theme isn't courage so much as freedom, in its several guises.

The story is set in Theseus's Athens (pre-Trojan war!), and begins with a family who count among their servants Selene, a captive Amazon kept as a tutor for their daughters. She teaches them more than the father suspects (of course) and after King Theseus (who had married the Amazon Antiope) comes by with a message she considers the oath binding her to stay fulfilled. She makes mincemeat of the other slaves on the farm who try to stop her flight.

When the elder daughter takes off to try to join her the next night, family honor demands an expedition for the recovery of them both. Even with a sturdy crew of soldiers, they run into difficulties. And then we hear the story of the earlier conflict as seen by Damon and by Selene. (I guess Pressfield likes to have somebody narrate his stories.)

For some reason I had a little trouble getting into the story at first: Selene seemed a bit unreal; but once the expedition sets out with the reluctant younger daughter (tied so she doesn't run off too), the story picks up. I'll not summarize--suffice it to say that once Damon and Selene started telling their stories I didn't want to put the book down.

The violence is graphic and extreme, so be warned. Some details don't quite work: nobody could survive the underground battle, the coastline is unreasonably heavily populated, etc. But the book works well, and I recommend it.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Frankie Valli

This Frazz cartoon was in our paper this morning. I commented that Frankie was one of those men who wanted to be a soprano. My better half replied "But he didn't make the cut."

Friday, September 19, 2003


I am informed that today is Talk Like A Pirate Day. This catches me unprepared, so you'll have to be satisfied with this.

Friday, September 12, 2003

The United Burger States of America by Peter Biddlecombe

Up till this book I would have unhesitatingly recommended Peter Biddlecomb, on the strength of the other four books of his I've read (Travels With My Briefcase, French Lessons in Africa, A Nice Time Being Had By All, and Very Funny, Now Change Me Back Again). He writes of his travels, and as a representative of a British commercial bank he has had to work in a great many different cities. He claims that the true traveler is the business traveler. The vacationer can pick and chose, but the business traveler has to immerse himself in the local culture enough to communicate and deal with the local businessmen. Marco Polo was, after all, a business traveler, not an adventurer.

In the earlier books Peter wrote of his own experiences, often exaggerating or combining events for a better story. And they are good travel stories. By all means go read one of them.

But Burger States isn't mainly about his adventures, but is mostly his impressions and tall tales, with the occasional bitter screed tucked in here and there. The tailor should stick to his last, and Biddlecombe should tell his own stories.

He tried to classify the various states by food, with salad states and cheese states and burger states, etc; which is a nice idea but not well developed.

I could not finish the book. When Franklin wrote to his European audience of the grand spectacle of whales leaping up Niagara, he thought it was a hoot; but it has always struck me as too dumb to be funny. Likewise this book... Maybe Biddlecombe was trying to be a new Dave Barry? If so, he missed badly.

There are a few good spots and a few accurate lines. When visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani (Peter says he is a Thomas Merton fan!) he writes "I've never known so many Americans keep so quiet for so long." (For those not familiar, the Abbey is Trappist, and Trappist monks keep a vow of silence.) But in the end I didn't think it worth my time to finish the book, and I doubt you will either. A pity. Go read one of his others.

Thursday, September 11, 2003


I'm not the best person to write a tribute or a memorial: I wasn't there and I didn't know anybody who was.

My life didn't change much, beyond starting to read Bernard Lewis. A few years before a man lit a pail of gasoline in one of the city buses, and I've been watchful since then in ways 9-11 didn't increase.

One change galls me, though. My hope is to point people to heaven, not hurry them to hell. Yet I find I must spend energy trying to remind people that we have to fight the war, and not miss the forest for the leaves. A stunning number of people can't conceive that the Iraq campaign is just one more campaign in a world-wide war.

The blindness isn't just a University-town effect. Most of the Democratic candidates for president seem to have no clue at all that we're in a major struggle, and several seem to think that we should retreat. I'd thought better of Gore, but his pronouncements on Iraq were ludicrous.

I see the war to come as one with pauses, where we make deals with Beelzebub to attack Lucifer (Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example). We'll try to make peaceable relations with Iraq and Iran (both absolutely critical), and hope that Pakistan and Egypt can manage to reject their jihadists. In the meantime the Saudis will keep funding the jihadist schools churning out terrorist supporters, trying to subvert the entire Islamic world to their Wahhabist party line. We try to win hearts and minds from the outside, as infidels; and they try to win from the inside. The jihadists will keep striking wherever they can, and with the collusion of some governments (Pakistan?), use disease and poison weapons. One day Arabia will be partitioned into the Shi'ite oil fields, the Jordanian holy places, and the Saudi desert; but we'll still see decades pass before the damage done by the unholy madrassas is undone.

With this in mind, I see blindness in other quarters as well. Winning the war isn't a matter of "Do A, do B, send the Marines to C." We can lose. We almost certainly will lose at least a city during the war. And unless we have something more than mere secularism to offer, we aren't going to win enough hearts and minds to matter.

I don't fault Bush for dealing with the Saudis--we can't attack them directly and everybody knows it. But why not tell us we're going to have to make some sacrifices? Where is the drive to address the philosophical/religious issues that inspire our enemies? (Ad campaigns about how nice life is for Muslims in the US won't cut it.) Is anybody going to pay attention to the recruiting in our prisons or quit cowering when CAIR glowers? And we're going to need a lot more soldiers... not just National Guard.

And so I find myself having to call for war when I want to call for peace.

Siloam tunnel

BBC reports researchers have radio-dated Hezekiah's tunnel to 700 BC, in accordance with other estimates, though "though some have contended it is much younger."

Understand something about scientists: They dream about making a big break-through; with something new nobody expected before. They live under pressure to discover. In fields where there is no easy means of disproving a theory--where experiments are hard or impossible--you'll find that contrarians are quite common, and theories a dime a dozen. I think we have an instance of that here. Ancient records say Hezekiah ordered a tunnel dug, and there's the tunnel. Ockham's rule suggests that Hezekiah actually did order the tunnel. You can be open to the possibility that it was an enlargement of an older structure, or that someone later enlarged or repaired it, but I can't see why you would contend that someone else built it, absent any other substantial evidence.

Scientists also want recognition, which is why any conspiracy theory that requires scientists to keep secrets about 200 mpg cars is laughable. The temptation to publish would be too great.

"The Siloam Tunnel itself remains a wonder of ancient engineering, excavated by two teams of diggers starting at opposite ends and meeting somehow - no-one knows how - in the middle." They didn't have good mirrors, but mirrors they did have. I'd think of surveying-in a pipe with a mirror to reflect skylight down the tunnel. If the mine supervisor finds that the day's digging dims the light to one side, he could correct that in the next day's digging. Or you could try making a surface line from one spot to the other, and have people pound on the rock above; or perhaps at two spots equidistant from the line and let the supervisor try to figure which was closer.

UPDATE 9-Feb-2004: I'm told the tunnel had lots of jags, and someone mentioned occasional vertical shafts (for air or alignment?) Hmm.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

The Worst Believer is Better than the Best UnBeliever

I hear very few Muslim voices unconditionally condemning Al Qaeda. Even when somebody ventures a rebuke, it always seems hedged about with complaints and excuses--usually involving the Palestinians.

Part of this is no doubt that everybody likes rooting for David against Goliath, and its no skin off their noses if we get bruised.

Part is systematic. The worst believer is better than the best nonbeliever.

It is an article of faith that even the most wicked believer is in a different and better relationship to God than the most virtuous unbeliever. Here understand unbeliever as one who has rejected the revealed truth. The merely ignorant are in a rather different class. Because your relationship with God is infinitely more important than your relationship to anyone or anything else, if follows that even a wicked believer is better before God than the most virtuous person who rejects God. Note that there is a slight difference between my statement and the title.

While a Christian might object that you can't hate your visible brother and still love the invisible God, Christians also hold that believers are better before God than rejectionist unbelievers.

There is no point in trying to challenge this doctrine. That a supernatural relationship is established between God and His worshipers is central to Islam, and to Christianity, and a number of other revealed religions as well. While several Christian denominations deny this, close examination shows that they have departed from orthodoxy in many other particulars as well and do not reflect traditional Christianity.

Who is competent to judge who is a believer and who is not? Christianity and Islam nominally provide different answers to this question--after all, Jesus warned that not everyone who called Him Lord was one of His; while anyone who pronounces the formula is Muslim. In practice when clerics dominate we tend to see the same sort of assumptions in both--either you see an inclusionist "If you do the basics you are a real zzz" or you see a heretic-hunting "If you don't do the details you're not a real zzz." In either case the clerics feel competent to judge, and everyone else can follow their lead. This attitude isn't quite as unjustifiable as it might appear, since the proper relationship with God ought to properly order the rest of one's life (sooner or later), and this can be dramatic. We can easily distinguish between Mother Theresa and John Wayne Gacy.

Still, this judgment can look like a usurpation of God's prerogative.

What are the practical consequences of the attitude that a believer is better before God than an unbeliever? First notice that if I am competent to judge who is a true believer and who is not, then I can safely say that a believer is better than a unbeliever. Second, the more tightly coupled all aspects of the law are, the larger will be the differences between believer and unbeliever. Commonly a believer's testimony carries more weight than an unbeliever's, who already shows a disregard for the Truth. It just gets worse from there, with greater and greater disabilities applied to the unbeliever. Sharia notoriously couples all aspects of law, but the lack of divine authority to oppress unbelievers hasn't always hobbled Christians either. (Of course in Hinduism, where it is impossible to change your religious status, the restrictions on non-Brahmans enforce a permanent and particularly noxious caste system.)

We have a secular society for a number of reasons, including the rise of atheism/secularism, the ascendancy of philosophies that despair of finding absolute truth, a history of bitter experience of religious wars, and a little sentence of Jesus' about giving Caesar what was his and God what was His. The secular society shows some great advantages, even though it has some shortcomings. In fact our society is very aggressively materialist and anti-religious, unless those religions are willing to become materialist and un-dogmatic. This doesn't seem to endear us to Muslims.

I take it as given that a materialist or un-dogmatic religion isn't worth the water to flush it. Attempts to make Islam un-dogmatic I believe must fail at the best, and backfire at the worst. Orthodox Islam is always going to hold that a believer is in a special relationship to God.

At the other end of the chain we find that Islam so tightly couples all aspects of law under divine authority that it seems inevitable that unbelievers must be treated worse than believers.

I think the weakest link in this chain is the assumption that a human can judge if another person is a true believer. If you lie while pronouncing the Muslim formula, are you really a Muslim? Is rebellion against the laws of God kin to apostasy?

These subtle points are not useless speculation. We want Muslims to despise evil-doers who injure infidels just as they despise evil-doers who injure Muslims. The more they blindly hang together against the infidel (us), the more cover and scope the bin Ladens have. They should not usurp God's prerogative of final judgment, and restrict themselves to what a human can judge. A little uncertainty about who is honestly Muslim seems compatible with some of the hadiths I've seen.

We need to persuade them that this is Islamic and pious.

We would like Muslims to have the benefits of a secular society (preferably without the evils). They won't accept it unless a secular law is a logical consequence of Islam, or at least not in conflict with it.

We need to encourage them to find the way.

Where can we find scholars willing to study Islam and its expressions who are unafraid to challenge foolish implementations? Perhaps we can't find enough left in the West, but maybe there are some bold souls within Islam willing to ask the loyal but hard questions.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Bad Pun Time

America's Dairyland is a state of superlatives. Whatever you want to see, we're muy.

Monday, September 01, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 1 by Moore and O'Neill

I heard the movie was a turkey, but the "graphic novels" it was based on were supposed to be pretty good. The premise sounded amusing: collect a disparate crew of heroes from popular novels of the nineteenth century and give them some common task.

It took a while for the library copy to get around to me, hence the lateness of this review. (Yes, I'm a cheapskate.)

In brief: lots of detail (good), lots of attention to detail (very good), lots of references to literature (amusing), lots of plot twists, and only about half of the characters are satisfactorily rendered (the Invisible Man, for one). I suppose some of the failures in rendering are inevitable--some of the characterizations in the books rely on the texture of the original author's prose. But I'm afraid I just don't believe their Nemo.

The (text) back story at the end, apparently intended to explain how Quartermain wound up an addict, is unreadable. While not the worst fan fiction I've ever run across ... well, I couldn't finish it. I skimmed a passage here and there. Why Lovecraft?

I'll only recommend this for fans of the genre. The rest of us can continue to live joyful and contented lives without reading it. (No, it is not for kids.)

Harley Time!

If there are this many Harleys in Madison, what must it be like in Milwaukee? I heard that all the hotels and campsites were full in Milwaukee, so aficionados were sleeping as far away as Madison and commuting to the events.

I dunno what the police thought, but all the riders I ran across were courteous.

Motorcycles aren't high on my wish list: maybe because of all those years of riding on dirt roads. I learned that when another car approached you had to roll up the windows quickly to keep crud from hitting you in the face. I like windshields. And you can't carry very many bags of groceries on a cycle. Still, if I ever found I needed one I'd look at a Harley first. True, it sounds like the motor is coughing up phlegm, but its almost a human sound compared to the other sounds of the road, and I see why people like it.


Four of us went to campus to try to see Mars Wednesday night. The line for the observatory was easily a block and a half long, and I found out the next day that they only took the first 200 and turned back at least 300. Luckily I remembered the old observatory on top of Sterling.

I called from my office to say where we were going, and yep, the light was on in the dome. Up to the roof, where a stiff breeze was making the youngest daughter bitterly regret her summer outfit. Alas, the grad student manning the refractor hadn't used it before, and was yanking it this way and that staring through the main scope. Someone more experienced suggested that using the spotter scope was a good idea, as was putting eyepieces in the various scopes. (Yes, he had taken the lens cap off.) Still no joy. I was close to offering my services when a researcher took pity on us and offered to let us look through his scope in a nearby dome. His was a much more compact reflector, but with twice the diameter.

He tried to show our little group of 17 a globular cluster first, but my youngest son was first in line, couldn't see well, and grabbed the scope for balance. Sic transit globular cluster. The dome rotated smoothly around as the long-suffering researcher looked for Mars. He spent most of his time punching buttons on some kind of special calculator, which I guess must translate coordinates and time into a direction for the scope.

The magnification was no bigger than on our little scope at home, but it was far brighter, and the colors weren't those of the rainbow. Mars was clear and beautiful--wobbling a bit because of the wind shaking the building. We all looked a couple of times, thanked our host, and trekked our separate ways.

And, of course, what better treat to end an outing with than ice cream?