Thursday, April 29, 2004

Yet another data point

Aziz has a reference to an interesting report from Iraq suggesting that some of the Shi'ites are interested in getting rid of the bloody posturing of Sadr. I'm dubious of Aziz' take on Sistani--I've seen no evidence that he isn't power-hungry--but . . .


The Teaching Assistants Association was on strike Tuesday and Wednesday; with banners and pickets moving from building to building. One set of banners they strung on the overpass over University Avenue: "Honk for Healthcare," etc. Some other enterprising students hung another banner nearby: "Honk for Bush."

There was lots of honking: almost every third car honked. It has to have been gratifying to elicit such response. :-)

Hybrid car

The University fleet issued me a Toyota Prius for a trip the other day. I'd never driven an electric hybrid before. Or a Toyota, for that matter. (I can't afford one.)

The displays were distracting at first, but I got used to them. The radio controls (except for the off/on/volume) were a touch-screen: very nice for the passenger, but bad for the driver. It's a long reach to get to it, and you have to take your eyes off the road. Very bad design.

Mileage is better in the city than the highway, since it recovers energy when you slow down. Very very nice. I like efficient technology. One of the displays shows the energy flow dynamically, and another shows gas mileage as a function of time.

It starts like a dream--at least in warm weather. Turn the key and its on. It handles like a van in high winds--bouncing all over the road.

Pickup isn't very good, and trying to merge after toll booth stops was less than pleasant; comparable to a fully loaded Aerostar.

For city driving, it looks like a winner.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Truer than she knows

In this morning's Wisconsin State Journal is a peice by Joanne Weintraub from the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel: "Viewers want 'new'--and they're getting it," illustrated with a picture of the infamous stars of "The Simple Life." In the penultimate paragraph:

... they represent the current state of network programming. Call it permanent flux.

How true it is: Webster's first definition of flux is "an excessive abnormal discharge from the bowels."

I think the last program I watched was the SuperBowl. We knew the half-time was going to be by MTV, so I skipped the crotch-grabbing and the stylized rape scene. My life hasn't been irreparably harmed by the deprivation.

Friday, April 23, 2004

A short list of bloggers

Some people have come up with very clever ways of categorizing their lists of blog links. I thought I'd give thumbnail descriptions instead. There are no reciprocal linkings here: I just listed those I'd looked at more than once (some I check daily, others I hardly ever look at). Some I think might be of general interest I flagged *. Opinions expressed by the authors have no necessary relationship to my own.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Space Battles II

I see that DenBeste decided to analyze only known/knowable technology battles, and forgo studying the popular "magic" force fields and "magic" energy beams I mention below. Naturally that changes the dynamics somewhat, but some of the worries are universal: waste heat, for example. He promises several more articles on other details. I'd only dispute his stipulation that nuclear weapons wouldn't be used.

Fallen Angels

by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn

Short review: They had too much fun writing the book.

Longer review: In the very near future, thanks to falling CO2 levels and a reduction in solar output, glaciers are moving south through the northern states again. Humanity is split between the Earthbound (ferociously antitechnological) and the few doomed "angels" living in kludged-up habitats in orbit. Alex and Gorden, sent on one of the necessary nitrogen-scooping missions (things leak), are shot down to land on a glacier. The space colony is in surreptitious contact with some technophiles, who come to rescue the duo.

The technophiles are mostly science fiction fans. As I said, the authors had too much fun writing this. They threw in boat-loads of references to science fiction books, writers, movies, and fans. Some of this you can justify by the story and the need to have identification codes, but it gets distracting; not to mention incestuous.

The governments are controlled by Greens, and new agers and fundamentalists have made common cause against the teaching of science. (I gather that the authors have no personal acquaintance with Christian fundamentalists: a less likely alliance is hard to imagine.) The authors worked hard to keep the description of the Greens from becoming polemical. And the book isn't a polemic, but only because its view of the Greens (part of the extreme technophobic movement) is pretty accurate.

In a very nice touch, the book has been available online. I don't read books online at work, and there's a lot of contention for the dialup line at home, so I picked this up at the bookstore.

Rainbow Mars had the same problem as this: a nice premise and a decent plot cluttered with too many outside references. I can't really recommend either book.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Space battles :-)

DenBeste's latest piece on space battles is only a "Part 1." I get a kick out of these updates at the end:

Update: Ye Gods. I don't suppose you people could wait to tell me what's wrong with my discussion of space naval battle tactics until after I've written that part?

Update: And the letters continue to arrive. Look, what I intend to write next will have nothing whatever to do with anything you've ever read about or seen in science fiction or video games or on TV. Please restrain yourselves. I hereby request that I receive exactly zero (none, nada, zip) letters about space battles until after I've posted the second part of this article.

That's the problem with being famous :-)

Back when I was in college I wrote complaining that SF space battles always ignored such little problems as how to get rid of waste heat after using those "magic" energy beams. Think about it: you're trying to dump energy into somebody else's vessel, and in the process of generating it you release the same order of magnitude or more within your own--and there's no air or water to cool you off. You only benefit if you can focus the energy into a smaller spot on the enemy than on yourself, to locally overwhelm any defense. Even then, you can't keep shooting for long without some very aggressive scheme for pumping heat into ejectable mass.

I also griped about the "magic" force fields that somehow manage to shield away damaging energy or matter but still allow you to see through them with no trouble. In the real world, if you had any such (presumably segmented) shield, it would have to block visible light if you didn't want to have your sensors burned by lasers. So you're blind wherever your force field is on. All the enemy has to do is fire volleys of missiles that maneuver around you and pepper your vessel from all directions to keep you completely blind and out of communication with your own drones. Thus your own drones have to have enough local smarts to figure out when you're in trouble and engage the enemy's drones and open up your communication lines again. Approximately the same model applies in combats between drones (although you're more willing to risk unmanned drones). What you wind up with, instead of duels between armored knights, is "Little Fleas have lesser fleas, on their backs to bite 'em. And lesser fleas have little fleas and so ad-infinitum."

Think of swarms of different sizes of spacecraft attacking each other in unison. Since communications will be lost from time to time, each drone has to try to predict how to fight guessing how everybody else is going to fight. You want your high value vessels as far away from the center of the action as you can manage without losing control. Think decoys. There's probably no good way to disguise yourself, but you might manage the equivalent of smokescreens using EMP.

Some critical factors include battle programming and prediction, learning algorithms, spoofing enemy communications, how fast you can field vast numbers of drone fighters, and how long they can hold out in combat.

This is all pretty obvious stuff--I'm interested in seeing what DenBeste comes up with.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Another data point about Islam in the UK

The article in City Journal by Theodore Dalrymple titled When Islam Breaks Down tells of the cruelty to women he found in Muslim (but not Sikh!) Pakistan, and of the brittleness he sees as the source of the shrillness of modern Islam. He judges the fatal flaw in Islam to be its failure to distinguish church and state, which left 'both' susceptible to attacks by radical clerics and which left no neutral zone for independent thought. And without some independent thought, there's never likely to be any reform. So far, so good--his analysis is worth reading on this account alone.

But even more interesting to me than the theory is his information about what young Muslim men are actually like in the UK.

One sign of the increasing weakness of Islams hold over its nominal adherents in Britain--of which militancy is itself but another sign--is the throng of young Muslim men in prison. They will soon overtake the young men of Jamaican origin in their numbers and in the extent of their criminality. By contrast, young Sikhs and Hindus are almost completely absent from prison, so racism is not the explanation for such Muslim over representation.

Confounding expectations, these prisoners display no interest in Islam whatsoever; they are entirely secularized. True, they still adhere to Muslim marriage customs, but only for the obvious personal advantage of having a domestic slave at home. Many of them also dot the city with their concubines--sluttish white working-class girls or exploitable young Muslims who have fled forced marriages and do not know that their young men are married. This is not religion, but having ones cake and eating it.

The young Muslim men in prison do not pray; they do not demand halal meat. They do not read the Quran. They do not ask to see the visiting imam. They wear no visible signs of piety: their main badge of allegiance is a gold front tooth, which proclaims them members of the city's criminal subculture--a badge (of honor, they think) that they share with young Jamaicans, though their relations with the Jamaicans are otherwise fraught with hostility. The young Muslim men want wives at home to cook and clean for them, concubines elsewhere, and drugs and rock n roll. As for Muslim proselytism in the prison--and Muslim literature has been insinuated into nooks and crannies there far more thoroughly than any Christian literature--it is directed mainly at the Jamaican prisoners. It answers their need for an excuse to go straight, while not at the same time surrendering to the morality of a society they believe has wronged them deeply. Indeed, conversion to Islam is their revenge upon that society, for they sense that their newfound religion is fundamentally opposed to it. By conversion, therefore, they kill two birds with one stone.

But Islam has no improving or inhibiting effect upon the behavior of my city's young Muslim men, who, in astonishing numbers, have taken to heroin, a habit almost unknown among their Sikh and Hindu contemporaries. The young Muslims not only take heroin but deal in it, and have adopted all the criminality attendant on the trade.

This, while a disaster, is a different disaster than you might be led to expect from the usual news sources. It is just one datapoint, of course, since the UK's Muslim population is dominated by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis ( see this.

Always check your theories against experiment...

The Indian Ten Commandments

I see posters with "The Indian Ten Commandments:"

  1. Remain close to the great spirit.
  2. Show great respect for your fellow beings.
  3. Be truthful and honest at all times.
  4. Do what you know to be right.
  5. Look after the well being of mind and body.
  6. Treat the Earth and all that dwells there on with respect.
  7. Take full responsibility for your actions.
  8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.
  9. Work together for the benefit of all mankind.
  10. Give assistance and kindness whenever needed.

These sound cute. But unless these are a brand-new collection developed especially for modern cosmopolitan American Indians, they are also spectacularly ignorant.

Don't people remember that the American Indians come from many different tribes, with wildly different cultures and religions? If you want to list religious commands, you should specify which tribe they came from. For example:

  1. Rip out living human hearts on Huitzilopochtli's temple to keep the sun rising. (Aztec)
  2. In February and March, sacrifice children to Tlaloc. (Aztec) [ref Krickeberg]
  3. When the Great Sun dies, strangle his wives and offer your own children under 3 as sacrificial companions. (Natchez) [ref Stirling]
  4. Torture your enemies to death for the honor of your clan. (Iroquois)
  5. Pray to toads to obtain good weather. Treat them carefully, unless the weather is bad--in which case, whip them. (Oronoka river tribes) [ref Depons]
  6. You may not marry unless you can stand being bitten by poisonous ants without making any noise. (Arawak) [ref Pitou]
  7. If a man dies for any reason, you must find the witch who killed him. (Cherokee)
  8. Decapitate anyone who blasphemously reveals the secrets of a Katcina. (Zuni)
  9. Second-hand tobacco smoke purifies you and connects you with the gods. (numerous tribes)
  10. Use a a buffalo skull stuffed with grass as an altar during the summer solstice Sun Dance ceremonies. Young men should rip skewers through their flesh. (Sioux) [ref Schwatka]

I grant you that my selection is invidious. And the first collection is an anacronistic whitewash. And if you want to find out about American Indians, go look up real tribes first. Learn a little of their histories. Then read about the modern pan-Indian movement. Then laugh uncontrollably at the fake Indian-spirituality peddled these days.

Monkeying around on company time

"Act like a chimp, say scientists at the Zoological Society. They want to see if human volunteers can better defuse daily tensions by adopting the body language of our ape cousins. I'm game."

And the resulting BBC story is a hoot, and exactly what you'd expect. We do have our own languages, far more subtle and effective than chimp body language.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Religion and Egypt

I try to put myself in the skin of the people who make the artifacts and totems you find in the museums. "What would this look like to me if . . ." I don't always succeed, of course. With Egyptian relics I almost never succeed. The layers on layers of symbolism obscure any sense of the numinous. It seems like riddles, or one of those deliberately obscure gnostic texts. Rosicrucian-esque--if the common folk understand it, squeeze in an even deeper meaning for the adepts.

Maybe that's not fair. The exhibits represent nearly three thousand years of religious mixing.

I have a hypothesis . . . This must be the result of welding together local cults from up and down the Nile, shoehorning gods that look similar into single figures for national consumption. "All sky gods line up on the left, moon gods to the right, vegetation spirits over there. . ." The new sky god absorbs all the shrines and all the totems associated with the old ones. Some of the compromises are bound to look a little weird.

And if this welding happens more than once, the gods really get messy. Egypt had a number of periods of inter-dynastic chaos, so it seems plausible to me that the central worship would break down and local worship become the focus again. So if the powers-that-be try to re-unify the gods again, they might not pick the same local ones as before.

At any given time, no doubt the people had a moderately clear idea of which attributes and ceremonies were important, but from four thousand years away they all run together.

Some 25 years ago I read part of "The Book of the Dead," a translation of the common coffin texts. My memory is very sketchy on the details, but the overall impression was of a surprising lack of humility. These magic incantations even compelled the gods. Some inscriptions were petitions, but others were spells to secure safe passage or provisions from the gods.

I can't help but wonder how much popular worship partook of this same attitude--"I've given you this, now give me the good luck I want or I take my sacrifices down the road to another temple."

Quest for Immortality

I went to The Quest for Immortality exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum this week. It is well worth the visit--the largest exhibit from the Egyptian museums since the Treasures of Tut, and (I didn't get to see the Tut show), apparently more eclectic.

I'll say again: go see it if you have the chance. Photos in books aren't the same as seeing things up close at any angle you like.

In younger years I read everything available (not much :-() on ancient Egypt, but I clearly missed a lot. I'd never heard of anything like the sculpture of the resurrecting Osiris: on his belly, with his head raised and an enigmatic smile that for the first time starts to look appropriate.

Curiously the Milwaukee museum doesn't have extensive pictures, but look at National Gallery of Art Slideshows from the Quest for Immortality traveling exhibition. I was grateful for the audio tour since it pointed out details I hadn't thought to look for. This is their transcript of one of the explanations.

Coffin of Paduamen

ALAN SHESTACK: The coffin and mummy board here belonged to a priest named Paduamen. At the right, on the large coffin lid, we see him in the form of a mummy. His hands are crossed on his chest like the god Osiris, lord of the Underworld, for Paduamen hopes to come back to life as Osiris himself did.

DAVID O'CONNOR:In the center of the lid, is the goddess Nut who spreads out her wings to enfold the dead, and protect him from any supernatural danger.

AS: Below, Paduamen and his wife make offerings to the gods.

At the left, the slightly smaller mummy board closely mirrors the decorations on the coffin lid. It would have been placed inside the coffin, directly over the mummy wrappings, adding another layer of physical and magical protection. Here, above the hands, you'll find images of a winged scarab and a sun disk. The scarab represents the rising sun.

At the far left, we look into the bottom part of the coffin. The main figure on it is the winged goddess of the West, representing the entrance to the netherworld.

The underside of the mummy board depicts Maat, goddess of truth and rightness, with ankh signs looped on her arms, the symbol for life. She stands on the hieroglyph for gold, which is also a symbol of the sun. On the reddish-brown interior of the coffin lid, is an image of the mummy god Osiris. You may wonder about his vivid green skin.

DO:It partly has to do with the fact that he's a god of vegetation, because you know, vegetation seems to grow up out of the earth, out of the netherworld, and so the green of Osiris also refers symbolically to the hope of renewed life for the dead.

But look again at the inner mummy board's front. OK, it's easier to do in person rather than looking at the tiny picture on the web. But the face on the inner mummy board is female. If the outer cover is supposed to be Paduamen as Osiris, maybe the inner one is supposed to be Paduamen as Maat? Or perhaps neither one is "Paduamen as".

The bed seemed very flimsy, with fairly shoddy construction. The human-headed lion painted on the back of the boat looked so very Assyrian it startled me--and I think it predates the rise of Assyria somewhat. Over and over: if it looks good, it is good. If it is symbolically there, it is there.

The reconstruction of the tomb of Thutmose III was rather surprising. The ceiling was covered with stars, and the walls with illustrations of the journey of the hours of the night--not in order, and painted in a rather sketchy fashion. Even with the explanation, it was hard to keep the serpents straight, and there were dozens of look-alike gods. I don't know if this was done in a hurry, or if he had some favorite scroll and wanted it reproduced exactly.

Go see it, and wonder for yourself.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Slipping culture

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." Unfortunately this article (see this if the first doesn't work) reporting on John Trinkaus's study of the decline of small honesties and small courtesies agrees with my own anecdotal observations over the years. Little things: do you clean up your shopping cart or toss the trash in someone else's; do you chip in to help pay for votive candles; and so on. Trinkaus watched and counted over the years, and finds that people are less courteous in measurable little things, like using the express checkout lane with more than the 10 allowed items or putting the shopping cart in the corral.

And yet the sense of community and social responsibility is founded on the innumerable little things of life. If we're all in this together, we don't shuffle off simple problems onto the next sucker, but try to do our part. And it seems we don't do that as much anymore.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Religious war again

If you missed Wretchard's comments about the war in Iraq against Islamism, don't wait. Go read it. We can still lose, and lose big, because of the hollow at our culture's core.

Muslim Council of Britain note

Another data point: The MCB (referred to below ) asks the Muslim community in Britain "to play its part in the fight against terrorism," and are savaged by the likes of Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad who claims that "Co-operating with the authorities against any other Muslims, that is an act of apostasy in Islam."

It was raining maple blossoms as I took the garbage out this morning.