Friday, December 31, 2010

Frazier Museum

As we drove to the Louisville Science Center, there were grumblings that we always went to the same place and there was never anything different except the traveling exhibit. When we discovered that the traveling exhibit was "Sesame Street explains the body" and the place was chock-a-block with little kids, the grumblers won the day and we walked a block to the Frazier History Museum.

It is mostly an arms history museum, but much of it is very well done. My eyes glazed over at the displays of paraphernalia of Kentucky Civil War officers (on both sides of the war). But the dioramas and reconstructions of famous battles and how weapons and tactics changed were quite interesting. The top floor is British history, the second American, and the first floor has some lecture areas and hands-on spaces. They provide a long list of interpretations--you'd have to come rather often to see them all. We saw Annie Oakley and a demonstration of sword fighting with blade and buckler. The latter was taken from an illustrated manual from the 1200's in which a monk is teaching a scholar (and on the last page an 8'th century female saint) how to fight. A buckler is a metal shield about the size of a dinner plate with a large boss in the middle. You have to be fast with it...

Kliban cat

I used to think that Kliban's wild-eyed super-saggy cats were caricatures. Jezebel is my mother's calico cat. Aside from the coloration, and smaller paws, she could have been Kliban's model.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

We saw the movie for the first time last night.

Charles Taylor was the successful warlord who overthrew Doe (who assassinated Tolbert), and got himself a nice veneer of respectability by getting elected President of Liberia. His involvement in Sierra Leone's "revolution" (diamond mine warlords) and general mischief in West Africa was well known. He maintained his own private army parallel to the national one, got rich, killed opponents, and attracted another revolutionary group: LURD, which banded to destroy him.

The "armies" were ill-disciplined, to put it mildly, and lived off the land; and civilians suffered, fled, died by the tens of thousands. To be of the wrong tribe in the wrong place was death. Rape and torture and useless murder and kidnapping were pervasive--even in the refugee camp in Monrovia, nominally protected from the fighting.

A group of women decided to protest for peace--both Christians and Muslims. They started a gathering dressed in white at the fish market which Taylor rode past every day. It grew, and grew, and as the battlefield reports got worse Taylor agreed to meet with them. They wanted him to join peace negotiations with the rebels. There is no great question of government legitimacy--although Taylor was elected there wasn't really a lot of choice, and it didn't make much difference which bloody warlords you wound up with. He agreed.

The women went to Sierra Leone where several of the rebel warlords were living, and swarmed them demanding that they too join peace talks. They thought this a good idea.

In Ghana, the warring parties met at a nice hotel for talks. They argued a lot, and talked a lot, and had lovely dinners, and urged their respective armies to fight harder. And with imbecilic timing the ICC decided to indict Taylor for war crimes. He left for Liberia, of course.

So nobody had any reason to hurry. Except the women of Liberia. Thousands were refugees in Ghana, so some of the organizers collected money to go to Acra, where they organized a sit-in blockading the conference. (The Nigerian president, exasperated with the Liberian negotiators arguing over who was to get which lucrative government post, was sympathetic.) When the police promised to arrest them, they threatened to strip naked--and it is a curse to see your mother (by extension other old women) naked. The police warned them to blockade the window, since some delegates were getting ready to jump out.

This protest got more media attention, and the international groups funding the conference threatened to cut off the gravy train. The negotiators got to work and hammered out a deal: cease fire, interim government, new elections, etc. Taylor agreed to step down to take refuge in Nigeria. UN troops came in to do peacekeeping. And in the subsequent elections, Ellen Sirleaf won instead of one of the warlords.

That is the bare bones of the movie, but it is told from the point of view of the women who organized to demand peace. Their stories make the movie what it is--which is a moving documentary of the pains of war and the prayers for and demands for peace. And their victory. And their promise to come back if it isn't satisfactory.

They are courageous women. The movie may give some people nightmares, though. See it.

I fear the movie was too upbeat. The women berated the UN for an idiotic disarmament plan (have armed men wait in line for hours with nothing to do but drink and do drugs?!?), but I think they praised the final plan too much. The UN claimed 100,000 citizens turned in weapons, but this (by another report) only represented about 30,000 actual weapons (some turned in ammo, etc), with no breakdown of how many of these were military and how many were civilian (shotguns, machetes). Since other estimates (also UN) were that 60,000 fighters might turn in weapons and that there were 3 weapons per fighter, you can easily see that most stuff was cached somewhere. And contrary to some opinions, the military weapons are not at all equivalent to civilian tools: the attackers' tactics and villagers' responses are different. A small boys unit armed with single-shot shotguns wouldn't have gotten far, but with AK47s or AK74s they terrorized.

Godwin's Law, A Corollary

Godwin's Law, A Corollary

Godwin's Law says that any internet discussion, if it lasts long enough, will eventually involve one party accusing another of being like Hitler. Almost always, at that point, intelligent discussion is no longer possible.

This is ironic, because the Nazis tactics were old familiar ones; used all over the world to this day in places like Azerbaijan and by people like Mugabe and Taylor. Arrest or kill anybody who objects; Build up race/class/religious hatreds; Censor or shout down your opponents: these are a tyrant's ABCs of holding power.

At public hearings for enlarging the access to a major road, an opponent called the project "environmental racism." No, the phrase does not seem to make any more sense in context, but the magic word "racism" appeared, and he somehow thought made his pronouncement important.

In general any discourse in which one side accuses the other of racism has likewise passed the point where intelligent discussion is possible. Since "racism" is now possible without your being aware of it, without actually disliking anybody of other races, and is proved by merely disagreeing with policies of a politician of some special ethnic group, it is clear that the word is used merely for abuse. Which is unfortunate, since race hatred is alive and well and is many demagogues' favorite tool.

Praise Choruses

Assistant Village Idiot hits in the bullseye again with a proposal that churches try singing choruses from Handel's Messiah.

"It sounds thrilling for a congregation. Handel’s choruses are what all praise choruses hope to grow up to be: single verses of scripture, repeated with variations, sung vigorously."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Humility and Infancy

Via The Anchoress, I found this Christmas article by Esolen. A fragment: "The stories of Bethlehem remind us not to put too much stock in the grimly serious business of being grownup and wise in the world."

Nature and disposition and character and action

I am weary of foggy meanings.

I am a scientist. For the honor of truth I must admit that most of what I’ve done for the past several years has been programming and code maintenance, but I’m a scientist still.

So, can you say that this is my nature?

I wouldn’t. I think this breakdown is clearer:

  • Nature is those aspects of me that I share with other humans; the things that make me human and not (for example) feline. "Form," if you want to get all Greek about it. For example, I need to be with other people—humans are social. (True, I also need to be alone sometimes, but this is also part of human rhythms.)
  • Disposition is the set of distinctive aspects I came with. I’m diffident. I’m a quick thinker; good at spotting key features in things. I was born with a strong and healthy body.
  • Character is what I made of these: with training I became good at analysis, and at figuring out which things were measurable and running the numbers; cross checking with a disrespect for pronouncements. In other words I’m a scientist. I’m also the one standing at the side in the party. And because I liked reading more than active play, that "healthy body" is overweight and I’m no good at sports.
  • I discovered over the years that people weren’t always interested in hearing someone run the numbers on their blue-sky ideas or point out the logical flaws underpinning their political fashions. So I don’t always apply my training and my characteristic inclinations. Sometimes I even strike up a conversation with a stranger at a party—if the %*#& band isn’t overamped. So my actions don’t always represent my character.

So: sometimes I act like a scientist. My character and habits are those of a scientist. I am disposed for analytical thinking—but I could have been something else besides a scientist. And my nature is like yours.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An example?

Thinking over Jesus' miracles, I notice that, although He shows Himself perfectly capable of healing at a distance, He didn't do much of it. A crowd comes wanting healing for themselves or loved ones, and for some reason He doesn't just say "Be healed" to the lot of them as He did with the lepers. The healing is, as far as is recorded, requested one on one, and dealt with one on one. The feeding of the multitudes didn't involve bread landing in everyone's lap, but was handed out one on one via the proxy hands of the disciples and possibly others.

From one point of view it is important that people come to Jesus, and so being healed in bulk at a distance is the wrong parable. But if we are to be Jesus' body in the world and do His work, does Jesus' one on one approach constitute an example for us? Feeding the crowds was a corporate endeavor, but ... on the whole our primary focus should not be the charitable organizations but what we can do one on one.

Which gets complicated with beggars on State Street. Do you give cash to someone who will promptly spend it on drugs, or drop it in the Salvation Army kettle for better controlled charity? Or give out McDonalds coupons? Or (and I've only done this once, I fear), take the guy to lunch together?

Homeless shelters are going to concentrate folks with problems in one place for efficient service, but at the cost of losing one on one contact, and at the cost of increasing the fraction of people with mental or moral problems. That doesn't make a good environment for learning to do better for those very people with mental problems, and makes it fairly toxic for the merely out of luck. So, what would work better?


Again. Just for keeping track.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

TSA report

I said I'd report on my experience with TSA. In Madison there is no "naked scanner" and the personnel were, as usual, polite and efficient. The return trip had me go through Chicago, which does have them. I didn't go through one, and the personnel were polite and efficient.

Looming weather was a constant theme through the travels this time, and in the event actually made my trip easier. The snow in Madison was pretty trivial and I got to the airport OK, and Chicago was pretty clean. The snow in Geneva had mostly melted in the rain when we got there. Brussels got rain instead of snow. The flight from Brussels to Chicago left a bit late but arrived on time--but some other flights didn't, with the result that the Immigration line took less than 5 minutes and the security line about 6, which had me early enough in the concourse to observe that the 14:00 Madison flight hadn't left. I dashed over to L concourse, and got on standby for the flight where I discovered that half the passengers hadn't arrived in O'Hare thanks to bad weather elsewhere; so I got to Madison 3 hours earlier than planned, and was safe at home when the storm hit.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


In the course of an essay on what use people would make of a new planet, Dalrymple includes this:

This is perfectly obvious when you look at pictures by artists of heaven and hell.

Hell, whatever else may be said about it, is always extremely interesting and lively.

It has the kind of monsters in it that would be endlessly fascinating to anyone with the slightest interest in his surroundings. There is always plenty going on in hell, as much going on in fact as on the multiple screens displayed in large pubs these days. Anyone who likes nightclubs will love hell. Moreover, hell is probably easier to get into.

Russia and the Cote d'Ivoire Elections

BBC reports that Russia is blocking a Security Council resolution asserting that Ouattara won the election last month. They say this exceeds the mandate of the UN in the matter.

The Election Commission says Ouattara won and the Constitutional Council says the incumbent Gbagbo won. Smell a rat or two?

Set aside the question of who fouled the results. Does Resolution 1528 actually give the UN the mandate to decide the winner in a contested situation? Clauses m and q-10 might be stretched to fit: "prepare for and assist in the conduct of ... elections", "demands that the parties fulfill their obligations under the Linas-Marcoussis agreement". But "assist in" doesn't mean oversee or certify.

So on the face of it, Russia is correct. The UN can (and probably should, though I don't know all the details yet) say that the election results are botched and urge CdI to figure it out themselves or submit to arbitration, but they have no mandate to decide the results.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Everything old is new again

From Tremendous Trifles in "Prehistoric Station" by that old newspaperman Chesterton

Modern writers have often made game of the old chronicles because they chiefly record accidents and prodigies; a church struck by lightning, or a calf with six legs. They do not seem to realize that this old barbaric history is the same as the new democratic journalism. It is not that the savage chronicle has disappeared. It is merely that the savage chronicle now appears every morning.

Or from "Birds who won't sing" in the same volume:

If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank? As the train flew through the Kentish gardens, I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen. Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

"Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o'er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: 'Two and Two are Four.'
Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four."

"There's a run upon the Bank--
Stand away!
For the Manager's a crank and the Secretary drank
and the Upper Tooting Bank
Turns to bay!
Stand close: there is a run
On the Bank.
Of our ship, our royal one, let the ringing legend run,
that she fired with every gun
Ere she sank."

Or from "Glimpse of My Country"

If you have the good fortune to really talk with a statesman, you will be constantly startled with his saying quite intelligent things. It makes one nervous at first.

Although I'm not persuaded

Thursday, December 02, 2010


How did they build it? Dragging big stones around is hard and leaves traces, so there must have been an easier way to move them (sometimes 200 miles!). Two "new" ideas are that they created wicker cradles to roll them in, and that they used stone balls as ball bearings in wooden troughs to make it easier. The latter method has some obvious problems when dragging rocks uphill, but they don't seem insurmountable. It should be possible to try to verify the method. Some fraction of the stone balls should have spalled and become unusable, so they should look for marred balls in among the rest. Oak balls or roller dowels don't last so long, unfortunately.