Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA misapprehensions

I don't fly much: 4 times a year to Switzerland mostly, and my last encounter with TSA was before the more rigorous rules. I'll let you know if anything is odd with next month's trip.

But I think I've already spotted quite a few errors circulating.

  1. There's radiation danger from "nude scanner." Not really, this isn't X-rays.
  2. It won't find crotch bombs. True enough, but not relevant--it was supposed to be good at finding non-metallic weapons. Whether it really works or not is a different matter, and it might be worthwhile to figure out who benefited and find out if everything was on the up and up.
  3. TSA are just doing their jobs. True enough, but I've already spotted several folks who enjoy the exercise of power a little too much. And, as I said, I don't fly much.
  4. At least we'll be flying safely. Not really. Watch how the plane is loaded and how the scanning works. If you can't figure out at least three ways of circumventing the system you're not thinking.
  5. If we profile like Israel does we'll be better off. True. But where on earth would we find that many trained screeners? We have several orders of magnitude more air traffic than Israel.
  6. The searches are an excuse for groping. I don't know for sure, but it seems unlikely that there's a lot of that. Some, yes.

Lots of jokes suggest that soon we'll all be boarding the plane nude, but that's not happening. We'd be issued a thin disposable gown and a nice warm robe that they'd wash once a week (just like the blankets). And still nobody would be checking the food service for bombs.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Camping for God

Look at Leviticus 23:33-43, with special note of verse 42. The people are not to stay at home for the celebration, but spend 7 days "in booths:" in temporary shelters. They are to camp out.

This is, as the text says, a reminder of what God did for their forefathers as they escaped from Egypt.

But it has other effects as well.

They empty themselves of the bulk of their possessions for a season—they become poor. This reminds them of what is really needed for life. With a clearer picture of what's vital, they might be more ready to give; digging deeper into the pocket because they know what they can really get by on.

It reminds them of their equality before God. You find no huge house and tiny hovels—everybody is in a makeshift shelter.

It empties them so they can be filled again. Each new gift is a great joy for a few weeks, and then we get used to it and its only a minor joy, or part of the background. But if we leave it all behind, and then receive it again, a little of the original joy comes back too.

Though they could not know it yet, it empties them as an echo of how Jesus emptied himself for us.

Suffering together (even if only the mild suffering of camping), can bond people together, as soldiers and schoolchildren can testify.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hell in Heaven by Modou Gueye

A Senegalese man left behind his wives to come to the USA. When the US embassy asked him how long he would be staying, he said two weeks. This short volume is his observations and advice from his 19-year stay in the USA.

You should read the book to get a flavor of a different perspective. Unfortunately, he is not a very reliable observer:

"Certainly, we can see two major different groups of people: The first group includes the rich, politically called Republicans, and movie stars, athletes, and entertainers. Unfortunately they are the most exposed to the justice system, which treats them very harshly when they are found guilty of ...." What planet is he talking about? Three groups, not two; most of the famous rich are Democrats; and the justice system is almost always very tender with the rich and famous.

His understanding of Christianity is as poor as most Americans' understanding of Islam; he takes up the "America is racist to the core" line; and he follows the usual a-historical tropes about the source of all the woes in the Middle East. But, inaccurate though this is, it represents what a lot of the world thinks.

He is a Muslim of Sufi flavor, and though he doesn't go into a lot of detail he cites famous Senegalese Sheikhs--which most of us (myself included) have never heard of before--whose message isn't quite the same as the Saudi-based imams or the Egyptian schools.

I gather that he spent most of his time in New York, which may color his view of the US as being exceptionally violent. He is generous with advice; explaining why the African ways are better. Not infrequently, they are.

Hell in Heaven? The USA is the heaven, the promised land; with endless opportunity. Except when it isn't, and you have to sell fake watches on the streets of New York to make ends meet because you haven't a green card. (He never actually says what he was doing during those years...)

Magnet House?

We've always had rabbits running around outside, and two months ago a woodchuck decided the garden looked like a nice place to stay. Last night we found a young muskrat in a window well.

He is now in the tall weeds at Patrick Marsh. The plank that allowed him escape from the hole had a livetrap conveniently placed beside it--he could try to walk on the wobbly "trampoline" far end of the plank, fall back in the hole, or go in the trap. He chose wisely. You don't see how amazing their feet are unless you can get close enough to look--and he clung to the inside of the trap like a monkey when we tried to empty him out by the pond.

What next? And what is it about our house that attracts these critters?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wandering Minds

New research claims that "A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

This has been noticed before:

"All man's miseries come from not being able to sit quietly in an empty room." --Blaise Pascal

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Elections without TV

Funny how different elections look when you don't watch TV. The governor's race here was alleged to be vicious. (The incumbent, Doyle, wasn't running.) I read up on the candidates. Walker, the Republican (and eventual winner), was generally agreed to be easy to work with and a nice guy. The Democrat, Barrett, had his hand broken and head injured when he jumped to the defense of a woman being attacked last year. (Unfortunately he's pro-abortion down the line: a pity; a brave man deserves a better political party.) Without a TV it looked like a contest between two fellows of good character.

One issue in the election was the train: Doyle was pushing hard for it, trying to get all the contracts signed for the $810 million deal with the Feds before the election. Walker won, and one of his planks was that the railroad was a waste. The next day, instead of pushing to further lock in the deals, Doyle canceled the railroad plan. I don't know his motives, but I'll attribute it to courtesy: no point in wasting resources just for politics' sake.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

These two books: The Knight and The Wizard tell the story of Able of the High Heart. It is nominally a long letter to his brother Ben back in the USA, but that never interferes with the storytelling.

We open with his arrival in Mythgarthr—or at least the time he is first aware that he has arrived. (By the way, skip the introductory who’s who list and follow along with the hero as he discovers things—it is more fun that way.) He meets Parka (one of the Fates), and is given his new name and destiny—he’s to be a knight.

As usual in a Wolfe novel the setting is detailed and many threads weave in and out of the plot, and the narrator isn’t 100% accurate. His hierarchy of worlds brings in everything from dragons to the Fates to the Valfather (one eyed, goes around with ravens…) to the archangel Michael, and his re-imagining of elves is very good.

Explaining why Able isn’t an accurate narrator would give away parts of the story; suffice it to say that we discern very early on that he’s a man (OK, a boy for the first few pages) with a mission. He’s supplied with what he needs for the job, including a dog that can become a monster, special powers, and sidekicks, some poor and some magical. But what is that job? Is it enough that this landless commoner can become a knight and acquire a magic sword?

The second book finds him more powerful still, but unable to use most of his power—for honor’s sake. His squires and assistants become more prominent in the story, and his mission is finally revealed—and it feels slightly anticlimactic, though it shouldn’t. (Could have been just a little more carefully drawn there…) And it ends with him giving an implicit rebuke to Michael and the Valfather.

Not everybody likes Wolfe’s style, which can be complex and layered. Read it.

Volunteer by Michael Ross

How does a Canadian end up working for Mossad?

Well, you start by traveling, and settling down in Israel for a while, and falling in love with an Israeli woman. If you convert and become a citizen to marry her, and distinguish yourself in the right ways during your stint in the army, you might get a phone call. And if you pass the battery of tests, you might become an apprentice. And then…

It turns out to be rather difficult to make a story about spying exciting. A successful spy gets information and nobody finds out. And even when he manages to arrange for some kind of violent action, sometimes the game gets called off for worries about political fallout.

I assume that Ross ran the book by his former employers before trying to publish it. It is therefore impossible to say whether the picture is quite accurate, and whether it was sanitized. I suspect it wasn’t sanitized very much. And he’s pretty hard on himself when describing his efforts to scare a couple of Iranian agents out of South Africa.

Iran is very much on the scene throughout the book, and you get an agent’s eye view of what they’ve been doing—not revelations to anybody who’s been paying attention, though.

For several years he was liaison to US intelligence agencies, and his assessment of the CIA and FBI is harsh. The CIA is solidly careerist, home-based, and insular, the FBI is worse than useless, and inter-service interference is scandalous and a national liability.

When I began work with the Mossad in 1988, my instructor Oren told me that each agent is like a box of matches. One by one, the matches are burned up, and there is nothing left but ash. Some of us have more matches than others. But we all have a finite number

And he retires. But..

Whatever they say, however, I believe that the world needs to hear these stories. A storm is coming, and it would appear that those of us who cherish life, liberty, and the goodness in our way of life will have no choice but to endure it.

I decided not to wait for the inevitable. I volunteered.

Read it. Especially read it if you’ve never heard a good word about the Mossad—you need the education.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


When we read of the God-Kings of ancient civilizations we smile a bit at the thought that a commoner ought not look at the king, or that everything the king touched had to be special, or that he could not touch the ground.

I'm not snickering anymore. For his state visit to India, coconuts are being removed from the trees lest they should fall on him, a special tunnel will keep him from being seen, and the $200 million per day trip includes a flotilla of 34 warships to prevent attacks from the sea like the one last year. Closer to home, they advertised for actors to fill out the hall where he'd be meeting the public, and all questions are vetted in advance. Nothing is permitted to get close, or in any way defile the sacred image.

I suspect much of this would be the same for state visits by a Republican president too, although our previous president would sometimes make unannounced low-entourage visits to war zones. The President isn't yet an unapproachable divinity. But he's getting there.

The $200M/day apparently was sourced from an anonymous Indian official, and is denied. The 34 warships is also denied, but isn't so obviously out of line: warships can include very small vessels.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa set up this after the power handover, and from all reports it has been largely successful in bringing a measure of closure to old injustices: sometimes by justice and sometimes by mercy but always with clarity about the nature of the old crimes.

Liberia put together such a thing too. I remember thinking: "OK, sounds like a fine idea" and not examining the issue much. Then I read some complaints from Liberians saying "don't muddy the waters, this is too close, this could be trouble." Perhaps it was reporting bias, but it seemed as though those in favor were often relatively mobile elites and those opposed were people on the ground in Liberia.

A little further thought reminded me that the situations weren't really all that parallel: in South Africa nobody seriously thought the old regime was at all likely to return in a coup, but in Liberia everybody believed that the warlords still had arsenals ready to hand and were able to start fighting again with little preparation. The legislature is alleged to be chock-a-block with partisans of the various warlords.

I didn't spend the time to do a detailed review of who was who on the commission and what their backgrounds were, but decided that the default position should be that alleged to be of the people in harm's way: don't push this. This isn't South Africa and another civil war is going to be worse than failure to bring justice. Or, to put it another way, criminals are going to get away with murder because there is no robust framework for bringing justice; and there's no use pretending otherwise.

Earlier this year the TRC announced a report calling for the President to resign, not because she had committed any crimes or because she was a warlord or even a current partisan of a warlord, but because she had supported one faction years ago. Red flags went up for me: this isn't about crime and justice, but about politics.

And so it seems to be. If Gbaba is speaking for them all, they are calling for disbanding the government and instituting an interim government. They don't specify who they think should be running it, but I think I could nail it in less than three guesses.