The Long View 2005-09-22: Bush makes the sun go nova.

NASA finished  up the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) in 2011. At this point, Elon Musk is showing them up.


Bush makes the sun go nova.

 

Does the president have any friends left? He has a popular base that is probably a plurality of the people, and a majority will still give him a hearing, but no political movement supports him now. You know you are in trouble when someone as sympathetic as Peggy Noonan is saying things like this about your administration:

As for vanity, the president's aides sometimes seem to see themselves as The New Conservatives, a brave band of brothers who care about the poor, unlike those nasty, crabbed, cheapskate conservatives of an older, less enlightened era...The administration knows that Republicans are becoming alarmed. Its attitude is: "We're having some trouble with part of the base but"--smile--"we can weather that." (September 22)

Well, they probably can, short term.

Long term, they've had bad history with weather. It can change.

We should understand that La Noonan is concerned to defend the honor or Ronald Reagan, from whose policies the Bush White House is surreptitiously distancing itself. In essence, her complaint is that the Reagan Administration spent money like a drunken sailor, but at least it had the grace of hypocrisy: it decried the deficits its own policies were creating. The Bush people, in contrast, pay no compliments to the virtues of fiscal responsibility and small government, but just spend more money without even mentioning the possibility of consequences.

Katrina is the brick, the brick wall, that broke the camel's back. Frankly, I find a little insane the argument of Bush's latest critics that this is a good opportunity for New Orleans and the Gulf states to rediscover the blessings of local government. Controlling the Mississippi is not a local issue; neither is the protection of the petroleum industry. And neither is the condition of the new communities the new levees and canals are going to protect. Nonetheless, opposition has its effect, whether or not it is reasonably supported.

The coalition that elected Bush has disintegrated. Contrary to expectations, it was not God that was the problem, but Mammon.

* * *

I really don't know what to make of these reports: The truth about global warming - it's the Sun that's to blame. Whatever the truth of the matter, they are certainly proliferating. Look:

Global warming has finally been explained: the Earth is getting hotter because the Sun is burning more brightly than at any time during the past 1,000 years, according to new research.

A study by Swiss and German scientists suggests that increasing radiation from the sun is responsible for recent global climate changes.

Dr Sami Solanki, the director of the renowned Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, who led the research, said: "The Sun has been at its strongest over the past 60 years and may now be affecting global temperatures.

They do often come with caveats:

Dr David Viner, the senior research scientist at the University of East Anglia's climatic research unit, said the research showed that the sun did have an effect on global warming.

He added, however, that the study also showed that over the past 20 years the number of sunspots had remained roughly constant, while the Earth's temperature had continued to increase.

But then we learn that new gullies that did not exist in mid-2002 have appeared on a Martian sand dune:

That's just one of the surprising discoveries that have resulted from the extended life of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which this month began its ninth year in orbit around Mars. Boulders tumbling down a Martian slope left tracks that weren't there two years ago. New impact craters formed since the 1970s suggest changes to age-estimating models. And for three Mars summers in a row, deposits of frozen carbon dioxide near Mars' south pole have shrunk from the previous year's size, suggesting a climate change in progress.

We do, of course, have little notion about what drives climate change on Mars, or how often the ice advances or retreats. Nonetheless, news like this does provide wonderful rhetorical opportunities along the lines of "if only we had ratified Kyoto, the southern polar caps of Mars would not be evaporating." We should be careful what we wish for, though. Does anyone really want the sun to be getting warmer for some reason we don't understand? Just how much hotter is it going to get? It is much too soon for the sun to go off the main sequence, but it could do a lot of unpleasant things short of exploding.

So be good.

* * *

Unpleasant things can happen on Earth quite without added solar output. The consulting firm Stratfor recently attempted to explain a class of them: the eagerness of appalling states to acquire small nuclear stockpiles:

[T]his entire strategy rests on one key assumption: that your country is situated in a sufficiently strategic locale that great powers should care whether you have nuclear weapons or not.

If that is the case, here is how to manage the situation:

1. It was imperative for the world to know North Korea had a secret program under way. A truly secret program would have no value; therefore, it is important to permit international inspections long enough to confirm that you are building a weapon, and then to expel the inspectors in order to frighten everyone around you.

2. It is vital that you adopt a political culture in which foreigners believe that the total annihilation of your country is a matter of monumental indifference to you, so long as you get to destroy part of some other country. At the very least, you must appear crazy enough to raise questions in the minds of foreign diplomats as to whether you might do something crazy.

3. You must never actually do anything really crazy, like make it appear that you are about to launch a nuclear attack with your three weapons. Since you're not really good at this yet, it will take time to move the weapon, load it on a missile or plane, and launch. During that time, someone might conclude that you really have weapons and that you really have lost your mind and nuke you. Don't do anything that actually appears to make you an immediate danger -- just create the impression that you are almost posing an immediate danger. It's probably best to spend ten years almost ready to be a threat.

The fallacy here is that the behavior this analysis counsels is that of a status quo power, one that does not want to change its environment in any serious way. None of the small states seeking to go nuclear could be so described.

* * *

Want to leave Earth? The Space access Society explains why the recommendations of NASA's recently released Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) will not get you anywhere you want to go:

However, we have a much more fundamental problem with ESAS. This Apollo redux has the same fatal flaw as Apollo: The specialized throwaway systems invented to get (back) to the Moon ASAP were (will be) far too labor-intensive at far too low a max flight rate to allow affordable followup. The new ships are not only based in significant part on existing Shuttle components and facilities, but they are to be operated in significant part by the existing Shuttle organization. IE, tens of thousands of people narrowly specialized in various aspects of flying a handful of astronauts on a handful of missions a year - at, by the time all this fixed overhead is added up, billions of dollars a mission. Like Apollo, NASA's new ESAS plan has built into it the seeds of its shutdown by some future Congress, once the warm glow of the first few daring missions has once again faded.

If real spaceflight is too taxing, then we can retreat into the fantasy of Joss Whedon's film, Serenity, which premiers in the US on September 30. It's a cinematization of the regrettably soon canceled Firefly series, with much the same cast.

It's essentially a post-Civil War Western, with the captain of the trading ship Serenity a former officer on the losing side of a galactic civil war. There is nothing wrong with projecting a genre into a new locale. Still, I start to wonder: what would a real space story be like, meaning a story based on the experience of a world in which human spaceflight was routine? I suspect it would be as different from Serenity as Das Boot is from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

* * *

Do you have a pet peeve with the news media? Then consider sending it to Second Draft, directed by the medievalist Richard Landes of Boston University:

Welcome to the home page of The Second Draft. This website is devoted to exploring some of the problems and issues that plague modern journalism. In this age of globalization, the media has unprecedented influence on the way we see the world. And yet, whether out of misplaced good intentions, unconscious agendas and predispositions, or unwarranted faith in false information, they can get the story dramatically wrong. Therefore, we want to revisit and critique journalism's "first draft of history", and hopefully produce a more accurate second one.

At the moment, the only story on the site tries to show that news reports depicting Israeli atrocities have been doctored in the interest of the Palestinians, but the site's brief is wider than the Middle East. Unedited audiovisual evidence that contradicts journalistic commentary seems particularly welcome.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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How to turn a Vintage Zenith Radio Cabinet into a Lighted Bar Part 3: Cabinet Work

Cabinet Work

Starting with cutting the door, the interior of the cabinet needed to be reconfigured to make it workable.

The Door

My across-the-street neighbor has a nice woodshop in his second garage, so I asked to borrow his table saw to cut the door.

Nice straight cuts

Nice straight cuts

A little too close!

A little too close!

I finished up the top and bottom with a hand saw.

The door, showing the original faux finish

The door, showing the original faux finish

The Shelves

The interior of the cabinet required removing the shelf and all its supports, and reinforcing areas that bear weight. Chiseling out these little triangular shelf supports was the worst part of this. They tended to splinter instead of coming out cleanly.

Shelf supports

Shelf supports

The shelf

The shelf

PC290109.JPG
Where the bottom shelf needs to go, all those supports had to be removed....

Where the bottom shelf needs to go, all those supports had to be removed....

Once the shelf was out, I used it to template out the two shelves I intended to reinstall into the bar. I made the shelves out of some MDF I had laying around. I used clamps and wood glue to secure everything. I was planning on using a piano hinge to hang the door, I used that to double check the width of the reinforcement pieces I glued in to the front.

New shelf out of MDF

New shelf out of MDF

I glued in the new shelves and some reinforcement for the hinges.

Every clamp I own is in here

Every clamp I own is in here

Hinge reinforcement, with the piano hinge I was planning on using for reference

Hinge reinforcement, with the piano hinge I was planning on using for reference

Ready to cut the door

Ready to cut the door

Once the hinge area was reinforced, I put the new shelves in, including to smaller ones in the top area.

Supports and a little extra mass to hold it all down. You can see where the old shelf was, just a bit higher.

Supports and a little extra mass to hold it all down. You can see where the old shelf was, just a bit higher.

Supports

Supports

Little shelves, and a center support to prevent sagging

Little shelves, and a center support to prevent sagging


Next

Up next is the finish work on the wood. I'll turn that over to my wife, since she did all the refinishing.

The Long View 2005-09-20: Holy Libertarians on the Moon

Lunar Moon Base David A Hardy

Lunar Moon Base David A Hardy

I've benefited from programs in the state of Arizona that allow tax dollars to be redirected to Catholic schools by individual taxpayers, but I get what John Reilly is saying here about the dangers to churches of becoming dependent on public funding.


Holy Libertarians on the Moon

 

Regarding the use of public funds to support religious schools, I have long believed that the United States has overdone the restriction of the practice, both as a matter of policy and of what the Constitution actually requires. On the other hand, sometimes I read statements like this, and I wonder whether I should have thrown away that last solicitation letter from the ACLU:

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, said Europeans "are absolutely amazed at the situation in the United States," one of the few nations in the world that provides little or no public funding for the education of children in religiously run schools. That policy puts the United States "in the company of Mexico, North Korea, China and Cuba," he said.

Citing "the enormous contribution to society made by Catholic schools," he said providing public funding for that service is a matter of distributive justice. The right to a Catholic education "is so fundamental to the life of the church that this struggle cannot be given up," he said.

The most interesting thing about this statement is that Archbishop Miller is a Canadian. He comes from a country where religious denominations of all sorts recently faced bankruptcy because of law suits resulting from their long tradition of accepting public money to perform social-service functions. As for Europe, of course, the state-subsidy model for religious institutions has done a remarkably thorough job of turning church pastors into museum curators.

Reasonable people can argue about whether students at denominational schools, or at any schools, should get tuition vouchers from the government, or whether the state should pay for textbooks, regardless of where children go to school. The assertion that the state must do these things as a matter of "distributive justice" is too stupid to discuss.

* * *

There is such a thing as no-government religious conservatism. This is not a position I find congenial, but it's not new, as we see here. In any case, President Bush's New-Deal-like plans for the reconstruction of the Katrina Zone seem to have energized its proponents, if we may so judge from this essay, The Coming Conservative Collapse, by one Vox Day, who styles himself "a novelist and Christian libertarian":

Real conservatives now understand they have been betrayed – badly – by this fraudulent man. Compassionate conservatism, as it turns out, is simply another name for Great Society liberalism, and not even the Texas swagger is original. Genuinely conservative Republicans are dismayed by the president's unveiling of his core liberalism and rightly fear for the future of a party which has likely seen its high-water mark already.

This is the opposite of the problem in the Republican coalition that Ralph Reed described some years ago. During the Reagan Administration, it was values voters who suspected that the Republican Party wanted their votes but not their ideas; now it is the libertarians who feel defrauded.

Mr. Day's essay begins with a lament that has a lesson to teach:

The turn of the century was supposed to be the triumph of the conservatives. From the dark era of the Democrat-dominated '60s and '70s, conservatives began their protracted march toward electoral power, culminating finally in the long-awaited capture of all three branches of the federal government. The Reagan Revolution was finally to be realized in earnest!

The lesson is that the Left and the Right of every era are linked opposites, like a pair of particles with positive and negative charges. When they collide, one does not survive the other. They cancel each other out.

* * *

Seriously interested in disaster studies? This may be the magazine for you: The Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. This area of study may become an academic growth industry. The important point is that it seems to be a reaction against environmentalist hysteria.

On the other hand, if you like your apocalyptic straight, do not neglect The Temple Institute, a Jerusalem-based organization dedicated to building the Third Temple. These folks seem to be connected with the settler movements, but the material on the site is all very measured and informative. There is a FAQ which answers such questions as "Why do we leave out the "o" in G-d?" and "Where is the Ark of the Covenant?" The answer to the latter does not cite II Machabbees 2: 1-7.

It is entirely possible I am missing something here, but the images and descriptions of the Temple on this site seem oddly pastel. Wasn't the Temple, at least in large part, an abattoir?

* * *

Does anyone at NASA not take drugs?? What possessed these people to unveil a $104-billion lunar exploration program just after Katrina drowned the Bush Administration's fiscal policy; and such a program!:

Robert L. Park [is] a physicist at the University of Maryland and an official at the American Physical Society, which has opposed many piloted space programs as scientifically unproductive. "This is a poison pill."

Dr. Park noted that in 1961 Kennedy promised a Moon landing "before this decade is out" and that the nation did so in eight years. By contrast, he said, Mr. Bush's goal is to redo the same accomplishment in 14 years, nearly twice as long.

"We went to Moon because of the cold war and won hands down," he said. "Now there's no political reason to do it."

There is political support for NASA because there is diffuse but persistent popular support for human settlement in space. In point of fact, the only way to seriously explore the terrestrial-type planets of the solar system is by having people live there who do geology in their spare time, but scientific research is a secondary motivation.

We have already been to the moon. We know that a ship that lands there will not sink into an ocean of dust or be attacked by space bats. The return to the moon should, at the first instance, involve the founding of a base that will always be manned. Don't bring the astronauts home all at once; rotate them out one at a time and replace them.

* * *

Space colonization requires an expanding population, and the New York Times knows just where to get one, if we are to believe this frontpage article: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood:

At Yale and other top colleges, women are being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.

There is just one problem with this scenario: many of these women say that is not what they want.

The flipside of this, of course, is that you need a corresponding uptick in the number of young men who are are keen to be young fathers, and who can be trusted in middle age not to take trophy wives. My impression is that more such people are on offer, but I have no statistics.

In any case, we can expect institutional support for reproductive rights to collapse if people try to use them to reproduce. Watch.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist Book Review

Not John Maynard, but rather his great-great-nephew, Skandar

Not John Maynard, but rather his great-great-nephew, Skandar

Keynes
The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist
by Peter Clarke
Bloomsbury Press 2009
$20.00; 211 pages
ISBN 9781608190232

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This is a fun little book, and by little, I mean just long enough to cover the life of John Maynard Keynes, while still clocking in under 200 pages, not counting endnotes and bibliography. I find the life of Keynes fascinating, and I genuinely learned things by reading this biography. For example, Keynes' literary friends in his Bloomsbury circle were genuinely mystified that he chose to marry a ballerina. Also, he and his wife wanted kids, but suffered from infertility.

Yet, I'm not sure I can really recommend this book. I've had this book for eight years, and I've read it three times trying to review it. I think the problem is the material is not quite chronological, and not quite topical, but rather a kind of stream-of-consciousness combination of the two. It makes it really hard to form a coherent picture of the life and times of Maynard Keynes, which is the only reason I want to read a book like this. I took to making notes in the margin to document what year an event happened, so I could reconstruct a timeline of events that are close in time but spread across chapters.

If you just want a fun read with a few facts sprinkled in, then this probably won't bother you. On the other hand, if you like to place things in perspective, then this book makes that unnecessarily hard.

My other book reviews

 

How to turn a Vintage Zenith Radio Cabinet into a Lighted Bar Part 2: Disassembly

Disassembly

Now that we had the radio cabinet home, we could begin to remove the radio parts and faceplates before attempting to cut the door into the front. 

The Radio

Pulling out the radio was relatively easy. I took out a few screws, and pulled the whole assembly out the back.

The radio

The radio

The guts of the radio and the speaker

The guts of the radio and the speaker

The dial

The dial

Getting the face plate off was a little harder. The screws were hidden behind the rocker buttons, and I couldn't figure out how to get to them. It turns out, there is a spring-loaded pin that holds the plate with the buttons in place.

The back of the face plate

The back of the face plate

Taking off the buttons using the spring pin

Taking off the buttons using the spring pin

Screws exposed

Screws exposed

With the cabinet bare, I took some measurements of where I wanted to put the door.

Overall dimensions, plus a nice whiskey tasting to boot

Overall dimensions, plus a nice whiskey tasting to boot

Radio bar door measurements

Radio bar door measurements

We cut out the shelf the radio was on, but we decided to put another one in a similar place, with enough room for bottles on top. It turns out to be a really good place to display things through the dial glass. I also ended up making some new shelves on top of that, but we'll get to the interior modifications later.

Based on the plans, my wife put some painter's tape in the areas I wanted to cut. This keeps the splintering down when you cut with a saw.

Ready to cut the door

Ready to cut the door

On the inside of the cabinet were two tags. One had the model number, plus all of the patents Zenith claimed on the design of the radio. There was also the business card of a local radio repair shop. We decided to keep them both. The business card came off the shelf ok, but we had to leave the Zenith tag, and mask it for later painting of the interior.

Zenith patents and model number tag

Zenith patents and model number tag

Repair shop

Repair shop


Next

Up next are the interior modifications we made to allow us to store bottles inside, plus cutting out the door.

Is the Economy Legible

I am an amateur in most of the fields that I enjoy commenting on in this blog. In my own field, I get as annoyed as anyone else when an ill-informed outsider buts in. Nevertheless, like Chesterton, I think amateurs ought to be allowed their say, especially since so many experts are demonstrably incompetent.

Full-time workers wage growth

Full-time workers wage growth

In this case, it was the juxaposition of two articles that came across my Twitter feed recently. Arnold Kling's Is the Economy Illegible?, and recent Federal Reserve wage growth data.

First, the wage growth data. This could be seen as a cautionary tale about over-reliance on averages. The average data doesn't look so hot, but that is masking interesting patterns in who is retiring, and who is coming back into the labor force. Even these latter numbers are still averages, but better, more informative ones. It is always worth asking yourself whether an average is the right tool to answer your question, when the metric of interest applies to an individual. 

The next one is Kling's article on the broad economic statistics we all use to judge the health and success of our economy. Kling uses the term of art "legible", which seems popular today, but I would probably ask the same question in a different way: does GDP measure something real? Does it measure the same things through time? Do you have any way to verify this?

These are standard questions of data quality that apply to any effort to track and trend data over time. I'm most familiar with this in the context of quality control data, but I think the principles still apply for something as grand as macroeconomics. I especially like Kling's example that the computing power in an iPhone 7 would have been worth $12M USD in 1991. Does this really mean technological progress has made us all that much richer since 1991? I'm dubious this is true, which means that the stats are off in a major way.

The Long View 2005-09-16: Supreme Job Search; GOZland

What political opportunity looks like

What political opportunity looks like

John often argued that the Republican party needed to learn how to raise taxes. He may have intuited that there was an open opportunity for a party that was socially conservative and willing to spend money on welfare.


Supreme Job Search; GOZland

 

How does one become a US Supreme Court Justice? By far the easiest way is by answering this Monster ad (the search firm is Accola). If the position is not already taken, there you will see this: description:

Title: United States Supreme Court Justice - Apply your Serenity, Courage and Wisdom
Job #: SUPR-CRTJT

All applications for this position are accepted via our online interview system, managed by Accolo. You can begin the interview process or REFER someone you know by going to this Link.

Remember: when reviewing your cover letter before submitting your application, a simple spell-check just will not do.

* * *

If you must do it the hard way, then you will have to listen to several days of rhetoric like this, which was part (a small part) of the opening statement of Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, at the recent confirmation hearings for John Roberts:

In the hands of the Supreme Court, the Constitution has established a right to equal education regardless of race. It's guaranteed an attorney and a fair trial to all Americans, rich and poor alike. It has allowed women to keep private medical decisions private. It has allowed Americans to speak, vote and worship without interference from their government.

You will lead the court in its most solemn duty to interpret the Constitution and the rights it grants to all Americans.

The court has the last say in what will be the scope of our rights and the breadth of our freedoms. The court even has power over which constitutional questions it will hear and which cases the court will decide.

That is why the Supreme Court is so vital to our lives. And who decides these issues, Judge Roberts, is therefore of unsurpassed importance.

Senator Kohl was not the only participant to emphasize that the power with which John Roberts might be invested is unanswerable and with no real limitation of scope; that is why the Senate could entrust the post of Chief Justice to no one less than a saint and sage. The ascription of omnipotence to the Supreme Court is an exaggeration, but not by much. We have to remind ourselves that this was not always the case. In fact, it is only in the past few decades that the Senate routinely held confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees. The senators traditionally did not regard the Court as unimportant, but they understood its power to be limited and predictable; they could be satisfied with a conformation process that did not require the nominee to pull a sword out of a stone.

The irony is that the senators who most emphasized the unbounded powers of the Court were also the ones who were keenest to make sure that no one was appointed to the Court who might limit those powers. The privacy right in the Griswald-Roe-Casey decisions can be maintained only by essentially abolishing the principle of constitutional government. Under this system, divorced from text and history, the law becomes nothing more than the will of the members of the Court. The Democratic senators, for the most part, insist on maintaining this system, even though it makes consequences of each nomination incalculable. This situation is unstable and ephemeral. If, as seems, likely, John Roberts is confirmed, it will implode on his watch, pretty much no matter what he does.

* * *

The Land of GOZ: I looked for this phrase on Google after reading press accounts this morning of the address that President Bush gave on Thursday night from Jackson Square. He spoke in the silent, eldritch, and mephitic city of New Orleans; surely that was the spookiest speech a president has ever delivered. I noted that the term "Gulf Opportunity Zone" occurred in the reports, but not in the published text of the address. In any case, it seemed to me that phrases like "Wizard of GOZ" and "Land of GOZ" might reasonably be expected to appear in commentary about the area of the Gulf of Mexico on which the president now proposes to spend all the money in the world, plus $50. But no: can it be that no one knows how to coin a phrase any longer?

Note that there would be legal problems if any organization tries to use the acronym GOZ; there is not only GOZ, but GOZ® (there should be an "R" with a circle around it after the "Z"). That stands for "Goal Oriented Zoning®," which is explained on the site of Planning Partners in this fashion:

The GOZ® Model is a GIS-based program that calculates zoning yield (build-out) and associated development impacts for existing zoning and alternative zoning scenarios.

So not only is the acronym already taken, but it is taken by an enterprise that may be interested in the rebuilding of the Gulf. Real confusion would be a possibility. These people should be sharpening their lawyers.

As for the speech itself, I thought it did everything it had to do. The plan the president outlined is unobjectionable. This really is a situation where throwing money at the problem will make it better. For once, the term "Marshall Plan" is apposite, though I do not believe the White House used it.

Nowadays, a proposal to quickly develop an underdeveloped country from scratch is often called a Marshall Plan, but that is quite different from repairing a region where people already know how to maintain an advanced society. The Marshall Plan was largely a rebuilding plan, the most important part of which was making credit available, either directly or through loan guarantees.

The problem is that it has become impossible even for the Republicans in Congress to ignore the fiscal consequences of the program the president has in mind, or indeed of the money the federal government has already spent on immediate disaster relief. Again, I can only repeat: yes, it is possible to lose an election by refusing to raise taxes.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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How to turn a Vintage Zenith Radio Cabinet into a Lighted Bar

Radio Bar

This is a project that has been a loooong time coming. My plan is to walk you through all the steps we took to restore, refinish, and alter the Zenith radio cabinet we found at an estate sale into the final item that is currently sitting in my library.

The Find

In 2015, my wife found a Zenith radio cabinet at an estate sale. I drove over to the old house, occupied by the same local family for years, to take a look at it. The radio was in pretty rough shape. It looked like it had gotten wet at some point, the tuning knob was missing, and it had all the usual wear and tear of 70 years.

My first view of the radio

My first view of the radio

However, it seemed like we would be able to refinish it. We wanted to turn it into a bar cabinet, based on some things my wife had seen on Pinterest [dangerous!].

Pinterest example #1

Pinterest example #1

Pinterest example #2

Pinterest example #2

This seemed like a fun project, so I bought the cabinet for $49 [I offered $50, but I found out I was a buck short when I went to settle up.]

I brought the radio home, but unfortunately I didn't secure it well, and it fell over in the back of my RAV4, and I broke the glass.

Oops....

Oops....

Now that I had it home, I could look into what I had found. This turns out to be a Zenith 1005 cabinet, with model number 10-S-464. I wasn't interested in the radio itself, as my electrical skills in this area are rusty and out-of-date, so I didn't think I could try to make the radio parts work, or replace them if they were broken, so I sold the radio parts, with all their vintage vacuum tubes, for $49. I broke even!


The Plan

In good shape, a 10-S-464 looks like this:

Zenith 1005 Chassis, Model 10-S-464

Zenith 1005 Chassis, Model 10-S-464

We decided to make a door out of the front, differing from the example my wife found, which had to to be turned around on casters everytime you wanted to get inside it. My wife would handle the refinishing of the cabinet. I volunteered to light the inside, using one of the new spiffy microcontrollers that is so cheap these days. I figured I could find a way to integrate that with the dials and buttons on the front somehow.

Up next: Disassembly

 

The Long View 2005-09-13: The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

Robert Heinlein, dean of American science fiction

I read a number of Heinlein juveniles at my elementary school library. I think Citizen of the Galaxy was one of them. Now that I'm older, I notice more of Heinlein's weirdness, but as a kid, all that sailed right over my head, and I just enjoyed the stories. Heinlein was a great storyteller, and I'm glad I found him when I did. 


The Rapture Today; Modernity and the Arabists; Heinlein Lives

 

Here's a bit of good sense from the New York Times's Alessandra Stanley, commenting on the spate of new shows on American television with supernatural and paranormal themes:

"Supernatural," on WB, is genuinely scary. But there are half a dozen other new dramas designed to make viewers run from the room screaming, including two about aliens from outer space, and at least one sea monster. There is even a remodeled "Night Stalker."

Could it be a symptom of our times? In an era plagued with man-made perils like global warming and biological terrorism, when even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina seem compounded by human failings, perhaps we seek the comfort of a higher scapegoat-supernatural forces beyond our control and not our fault.

Nah.

Indeed, to paraphrase Instapundit. I also note that recent untoward events seem to have done little to enhance apocalyptic expectations, so much so that Terry James of Rapture Ready had to offer this defense of the imminence of the Endtime:

Some people write me to argue that the Black Death (1330-40 AD) and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 invalidated birth pangs. When Jesus mentioned the precursors to His return, He wasn't citing calamities that had never happened before. Disasters like earthquakes, war, floods, and hurricanes have been around since the fall of Adam and Eve.

The birth pangs we should be looking for are normally record-setting events. When you read reports of the most "most deadly tsunami in recorded history" and the "most destructive Atlantic hurricane" you know they're talking about our generation.

Well, maybe, but Rapture Ready's invaluable Rapture Index (produced from a basket of indicators of social distress) now stands at 161. The high for last year was 157. The high for the year before that was 177.

Michael Barkun has theorized about a relationship between disaster and millennial movements, but he says the gap between the former and the latter is half a generation. The idea is that disasters prove the fragility of the ordinary world, thereby making its overthrow more plausible to young adults who had experienced the disaster as children. The model has no obvious current application.

* * *

Speaking of eschatology, my Latin Mass group is organizing a major concert-liturgy for All Saints Day. I was drafted to do a poster. I produced three options: Chant Text, Poltergeist, and Ramp.

Chant Text

Chant Text

Poltergeist

Poltergeist

Ramp

Ramp

Guess which one the choir did not like.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the War on Terror, I came across a piece by Michael Hirsh from November of last year, Bernard Lewis Revisited. Actually, Lewis is not so much revisited as excoriated, because, we are told, it was his fault that:

The administration's vision of postwar Iraq was also fundamentally Lewisian, which is to say Kemalist.

The better view, Hirsch suggests, is held by a new school of revisionists, who are in wonderful accord with the consensus in the Arabist academy that prevailed before 911:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans' success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet.

On the merits of this argument I will not comment here. Rather, look at what happens when I do a bit of mischief with the find-and-replace tool:

For centuries, [Richard] Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Catholic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the French success, but because Catholicism was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Catholicism is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Catholicism to redress the tyranny.” This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. “What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Catholicism from the center of public life, the devalidation of Catholic education and Catholic law, the marginalization of Catholic scholars,” Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Catholic clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Catholic political development, notes Bulliet.

I have never met anyone who believes the first version of this paragraph, though I will take it on faith that they exist. I have, however, met a few who believe the second. I thought I would just point out the parallel.

* * *

The disturbing thing about Robert Heinlein is that, though long since dead, he seems still to be publishing books at a respectable rate. In any case, I am still finding books by him that I have not read yet (books in new editions, mind you) that are quite as good as the ones that made him famous. Sometimes these are hitherto unpublished works, but sometimes they are reprints. Among the latter is Citizen of the Galaxy, first published in 1957 but reissued this year. It is reviewed at length here; Amazon link here.

It's set in your average galactic future, about a slave boy who is rescued and turns out to have a remarkable ancestry. As other readers have noticed, you could the story is made up of plug-and-play elements from Heinlein's other stories. There are elements of it that I gag on now, which perhaps I would not have done if I had read the book when I was a member of the juvenile readership for which it was published. Even today, I am willing to suspend disbelief on the matter of spacecraft that travel at superluminal speeds. What I can't get my head around now is the idea that it might be economic to transport vegetables from star system to star system. Surely anyone who could build the transport ship could also build a greenhouse to grow the vegetables?

Still, the book reminded me of why Heinlein still wears well. Anyone can write a story, like this one, that begins in a slave empire, whose capital is well-stocked with whores with hearts of gold, and then moves on to Earth, which seems to be inhabited mostly by stupid rich people. Only Heinlein would close down the action for two pages so that a skipper could discuss with his burser how to characterize the cost of an identity search. The notion of a ruinously expensive search for information has become anachronistic, of course, but even the anachronisms provide food for thought.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-09-07: The Wicked City

John Reilly didn't find the idea that New Orleans had been punished for its sins particularly compelling.


The Wicked City

 

We admire Mark Steyn in part because he so rarely has to take back his numerous predictions. For Katrina, however, he was forced to make an exception:

Readers may recall my words from a week ago on the approaching Katrina: "We relish the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And on the whole we do. Oh, to be sure, there are always folks who panic or loot. But most people don't, and many are capable of extraordinary acts of hastily improvised heroism."

What the hell was I thinking?

For some reason, I failed to consider the possibility that the panickers would include Hizzoner the Mayor and the looters would include significant numbers of the police department...My mistake was to think that the citizenry of the Big Easy would rise to the great rallying cry of Todd Beamer: "Are you ready, guys? Let's roll!"...Unlike 9/11, when the cult of victimhood was temporarily suspended in honour of the many real, actual victims under the rubble, in New Orleans everyone claimed the mantle of victim, from the incompetent mayor to the "oppressed" guys wading through the water with new DVD players under each arm.

This is likely to become the consensus view: the disaster was essentially a "riot." Note that this will in no way exonerate government in the public mind. The authorities at every level are routinely blamed for riots: not for "root causes," but for failure to keep order. The only question is how much of the blame will be seen as local, and how much as federal. Many of the criticisms of the federal government in general and of President Bush in particular have been opportunistic, but that does not mean they are wholly lacking in merit.

* * *

Speaking of opportunism, Spengler at Asia Times has taken the opportunity of the deluge to entitle a column Deep in denial (or in de' Mississippi), while actually reviewing two books on a quite different subject: The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History by Peter Heather. Straining mightily, Spengler attempts to make these connections between ancient and current events:

Katrina destroyed the city, just as the Huns' invasion of 376 AD destroyed the Western Roman Empire; but Rome had spent centuries digging its own grave, just as the levee builders on the Mississippi had spent decades with New Orleans... I tend to credit the old-fashioned view, unpopular in the academy, that infertility due to infanticide, contraception, promiscuity and general immorality rotted out Rome long before it collapsed.

Possibly I am misinformed, but I believe that the empire was on a pretty steady course of moral rearmament after the fall of the batty Julio-Claudian dynasty in the first century.

* * *

The longest-term look at the future of New Orleans appears in a short novel by Poul Anderson, The Winter of the World, which was published in 1975. The story is set around AD 14,000 (we know this because Vega is the pole star), during an ice age. A city on the precise site of New Orleans, but called Arvanneth, is the seat of a civilization so old that it has long since gone to seed, but is not quite so old as to have any direct connection with today's civilization. In the book, the city's latest semi-barbarian conqueror deals tactfully with this representative of the incumbent theocracy:

On his chain of office hung a smoke crystal sphere engraved with a global map so old that a naked eye could see how, later, Ice had waxed and oceans waned. He was Holy Councilor for the World.

Sidir thought of him in prosaic Barommian, as the city-state's head of civil affairs. That made Ercer the last of the lords spiritual who had anything real to do. As for the Holy Councilor of the Godhood, religious matters in Arvanneth had long ceased to be much more than intrigues between the Temples. The mass of the population was sunken in superstition and corruptions of faith, or in unbelief, or in the worship of strange gods. As for the Holy Councilor of the Woe, conquest by the Empire had removed responsibility for military business and had left him simply a courtesy title.

Flooding is not so urgent a danger in this future, since sea level has fallen substantially. In general, though, Arvanneth's municipal government seems more on the ball than Mayor Nagin's.

* * *

A note on theodicy: It is difficult to argue that New Orleans was punished for its wickedness. The city had long had a reputation as the place where the devil goes on vacation; there is no obvious reason why God should find it more intolerable now than formerly. Perhaps reassured by this analysis, the state legislature of California became the the first in the nation yesterday to redefine marriage to include homosexual couples.

This presents a difficult issue for Governor Schwarzenegger. He is little loved by social conservatives, so he might be tempted to gain a measure of credit with them by vetoing the bill. On the other hand, he will never be the social conservative's candidate, no matter what he does in this matter. He has taken the novel position that what he does should not be irrelevant: he says this is not a matter for the legislature or the governor, but for the people and the courts. One is reminded of Fareed Zakaria's suggestion that the California legislature is too unrepresentative to be trusted with the people's business.

In any case, it is in fact likely that gay marriage in California would quickly be abolished by referendum. Governor Schwarzenegger would probably do least harm to his political prospects by vetoing the bill. In that way, he would at least avoid being seen as opposing the popular will

* * *

The Mysteries of Disaster Finance: It looks as of the Katrina disaster will cost the federal government five times as much as 911. That makes sense: New York was incommoded, but New Orleans was largely destroyed. Remember, though, that one of the effects of 911 was a panic in the world's insurance markets, particularly among reinsurers. The federal government had to intervene by offering some reinsurance guarantees itself. Why, then, are the world's reinsurers taking Katrina in stride? Quite aside from the city, what about losses to the petrochemical industry?

* * *

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organization new to me, ran a full-page open letter to the US Senate in yesterday's New York Times, warning the senators not to get uppity during the coming confirmation hearings for nominees to the Supreme Court:

Article VI of the United States Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office...The days of explicit religious tests are, happily, behind us. Nevertheless many are urging the United States Senate to apply a subtler form of religious test in the confirmation process, one that would serve to disqualify fervent believers......Now it is probably true that a Senator's decision to vote for or against a given nominee cannot be the subject of a federal law suit. However, a decision to disqualify a nominee based on his or her religion still violates Article VI, and thus the Senator's oath of office. And violations of a Senator's oath of office are actionable in the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics...

It is news to me that private parties can bring a complaint before a Senate Committee. In any case, I don't think this is an argument the Beckett Fund would want to win. They seem to be trying to conflate eligibility with prudential issues. Do they really want to laicize the business of Congress?

* * *

New Oxford Review has a long history of attacking prominent religious conservatives, with the perhaps not coincidental effect of garnering publicity for themselves. And indeed, if that is their strategy, it works, since here I am, talking about their latest effort of this sort. This time, they go right for the top.

This happens in a piece in the September issue entitled "Benedict the Moderate?" They quote an article by the notorious liberal Fr. Richard McBrien, in which that prelate seems to make some effort to at least give the new pope a chance:

"It remains to be seen whether in choosing the name Benedict, Pope Ratzinger intends to follow in Benedict XV's footsteps -- a pope who tried to restore peace in the Catholic Church after the highly polarized pontificate of Pius X..."

One might note that this analogy cannot be altogether apt. Pius X was the aggressor at the beginning of the 20th century, though one could argue that aggressive measures were necessary. The liberal opposition sang very small in those days, at least in public. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, all the aggression has been from the dissidents: from people like Fr. McBrien, in other words. To the extent there is polarization, few people have done more than he to create it.

New Oxford Review finds other things to say about McBrien's comments, however. "Sadly to say, McBrien could be right about Pope Ratzinger," we are told. It seems that Benedict XVI has appointed Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco to Benedict's old job as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Levada, however, as we learn in the same issue, neglected to make Catholic San Francisco drop a column by one Fr. Ron Rolheiser, who is soft on Hell.

Some people just cannot take "Yes" for an answer.

* * *

Perhaps thinking subconsciously of New Orleans, over the weekend I saw Sin City, based on the noir-gothic comic books by Frank Miller. The city in the film is called "Basin City," but that is reminiscent of New Orleans, too. The film is the high-concept offspring of a marriage between Barton Fink and the Black Knight sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's put together in loosely related detective-story episodes, with a "Rosebud" conclusion. The result is beyond merely clever.

This is the first live-action film I have ever seen that was based on a comic book and that actually looked like a comic book. It's even in black-and-white, with just a few touches of color; even the copious blood is white. The film was much criticized in some circles for the episode involving young Kevin and his spiritual adviser, Archbishop Rourke, and their reprehensible mode of nourishment. (They are played by Elijah Wood and Rutger Hauer: the cast is sterling, with Bruce Willis the biggest name.) No doubt it does no good for the clergy to be represented in this fashion, but the effects of the comedic nightmare are unlikely to be very grave.

One can only wish that all this ingenuity had been put to a purpose that did not involve so much decapitation, and even some bad language.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-09-03: The Katrina Disaster: Reality, Myth, and Future

History_Speeches_6009_Hurricane_Katrina_Destruction_still_624x352.jpg

John's prediction about the consequences of Hurricane Katrina didn't really pan out.

We may expect, though, that people will demand larger, more effective government, and that they will insist on paying for it now.
This will mean a larger standing military, if not necessarily a draft. It will mean that the federal government will embrace the goal of universal health insurance. It will mean that the federal government will regain control of the borders, without a guest-worker program. It will mean many other things, good and bad. What previously was politically impossible will become mandatory.

These things remain the subject of partisan politics, without a grand national consensus like that behind the New Deal.


The Katrina Disaster: Reality, Myth, and Future

 

Prescience is cheap, so here’s five-cent’s worth from Science Daily in 2000:

By the year 2100, the city of New Orleans may be extinct, submerged in water. A future akin to the fabled sunken city of Atlantis? Yes, according to Dr. Chip Groat, Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Washington, D.C., "With the projected rate of subsidence (the natural sinking of land), wetland loss, and sea level rise," he said, "New Orleans will likely be on the verge of extinction by this time next century."

I came across that quote while using Google to see how often in recent days New Orleans had been compared to Atlantis: 359 times in news outlets, as of this morning. In any case, the analogy isn’t really apt. The site of the city will not be forgotten, and indeed the commercial and the tourist districts will be restored in fairly short order. The French Quarter, for instance, is above sea level, and suffered little from the flood. No doubt that’s how it got to be a historic district; it’s in a part of the city that escaped inundations long enough to develop some history. It’s another question whether it makes sense to restore the whole city on anything like its pre-Katrina plan.

There is an old formula about New Orleans: an inevitable city on an impossible site. The site is not strictly impossible, but it is enormously expensive to secure; it was enormously expensive even when, as everyone knew, it was not secure enough. Plan A would be to Spend Whatever It Takes to rebuild the whole city. Plan B would be to secure only the high ground in the city; which is also, not coincidentally, where the wealthier neighborhoods are. In effect, this Newer Orleans would be a Disneyfied memorial to its former self. Imagine Williamsburg, Virginia, but with better food.

* * *

Evils must come, Jesus tells us, but woe to the man through whom they come. In that spirit, a national lynch mob has formed to find a suitable scapegoat.

There is, of course, Mayor Ray Nagin, who has reacted so badly to his sudden transformation into the Mayor of Atlantis (360 times). We should cut the man some slack. His unprecedented order on Sunday to evacuate the city saved tens of thousands of lives. On Monday, when Katrina had declined from a category 5 to a category 4 storm and had veered slightly to the east, it looked as if he had overreacted.

Once the levees broke, however, pretty much everything that he did has been disheartening. It is as if, on 911, Rudolph Giuliani had fled to Albany (the capital of New York State) and railed against the failure of the federal government to keep order in the city he had just abandoned. Of course, the New Orleans Chief of Police seems to have been even worse. The governor of Louisiana is a nice lady with a philosophical disposition. She may even be doing sterling job of disaster administration, but she is not doing the essential thing: appearing to be in charge, even if all the phones on her desk are dead and she has no idea how much of the state government survived 50 miles south of her office.

Part of the reason that George Bush is president is that his brother, Governor Jeb of Florida, proved very adept at doing exactly that when hurricanes struck. Jeb became a sort of television anchorman. Looking worried and disheveled, he appeared repeatedly on television to issue warnings, advice, or just new information. Actually, recovery was slow and aid was not especially well organized, but the state’s chief executive was seen to be competent and engaged. Floridians in 2004 thought: if this is how the Bushes manage things, then we can trust George with another four years in Washington.

Alas for George Bush today. The governments of Mississippi and Alabama are not doing as badly as that of Louisiana, but no Jeb or Rudolph Giuliani has arisen in the Katrina Zone. (Those who say that Giuliani himself should take charge of recovery in New Orleans shoot wide of the mark: Giuliani was effective in New York in September of 2001 because of local knowledge, especially knowledge of the local media: he would be a fish out of water in the flooded city.) President Bush has made repeated appearances on television since the scope of the disaster became clear. He has toured the area. Far from turning himself into a national anchorman for this event, however, he has, at least so far, succeeded only in linking his name to an awesome failure of government.

* * *

There are ironies here. Disaster relief is one of the functions of government for which Bush’s corporate style of governance works very well. He is good at this kind of thing. He declared the area around the mouth of the Mississippi a federal disaster area before the hurricane struck, thereby allowing preparations to begin early. He urged Mayor Nagin over the phone to issue the evacuation order. He has succeeded in energizing the federal government: even the great jellyfish that is the Department of Homeland Security has stopped worrying about suicide bombers for a few days. We may regret that, but it’s a wonder that the department can be directed to a new task at all.

Probably it is not true that the deployment of a third of the Louisiana National Guard to Iraq has significantly degraded its ability, and the ability of the Guard from other states, to deal effectively with the crisis so far. That’s not to say that the deployments had no effect, and that there may not be more severe effects in the future. I suspect, though I don’t know, that the problem is the sustainability of the relief effort.

Certainly it is not true that the recent cuts in the budget for work on the levee system can be blamed for the New Orleans flood. The 17th Street Canal, whose breech did the worst damage, was a part of the system which the Army Corps of engineers believed to be sound; the money removed from the budget would not have prevented this flood. More money might well have prevented a future flood, of course, if the city’s luck had held through the Katrina event. Still, if a prospective benefit is in the future, one is always tempted to leave the cost to the future, too. It was just dumb luck that the canal wall broke on George Bush’s watch. He may yet come through this with a measure of personal credit. However, I suspect that the vision we have been granted of a world without government will go far toward ending the suspicion of activist government that began with the Republican victories in Congress in 1994.

* * *

To what shall we compare New Orleans in the days after the canal broke? Certainly not to Florida during the administration of News Anchor Jeb. Certainly not to Manhattan after 911: in the latter case, you could walk from the site of the disaster to places were drinkable water was on tap and the lights were still on. To Haiti, perhaps, except that, in Haiti, people generally don’t shoot at hospital helicopters. Odd as it may seem, and without wishing to give aid and comfort to the people who want to blame Katrina on the Iraq War, the best analogy really is to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In both cases, the state disintegrated. As soon as that was apparent, a predatory and dysfunctional underclass began to loot the place to the ground.

New Orleans dry was not like the flooded version. In this, perhaps, the city differed from Baghdad, where all that was necessary for chaos was for the cops to go off duty. New Orleans’ nasty underclass was normally restrained by the police; by middle-class conventions; for that matter, by the respectable lower class. Most of the people who did not follow the evacuation order were hardly members of the pathological dregs of society; they were just too poor or too stubborn to leave. (Some people not-at-all destitute remained in favored spots with generators and shot guns.) Nonetheless, the flooded city exploded, or boiled, because so much of the non-toxic part of society had evaporated and gone north to Baton Rouge and Memphis.

Is there a racial issue in the fall of New Orleans? Well, yes, but not in the way one might suppose. If you want to see callous indifference to human life, look east from New Orleans to Mississippi, with its the zoning codes that required that casinos be put on barges, or which allowed a flood plain to be covered with defenseless summer-bungalow housing. The problem is that America has been willing to tolerate the sort of underclass, both helpless and dangerous, that simmered under the crust of New Orleans society. America made the same calculation about that underclass as about the levees that protect New Orleans. Yes, if there is a breach, there will be chaos; but at any given time, there probably won’t be a breach, so we can put off the fixing the problem today. When a breach occurs, though, the result is catastrophe.

* * *

Katrina was a greater blow to American prestige than a massive and successful terrorist attack would be. America’s reputation for logistical competence has been gravely undermined. That is a more serious matter than the increased doubts about America’s compassion. Many people around the world are unshakably convinced that America is callous, but even anti-Americans thought that we could move stuff. It is not relevant that the Katrina Zone is the size of a European country, or that, in retrospect, we may see that the emergency services and military relief were delivered with miraculous efficiency. The federal government in particular now seems ineffective and unpopular. This comes on top of the continuing war in Iraq. That, too, may in retrospect appear low-cost and highly effective, but such an assessment in the future does not change the fact that America is widely seen as losing. The new feature is that America is now seen as losing at home and abroad.

That sentiment is close to becoming the domestic consensus, too. That is exactly what happened during the Hoover Administration, when the federal government seemed incapable of keeping the farmers on the land, or the banks open, or even of accurately estimating the number of unemployed, much less of reducing unemployment. Lots of things happened then; we can be certain only that history will not repeat itself exactly. We may expect, though, that people will demand larger, more effective government, and that they will insist on paying for it now.

This will mean a larger standing military, if not necessarily a draft. It will mean that the federal government will embrace the goal of universal health insurance. It will mean that the federal government will regain control of the borders, without a guest-worker program. It will mean many other things, good and bad. What previously was politically impossible will become mandatory.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The New Absolutes

This twenty-year old essay is topical this week, with the defenestration of James Damore from Google. I've said several times that the cultural Left won the culture war in the United States, at least insofar as they hold more power to impose their ideas than the Right at present. Yet it seems that the culture war isn't over.


The New Absolutes
by William D. Watkins
Bethany House Publishers, 1996
$19.99, 319 pages
ISBN 1-55661-721-6

 

The Bohemian Mandates

 

Garrison Keillor once characterized the United States as a nation founded by religious zealots who wanted to practice religious intolerance to a degree forbidden by the laws of England. While this is perhaps a churlish formulation of the matter, nevertheless it is the case that one of the defining features of American culture has always been a tendency to moralize issues and then to impose the morals by social coercion and, ideally, by statute. Colonial tax resistance, Abolitionism (of slavery), Prohibitionism (of liquor), anticommunism, feminism, the anti-smoking campaign: the roll-call of movements and causes designed to make people be good would make a serviceable backbone for any general narrative of American history.

On the whole, this is not a bad feature for a country's culture to have. Though it has produced undesirable results occasionally (such as the Civil War), it has also added a dynamic quality of self-searching and radical reform to American history that has usually redounded to the nation's benefit. "Usually" is the key word here, since the ancient puritan reflexes have now and again been exercised in the service of causes that would have appalled the Puritans themselves. This is the situation in many areas of national life today, when causes like homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia are being promoted by the leaders of key institutions with all the fervor and moral certainty of John Brown and Carrie Nation.

This list of non-negotiable ethical propositions that began to be institutionalized in the 1970s is what William Watkins (who among other things is a member of the Advisory Board of "Culture Wars") calls "The New Absolutes." By his count there are ten of them, which he contrasts with ten traditional "absolutes" of forty years ago. The contrast of the old with the new is not necessarily that of the good with the bad. Before the civil rights movement, for instance, typical American folkways had it that "All white people are created equal and should be treated with equal dignity and respect," a position on which later decades have brought improvement, despite the moralization of affirmative action programs and the new dogma that all white people have been historically privileged. Most of the new absolutes, however, such as the principles that "religion is the bane of public life" or that a "family is any grouping of two or more people," are experienced by the vast majority of the population as alien and oppressive, without any redeeming characteristics.

A lot of this book is a critique of cultural relativism. Watkins touches briefly on the logical problems of relativism, but is most concerned with the indubitable fact that, at least as it finds lodgment in law and academic curricula, relativism is a bit of a hoax. There is probably a great deal of honest stupidity among the professoriate when it comes to cultural anthropology. (The bold-faced liars are more likely to be found among the professional philosophers.) They really do think that the accounts of Central American Indians devised by French Marxists are about Central America, and they really do think that "Coming of Age in Samoa" is about Samoa. Though matters are no doubt different among working anthropologists, the popular academic use of anthropology elides the fact that the discipline is itself as Western as doilies on tea trays, and was invented by people looking for a barbarian foil to use in their critique of civilization.

Relativists rarely if ever question traditional moral and intellectual structures for the disinterested purpose of seeing where the inquiry leads. Anyone who has ever been in an institution whose leadership started talking about diversity and "hearing other voices" knows well enough that relativism is normally just a rhetorical device for pushing a progressive agenda that is remarkably uniform across the government and the academy and the media. Watkins uses the term "The New Tolerance" for this rhetorical technique. It is a significant corruption of what once had been a noble word.

Tolerance used to mean enduring certain characteristics or behaviors in others of which you personally might disapprove, but which courtesy or respect forbid you from trying to suppress. Religious tolerance normally falls into this category. It has often been argued, perhaps rightly, that it appeared in Europe in the 17th century simply because the continent had been exhausted by religious wars. In the Puritan tradition of America, there was also the conviction that you cannot save a man by compelling him to worship in a manner contrary to his conscience. In either case, the old tolerance was a mechanism for maintaining social peace, not fomenting cultural revolution.

The New Tolerance, in contrast, knows nothing of either courtesy or respect, and it seeks out occasions for confrontation. It requires that active accommodation and even approval be given to things to which you may well have principled objections. This kind of "tolerance" brings a sword rather than peace. Often supported by civil litigation and even criminal prosecution, it is the chief mechanism whereby real intellectual and cultural variety is marinated into the unsalted mush that is marketed under the name of "diversity." The New Absolutes seek to create a degree of conformity at least as strict as that contemplated by Puritan sumptuary laws.

To me, at least, the most interesting thing about the New Absolutes is that they are not arbitrary. Neither are they universal, in the sense of being products of universal human desires set free from traditional constraints. Their specific content, including such things as their feminism, their hostility to family, their superficial interest in foreign cultures, their obdurate socialism, have been staples of Bohemian life in the West since at least the 18th century. While you may, if you like, characterize some or all of these things as degenerate forms of traditional ideas, still not every society that goes to hell in a handbasket takes quite this route. They are not the vices of exhaustion. Some elements of the New Absolutes are as difficult to maintain in practice as the sternest features of traditional morality. They also, oddly enough, are often much more parochially Western than the values they seek to replace.

Take, for instance, the campaign to normalize homosexuality. The transition of the love that dare not speak its name to the love that will not shut up is one of the most disconcerting developments of the past half century. Homosexuality has become a lifestyle, a politics, even an ontology for some people. However, in my opinion at least, the whole thing is to some extent a collective hallucination. While sodomy has no doubt always been with us, there were no homosexuals until about 150 years ago, when people who defined themselves this way began to be a feature of metropolitan life in German and English-speaking countries. (Though not, of course, using the term "homosexual," which dates from about 1910.) To see the transition over the course of the nineteenth century, you need only compare the different ways that history regards Lord Byron at its beginning and Oscar Wilde at its end, despite the fact their personal habits were allegedly rather similar.

What we are dealing with here is not an ancient minority, much less the phenotype of a genotype, but rather an exotic variety of culturally conditioned personality. A good analogy to the homosexual might be the neurasthenic, who appeared at about the same time but did not make it much past the beginning of the 20th century. Odd as it may sound today, there is no reason to think that homosexuality will be a permanent feature of the cultural landscape (indeed, in light of its epidemiological effects, there is reason to think otherwise). It is entirely conceivable that there will be as few homosexuals in 2050 as there were neurasthenics in 1950. Stranger things have happened. Just lately.

If America were really suffering from moral entropy, there would be nothing to be done about it. On the basis of no personal experience, this is the impression I get of most of Europe. The great cities are becoming immaculately-maintained museums whose intellectual life is a post-modern Glass Bead Game. Politics is collapsing into the social services. The pathologies of the continent, both cultural and economic, really are vices of exhaustion. The European Union is starting to look like the lowest energy state of a closed system, the sort of situation that in physics admits of no remedy.

On the basis of at least some personal experience, I would say this is not the case in America. The wires are still live in the United States. The New Absolutes are fiercely-held dogmas, forcefully defended against a growing coalition of their equally energized opponents. Even the current disorders on the conservative side of the spectrum are signs of life. In any case, we should remember that no political party or platform is wholly coincident with the work of moral restoration.

Between the world of the New Absolutes and that of ordinary human life there is only limited occasion for the play of synthesis and antithesis. The cultural history of the United States has not been one of gradual transitions, but of sudden flips, like a huge iceberg turning over. Such events may take as little as a decade to accomplish. One suspects that the America of the New Tolerance will go under far more quickly than it took to rise. We have yet to determine whether what follows it will be better or worse.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The New Absolutes
By William D. Watkins

The Long View 2005-08-30: Corrections & Short Reviews

John didn't follow Harry Potter closely, but he guessed the shape of the story pretty well.


Corrections & Short Reviews

 

Disturbing information about John Roberts, President Bush's nominee for the United States Supreme Court, was revealed in a frontpage New York Times story on Monday. The revealing piece was entitled In Re Grammar, Roberts's Stance Is Crystal Clear. Apparently unmindful of the real implications of the information it was presenting, the Times praised Judge Roberts' long history of making grammatical and stylistic comments on any text that comes across his desk, whether the quality of the prose was his business or not. Consider this chilling example:

MARCH 16, 1983 In a memorandum on the draft of a presidential statement concerning crime control legislation, Mr. Roberts caught an error on the first page. In the sentence "As a result of these efforts we're socking more criminals away where they belong ---in prison," he guessed that the president had meant to say "locking" instead of "socking."

There was nothing wrong with President Reagan's choice of words: "to sock something away" is a common expression meaning "to hide or save something." It evokes an image of hiding a small object, or a large number of small objects, in a sock or other container. The expression "to lock away" does not mean the same thing, and only a lead-footed editor would make a change like that.

What do I mean by a "lead-footed editor"? I mean the kind of editor who would need the expression "lead-footed editor" explained to him. Yes, they do exist, many of them in law offices.

In general, my view of John Roberts has been "what's not to like?" Even with this new information, he is still an acceptable candidate. Once again we see that if you did deeply enough, you will find something discreditable about anybody.

* * *

Worse than editors was Hitler. However, that point was not emphasized in Oliver Hirschbiegel's film, Downfall (Untergang in German), which was released last year, but which I just recently saw. It's about the final days in the Chancellery bunker in Berlin in 1945, based chiefly on Joachim Fest's books, but with heavy doses of Albert Speer's successful attempts at self-exoneration thrown in. Bruno Ganz plays Hitler. No one here has tried to make the Nazis look good (the film was shot in St. Petersburg, I gather), but the story does not elide that fact that Himself was generally thoughtful and gracious to the people around him. Ganz gives his all during Hitler's frequent rages, but the fact is, these are so intense and abrupt that they come off as comical. It's a commonplace of drama that there is not much difference between a devil and clown.

The end of the Nazi regime was apparently punctuated by end-of-the-world parties, which makes sense, on several levels. Sometimes it seemed as if a sequel to Cabaret was about to break out. That makes sense, too, if you accept the interpretation of the Nazi era as continuous with the Weimar Republic, except that the Surrealists had taken over.

One jarring note about the casting, if you have seen the film The Ninth Day. That one is about a priest from Luxembourg who is released from a concentration camp in the hope that he will persuade his bishop to cooperate with the Nazi occupation. The man who plays the priest is a tall, bony fellow named Ulrich Matthes. He also plays Goebbels in Downfall. He does a good job, unless you are bothered by the fact Goebbels was was a tiny man with a bad limp. In any case, someone seems to have gone to the trouble to find out just how Frau Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) poisoned all but one of her numerous children. It's still hard to believe.

The DVD of Downfall is in German, with English subtitles. Altogether, it's the best German lesson to come along since Das Boot.

* * *

Having already written at length about Harry Potter here, I felt obligated to actually read the most recent book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to see whether the series had taken a radically different turn since the first volume, which was the only other one I read. I find not; and I still like the series, though I can't say it engages my enthusiasm. One thing that struck me was how much the dread of terrorism is the background for the latest book. The terror comes from Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters rather than members of Al-Qaida, but the effect is remarkably the same. The searches for dangerous objects are done with magical wands rather than with magnetic ones, but the machinery of security parallels that of the real world so closely that I feel more confident about my thesis that Hogwarts is essentially an engineering school.

I am also confident that Professor Snape is Not As Bad As He Seems.

Watch.

* * *

A technical aside:: I just got a new computer, a Dell Dimension 3000. I got it 22 hours ago; I have just finished getting it to do at least as much as the old machine did. That makes it the fastest upgrade I have ever done.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-08-09

Patrice O'Neal explains why Radiohead's Creep speaks to the white soul

I can't argue with this.

Meet Alex, the Russian Casino Hacker Who Makes Millions Targeting Slot

In the grand tradition of Ed Thorp, a Russian mathematician figured out how to beat the house. Of course, Ed chose a slightly different way to cash in.

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

This is a hell of a story! A mad bomber, an initially nonchalant public, and years of official bumbling.

Man Behind Password Requirements Admits He Was Wrong

In fairness to Bill Burr, he was working under pressure, and wasn't able to do the kind of detailed analysis of leaked passwords that is possible now.

More justice, less crime

Joseph Bessette reviews Locked In by John Pfaff.

Self-Domestication

Genetic evidence for self-domestication in humans

Greg Cochran looks at the idea that modern humans have some of the features of Domestication Syndrome, the suite of behavioral traits observed in animals that are bred for tameness. A helpful commenter linked to The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics, a survey article explaining the science behind this.

More in my continuing series on technological progress.

The Long View 2005-08-26: A Walk on the Blind Side

HELLADS

HELLADS

Twelve years later, the HELLADS system is still in development. The press release cited by CNN below said it would operational by 2007. Hah. With the recent sabre-rattling between the United States and North Korea, both the utility of such a system for the US [defense against countries too poor to pursue MAD], and the fears of arms control experts [that such a system would allow the US to bully countries too poor to pursue MAD] are on display.

Also, Gordon Chang is still wrong. I get why John went on about it all the time, but it just keeps not happening.

On the gripping hand, John correctly noted in 2005 that America's imperial wars were being sustained by the martial enthusiasm of white Southerners and their diaspora. The quietly competent servants of empire tend to come from nowheresvilles like Modesto, CA.


A Walk on the Blind Side

 

The invention of the atomic bomb blind-sided the political system. The physics was never a secret, of course, and I gather that the Manhattan Project was not that much of a secret in the scientific community; still, one can understand why statesmen and the military did not think systematically about the issue until they had to. The strategic nuclear era necessarily began in great confusion. I cannot help but reflect, however, that we will have less excuse for surprise if reports like this turn out to mean all they imply:

The High Energy Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), being designed by the Pentagon's central research and development agency, will weigh just 750 kg (1,650 lb) and measures the size of a large fridge...Dubbed the "HEL weapon" by its developers, a prototype capable of firing a mild one kilowatt (kW) beam has already been produced and there are plans to build a stronger 15-kW version by the end of the year...If everything goes according to plan, an even more powerful weapon producing a 150-kW beam and capable of knocking down a missile will be ready by 2007 for fitting onto aircraft.

By "missiles," this means tactical and air-to-air, rather than ICBMs. Even if the latter is not the case in the first instance, however, reliance on nuclear deterrence is becoming a worse and worse bet, even for the medium term. This is bad news for the states that have been beggaring themselves to acquire the minimum strategic warhead-and-missile package necessary to forestall regime change: think not just of North Korea and Iran, but Pakistan and Israel.

* * *

Health scares have been one of the defining features of the public life of my time. Someday I must compile a list of the innocuous substances, from saccharine to alar, that the media has said may be poisoning our precious bodily fluids. Anyway, here's a new medical witch hunt we can be sure will blow over in due course: Daydreaming activity linked to Alzheimer's.

The parts of the brain that young, healthy people use when daydreaming are the same areas that fail in people who have Alzheimer's disease, researchers reported on Wednesday in a study that may someday help in preventing or diagnosing the disease...The relationships are not clear and do not yet suggest that daydreaming is dangerous, but further study may shed light on the relationship, the study said.

Perhaps I am forgetting something, but I believe that the only life-style scare of this type that had any merit was for smoking. On the other hand, since I was always a dreamy sort of fellow, maybe the reason I can't remember is that the disease has struck already.

* * *

Meanwhile, in China, the prophecies of Gordon Chang seem ever more plausible. The New York Times reports in a piece entitled Land of 74,000 Protests (but Little Is Ever Fixed):

There is a growing uneasiness in the air in China, after months of increasingly bold protests rolling across the countryside....But the response by the Chinese authorities, a mixture of alarm and seeming disarray, is a clear indication that whatever is brewing here is being taken with utmost seriousness at the summit of power.

Again, the problem is that the Party is subversive of the State. The latter attempts to make reforms, but cannot do so without the full participation of civil society, which the Party blocks. This is interesting from several angles, the most speculative of which is that China and America have sometimes been oddly in sync. That was the case during the Taiping--Civil War era, as well as during the bogus but parallel "youth rebellions" of the 1960s. As for the impending disjuncture in American history, there are projections on the Left and Right.

* * *

Vietnam differed from Iraq in part because the army that was sent to fight there was selected coercively from sections of the population that had little enthusiasm for going there. This does not seem to be the case with Iraq: even the enlistment deficit seems to have been solved, at least temporarily. As Shots Across The Bow put it:

First time enlistments are running a bit behind, another product of a burgeoning economy, but re-enlistments, even from soldiers in combat zones, are running ahead of expectations.

This is another example of the Blue State -- Red State divide. It matters much less now than it did in the 1960s how much the Blue States oppose the war, since they are not being asked to fight it.

Sometimes I wonder: are the Blue States, like the EU, really trying to withdraw from history? Here is a description of Harvard University from H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. It was published in 1933, but the scene is supposed to take place in 1958, in a history where the Great Depression never ended. As is so often the case with speculative fiction written decades ago, it has become Alternative History:

The impression of Nicholson, the visitor, was one of an elegant impracticality. The simple graciousness of the life he could not deny, but it seemed to him also profoundly futile. He seems, however, to have concealed this opinion from the President [of Harvard University] and allowed him to talk unchallenged of how Harvard had achieved the ultimate purification and refinement of the Anglican culture, the blend of classicism and refined Christianity, with a graceful monarchist devotion.

Today, of course, the conversation would be about diversity and the international community, but the spirit of David Brooks's Bobos is not new.

* * *

Speaking of impending transitions, the ever-gothic Peggy Noonan advises planners to Think Dark:

The federal government is doing something right now that is exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. ...Right now the federal government is considering closing or consolidating hundreds of military bases throughout the U.S....Among the things we may face over the next decade, as we all know, is another terrorist attack on American soil. But let's imagine the next one has many targets, is brilliantly planned and coordinated. Imagine that there are already 100 serious terror cells in the U.S., two per state. ...On the day the big terrible thing happens there will of course be shock and chaos. People will feel the need for protection--for the feeling of protection and for the thing itself. They will want and need American troops nearby and they will want and need American military bases up and operating to help maintain some semblance of order.

I see the point. The problem is that federal military installations were not sited to restore public order in the event of a societal breakdown.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-23: The Perfection of the Species

The image in the header is the image John referenced in his joke about contributing to the state of perpetual surveillance. The man in the image is Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, scourge of the Boers and one of the few generals who thought the Great War would be long.

I appreciate John's simple computation of the average tenure of each Supreme Court Justice in groups of ten. It is a simple thing in now, and in 2005, to look up such information to double-check something like now Chief Justice John Robert's 34-year old speculation that the framers of the Constitution hadn't anticipated how long people live now.

Justice Roberts made a common mistake, which is thinking increasing average lifespans means that adults live 20 or 30 years longer than they used to. There is some increase for adults, but almost all of the change in the average was driven by changes in deaths under the age of 5. 

Something that struck me just now is that I've seen a lot of things on the subject of average human lifespans that assumes that childhood mortality was as high in Classical times or earlier as it was in early modern Europe. However, we know that what we now call childhood diseases are mostly recent things, largely within the last 2000 years or so. The human disease burden has slowly been getting worse, which might mean that childhood was somewhat less dangerous before the arrival of measles and smallpox.


The Perfection of the Species

 

Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts had some thoughts many years ago about limiting the terms of federal judges, and was foolish enough to put them on paper:

The Constitution "adopted life tenure at a time when people simply did not live as long as they do now,'' Roberts wrote in an Oct. 3, 1983, memo to White House Counsel Fred Fielding that is now on file at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library..."A judge insulated from the normal currents of life for 25 or 30 years was a rarity then but is becoming commonplace today,'' Roberts wrote. "Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence.''

Term limits for judges may or may not be a good idea, but I had my doubts about the premise of Roberts' critique. The great increases in life expectancy we have seen over the past two centuries chiefly relate to infant mortality; the older you get, the less dramatic the increases become. Certainly it is not the case that maximum human longevity is increasing. How does this relate to the Supreme Court?

On Wikipedia, I found a list of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in chronological order of appointment. Then I took the average of the terms of service of each group of ten. In the list of these averages set out below, the date is the end of the period in which each group of ten was appointed:

1796
8.9 yrs

1811
(John Marshall appointed)
20.9 yrs

1823
19.2 yrs

1845
19 yrs

1864
14.3 yrs

1903
13 yrs

1921
15.4 yrs

1939
13.3 yrs

1953
17.3 yrs

1970
20.6 yrs

1994
(Current)
20.6 yrs

The average tenure for the first ten justices was indeed short, but that had little to do with longevity. The Supreme Court was new and not very prestigious in the early days of the Republic. The justices tended to quit in order to move on to better things. It was only during the tenure of John Marshall as Chief Justice that the Court acquired an authority comparable to that of Congress and the President. There then followed a long period during which justices stayed on the court for about as long as they have since the beginning of the final quarter of the 20th century. The composition of the current Court is uniquely old, but again, that's not biology: the continuing Roe v. Wade controversy has blocked the normal turnover of the Court.

John Roberts was probably correct if he thought that the current, long tenure of Supreme Court justices is contrary to the expectation of the Founders, but not for the reason he cited. The Founders probably did not expect that justices, once appointed to the Court, would cling to their office for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Recently I saw Gattaca, a film released in 1997 about a near-future world (though not quite so near as our own, evidently) in which pre-natal genetic enhancements and genetic testing in general put people who are conceived naturally at a considerable disadvantage. The story is about one such Invalid (accent on the second syllable) who steals the genetic profile of a supernormal in order to qualify to pilot the first manned spaceship to Titan.

Gattaca has a reputation as an underappreciated minor film. I can only agree. It comes close to the ideal of science fiction played on a bare stage. The sets are subdued Modern; there are no special effects. As for the cast, no less a person than Gore Vidal has a bit part as Director Josef of the Gattaca organization. He even turns out to be the murderer, though the murder is a red herring. There were several real actors, too.

Since I saw this film, I have been trying to track down a quotation that I am almost sure comes from Tolkien. It runs something like this:

No, I have never much liked the idea of spaceflight. It seems to be promoted mostly by people who want to turn the whole world into a big train station, and then to establish similar stations on other planets.

The journey to Titan (which we do not see) is just a Maguffin, like the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, but it leaves the film hollow, intentionally so. It is not at all clear why the impeccably dressed and immaculately clean personnel of Gattaca would want to do something as crudely industrial as explore another planet. As for the colonization of Titan, we must ask whether the universe really needs another planet covered with office parks and Ikea furniture. Indeed, does it really need any?

The character of the hero is defined by his determination to belie the projection for a mediocre future that his real genetic profile suggested, including a high probability of an early death from heart failure. Though fraud was necessary to allow him to compete for his ambitions, he fought against his fate chiefly through study and exercise. A friend of mine in high school received a similar prognosis. He became the first fitness fanatic I ever met. He died at 28.

* * *

Incidentally, Gattaca is available in Esperanto. So are 14 other films: look here.

* * *

Speaking of near-future paranoia, I have done my bit to bring about a world in which no public moment goes unrecorded; my condominium now has security cameras. To ensure that no one forgets this fact, I made this poster [BIE I put this in the header] to remind everyone to be good.

Speaking of graphics, the Latin Mass folks at Holy Rosary Church asked me to do a simple webpage for them. So, I did this[BIE link removed, since Holy Rosary Church isn't really the point here. A fine chapel though, as I verified]. The sound file of the Magnificat is surprisingly good, considering the microphone we were using; the church has wonderful acoustics.

That page is supposed to be uploaded to the parish website. No doubt it will be, eventually, but getting the authorization is harder than authorizing that expedition to Titan.

* * *

"Nothing Burger" is a good characterization of the whole embryonic stem-cell controversy. Even if omni-potent stem cells turn out to have clinical applications, it is hard to imagine a goofier way to get them than by harvesting them from embryos, cloned or otherwise. In any case, new techniques should soon return the subject to its deserved obscurity, as we see in The Washington Post:

Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.

So are we done with the subject? Not quite:

Because it involves the fusion of a stem cell and a person's ordinary skin cell, the process leads to the creation of a hybrid cell. While that cell has all the characteristics of a new embryonic stem cell, it contains the DNA of the person who donated the skin cell and also the DNA that was in the initial embryonic stem cell.

The Post notes this, however:

They do not mention that several teams, including ones in Illinois and Australia, have said in recent interviews that they are making progress removing stem cell DNA from such hybrid cells...Some even suspect that the new technique for making personalized stem cells would still work even if the "starter" stem cells' DNA were removed before those cells were fused to the skin cells.

Nonetheless, embryonic stem cells have become like ethanol fuels to some people: it's something they want the government to subsidize whether it does any good or not:

"I think we have to keep our eye on the ball here," [John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions] said. "If this stuff proves to work, that's wonderful. But we're just not there yet, and it's going to take a long time to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, other techniques already work well. So let's get on with it."

By all means; but the useful research has little to do with the public polemic.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-17: Bananas & World Domination

It would appear that John won this bet:

I would give Bill better odds at the Secretary Generalship than I would Hillary for president.

Bananas & World Domination

 

Forget global warming; here's an ecological crisis you can get your teeth into:

For nearly everyone in the U.S., Canada and Europe, a banana is a banana: yellow and sweet, uniformly sized, firmly textured, always seedless. Our banana [is] called the Cavendish... "And for you," says the chief banana breeder for the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Investigation (FHIA), "the Cavendish is the banana"...the 100 billion Cavendish bananas consumed annually worldwide are perfect from a genetic standpoint, every single one a duplicate of every other...A fungus or bacterial disease that infects one plantation could march around the globe and destroy millions of bunches, leaving supermarket shelves empty...[T]here's already been one banana apocalypse. Until the early 1960s, American cereal bowls and ice cream dishes were filled with the Gros Michel...But starting in the early part of the last century, a fungus called Panama disease began infecting the Big Mike harvest...But in 1992, a new strain of the fungus--one that can affect the Cavendish--was discovered in Asia. Since then, Panama disease Race 4 has wiped out plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Taiwan, and it is now spreading through much of Southeast Asia.

We are also told that this banana famine has become lodged in the folk memory, in rather the way that an outbreak of pestilence is recalled in "Ring Around the Rosey":

Some of the shortages during that time entered the fabric of popular culture; the 1923 musical hit "Yes! We Have No Bananas"

The banana famine had worldwide repercussions, as Otto Friedrich noted in his popular history of the Weimar Republic, Before the Deluge (1972):

In Berlin, where ["Yes, We Have No Bananas] was sung everywhere under the mysteriously literal title of "Ausgerechnet Bananen" ["Bananas Especially"?--JJR], it irritated a song writer named Hermann Frey to such an extent that he wrote a burlesque of it under the title: "My Parrot Doesn't Eat Hardboiled Eggs." To his dismay, it became one of the year's biggest hits, even leading to a court case in which a Berlin matron prosecuted her maid because the girl, trying to test the accuracy of the song, had fed hard-boiled eggs to the family's aged parrot, whereupon it died.

History is full of small, poignant tragedies.

* * *

Robert Graves once said that a gentleman who has not read a book he reviews must praise it. What, then, should we infer about the character of Spengler at Asia Times, who has this to say in his latest demographic jeremiad, Why nations die?

Why people read a certain book often contains more information than the book itself, and there is rich information content in the brisk sales of Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond picks out of the rubbish bin of history a few cases of nugatory interest in which environmental disaster overwhelmed a society otherwise desirous of continued existence. According to the publisher's notice (I do not read such piffle), Diamond avers that the problem was in breeding too fast and cutting down too many trees.

Actually, Collapse is one piece of piffle I have not read either, so perhaps it is ungentlemanly of me to agree that, to judge from the many reviews I have seen, the books sounds like nonsense on stilts. In any case, Spengler goes on to spew this stream of bile:

Why should the peculiar circumstances that killed obscure populations in remote places make a geography professor's book into a bestseller? Evidently the topic of mass extinction commands the attention of the reading public, although the reading public wants to look for the causes of mass extinction in all but the most obvious place, which is the mirror.

His argument is that ecologically aware publics tend to consist of couples who live in McMansions with their cats, or perhaps 1.5 children. Nonetheless, I know at least one family of the academic class who may make good the European demographic deficit all by themselves.

* * *

Bill Clinton's third inauguration is scheduled for September; or so Jennifer Senior characterizes the beginning of a new philanthropic enterprise called the Clinton Global Initiative. Bill Clinton is not the first president to have ambitions after his presidency; Theodore Roosevelt seems to have tried to organize a proto-NATO, which he hoped to lead. In a piece entitled Bill Clinton's Plan for World Domination, Senior describes, and speculates about, Clinton's future:

And maybe--just maybe--he'll figure out a way to use this new, internationalist phase of his life as a dress rehearsal for his future and final act, as secretary-general of the U.N. When he's 75, say. "I just don’t know," Clinton says, stammering a bit, as he leaves the genocide memorial and heads back into his SUV. "There's never been an American secretary-general. So you know, I just, I, I can’t imagine it would ever really happen." He considers. "I mean, if Hillary weren't in politics, if we didn't have anything else to do, if I were lucid and strong, if someone really wanted me to do it, I guess I’d think about it."

But is he running for office?

Then he jumps into the car and heads to the airport, where he'll shortly be leaving for the Canary Islands--a seventeen-hour flight, to a place where he'll spend a single day.

I would give Bill better odds at the Secretary Generalship than I would Hillary for president.

* * *

Speaking of eschatological signs, I came across a new one recently when I read G. K. Chesterton's second novel, The Ball and the Cross. Originally a serial, it was published as a book in 1910. Since then, it has been much neglected, with good reason. It has its points, though.

It introduced me to the term eleutheromania. That means "a strong desire for freedom," which in the book is classed as a pathology . We need not dwell on exactly how Professor Lucifer contrives to have all of England declared an insane asylum, with himself as warder. What struck me was the interpretation that one of the protagonists put on the fact that all the characters who appeared in the story happened to be gathered together in the same institution for the climax:

An apocalypse is the opposite of a dream. A dream is falser than the outer life. But the end of the world is more actual than the world it ends. I don't say that this is really the end of the world, but it's something like that--it's the end of something. All the people are crowding into one corner. Everything is coming to a point.

The notion that the whole world will be united in the endtime is not new. This, however, is the first time I have seen that idea expressed in terms of universal social intercourse. Thus we see the cell phone in a sinister new light.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-12: The Discouverie of Witchcraft


The Discouverie of Witchcraft

 

The fear expressed by many Christian groups about the influence of occult and Gnostic ideologies on popular culture is by no means ill founded. You don't have to be a traditionalist Catholic to believe that Dan Brown has an ax to grind in The Da Vinci Code; you don't have to be religious at all to think that the syrupy panpsychism of the Star Wars series is a menace to clear thinking in all its forms. So, it is entirely understandable that the Harry Potter books, which depict a school where children are taught to practice magic, should be regarded with suspicion in conservative religious quarters (including, by some accounts, by the pope). Let me suggest, however, that the most interesting thing about the Potter series is the almost total absence of magic.

Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That requires qualification: we use machines every day that rely on physics we don't understand, but we don't regard them as magical. We should understand this formula in the context of Northrop Frye's definition of the end of the world as the point where the world is contained by the human body; in other words, where nature becomes a city that conforms to the human mind. That is the horizon toward which technological progress moves. That technophile impulse is prefigured by the wish-fulfillment magic we see in fairy tales, and the latter is what is taught at Hogwarts School.

The Potter books incorporate many mythological elements. There are genuinely horrible horrors in the series that don't lend themselves to technological reduction. These things do not constitute a mythology for the series, however. They are Gothic properties, like the secret doorways that the kids are always finding, or the use of Latin in casting spells. (Liturgical Latin is making a bit of a comeback these days, by the way, but you are still more likely to hear Latin in a horror movie than in a Catholic Church.) The popularity of Hogwarts, however, rests on its essential familiarity. The classroom spell-casting accidents and the magical game-artifacts look for all the world like ordinary chemistry-lab mishaps and sophisticated sports equipment. The Harry Potter stories would not work differently if Hogwarts were a school where gifted children went to study secret advanced technology that had, for instance, been recovered from a crashed flying saucer.

Anthropology defines magic in various ways, but perhaps the most familiar definition is that magic is religion used for questionable private purposes. That formula needs at least as much qualification as Clarke's, but the central insight is correct. It is not hard to point to examples from the Hermetic tradition, for instance, in which elements of the Mass are incorporated into highly unorthodox magical rituals, or where words from the Kabbalah are used for personal aggrandizement rather than for prayer. Magic makes use of communal assumptions about how the world works and how it relates to the will. This necessarily includes some notion of sacred and profane, of good and evil. Such a set of assumptions is quite absent from Hogwarts School.

Hogwarts is a secular institution. The Potter series is widely praised, and I think rightly, for depicting juvenile characters who try to act morally and who usually succeed. However, their virtues are unrelated to any metaphysical system. The faculty of the school are, for the most part, sterling role models, but the curriculum they teach seems as value-free as trigonometry. That is why there can be no real magic there.

When the students do a spell, they are not communing with forces that could damn or save them. They are manipulating symbols that control a mechanism, a process not different in kind from typing commands into a program interface. The chief menace of the Harry Potter series is not that it will call up a generation of black magicians, but that someone might try to actually invent Quidditch.

* * *

As for the historical study of witchcraft, readers should look at an essay by Jenny Gibbons, a neopagan who actually knows something about the subject. [Link from Danny Yee.] The essay was published in 1998, but much more recently than that I saw a performance-art presentation at an academic conference that dealt in part with witches, given by a doctoral candidate in Women's Studies. Part of her dissertation involved standing on stage and screaming that eight-million women had been burnt during the medieval witchcraft persecutions for saying just the sort of things she was saying that night. What would have happened to them if they had made a mess with fruit onstage like she did was left to the audience's imagination.

This was another example of why it is a mixed blessing for me to attend these events. The doctoral candidate was not a stupid woman or a wild-eyed ideologue. I saw no reason to embarrass her, so I said nothing provocative during the question-and-answer session. Neither, more surprisingly, did the tenured medievalist in the row ahead of me, though he must have known as well as I did what nonsense her dissertation advisors had led her to believe.

The Romantic Era history of witchcraft, as the religion of a pre-Christian underground in Europe that was burned out of existence in the Dark Ages by a persecuting Catholic Church, survives because it makes such a good premise for fiction. Nonetheless, it is wrong in every detail. Most, indeed almost all, executions for witchcraft occurred in the early modern era, not the Middle Ages. When executions occurred, they were usually the work of local secular courts. The Inquisition, as a rule, wanted nothing to do with any of this; especially in Spain, when it asserted jurisdiction over charges of witchcraft, it was to free the accused.

One could go on about how many commonplace ideas about the witch hunts are simply false, but the biggest misapprehension seems to be the number of deaths. Estimates made in the 19th and early 20th centuries have run to as much as 9 million. Later archival research, however, yields a figure closer to 40,000 for all of Europe, and that is with generous allowance for lost records. That is not a trivial number. The impact was locally acute: most of the damage was done between 1550-1660 in fairly restricted border areas of western and central Europe, and that at a time when Europe was not densely populated. Still, witchcraft persecutions were not a daily fact of life even in the most affected areas, and they don't seem to have been connected with any extraordinary animus against women.

Everything you know about Communism in the United States is a lie, too, but in the other direction.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-10: Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time

Since by happenstance this post comes up almost exactly 12 years later than it was first published, it manages to be entirely topical with regards to the bombing of Hiroshima. My contribution to the annual event is to remind you how nutty the Japanese government had become in the 1930s and 40s.


Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time

 

Responding to growing popular outrage, the State of New Jersey is almost certainly going to approve a six-day bear hunt in December. Black bears have been reported in all 21 of the state's counties, including the counties that are 100% urban. These animals are dangerous, and people are tired of worrying about them: the environmentalists have been shouted down. Compare this to the situation in the Alps:

They climb trees, can weigh 300 kilos, and are capable of running up to 40mph. And thanks to a reintroduction programme, they are now roaming freely all over the Alps. The successful comeback of the brown bear, however, is causing consternation in northern Italy, Austria and Switzerland following several grizzly episodes - including the mauling of a prize yak, and the deaths of scores of sheep, goats and chickens...While some are warning of dangers, Francesco Borzaga, president of the Trentino branch of the World Wildlife Fund, has been trying to calm fears. "Bears are not considered dangerous to man. Living side by side is possible," he said. "It's a question of reciprocal respect."

Actually, it's a question of where you want to put the new bear-skin rug.

* * *

We should be grateful that the Space Shuttle Discovery landed without misadventure. We should also be appalled at the standards for a "successful mission." The first shuttle flight was in 1981; NASA is still getting the bugs out of a design that is 24 years old. It is as if, in 1951, engineers were still trying to perfect Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

This change in the pace of progress has been noted before. A young adult who was suddenly transported from 1900 to 1950 would have been bewildered by a walk down the street; more so, if he read a news magazine. In contrast, the change from 1950 to 2000 was largely a matter of degree. The same pattern obtained in the 19th century. The technology of everyday life in 1800 was not so different from that of Roman times. Fifty years later, the telegraph and steam technology had altered the scale of the world. The following 50 years were spent filling in the details.

* * *

Speaking of space, I see that Space Ventures, of Arlington, Virginia, is offering to send two tourists around the moon at the cost of $100 million each, using Russian technology. The company has already sent two tourists into orbit on a less pricey $20 million trip. And how big is the market?

The price of the two tickets, [Space Ventures spokesman] Mr. Anderson said, would pay for the costs of the Moon shot. His company's demographic research, he said, suggests that 500 to 1,000 people in the world can afford to do this.

"It's the same number of people who could afford to buy a $100 million yacht"...

Suppose that the price of manned spaceflight does fall dramatically in the near future. Those people who paid tens of millions of dollars to get there first are going to look awfully foolish.

* * *

The Shortest Way with Dissenters, says Christopher D. Morris in an August 9 opinion piece in The Boston GlobeStopping a judicial conflict of interest

[A] new threshold in church-state relations was crossed when Catholic bishops threatened to exclude Senator John Kerry from the Eucharist because of his support for Roe v. Wade...If they rescinded the threats made against Kerry, then Roberts would feel free to make his decision without the appearance of a conflict of interest, and Catholic politicians who support Roe v. Wade would gain renewed confidence in their advocacy. If the bishops repeated or confirmed their threats, the Senate Judiciary Committee should draft legislation calling for the automatic recusal of Catholic judges from cases citing Roe v. Wade as a precedent.

Well, I'm persuaded.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Michael Downing has this to say about Congress's plan to extend my favorite bad idea:

CONGRESS has an amazing new scheme to cut crime, automobile fatalities and energy consumption. There is one hitch. We have to stay in bed until sunrise during the first week of November - lights out, televisions and radios off and please stay away from that coffee maker...Congress has extended daylight saving time by four weeks: In 2007, our clocks will spring forward on the second Sunday of March and fall back on the first Sunday of November. And frankly, there may be another hitch or two in the plan.

First, the trick of shifting unused morning light to evening was intended to exploit long summer days, when sunrise occurs between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Standard Time - hours of daylight that do not exist during the short days of March and November.

Second, after nearly 100 years, daylight saving has yet to save us anything.

If we must adjust ourselves to changes in daylight, then we should do it with Spring and Autumn schedules in Standard Time. That would not even require legislation. A few executive orders would mandate that banks and federal offices open at 8:00 AM sometime after the vernal equinox and at 9:00 AM after the autumnal equinox. The rest of the country could fall into line, or not, as businesses and localities chose.

* * *

It's August in Germany, too, so Der Spiegel has the leisure to publish issues with scary cover art and apocalyptic themes, such as: "China Against USA: Struggle for the World of Tomorrow." You can visit the increasingly useless Der Spiegel site itself, but you are better off seeing the translation and commentary at David's Medienkritik.

I don't want to belabor the question of the Chinese Threat again here, though readers will have gathered that I capitalize the words ironically: I suspect that China is going to turn out to be Argentina with pandas. What I would like to remark on is a point raised on Medienkritik: the cover of Der Spiegel shows a dragon and an eagle in conflict, but where, asks Medienkritik, is the European bull?

The use of the bull (specifically, a white bull) as the heraldic symbol for Europe makes perfect sense in terms of mythology. On the other hand, in terms of appeal as a symbol, it ranks with the turkey, which Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the symbol of the United States. (And the Maple Leaf? It apparently dispirits many Canadians, but I always liked it.)

Anyway, if the EU is going to get anywhere, it needs a cooler animal.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Weekly Standard has published a piece by Richard B. Frank on the collapse of the revisionist critique.

In the 1960s and '70s, many historians argued that the use of the bomb was militarily unnecessary, because the Japanese government was already trying to surrender on terms that the US later found acceptable, and that an invasion of Japan either was never seriously contemplated, or could have been accomplished with acceptable casualties. The real reason the bombs were dropped, many revisionists concluded, was as a demonstration to the Soviet Union. (I believe this was also the Party Line as early as 1948, but that's another story.)

This case was plausible, if not unanswerable, in light of the archival information that was available. Only in the 1990s were historians able to view the full range of diplomatic and military intercepts on which the Truman Administration made its decision. For instance:

[Ambassador Sato to the USSR] promptly wired back a cable [to the Inner Cabinet in Tokyo] that the editors of the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary made clear to American policymakers "advocate[s] unconditional surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved." Togo's reply, quoted in the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American policymakers could read for themselves Togo's rejection of Sato's proposal--with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would be a step in the right direction.

There is also an example of why Alternative History is not just a parlor game:

...Even with the full ration of caution that any historian should apply anytime he ventures comments on paths history did not take, in this instance it is now clear that the long-held belief that Operation Olympic [the invasion of Japan] loomed as a certainty is mistaken. Truman's reluctant endorsement of the Olympic invasion at a meeting in June 1945 was based in key part on the fact that the Joint Chiefs had presented it as their unanimous recommendation...With the Navy's withdrawal of support, the terrible casualties in Okinawa, and the appalling radio-intelligence picture of the Japanese buildup on Kyushu...[From mid-July onwards, Ultra intercepts exposed a huge military buildup on Kyushu...One intelligence officer commented that the Japanese defenses threatened "to grow to [the] point where we attack on a ratio of one (1) to one (1) which is not the recipe for victory."]...Olympic was not going forward as planned and authorized--period. But this evidence also shows that the demise of Olympic came not because it was deemed unnecessary, but because it had become unthinkable.

So, any American government would have done what the Truman Administration did. The question of the effect of the entry of the USSR into the war in the interval between Hiroshima and Nagasaki adds another layer of complexity, but it appears that nothing less than the combination was necessary to induce surrender. As Aragorn said, if this is victory, our hands are too small to hold it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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