The Long View 2006-05-30: Damnation; Fraud; German Studies

 By Atelier Ledl Bernhard -, Public Domain,

By Atelier Ledl Bernhard -, Public Domain,

German cinema of the early twentieth century continues to be influential even today. I haven't seen Laurel and Hardy in at least twenty-five years, but I had forgotten about this reference to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in their work.

Damnation; Fraud; German Studies


Which is more alarming, that The Da Vinci Code became a major film or that X-Men: the Last Ditch blew it out of the water over the Memorial Day weekend? That Spengler at Asia Times has not yet favored us with his thoughts about the X-Men (yes, I know the subtitle is not "the Last Ditch"), but he does have some characteristically intricate views about the success of Dan Brown's book:

If Christian faith were not resurgent, no one would care much about Brown's book. People wallow in doubt only because they begin with the premise of faith. In 1976, at the postwar nadir of US religious commitment, Robert Ludlum published The Gemini Contenders, a thriller with an identical premise: a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up disproof of Christ's divinity. It sold well, but not like Brown's book. Brown is the indirect beneficiary of the intensification of American faith.

But why should a story subverting the faith induce believers to buy the book, instead of inciting them to respond in the Muslim fashion with riot and death threat? To this one might respond that it's not so long ago that it would have been easy to rouse a rabble to redress some insult to Christian doctrine or to Christian symbols. However, Spengler finds an answer integral to Christianity:

Unlike the Jews, who consider themselves God's people, warts and all, no Christian can see the People of God, or be sure whether he himself belongs to it, or whether the mystical transformation of his flesh actually has taken place. It is not certainty that Jesus offered - except to the few who saw him after the Resurrection - but rather the possibility of faith. If the Christian did not have to wrestle with doubt, like Jacob with the angel on the riverbank, faith would have no redeeming power.

There is an element of doubt that is essential to Christianity, but it is not doubt about the existence of God or about the divinity of Jesus (Christians often do doubt these things, but doubts of that order are not peculiar to Christianity). The essential element is doubt about one's own salvation. One thinks of Luther's frenzied efforts "to get a gracious God," and still more of the Catholic sacramental system, which has no other purpose than to open as wide as possible the gate which we know nonetheless to be fundamentally strait.

How this this relates to book sales is unclear.

* * *

Speaking of Muslims and the Da Vinci Code, I have seen surprisingly little acknowledgment of the fact that Dan Brown's book essentially endorses the Koran's assertion that the resurrection was a hoax. The notion is not original with the Koran: there was an ancient sect called the Docetists who were of the same opinion, though for metaphysical reasons rather than because of any claim to better historical information. In any case, Brown's pseudo-history of Christian dogma might soon start to show up in Muslim polemic, if it has not done so already.

* * *

Speaking of fraud and imposture, I very much enjoyed the program in the PBS American Experience series entitled The Man Behind Hitler, which consisted of readings from Joseph Goebbels' copious diaries (by Richard Branagh, no less) over a background of contemporary stills and film-excerpts that were largely new to me. The producers wisely eschewed the temptation to make the program into a general history of the Third Reich; there was a minimum of editorial narrative and explanatory text. (One bit of the editorial comment was wrong, by the way: when the Great Depression came to Germany, it did not re-ignite hyper-inflation. The fear that it might, however, was one of the reasons that late Weimar governments refused to run deficits that might have stimulated the economy.) The producers could do this because Goebbels really was a very good diarist, at least after he passed through the mopey twentysomething years. Several volumes are of his diaries are available in print.

Again, the mystery here is what this program is doing in a series about American history.

* * *

Here's a bit of Weimar that you don't have to pay for: a copy of Robert Wiene's famous 1920 film, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, available to the wide world through Google Video. It's really an over-acted stage-play performed against surrealist scenery. The film's interest in sonambulism and mind control is hard to understand today, but those themes were common in that era. I viewed the film over the weekend; it's worth an hour of your time.

I am not systematically interested in cinema, much less in silent cinema, but I could not but notice how much Caligari looked like the 1934 Laurel & Hardy film Babes in Toyland (also known as The March of the Wooden Soldiers), down to the shape of the villain's spectacles. Also, the surrealist stage sets for these films seem to have found a permanent home in miniature-golf courses.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Blackcollar Book Review

 I love the delightfully cheesy style of scifi covers

I love the delightfully cheesy style of scifi covers

The Blackcollar
by Timothy Zahn
DAW Books (1983)
272 pages
ISBN 0-87997-843-0

While I must have read the Thrawn trilogy dozens of times, I never once dared to pick up any of the other books by Timothy Zahn I saw at the library. Would that I had! Now that I have started to dive into Zahn's back catalogue, I am getting an idea of what his preferred style is. Military [ish] scifi with a heavy dose of intrigue. You never know who anyone really is, or who they are really working for, until the end.

The Blackcollar was published in 1983, but I can detect similarities with The Icarus Hunt, from 1999. The Icarus Hunt was more of a whodunit in space, whereas The Blackcollar is mostly an adventure story with a military theme. I can also see how Zahn worked these kind of ideas into his Thrawn books and Starcraft: Evolution. Each of these books features a military campaign of some import with the fictional universe, but the real action lies in figuring out who wants what and why, and seeing how the characters respond to the wilderness of mirrors they find themselves in.

In this book, Earth has been long since conquered by the Ryquil, an aggressive and warlike species that prefer to rule through local proxies. The Ryquil use loyalty conditioning to ensure that their human collaborators cannot betray them, although there are some hints that Jesuitical cleverness about what constitutes "betrayal", exactly, may allow for some leeway in those who are sufficient motivated.

Allen Caine, our young protagonist, receives a mission from the Resistance on Earth to go find a hidden record on the world of Plinry. That record, encrypted into a rather mundane manifest, contains the location of hidden weapons that will alter the balance of power within occupied human space.

While searching for the record, or any signs of an underground on Plinry, which has been cut off from Earth for nearly thirty years, Caine stumbles on a few elite commandos, the Blackcollars, who have been hiding their light under a bushel since the Ryquil used a devastating orbital bombardment to reduce the defense of Plinry, killing three-quarters of the population in the process. 

During the lopsided war against the Ryquil, the humans developed drugs and training that would allow for a human fighter to have a more equal chance against the bigger, faster, and stronger Ryquil. The result of that program were the Blackcollars. Zahn's commandos are ninjas by another name, backed up with enhanced reflexes and laser-ablative armor.

Sometimes the tactics of the Blackcollars stretch my credulity a bit. This is an early book, but it seemed silly to me when two of the highly-trained and drug-enhanced Blackcollars sacrifice themselves to shoot down six patrol ships with shoulder-fired missiles. Couldn't they have just used more launchers, and destroyed the aircraft without the loss of soldiers whose experience and enhancements were irreplaceable? At the very least, we could have used some color text about how the missile launchers were actually more difficult to come by than the soldiers themselves, which doesn't fit the rest of the story.

Zahn seems on much firmer ground when it comes to devising complicated schemes of betrayal and counter-betrayal. I seriously didn't know who was on what side until the end, and there is at least the possibility that some of that may change in future volumes. While the Blackcollars' tactics offend my logistical sensibilities, their over-the-top natures match up with the adventure genre pretty well. No swordsman bests Solomon Kane or Conan either. I really enjoyed The Blackcollars, and I look forward to the two sequels. 

My other book reviews

The Ringworld Engineers Book Review

 Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

The Ringworld Engineers
by Larry Niven
Del Rey (1980)
354 pages
ISBN 0-345-26009-0

Alternative title: Louis Wu gets Busy


While not quite the crowning achievement of Ringworld, this is a solid scifi book that explores the concept of human evolution, using the Ring to expand the space of possibilities.

In the dedication, Larry Niven says he never intended to write a sequel to Ringworld. It was the continual efforts of his fans that persuaded him to do so, and provided a lot of material in the process. Including the hook that drives the action in the book: the Ringworld is not dynamically stable in orbit. A Dyson sphere is, any perturbation of the orbit tends to be cancelled out. Not so, for the Ringworld.

Thus, when Louis Wu is kidnapped and returned to the Ringworld, he finds he must save it, and the trillions of humans who live on it. I call them humans even though they are clearly not the same species as Louis, because "human" isn't really a biological concept at all. I get a lot of mileage out of this quote from John J. Reilly, which will be coming up in a blog post he wrote on October 3rd of 2006.

A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences you don't believe in human beings); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. As for person, which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," is conflated with the notion of person, as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

This very well could have been the book John had in mind when he said that. The other humans on the Ringworld do share a common ancestor with Louis Wu, a really long time ago. However, in the intervening millennia, they have diversified into a vast array of different species, filling empty niches in the Ringworld's ecology, and evolving societies to match.

There are small carnivorous herders with sharp teeth, and large grazers with flat teeth, and scavengers, and so on. And this is all just in the one small part of the Ringworld Louis keeps going back to. The Ringworld is just so big, that lots and lots of evolution will occur, because the rate of favorable mutations spreading scales up with population size, and the population size on the Ringworld is really, really big.

However, it doesn't look to me [or Greg Cochran] like Niven got here in this way, but looking at what selection could do in the time and space available. It looks like he thought this was a cool idea, and he just ran with it. So, hardish scifi.

Also, I am still struck that Niven's Ringworld books are a product of their time. The glue that holds all of the various species of the Ring together is ritual sex between species, which he calls rishathra. As Louis moves through the Ring on his quest, he has sex with pretty much everything that moves, because that is just what you do there.

In fact, it turns out that literally the only temptation in the known universe that Louis cannot resist is his libido. Inbetween the first book and this one, Louis ends up spending most of his time "under the wire", Niven's slangy term for having an electrode implanted in your brain's pleasure center. This turns into a providential plot point at the end of the book, but I find it kind of funny that Louis can resist anything but sex. In the era of #MeToo, perhaps this was unintentionally prophetic.

My other book reviews

The Ringworld Engineers
By Larry Niven

The Long View 2006-05-24: The Next America

 Lawful immigrants over the past 200 years

Lawful immigrants over the past 200 years

 Pew Hispanic Share of US Population that is Foreign Born

Pew Hispanic Share of US Population that is Foreign Born

Here are a couple of graphs to help illustrate John Reilly's points here. If we would really like to emulate the success of the last large wave of immigration to the United States, from roughly 1840 to 1930, it would be prudent of us to stop, and give everyone time to get used to each other. It took a lot of work last time, and it will this time too.

The Next America


A book published eleven years ago by Michael Lind speaks to our condition today: The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Republic . Indeed, let me suggest that before going any further in this blog entry that you read my review of the book, here. There is a link at the end of the review to bring you back.

All done?

You will note that the review is not uncritical. I don't think there is going to be another American Revolution, unless you count Reconstruction and the New Deal as revolutions. Also, I would suggest that the years since I wrote that review have proven that Lind's dismissal of the religious element in American culture is an unfruitful hypothesis, particularly for someone who hopes to reform the political system to make it more congruent with the national character. Moreover, I think that his notion of an "Overclass" is just one step above David Icke's lizard people. Still, the immigration issue has so changed things that time runs short in which to decide what in this sort of analysis is really prescient. For those slackers who did not read the review, consider this paragraph:

Lind is particularly exercised about the Overclass's nearly unanimous support of free trade. He notes that family income has been stagnant at best for the last twenty years, and that wages per worker have actually declined. Part of this he blames on the decline of unionization among the workforce, which he attributes almost entirely to government hostility. The rest he blames on foreign competition. The Overclass, in Lind's view, has deliberately and successfully driven down the wages of the average American since the late 1970s. This was achieved not only by permitting the import of foreign goods, but by actually importing foreign workers. The author spends a great deal of space trying to show that America historically has experienced heavy immigration only in spurts, all of which produced bad feeling, and which hindered the process of assimilating people already here. Multicultural America is gradually being transformed into a province of the Third World. The Overclass itself, however, dreams of becoming a post-American global elite.

Again, time has tested Lind's ideas, and in the matter of free trade I think they have been found wanting. At any rate, neither NAFTA nor the WTC have caused the disasters that were forecast: quite the opposite. Neither is it true that the globalists are responsible for keeping the borders open. From what I can tell, the political force behind that is generally conservative, even isolationist, middle-range businessmen and farmers who don't see why relegating the manual trades to a special caste of aliens should be a problem. In other words, a large part of the political dynamic is the local notables who, collectively, are far more influential than big business. Lind is worth reconsidering, however, because he foresaw that immigration would be important not just as a depressor of wages, but also because it threatens cultural dilution on an unprecedented scale.

Thus, I think that Mary Ann Glendon's piece, Principled Migration, which appears in the June/July issue of First Things, badly misapprehends the situation. She notes:

Good-faith anxieties about large-scale immigration are sometimes expressed in terms of social costs, such as a feared deleterious effect on the nation's cultural cohesion or the stability of local communities. One would like to take comfort from the fact that similar concerns were expressed at the time of the great migrations of a century ago. Though marked by conflict and competition, the story of those earlier immigrants is, to a great extent, a story of integration.

She then goes on to note some ways in which integration has become more difficult. The Democratic political machines, for instance,

that once brought new citizens into the political process at the local level have vanished. In their place...[the] newcomer from Mexico, Brazil, or El Salvador becomes a generic "Latino" in preparation for initiation into the game of divisive racial minority politics.

Particularly worrisome to her as a lawyer is that whereas "there is no place on Earth where legal values play a more prominent role in the nation's conception of itself than the United States," the 11 million or 12 million illegals "come from societies where formal law is associated with colonialism: and who, as a consequence, "may well find the United States' emphasis on legality rather strange." The earlier immigration did not threaten the rule of law; that immigration was legal.

All good points, but they are not the half of it. Glendon wholly neglects the fact that the earlier immigration succeeded because it ended. In contrast, she does not contemplate an end to the current immigration, or even a diminution. She asserts, without argument, that the United States requires "replacement immigration" to make up for the children who were not born because of 40 years of anti-natalist public policy. She deplores that policy, but does not address the possibility that high immigration is the one measure sure to keep it in place.

Worst of all is that she looks to the Catholic hierarchy for guidance, particularly the 2003 Joint Pastoral Letter issued by the Mexican and U.S. bishops, Strangers no Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope. (Why is it that the church social-documents most likely to cause misery and violence always have the most inanely irenic titles?). There we read this remarkable principle:

III. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. 36. The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.

One might compare this with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (section 2241):

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Note that it's hard to see how someone with a right to residence can be considered a guest. In any case, the principle is a puzzler. Kant discerned a universal right to travel, but not to settlement. Where else the bishops might have gotten these notions is a mystery; certainly there is no serious scriptural support for the proposition, as William F. Vallicella points out at Right Reason.

For anyone so inclined, the Catechism's proviso, "to the extent that they are able," would allow ample room for limiting immigration in order to forestall the development of irredentist movements and to prevent the depression of wage levels, both of which apply in the current immigration controversy. Frankly, though, I am not much inclined to accommodate this text. The Catechism is a sound document for the most part, but it does contain multicultural flourishes that have aged very badly very fast. It is the vulnerability of advanced countries that has proven to be the more serious issue. (The Latin text was copyrighted in 1994. The previous Catechism dates from the 16th century. The update was precipitous, it seems.)

As for the Pastoral Letter: well, bishops' conferences say the damnedest things.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-22: Immigration & the West; Various Elections; Unauthorized Photo

 Democratic Gains in the 2006 Midterm Elections

Democratic Gains in the 2006 Midterm Elections

I see two good predictions John Reilly made here.

  1. The Democratic Party was going to gain in the 2006 Midterm Elections in the United States
  2. The Open Borders Movement was going to become increasingly bold

Immigration & the West; Various Elections; Unauthorized Photo


Of course the Republicans are toast this November; I have nothing to add to this bucket of bile from Sidney Blumenthal:

President Bush's nationally televised address on immigration Monday night [May 15] was intended as a grand gesture to revive his collapsing presidency, but instead he has plunged the Republican Party into a political centrifuge that is breaking it down into its raw elements, which are colliding into each other, triggering explosions of unexpected and ever greater magnitude.

The nativist Republican base is at the throat of the business community. The Republican House of Representatives, in the grip of the far right, is at war with the Republican Senate. The evangelical religious right is paralyzed while the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a mobilizing force behind the mass demonstrations of millions of Hispanic immigrants. Every effort Bush makes to hold a nonexistent Republican center is generating an opposing effect within his party.

The important point is that the Democratic Party will be subject to the same stresses, as we see in this New York Times account of the debate in the Senate over the immigration bill (hat-tip to Mickey Kaus):

Though the immigration issue was initially thought to favor Democrats since it could hurt Republican efforts to court Hispanics, some Democrats facing tough re-election fights in the fall are finding it cuts both ways. Almost as the votes were being counted on the Senate floor, Democrats like Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Robert Menendez of New Jersey were coming under fire.

"Stabenow Supports Social Security Benefits for Illegal Workers," said the headline over a press release issued by a challenger, Michael Bouchard, after Ms. Stabenow voted against a Republican plan to deny immigrants credit for payroll taxes paid while working illegally.

Tom Kean, a challenger to Mr. Menendez, issued a statement noting the senator opposed designating English the national language. "While I respect the diverse heritage of our nation, English is the bond that binds us together," said Mr. Kean in a statement.

By the way, the Senate rejected the only amendment that would have made the bill acceptable:

[Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota] and other Democrats also joined conservative Republicans in a failed bid to require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the border was secured before any new programs for immigrants could start.

In any case, the worst thing that could happen to the Democratic Party would be to gain control of Congress and start pandering to what they imagine to be the Hispanic vote. The irredentist wing of the open-borders movement will only become bolder with the passage of time: woe to the party that tries to meet it halfway. If the Democratic party leadership tries, it is not inconceivable that there would be no Democratic Party by 2008. Democrats don't want to see the United States abolished or balkanized anymore than Republicans do.

Everyone I talk to about this says they would like to vote for a third party. The problem is all the third parties on offer are looney bins. Grassroots organization is not enough: we need some of the leadership of both existing parties to secede and join together in third-party caucuses in Congress and some of the legislatures before the new party starts soliciting votes.

This is a pipe-dream, perhaps, but stranger things have happened, just lately.

* * *

This issue is pan-Western. Readers may want to take a look at the Other Spengler's review of Londonistan and perhaps compare it with Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia (something I have not done yet, but I may).

Again, I would not trade America's immigration problem for Europe's. America would have no trouble at all assimilating the existing illegal population, or accommodating an expanded guest-worker program, though I think the latter is a bad idea; the problem is control of the border. There are some important parallels on the two sides of the Atlantic, notably the wilful neglect of what would have been an easily manageable problem by a political class that has been debilitated by multiculturalism. (The US neglect was perhaps more rational: the borders have been kept open in large part by libertarians who imagine that they can import an arbitrarily large amount of cheap labor without importing a proportionate political risk.) Something I am trying to get a handle on are the parallels, if any between the use of immigrant population by foreign powers.

The Islamist connection is clear enough. In Europe, Islamism has gone beyond providing a medium in which terrorist networks can flourish to becoming an important factor in retail politics. In Mexico, of course, there has long been some sentiment for the Reconquista, but the Mexican Voelkerwanderung does not seem to be a result of political will. The analogy to that would be a links between the irrdentists and Chavez in Venezuela, which of course would also be an oblique link to Iran.

More pipe-dreams, perhaps, but is anyone working on this?

* * *

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration's strategy in Iraq seems to have succeeded, or so one must characterize the formation of a regular government. Was it paranoid of me to suspect that much of the media did its best to bury this development under atrocity stories? (The atrocities may have happened, but why publicize them just now?) In any case, the issues now become the degree and speed of the Coalition withdrawal.

* * *

Perhaps New Orleans really will be abandoned. Any political culture that could re-elect Mayor Ray Nagin is probably too defective to be viable:

[D]uring the run-off campaign, Nagin courted conservative white voters by emphasizing his business background in contrast to Landrieu, a longtime politician and a member of Louisiana's equivalent to the Kennedy family...The mayoral election Saturday that returned Ray Nagin to office was split largely along racial lines, but both candidates got one-fifth crossover votes...

In such a case, the problem may not be the lethal incompetence of the incumbent, but the failure of the system to put forward a palatable alternative.

Thinking of investing in New Orleans, by the way?

Nagin dismissed threats by some business people who said they would leave if he remained in office..."Business people are predators, and if the economic opportunities are here, they're going to stay. If not, they're going to leave," said Nagin. "I don't worry about that stuff. I think there's enough interest around the country that we're going to attract top businesses. ... God bless them. I hope they stay, but if they don't, I'll send them a postcard."

E-mail might be better: the Post Office requires more public order to function than New Orleans is likely to afford.

* * *

Europe burned to create the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918, which later became a Republic, variously Socialist or Federal, depending on the current constitution. With the divorce of Montenegro and Serbia, however, now it's all gone. Actually, it was only while reading about the referendum that I realized that the Yugoslav federal government had dissolved in 2003; only a close alliance had held the last two remaining republics together.

* * *

Alvar Hanso supports spelling reform, as we see in this image from his address to a recent international spelling reform conference:

The Hanso Foundation has yet to add its Orthographic Initiative to its list of Active Projects, but no doubt that will happen in due course.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Pumpkinflowers Book Review

 Beaufort IDF northern military post (1995)  By Oren1973 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Beaufort IDF northern military post (1995)

By Oren1973 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story
by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2016)
$25.95 paperback; 243 pages
ISBN 978-1616204587

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

This is a book in three parts. 

First, we have the account of an ordinary soldier who doesn't really want to be there.

"A. reached basic training young, healthy, and innocent". This is Avi, writing of himself in the third person.
When the sergeant said to do things on time he did, and when the commander ordered everyone to give him 50 pushups A. was the one who set the pace.
But the danger of innocence is that it gets cracked easily by stupidity and cruelty. And so not much time had passed before A. started thinking that perhaps it was not right that he was the only one who was not late, or that he was the only one who cared when the sergeant threw him a good word. His concern grew when he heard the other members of the platoon saying that the regular punishments of running back and forth were not even punishments for something they had done wrong! They were, instead, a plot by the sergeants—that is, the system—directed against them! A. began thinking about this until he could no longer sleep during the short nights allotted to them. He thought so much that he began to move slowly in the morning himself, and to run slowly when they were punished. Because all of his faculties were devoted to the problem, he did not notice anything else, and quickly became the slowest and deafest of soldiers. Because one of the commanders would speak to him on occasion and interrupt his thoughts, A. suddenly understood that what they wanted to do was prevent him from thinking. He understood that they were his real enemies! They were the enemies of thought and creativity who wanted to enslave him and turn him into a creature incapable of thought, and willing to obey them.
This thought scared him so badly that he began resisting in any way he could. He started to think and do things his own way. If they gave him a mission, like setting the tables in the dining hall, he would put the cutlery backwards! Or miss on purpose at the firing range!! Now he was a rebel!!! And thus A. fought the system, and to the best of our knowledge he might still be doing so today, somewhere in the time and space of the army...

Avi Ofner was definitely a square peg in a round hole in the Israeli infantry. Since Israel has compulsory military service, personnel officers still need to find somewhere to put men like Avi. It seems that someone had an idea of what his personality was, because his platoon seemed to be made up of similarly bookish young men:

When his tent mate, Amos, brought a book of philosophical meditations called In the Footsteps of Thoughts he and Matan actually read it and then talked about it for weeks, lying sore on the ground after days of exhaustion, breathing in the smell of their own unwashed bodies, of earth, and of dusty canvas....Today, Matan is a physicist. Amos is a psychiatrist and lives in Paris.

For all of his adolescent rebellion, Avi also refused to take a desk job when a physical turned up a spinal cord defect a couple of years into his enlistment. He preferred serving at the Pumpkin, a hilltop fort in southern Lebanon near Beaufort Castle. Avi and his mates in the Pioneer Fighting Youth were stationed in a series of such forts in the South Lebanon Security Zone.

 My best guess for the approximate location of the Pumpkin, based on Matti Friedman's descriptions

My best guess for the approximate location of the Pumpkin, based on Matti Friedman's descriptions

That stubborn devotion got Avi killed in an unfortunate helicopter accident in 1997, when he was being flown back to his post in Lebanon in a desperate attempt to avoid bombs on the roads. After that, the soldiers went back to the roads, in a desperate attempt to avoid more helicopter crashes. I think Friedman is right that this crash was the beginning of the end for Israel's long-running low-grade war in Southern Lebanon, which had been going on for almost twenty years at this point.

My second part is Friedman's firsthand recollections of his time at the Pumpkin. Friedman's parents had emigrated from Canada, and now Friedman's compulsory service was due shortly after the crash that killed Avi. This would make Friedman a couple of years older than me, if he was 19 in 1997. Were I Jewish, and had my family immigrated to Israel, I easily could have found myself in the exact same place that he did.

 A map of the Pumpkin, from the front matter of Pumpkinflowers. There weren't enough maps for my taste in the book.

A map of the Pumpkin, from the front matter of Pumpkinflowers. There weren't enough maps for my taste in the book.

That place turned out to be the Pumpkin, with that unusual combination of boredom and terror that garrison duty provides. Friedman's prose changes in this section, becoming simpler and more direct. The first part of the book was based on Avi's writing and interviews with people who knew him, whereas the second part is largely Friedman's direct recollection.

Interleaved with Friedman's account is a short history of the Four Mothers movement, which arose in response to the helicopter crash that killed Avi. The crash killed 73 soldiers, which to put into perspective for me, would be the equivalent of 3400 dead Americans, based on the relative population sizes of our two countries at the time. That is almost as many American soldiers who died in the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. Except all at once.

Thus it isn't surprising that the Four Mothers movement successfully campaigned to get Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. From Avi's and Friedman's accounts, the whole hilltop fortress thing never seemed to have been terribly well thought out. Rather, it was blundered into, and since militaries tend to be extremely conservative, the Israeli army just kept on doing what they had been doing, until something shocking happened and allowed everyone to reassess.

The final part of the book is Friedman's post-Pumpkin civilian life, and his bold quest to go see the Pumpkin again. I was struck by the way in which Friedman described the process by which shared suffering can forge lasting bonds among soldiers, and by extension the rest of your nation. Given how small Israel really is, this process is much more intense than it possibly could be in a larger nation like the United States.

Using his Canadian passport, Friedman traveled into Lebanon. He saw the country, posing as a tourist to deflect suspicion that he might have once served as an Israeli soldier. Since it hadn't really been that long, Friedman couldn't meet his former enemies openly, the way Hal Moore met Nguyen Huu An.

  Vietnamese Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An and Hal Moore

Vietnamese Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An and Hal Moore

Nonetheless, Friedman still manages to humanize his former [or maybe current] enemies. Which is not to say that he uncritically accepts what they might say about him or his adopted country, but rather he just presents them as they are, which is what he tried to do for himself and Israel. I think he does a reasonably good job.

I would have liked more maps though.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-05-19: The Potemkin Cathedral; Immigration & Economic Growth; The Real Da Vinci Hoax

 What a world with Open Borders looks like. Oh wait, this is the part without them.

What a world with Open Borders looks like. Oh wait, this is the part without them.

In 2006, John correctly noted that Open Borders was starting to become a defining feature of the ideology of the governing classes throughout the West. He also correctly noted that few people in the electorates at the time noticed just how extreme many politicians and career bureaucrats had become on this subject

Twelve years later, this has all come out in the open. The consequence of this has not been moderation or compromise, but rather the elites have doubled down on the idea that immigration can't possibly be a bad thing, and in reaction, anti-immigration parties are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. 

John summed up his position thus:

The short answer to the open-borders argument is this: it would be better if the economy shrank than that America should be abolished. The open-borders thesis is false, of course: there was healthy economic growth in the 1920s, and in the 1950s and 1960s, when immigration was negligible. During those periods, the large immigrant influx of the late 19th and early 20th centuries settled in very comfortably. I know this because I'm related to them.
That was a happy outcome, and we should do it again. The alternative is that the United States more and more resemble the Persian Gulf states, where most manual labor is done by a permanently inassimilable caste of aliens. Does anyone really want to live in a country like that?

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium came out after John Reilly had died, but I thought it a rather biting satire on the kind of world open borders would be likely to produce, wrapped in a sci-fi story that was purportedly about universal healthcare. Who find this likely, and who not, is likely to define sides in the years to come.

The Potemkin Cathedral; Immigration & Economic Growth; The Real Da Vinci Hoax


The Left has concluded that the key to the American electorate, or at least to enough of it to win a presidential election, is the "values voter," the sort of person whose voting decisions are influenced by religious and moral issues, and who today is almost certainly a conservative Republican. This was not always the case, however: in the afterglow of the New Deal, the Democrats were the Church & Family Party. With the presidential election of 2008 coming up, elements of the Left are trying to regain at least part of this appeal for the Democrats, as we saw this week:

A conference geared to help Democrats infuse God into their politics begins tomorrow at All Souls Unitarian Church in the District [of Columbia] with the unveiling of a "spiritual covenant with America."... The "Spiritual Activism Conference" aims to equip liberals to operate in a political arena where religion has played a more prominent role since 2000, says Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of the Jewish magazine Tikkun and a chief conference organizer. alternative to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's successful 1994 "Contract With America"...a new term, "spiritual progressives" for the religious left. ...Part of the conference's intent is to form "spiritual caucuses" inside all political parties by the 2008 elections. These caucuses would work to bring elements of the "covenant" onto party platforms.

Lerner has a new book out, The Left Hand of God, which explains this initiative, but we should remember that he has been promoting these views for a long time, as readers can see from my review of The Politics of Meaning, which Lerner published ten years ago.

A more recent entry to this field is David Callahan of The Demos Institute, who also has a new book coming out, The Moral Center.

Spiritual progressivism is a singularly futile enterprise. There is no market for it as a spirituality, and as politics even naive people quickly see that it's just Saul Alinsky for seminarians. (How do you recognize this type of activist? They talk very fast, and they always characterize their opponents as criminals.) Some of its proponents have managed to insert themselves into the rolodexes of journalists, so we will be hearing more from them next year and especially in 2008. Nonetheless, they are the incumbents of a Potemkin Cathedral.

* * *

Delusion rather than fraud inform the views of David Brooks on the matter of immigration, as we see in his editorial in yesterday's New York Times:

You are convinced of certain fundamental things. The current immigration system is completely unsuited to a global market economy. We need to move out of the era of failed prohibition into the era of flexible control.

To use the term coined by Brooks's colleague, Thomas Friedman, this is globaloney. The same issues attend immigration today as attended it in 1900: public order, national identity, and economic growth. (The years around 1900 were arguably part of an earlier episode of globalization, but that episode ended with the First World War: the lesson is that globalization is intermittent.). The situation has changed since then only in that technology has in principle made the border more controllable.

The short answer to the open-borders argument is this: it would be better if the economy shrank than that America should be abolished. The open-borders thesis is false, of course: there was healthy economic growth in the 1920s, and in the 1950s and 1960s, when immigration was negligible. During those periods, the large immigrant influx of the late 19th and early 20th centuries settled in very comfortably. I know this because I'm related to them.

That was a happy outcome, and we should do it again. The alternative is that the United States more and more resemble the Persian Gulf states, where most manual labor is done by a permanently inassimilable caste of aliens. Does anyone really want to live in a country like that?

Here is the sort of intemperate statement that cyberspace facilitates: Every candidate for federal office should be asked if it is possible to gain physical control of the southern border. Any candidate who says "no" should not be elected. In fact, any current officeholder who says "no" to that question should resign and be replaced by someone who believes the United States is defensible.

You see that I am using more italics? That is a sure sign of growing fanaticism.

* * *

Perhaps no film will ever meet the standard set by Plan 9 from Outer Space, but The Da Vinci Code seems to be generating an inordinate number of reviews like this:

You know a movie's a dud when even its self-flagellating albino killer monk isn't any fun.

I'm sure I'll see the movie eventually. Both those who have and those who haven't seen it, but are interested in the subjects with which the film deals, might want to consider settling down for an hour and 40 minutes to see The Real Da Vinci Code, an excellent documentary hosted by Tony Robinson that aired on Wildfire Television last year. He makes the very interesting point that the mythology of the Priory of Sion on which The Code is premised was a self-conscious exercise in Surrealist performance art.

My only quibble is that Robinson's skepticism is suspended for the few minutes in which Elaine Pagels speaks. Her theories about suppressed feminist Gnosticism are not a hint that there might be something to the thesis of The Code after all; her theories were one of the key ingredients in Dan Brown's literary confection on which the film is based. The Gnostics were self-conscious surrealists too, I think. Pagels has never grasped that she is attributing fundamental significance to texts that were not supposed to be taken with a straight face.

There is another possibility, as a correspondent suggests:

Maybe it is an Opus Dei plot: infiltrate, pay the writers for a lousy script, steer the filming to France where they would love to embarrass an American production.......

If that is the case, then maybe the Opus Dei also saw to it that vast, unnecessary sums were amassed to make this film from investors who were sold more than 100% of the potential profit. The producers would keep the investment capital if the film failed; they would be ruined if it succeeded.

Now that would have been a good idea for a movie.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-16: President Bush, Immigration, and Puppy Killing

 Gallup's Results

Gallup's Results

 Pew Hispanic's Results

Pew Hispanic's Results

It shouldn't be any surprise that how you ask a question has a big influence on polling results. When it comes to polls asking about Americans political support for immigration, one of the biggest factors is what the respondent thinks the number of immigrants is per year.

And since most people aren't good with numbers, usually that number is wayyyy off. Let's look at the details of the Pew Hispanic report for evidence. I really like Pew Hispanic's work, so I think this is a reasonable source.

Most people are actually pretty good on how big the foreign-born population is. The average impression is slightly higher than reality.


Most people are also pretty good on the number of immigrants who neglected to follow the law in coming the United States. The plurality is again correct, with the average being a bit high. I didn't actually know that 1-in-4 immigrants were living here illegally. Admittedly, the number is somewhat contested.


For the Gallup data, it looks like they ask different questions each month throughout the year, so they don't prime respondents with numbers first. This looks consistent with the idea that American's views on immigration are conditional on what they think the number of people involved is.

President Bush, Immigration, and Puppy Killing


President Bush may have lost his party the upcoming congressional election last night with his speech on immigration reform. Perhaps this is my fault: I should not have implied last week that he should attempt some FDR-like addresses. Nonetheless, it seems to me that he has not only done himself irreparable political damage, but that he may have begun the breakup of the two existing parties. This is all the more remarkable for an address to which initial reaction was mild and mixed. But consider:

There were five points to the president's program, which I need not recite again here. The only one that interests him is the "guest worker" program, which is intended to keep the supply of cheap manual labor flowing. The point that will count, though, is the one that is supposed to be a placebo. The president's proposed temporary deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the southern border is nothing to the purpose; the number would be derisory even if they were doing actual patrolling, which they won't. Similarly ineffectual will be the increase in the civilian Border Patrol by that amount over the next two years. The increase may be fantasy in any case; proposed augmentations of the border patrol have a history of not happening..

The important thing is that the president's program is going to fail to control illegal immigration. The failure will be visible in a very brief period of time. It is one thing for a government to neglect to control its borders. It is another to try and fail.

The Republican Party will experience the effects of this failure first, because many party activists follow the matter closely: they know when they are being trifled with. However, the bipartisan consensus of the Congressional leadership concerning immigration is so repulsive that the Congressional delegations survive only because this consensus is not widely known. Look at this analysis of the current plan for legal immigration:

The Senate immigration reform bill would allow for up to 193 million new legal immigrants -- a number greater than 60 percent of the current U.S. population -- in the next 20 years, according to a study released yesterday..."The magnitude of changes that are entailed in this bill -- and are largely unknown -- rival the impact of the creation of Social Security or the creation of the Medicare program," said Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who conducted the study...Mr. Rector estimated that it is more likely that about 103 million new immigrants actually would arrive in the next 20 years.

This policy is repulsive in the literal sense that it will drive away almost any block of voters. A bill with a title like the Puppy-Killing Enforcement Act would not be much more unpopular. By and by, people will point this out. The coalitions that formed around the high-immigration consensus will dissolve. Nothing short of the overturn of Roe v. Wade would have such potential for taking the components of the parties apart and putting them back together in novel configurations.

And if a new coalition had to repudiate puppy-killing, what should they put in its place?

(1) The recent era of high immigration has ended.

(2) The status of current illegals will be regularized when the borders are secure.

It really is that simple.

* * *

Fans of Doctor Who should not miss the free content on the BBC's official Doctor Who website. It has long seemed to me that the series would lend itself to animation, since that would relieve living actors of the distress of keeping a straight face. But look: feature-length animated adventures of Doctor who are now being webcast.

* * *

What is the synthesis of security and Doctor Who? It's the new service available on Shoreditch TV:

Reality television may have just become that much more real. A neighborhood program in East London allows residents to look through surveillance cameras from the comfort of their own sofas. Civil rights activists aren't impressed...The program, launched last Monday, provides viewers with live streaming video from a dozen cameras in the neighborhood for a rate of £3.50 (€5.10) per week.

I don't quite understand the institutional context here. Shoreditch TV is not a cable company, but a service of something called the Shoreditch Trust. Directors of the Trust are elected "from the community," but it's not a governmental body.

Why isn't this sort of thing organized systematically with webcams and for free? Schools and businesses might be glad to participate. Follow your friends as they go about their daily business and plan your movements to avoid your enemies. They will certainly be watching you.

So dress nice.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-12: Three Presidents

 By LokiiT - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

By LokiiT - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

From the Wikipedia article, Demographics of Russia, it would appear that whatever changed in Russia in 2006 had pretty much the desired effect.

Three Presidents


President Putin's State of the Nation Address this week bears comparison with the major speeches of FDR, one of which it apparently cites. The range of social and military reconstruction it contemplates is at least as great as what Franklin Roosevelt grappled with in 1933. There are differences, of course, one of which is that the Russian Federation is flush with oil money, which means that, unlike the United States and Germany during the 1930s, it need not withdraw from the world economic system while effecting reconstruction at home.

The most ambitious part of Putin's agenda, and the one most noted by the international media, is a basket of programs to reverse Russia's demographic implosion. The great oil-tanker of informed opinion in the West has still not quite reversed course from worrying about population growth, so it is interesting to see how the press conceptualizes the issue. Here is what the New York Times had to say:

Much of the fall in the birthrate is caused by economic concerns: low wages, shortages of decent housing and worries over finding a job and keeping it in a volatile economy, and with laws that provide little job security.

This would be plausible, if the Times did not note a few paragraphs later that other countries in quite different economic circumstances are having a similar problem and implementing remedial measures of their own:

A number of other countries facing declining birthrates have offered similar incentives. Australia offers a $4,000 bonus for every baby, and recently proposed to pay all child care costs for women who want to work. Many European countries, including France, Italy and Poland, have offered some combination of bonuses and monthly payments to families.

Some Japanese localities, facing near catastrophic population loss, are offering rich incentives. Yamatsuri, a town of 7,000 just north of Tokyo, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for 10 years. Singapore has a particularly lavish plan: $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 in cash and savings for the second; and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth.

The communist regimes of Eastern Europe attempted drastic pro-natalist policies. The policies worked for a while, but fertility rates soon fell again. Much the same happened in Sweden. One can only repeat: demography is mysterious. Nonetheless, I would suggest that Putin's program, like the family-friendly tax and social policies in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s, may be less important for its own effect than as an indicator of the cultural climate.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Bush seems to need to make a few Rooseveltian addresses of his own.

I would argue that Bush's strategic initiatives have been notably successful: not only did he complete the war in the Persian Gulf that his father began, on what now looks to be stable terms, but he ended Libya's appallingly extensive WMD program and succeeded in turning the EU against Iran. This will all look very impressive to historians (or perhaps, as The Onion has suggested, to revisionist historians).

His immediate problem, however, is that the transition to a post-petroleum economy is accelerating and his administration is taking the blame for the friction. Presently, we will see the folly of bragging about deficit-ballooning tax cuts at a time when inflation is becoming a danger again. Don't forget that medical-insurance rates are up 10% and 15% again this year. And then there is the president's Alien from the Outer Nebula attitude toward immigration. (I use "Alien" in this context to mean "foreign to popular opinion," not to refer to actual aliens from the Outer Nebula, but if any such aliens were present illegally in the United States and working in the construction business then I am sure the president would argue that they were here just to support their families). The upshot of all this is that the president's approval rate has fallen to 29%: not because his enemies have grown in number, but because his friends have despaired of him.

His friends are clueless too. Here, from The DC Examiner, we see what Bush's base is saying:

The White House need look no further than Hugh Hewitt’s “Painting the Map Red” for a credible strategy. That strategy begins with getting tough with Congress and vetoing all unnecessary spending, starting with the pork-stuffed emergency supplemental. Demand up-or-down votes on all of your federal judicial nominees as soon as possible. Challenge Congress to suspend the bureaucratic red tape that prevents building new refineries and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other appropriate areas to energy exploration and production. Make clear that regardless of November’s election results, you will call a special session of this Congress if needed in order to accomplish what needs to be done to get spending and entitlements under control, sanity restored to the courts and gasoline prices made affordable again.

Most important, Mr. President, secure the borders. Build the wall now. Tell Mexico the border is officially closed to illegal immigration and demand respect from that country for all U.S. laws. And stop using our own Border Patrol against patriotic Americans who are simply trying to help protect this nation from intruders who mean us ill.

In other words, the Republican base wants the party to run "against the government" again, as it did in 1980. The problem with that strategy was that it succeeded. It installed a political culture blind to the importance of plain-vanilla good administration, of which fiscal integrity is the first consideration.

I would not trade America's problems for Russia's, but we should note that Putin's speech was more encouraging than anything Bush is likely to say in the near future.

* * *

This brings us to President Achmedinajad's Grand Remonstrance to President Bush, the text of which is available here.

No, this was not a "last warning" to embrace Islam. The letter does not exhort Bush to embrace Islam, but rather to return to the teachings of Jesus. The most interesting aspect of the letter is its real audience, which the beginning of the letter indicates:

For sometime now I have been thinking, how one can justify the undeniable contradictions that exist in the international arena -- which are being constantly debated, specially in political forums and amongst university students. Many questions remain unanswered. These have prompted me to discuss some of the contradictions and questions, in the hopes that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them.

Note that the letter attempts a global perspective of the antiglobalist variety, with just a few theological sprinkles on top. There is quite a lot about Latin America, which no doubt reflects the Islamic Republic's rapprochement with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. All-in-all, this letter looks like the kind of thing that have might proceeded from the pro-Islamist European Left.

If the Iranian version of antiglobalism is Achmedinajad's base, then he has far greater problems than George Bush does.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-08: Unauthorized Versions

John Reilly mentions the Gospel reading from May 7th, 2006 mostly as the set-up for a Monty Python reference, but today's Gospel reading, from the second chapter of the Gospel of John, really does read like an internet meme:

15 He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables,

 As it turns out, one of the answers to WWJD? is (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Unauthorized Versions


Regarding the Gospel reading for yesterday, I was struck again by how dim the evangelist makes the apostles look. I paraphrase John to only a slight degree:

In a little while you will not see me; then in a little while you will see me.

We do not understand what these things mean.

I am going away, but I will be back.

But what do you mean, you are going away, but you will be back?

I mean I'm here now. Soon I won't be here. Then I will be here again.

We do not understand.

Let's try it like this: Step One: here; Step Two: not here; Step Three; here.

We find these words a mystery.

Look, just forget I mentioned it.

If you insist. But could we get back to the bit about the cheesemakers?

* * *

The Cheesemakers, of course, figure in one of the good parts in Monty Python's Life of Brian. (I'm not quite sure the film rises to the level of blasphemy; the problem is that it's a feature-length film with enough material for a 25-minute show.) These comments by some listeners at the edge of the audience of the Sermon on the Mount must surely be known to all students of Scripture:

MAN #1:
I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'

...right prevail.

Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?

Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Monty Python's film and my version of John bear pretty much the relationship to the Biblical canon that the Gnostic gospels do: they are much later, obviously frivolous, and not intended to reflect history. Scholars have always known this. All that has changed in the last few years is that postmodern skepticism of mere facticity has reduced serious history to "just another version." The DaVinci Code, meaning the book by Dan Brown and the film based on it, does not purport to be history, but it has benefited from this collapse of intellectual integrity.

* * *

Perhaps this is the really progressive take on Brown's book. It comes from Futurechurch, one of the residual feminist groups that linger in the morbid backwaters of liberal Catholicism:

"However, while the book paints an attractive portrait of the underlying unity of male and female, it ultimately undercuts women's leadership because it focuses on the fiction of Mary of Magdala's marital status rather than the fact of her leadership as the primary witness to Jesus' resurrection. Unfortunately, this reinforces gender bias that women are only important because of the men in their lives."

You can't make this stuff up.

* * *

The backstory of The DaVinci Code is a riff on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century version of the Grail legend. In the French and British Grail stories, an order of knights guarded the Grail. In the German tradition, there was a Grail Dynasty that secretly ruled the world. The transformation of that dynasty into a Jesus dynasty, however, is a modern motif. The story of the transformation of the Grail legend is fascinating: see this review of Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief.

It is a good idea to use the premier of the DaVinci film to recount the real history. Launching a jihad against it is a bad idea:

Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who was considered a candidate for pope last year, made ..strong comments in a documentary called "The Da Vinci Code-A Masterful Deception."

"Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical. So it is not I who will tell all Christians what to do but some know legal means which can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others," Arinze said.

Lest anyone miss the parallel with the recent riots occasioned the cartoons of Mohammed, the cardinal also noted:

"Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us. There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking. They will make it painfully clear to you," Arinze said.

Cardinal Arinze is usually worth listening to, but he is quite mistaken here. For one thing, blasphemy and hate-crime laws are already being used to impose sharia in many Western countries. Christians should be trying to get those laws repealed, not to be enhancing their prestige by using them.

* * *

Here's a completely different topic: a federal proposal to make the online availability of some research material mandatory:

Scholarly publishing has never been a big business. But it could take a financial hit if a proposed federal law is enacted, opening taxpayer-financed research to the public, according to some critics in academic institutions.

The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, proposed last week by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, would require 11 government agencies to publish online any articles that contained research financed with federal grants. If enacted, the measure would require that the articles be accessible online without charge within six months of their initial publication in a scholarly journal.

I think this can do only good.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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No, You Can't Be an Astronaut Book Review

No, You Can't Be an Astronaut: Why you shouldn't follow your dreams--and what to do instead
by Patience Fairweather, PhD
Plausible Press (January 18, 2018)
$9.99 paperback; $3.49 kindle edition; 186 pages
ISBN 978-1548082963

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Patience Fairweather [a pseudonym] is preaching to the choir. I have also been saying that the STEM crisis is a myth, and that we have plenty of well-educated Americans to do all the jobs we have. I appreciate it when anyone else says it, and backs it up with data.

What is more interesting, is what we should do about. Fairweather has written a book that provides sound, reasonable advice to individuals, especially the very young, or those contemplating a career change. This is not a book of policy, but rather a checklist combined with useful background information, to provide opportunity to ordinary Americans. 

After the introduction, Fairweather has a section on personality assessments. This section is pretty good, especially insofar as it encourages the reader to seek out objective information about what they like, and what they are good at. A variety of different tests are cited, including the popular-but-flawed Myers-Briggs, and the better replicated OCEAN model. The point of all is to find out what you would be willing to tolerate for money, because following your dreams can end very poorly. It is often better to find out what you can stand that someone will pay you to do.

Which is the next section of the book! Fairweather looks at ways to assess your actual likelihood of graduating college, and then assessing whether this would truly be a net financial benefit to you. Sure, on average, college graduates make more money, but will you? Sometimes, the answer is no, and Fairweather provides some tools, for example the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, that can answer that question pretty accurately.

Following chapters contain commonsense advice about using time wisely in college, avoiding social media mistakes that can cost you your job, job-hunting and interview skills, and how to succeed in the workplace. I've done technical recruiting for twelve years, and this is good stuff. If you don't need this book to point this stuff out, great for you, but honest mistakes can cost people chances they would otherwise have. Don't let that be you.

Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-05-04: Mousssaoui; Nagin; Benedict; The Islands of Stability

 The still center around which all else rotates

The still center around which all else rotates

Essences or forms are widely misunderstood in a materialistic age. Nonetheless, everything tends to point to the reality of essences, if you know what you are looking at.

Mousssaoui; Nagin; Benedict; The Islands of Stability


I'm as bloodthirsty as the next guy, but I think that Peggy Noonan is quite wrong when she deplores the fact that a federal sentencing jury yesterday gave Zacarias Moussaoui life in prison instead of death for his association with the 911 plot:

Excuse me, I'm sorry, and I beg your pardon, but the jury's decision on Moussaoui gives me a very bad feeling. What we witnessed here was not the higher compassion but a dizzy failure of nerve.

I think perhaps that all we saw was another jury responding badly to another of the Bush Justice Department's "What the Hell were they thinking of?" prosecutions. The prosecutors had nothing. All that could have saved them was Moussaoui's transparent attempt on the witness stand to incriminate himself, the better to join the ranks of the martyrs. The jury thought, correctly, that he was exaggerating his own importance, and they saw no reason to help him do it.

Noonan does make some good points about the dangers of giving such a defendant life:

I don't want to end with an air of hopelessness, so here's some hope, offered to the bureau of prisons. I hope he doesn't get cable TV in his cell. I hope he doesn't get to use his hour a day in general population getting buff and converting prisoners to jihad. I hope he isn't allowed visitors with whom he can do impolite things like plot against our country. I hope he isn't allowed anniversary interviews. I hope his jolly colleagues don't take captives whom they threaten to kill unless Moussaoui is released.

I would insist that he be made to watch cable television, and that he have no way to channel surf or turn down the sound during the commercials. Noonan's last item is a real consideration, however. If letting a convicted killer live means putting innocents in danger, then the argument that the death penalty is not needed as a deterrent collapses.

* * *

Mayor Nagin of New Orleans is not my favorite executive. A Tulane University historian, Douglas Brinkley has written a quickie book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to help to promulgate that sentiment, just in time for the run-off election for mayor. However, this synopsis from The Daily News causes me to think rather better of Nagin:

In excerpts published yesterday in Vanity Fair, Brinkley describes Nagin as spending most of the week after the storm holed up on the 27th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, looking down on the misery of the Superdome...With all power out, visitors had to climb the stairs if they wanted to talk with him. Brinkley also describes the mayor scurrying to the roof when a cop warned that rabble-rousers were leading a mob to the hotel from the Superdome.

In other words, he was in the city during the worst of it. He did not just run to Baton Rouge or Houston. He deserves to be defeated not for cowardice, but for incompetence.

* * *

These quotations from an Egyptian Jesuit (yes, there is such a creature) deal with Benedict XVI's attitude toward Islam, but they are more interesting as a window into the pope's views on church, state, and reason:

“[T]he Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Shari’a shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself..."

“We do not want to create an empire of power, but we have something that can be communicated and towards which an expectation of our reason tends. It is communicable because it belongs to our shared human nature and there is a duty to communicate on the part of those who have found a treasure of truth and love. Rationality was therefore a postulate and condition of Christianity, which remains a European legacy for comparing ourselves peacefully and positively, with Islam and also the great Asian religions.”

Therefore, for the pope, dialogue is at this level, i.e. founded on reason.

"Our constitutions": it is difficult to imagine a pope of the 19th and even most of the 20th century saying such a thing, but maybe less hard to imagine of the relaxed papacy of the 18th century, when the revolutionary Republic of Corsica and the Emperor Joseph's policy of imperial tolerance fit comfortably under the broad tent of Rococo Catholicism. The Enlightenment meant many things, from the earnest but fundamentally rational spirituality of the Methodists to the penny dreadful ambitions of the Illuminati. In these views of Benedict XVI, we see the Enlightenment at its sunniest. Indeed, the Enlightenment in this sense is durable, in a way that the revolutionary tradition, laicism, and postmodernism are not. As I have noted, Benedict has spoken with favor of US political culture as an institutionalization of the Enlightenment in this sense.

Readers may have noticed that I am developing a tiresome theory about this. The postmodern trick of dismissing any ideal form as "essentialism" is a misdirection. By "essence" in this case we do not mean a stuff, but an island of stability, one of the possibilities that the world offers for a stable situation. The chemical elements are the islands of stability offered by quantum mechanics. The eight anatomies found in animals are the possibilities for biology offered by polymer chemistry. Similarly, there is only a small set of possible societies and cultural configurations. These basic forms are attractive, in the way that strange attractors are attractive: it is easier to fall into them than to fall away from them.

The moral, then, is that democratic liberalism, understood as articles of peace rather than as a license to launch cultural revolution, is not an early stop on the ride to the Finland Station, but what Spengler would have called a "final form" of the West, the distillation of the history of a whole Culture. Like baroque music, which is also a final form from much the same period, it's as good as the world gets.

As I have noted before, The Glass Bead Game is really Spenglerian science fiction, set in a future in which the preservation of these cultural treasures is a central goal of public policy. Frankly, one could easily imagine Benedict XVI as a Player at Waldzell.

* * *

Some people have other ideas, as we see in this Orthodox defense of divine monarchy:

The secular state is always atheistic. St. Gregory the Theologian observed in the 4th century that there are three fundamental kinds of government: monarchy, the rule of one, is associated with belief in one God or, at least, one supreme God. Polyarchy (aristocracy, the rule of the few or best, is linked with polytheism; and the rule of the many, which the Saint called Anarchy (democracy), is bound with atheism. We Orthodox, be it said, hold monarchy "in honour", because it imitates the unity of God, whereas polyarchy implies a division or dispersion of His Power, a "severance of His Essence," that is, among many gods. Finally, anarchy, the government of the people, implies theologically that the Essence of God is pulverized; or, in other words, power is so completely spread out or distributed that He cannot be conceived to exist (Theol. Ora. III, 2). We ought not be confused by St. Gregory's explanation. He did not mean that nations always make conscious, philosophically elaborated choices, but that there is always a direct connection between theology and politics.

I would have to do the research (and maybe someone has done it already), but I suspect that the defense of autocracy, as distinguished from monarchy, is new (i.e.: a product of the last 200 years). Certianly autocracy is not an island of stability: an autocracy is the Hindenburg waiting for Fritz to sneak a smoke among the gasbags.

* * *

Immunity to advertising is not one of my gifts, and yes, I do watch Lost. So, here are two sites for you.

This one is cryptic. You deserve a cookie if you find the hidden text.

And here this Hanso Foundation. Life extension, electromagnetic radiation, clinical psychiatry: I can see how it all fits together. Can't you?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-05-02: General Strike; Ethanol

 Sometimes bluffs  are  called

Sometimes bluffs are called

I don't remember it it was the same event as the one John Reilly mentions here, but there was a day without immigrants in Los Angeles where all of the illegal immigrants stayed home to show what the impact of their labor was. Mostly the Angelenos were impressed by how not busy the freeways were. That particular experiment wasn't repeated for something like ten years because of how poorly it turned out.

General Strike; Ethanol


Consider the multiple misapprehensions in this quote from a participant in a demonstration that was part of yesterday's "Day Without Immigrants":

"We are the backbone of what America is. Legal or illegal, it doesn't matter," said Melanie Lugo, who with her husband and their third-grade daughter joined an estimated 75,000 rallying in Denver. "We butter each other's bread. They need us as much as we need them."

Actually "legal or illegal" makes all the difference in the world. The US is worth coming to because the law works here. The cops won't rob you and the Postal Service will deliver the mail. That is why businesses can grow and that is why there are jobs. However, the point I want to make here is tactical: the modest impact of the demonstrations and boycott showed precisely that illegal immigrants are not the backbone of America.

The boycott was a blunder of the first magnitude.

If you are running a labor movement, you may threaten a General Strike. You may organize in the name of a prospective General Strike. The one thing no sane labor movement ever does is call a General Strike, because unless the world ends as a consequence the movement's bluff will have been called.

That was pretty much the moral of the British General Strike of 1926. That unhappy action was called in solidarity with the coal miners, who had fairly narrow demands, but their cause became mixed up with the mythology of the rising tide of socialism. Over the previous fifty years, the prospect of the inevitable victory of organized labor had become like the Second Coming. When the General Strike failed, it was as if everyone at the Final Judgment had gotten off with a warning.

* *

As for Peak Oil Doomsday, the federal government remains serene:

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Sunday that the U.S. was just "three or four years" away from perfecting the process that would allow American motorists to fuel their vehicles with ethanol instead of gasoline...Bodman estimated that by 2025, ethanol production would replace about 20 percent of total U.S. gasoline consumption.

Supposedly, ethanol became commercially viable when oil broke $40 per barrel. Those processes that the Energy Secretary was talking about are connected with the processing of cellulosic ethanol; that is, ethanol made from grass, rather than corn. Ground Zero for this technology is the Canadian company, Iogen.

To put it mildly, there are arguments against putting much faith in ethanol as an alternative fuel, and Businessweek has made them at length. On the whole, though, I am surprised at how well the ethanol option stands up to examination.

The really interesting point is this: all renewable energy sources are far more intrusive than fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were attractive precisely because they are so concentrated; geology compacted millions of years of sunshine into easily portable forms. Wind, bio-fuel, and solar, in contrast, all have to collect new solar radiation, and that means taking up space.

The penny is just beginning to drop about this with regard to windpower. Wind-powered electrical generation has its virtues, but a useful infrastructure has to cover a significant fraction of the landscape with towers that look like a force of invading Martians. Ethanol farming promises to become the landscape, especially if the cellulose technology is as effective as we hope. Since 1900, much of the continental United States has become reforested as small farms were abandoned. Now it seems likely that that trend will be reversed.

* * *

None of my readers have emailed me to ask how bad is inflation in Zimbabwe:

Well, consider this: at a supermarket near the center of this tatterdemalion capital, toilet paper costs $417...No, not per roll. Four hundred seventeen Zimbabwean dollars is the value of a single two-ply sheet...By March, inflation had touched 914 percent a year, at which rate prices would rise more than tenfold in 12 months.

I mention this because over the weekend I was shown a letter from Zimbabwe. The canceled first-class stamp had cost $300,000. What shocked me, though, was that in real terms that stamp had cost about $5 in US money. Who could afford to use a system with real prices that high?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-04-28: The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike

 Why are we alone?

Why are we alone?

Since John points to his 1996 essay on Noospheres here, I went and updated that essay with a table of contents and hyperlinks.

I've always found the Drake equation to be something of a category mistake, but I at least appreciate people attempting to think things through.

The Fermi Paradox; Atlas Shrugged; Oil Spike


The Fermi Paradox has become more paradoxical if this report is to be believed:

A new study finds that the chances of a gamma ray burst going off in our galaxy and destroying life on Earth are comfortingly close to zero.

Gamma ray bursts, or GRBs, are focused beams of gamma radiation emitted from the magnetic poles of black holes formed during the collapse of ancient, behemoth stars. They can also form when dead neutron stars merge with each other or with black holes.

It's been speculated that if a GRB went off near our solar system, and one of the beams hit Earth, it could set off a global mass extinction.

But in a new study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers found that GRBs tend to occur in small, metal-poor galaxies and estimated that the likelihood of one occurring in our own metal-rich Milky Way is less than 0.15 percent....But in their study, Stanek and colleagues found that GRBs tend to occur in small, deformed galaxies that are poor in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium...Planets need metals to form, so a low-metal galaxy—while more likely to have GRBs—will have fewer planets and fewer chances for life.

Readers will recall that the gamma-ray hypothesis had become the leading explanation for why intelligent life did not long ago overrun the observable universe. (To paraphrase Enrico Fermi: "If extraterrestrials exist, then where are they?") The answer to the paradox was thought to be that Earth is the one-in-a-million biologically active world that escaped gamma-ray sterilization: Simon Conway Morris himself seemed satisfied with this logic. Now we are back to square one. I have my own explanation, of course.

* * *

Speaking of alien life forms, I note this news about Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged:

Lionsgate shrugging--'Atlas' pic mapped: As for stars, the book provides an ideal role for an actress in lead character Dagny Taggart, so it's not a stretch to assume Rand enthusiast Angelina Jolie. Jolie's name has been brought up. Brad Pitt, also a fan, is rumored to be among the names suggested for lead male character John Galt.

Though I was never a Randian, I always thought that The Fountainhead was charming. Atlas Shrugged is not charming, but it does have a certain appalling fascination. For the life of me, though, I cannot imagine the mainline film industry making a movie about the evils of high marginal tax rates and the intrinsic turpitude of affirmative-action programs. (Rand was prescient in foreseeing those, though in her book they are designed to mitigate disparities of wealth rather than the effects of race and gender discrimination.) In any case, the interesting thing will be how a film handles the religion question: John Galt's Speech, remember, is the most sustained attack on religious belief in 20th-century popular literature. A sufficiently malicious screenwriter could divert the film from economics to the menace of the Religious Right.

* * *

Ayn Rand would have loved the current run up in gas prices; which is to say, she would have been vastly amused by the futile pandering reflected in headlines like G.O.P. Senators Hurry to Quell Furor Over Gas:

Senate Republicans tried on Thursday to get the upper hand in the escalating political battle over high gasoline prices by proposing a $100 rebate for taxpayers and by suggesting that they might increase taxes on oil-industry profits.

Rand is no longer with us. We do have Ann Coulter, however. Though more conventionally partisan than Rand, she is also sometimes right:

When the free market does the exact thing liberals have been itching to do through taxation, they pretend to be appalled by high gas prices, hoping the public will forget that high gas prices are part of their agenda.

There are proximate causes for the current price spikes. One is a regulation (just relaxed) that required refineries to use a new gasoline additive; the refiners handled the transition badly. Another is the increase in petroleum price futures occasioned by geopolitical fears. The remote causes, however, are that demand for oil is up worldwide and there are no cheap ways to increase supply. No doubt the current spike will decline again, but we will get more of these events, some of them much more serious, which will move us away from a petroleum economy. This is the reality of which "Peak Oil" is a parody.

* * *

Many of you have asked yourselves, whatever happened to Bertie Wooster, the slow-normal young gentleman whose life was made possible only by the perpetual intervention of the omnicompetent Jeeves? Well, he went to medical school, moved to Princeton, acquired some post-vocalic "R"s, and now he's Dr. House

The penny dropped about this just yesterday and I still find it hard to believe.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the May issue of First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has this ominous reflection:

I've never seen anybody remark on this American habit of calling the children of the baby boomers Generation X, while those who are now under age 25 or so are called Generation Y. There is only one letter left. The assumption is that the next generation will be the last? Just asking.

Of course, we are still not quite sure about those gamma rays.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-04-24: The Formation of Adjectives & the Obsolescence of Conservatism

 Some grad student probably found these pictures of the Venerian atmosphere really exciting

Some grad student probably found these pictures of the Venerian atmosphere really exciting

I hadn't remembered that Spengler [David P. Goldman] had advocated in 2006 what would in a few years become the scam of relocating the urban poor away from valuable urban cores and dumping them on suburbs.

This report about the Venus Express spaceprobe saddened me:

[The European Space Agency's] Venus Express has returned the first-ever images of the Venusian south pole, from a distance of 206 452 kilometres, showing surprisingly clear structures and unexpected detail. The images were taken 12 April during the spacecraft's initial capture orbit after successful arrival on 11 April 2006.

It is not the probe itself that saddens me. As regular readers will know, I am keen to get an explanation of that funny hydrochloride chemistry in the middle layers of the planet's atmosphere. What bother's me is that adjective, "Venusian." The etymologically consistent form is "Venerian." Why so? When you make an English adjective out of a Latin noun, you normally use the oblique root. Thus, the nominative singular of the word for "head" is caput, but the English loan words are formed from the root capit- (the plural is capites, the possessive singular capitis, and so on), thus giving us words like "capital" and "decapitate." The oblique root of Venus is Vener-. "Venusian" has become common in science fiction when referring to Earth's superheated neighbor, but we may note that Olaf Stapledon used "Venerian" when referring to Venus in all his fiction.

You would think the European Space Agency would have some sensitivity to this sort of consideration, but no.

* * *

Sane people worldwide were appalled to learn that Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, the most lethally incompetent executive since Ethelred the Unready, came in first in the New Orleans municipal election over the weekend with 38% of the vote. He is unlikely to win the runoff, however, even in New Orleans

Many things could be said about the fall of New Orleans, but perhaps some of them could be said only by a pseudonymous author writing for a foreign publication, such as Asia Times' shameless Spengler:

China's economic growth arises from the greatest migration of peoples in history, involving the displacement of hundreds of millions to the coast from the interior over the course of a century. On a smaller scale, Hurricane Katrina emulates Chinese circumstances for the poor residents of New Orleans, the destruction of whose homes is the best thing that could have happened to them.

Of course, the traditional culture of New Orleans will disappear, like most of the traditional cultures of the world. But the people of New Orleans are better off without it...Many beautiful things will disappear because poor people no longer will suffer to make them...The best thing the US could do for the poor people of its urban ghettos is to expel them...Given the incidental costs of major hurricanes, there probably are cheaper ways to accomplish this, e.g., simply pay them to leave.

And once you've done that, you can put some new wiring and sheetrock into the shanties and ruinous tenements of the absent poor and sell them to idiot rich people at hilarious markups. I know this because that's where I live.

* * *

So you wanted pictures of Nazi UFOs, did you? Well, here are your damned Nazi flying saucers. May you have joy of them.

* * *

Have you read one too many indictments of political correctness? Joseph Bottom at First Things gets a pile of manuscripts like that every morning, and he suggests that the point should be taken as read:

Of course, the insistence that things be done better isn’t, in itself, a solution. When we’re done moaning about how bad novels are these days, for example, we might go on to say that good literature is the corrective for bad literature. But it ain’t much help to demand that somebody write a good novel. Still, the great conservative complaint of the last fifty years has, I think, finally run its course. Time to move on.

Okay, but if you are going to stage a renaissance, you can't use the term "conservative" for the project. Perhaps this is not even an activity for the "Right."

* * *

PS: The Nazi flying saucers are not real. Trust me on this.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Future We Want Book Review

 The future I want

The future I want

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century
Edited by Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara
Metropolitan Books, 2016
$17.00; 208 pages
ISBN 978-0-8050-9829-7

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Insofar as I don't want the future most of the contributors of this book are advocating for, this was an interesting read. I put off reviewing this for two years, so as part of my Lenten observance, I will review The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century.

 Old Economy Steven

Old Economy Steven

The first essay, "Working for the Weekend," by Chris Maisano is a good example of what you'll find in the rest of the volume: excellent points interspersed with assertions premised on things I find dubious. For example, Maisano says that the definition of "full employment" is an economist's construct, based on the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU. It is indeed a bit strange to think that 5% unemployment, or 1 out of 20 people is looking for work [to horrendously oversimplify], constitutes full employment. 

In principle, the NAIRU, or its equivalents, is supposed to be the point where there is equilibrium between labor and capital. It represents a place where the curves cross, based on some empirical data. There is some unemployment, and some change in prices. However, I find myself a little suspicious that the chosen euphemism for this is "full employment." If you read between the lines, the economists who write about this admit that there is an element of choice in what level of unemployment is considered acceptable.

I can get on board with that. I think my problem is that Maisano, and the other contributors to this volume support lots and lots of other things that directly work against the goal of a stronger labor movement. For example, immigration was long considered by union leaders to be a tool of the boss-class to keep wages down and workers internally divided. This subject never once comes up in Maisano's essay. Which is probably because it is an own-goal.

While I'm interested in many of the subjects discussed here, I'm far from convinced the contributors know enough about them to really contribute. Thus, despite some overlap with what I also find wrong with America, I think I'm still a contra.

My other book reviews

Unsouled Book Review

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition, 292 pages
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 13, 2016)

As of today, February 24th, 2018, Will Wight's Unsouled is free on Amazon as an ebook. You should go get it right now. 

Did you get it? Good. This was a really, really fun book, and I can't believe Wight is just giving it away. Well, I guess I can, because I'm having a hard time not immediately buying the other three books in the series. I suppose they call this kind of thing a YA novel now, but I still think of them as juvenile novels, following Heinlein's classic formulation: a protagonist on the cusp of growing up, no sex scenes, a lot of details about magic/technology/etc., and some mildly didactic life lessons.

This book was marked as martial arts by Amazon, which I suppose it is. Unsouled has the same faux-Asian flair as Avatar: The Last Airbender. The last time I reviewed a novel with a martial arts theme was nine years ago, so I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into. As it turns out, I liked Unsouled quite a bit.

Unsouled is a fantasy book with a hint of Clarke's Third Law about it's system of magic/martial arts/self-improvement. For me, a large part of the fun of this kind of book is seeing how the author puts together his system. Wight's system, based on madra, vital energy, is as good as any I've seen. Internally consistent enough to make sense without breaking the suspension of disbelief, and still esoteric enough to make it feel like you gotta really work at mastering it.

The other thing that is really fun about a book like this is the way we get to see Lindon grow up. YA novels, coming of age, juveniles, whatever you want to call them, are a part of the great chain of becoming for many a young woman or man. I read many of them myself, and I suspect they helped me along the way. To the extent such books can help inculcate even a small measure of perseverance or self-reliance or the willingness to try just a little harder, then they have served their purpose well.

I enjoyed this book, and I would gladly give it to any of my own children for a bit of entertainment with a side of self-improvement. Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-04-20: Electoral College Reform; Zeitgeist & Conversion; Acis & Galatea

I've never quite been convinced that Electoral College reform will actually pan out to be a good idea, but John Reilly liked it.

Electoral College Reform; Zeitgeist & Conversion; Acis & Galatea


This is the best political reform proposal I have seen in a long time, ably summarized here by one of its opponents, Tara Ross:

This latest anti-Electoral College effort, the Campaign for the National Popular Vote, was announced on February 23. Five states are currently considering the NPV plan: Illinois, Colorado, Missouri, California, and Louisiana. The Colorado state senate acted on the bill quickly, approving it on April 14.

If enacted, the NPV bill would create an interstate compact among consenting states. Each participating state would agree to allocate its entire slate of electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact would go into effect when states representing 270 electoral votes (enough to win the presidency) have agreed to the compact.

The National Popular Vote Website is here.

It is, of course, a scandal that presidential campaigns ignore the largest states, because the winner-take-all system of electoral votes makes it a waste of effort for a candidate to try to increase the size of his minority share in a state where the majority of the vote is certain to go to the other candidate. We saw the fruit of this system in the election of 2000, when the 18th-century voting mechanism chimed "cuckoo! cuckoo!" and actually selected the candidate with fewer popular votes. President Bush himself is reported to be not opposed in principle to Electoral College reform, since he recognizes that under such a system he would still have won; he would simply have spent a little more time increasing his popular majority in his home state. Many Republicans, however, treasure a morbid and inexplicable attachment to the present disaster-prone system.

The Electoral College victory of the Election of 2000 was a blow to the legitimacy of the Bush Administration from which it never recovered, not even after a fairly decisive popular-vote victory in 2004. Can we please defuse this timebomb before 2008?

* * *

Speaking of regional majorities, hat tip to Danny Yee for this valuable collection of maps showing the Distribution of religions in the United States. The trick is to spot the Methodists.

* * *

Meanwhile at First ThingsJoseph Bottum notes that conversions have different cultural dimensions in different generations:

It’s common among Catholic commentators to look back on the era from the late 1930s to the early 1960s and see a great time of conversions in America and England...Now, it’s not quite as common among Catholic commentators to look back on the 1990s and see another great era of conversions, but I think future generations will name it so....But what may be more interesting is the difference between the allure of Catholicism in the 1940s and 1950s, and the allure of Catholicism in the 1990s—for somewhere in that difference lies the explanation for the nearly complete non-existence of Catholic art and Catholic literature at this moment...Robert Lowell is...a good case study. It wasn’t an aesthetics the young convert Lowell needed for his poetry; he had plenty of his own. And it wasn’t a morality; to read Ian Hamilton’s biography is to realize that Lowell wouldn’t know an ethics if it whacked him upside the head. What he needed was a metaphysics, an ontology, a thickening of the world by a meaning that lies outside the world. What he needed was a cosmology.

The difference has less to do with changes in the nature of Catholicism than with changes in the nature of the arts, I suspect.

* * *

Speaking of the arts, I'm not much of an opera buff, but my eldest sister got a pair of tickets to a performance by the New York City Opera of Handel's rarely staged Acis and Galatea, so we went to see it on April 18.

The story is from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and there is not much to it. Acis the shepherd and Galatea the nymph are lovers whose idyll is ended when Galatea rejects the suit of the giant Polyphemus, who then crushes Acis with a rock. Galatea is reminded by the other nymphs and shepherds that she is half divine, so she gives Acis a kind of immortality by turning him into a fountain.

Part of the reason the piece is so rarely seen, perhaps, is that its barely an opera; it has been characterized as a cross between a masque and an oratorio. The libretto is by John Gay; it's mostly about how keen springtime is. Handel's score is not memorable, but it is as tasty as sugar candy. The Mark Lamos's staging was spare, as befits the story, and the coustuming was hilarious: everyone except Polyphemus was in the sort of beachwear you might see in an Old Navy commercial (beach chairs are actually provided) and Polyphemus is a yob in a jumpsuit, wearing a helmet lamp. The small-scale model of the main stage that raised and lowered him into the action was particularly clever. A high time was had by all.

The one dispiriting part of the evening was Lincoln Center. It had been at least five years since I was last there, and longer since I attended a performance there. It has not changed much, but this time I was struck by how shabby the place is. It's not just that the rugs in the opera house need to be replaced. The Center was built shabby. The lighting fixtures might almost be lava lamps, so anachronistic have they become. The very paving is annoying. The concrete is flecked with streaks of black, perhaps to suggest a Jackson Pollack canvas. Pollock has not actually aged all that badly, but this kind of International Style has.

Now that I think about it, Lincoln Center grated on me because I had walked there through Times Square, which embodies the future that the designers of Lincoln Center claimed to be anticipating. They got it wrong in every detail. The future turned out to be fun.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review


My heart is broken. Broken for the good man Goth Sullus once was. Back when I wrote up Galactic Outlaws, I left a long comment on Jon Mollison's response to me saying that I thought Sullus was once a man of honor too. It turns out that was true. And now I know exactly what pushed him over the edge of the galaxy.

I don't know that I would have done any better, in his place. He endured more than any man should, and accomplished more than most. He genuinely wanted to protect others. Thus his fall, when it comes, is all the worse.

Going back to Socrates, there is a principle of moral philosophy that no man really seeks evil: we all seek what we think is good. It is through our brokenness and weakness that evil comes about, because we aren't really up to the task of seeing what is good and what is not. This Greek idea was fused with a Hebrew one, that our ability to seek good is actively thwarted by things that really do want evil.

In the Aristotelian tradition, there is also a principle that only something truly good can really become evil in a meaningful way. This is because of the identity of being and goodness: having a greater capacity, a greater power, is a good thing in and of itself, a kind of perfection. A man who lacks intelligence and self-control lacks the capacity to be as dangerous as someone bright and disciplined. 

 The Fall of the Rebel Angels  By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - : Info, Public Domain,

The Fall of the Rebel Angels

By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - : Info, Public Domain,

Thus the angels, when they rebelled, were far more dangerous than men, because they had greater perfections. Thus too, Goth Sullus, the man, longer of life, more wise and powerful than the average man, is something far worse than the average man when he loses his humanity.

Except that he doesn't really lose it. He gives it away. Why he chooses to do that is a great and mythic story. I think I can almost understand why some people see Sullus as a tragic hero. After a very long lifetime of trying to protect people from themselves, at the final hour when the demons from outside the galaxy are about to sweep in and conquer when the races of galaxy are squabbling amongst themselves, he gives up everything in order to gain the power to protect those who in many ways don't deserve his sacrifice.

 Cain slaying Abel  By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain,

Cain slaying Abel

By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain,

And yet, there is something about his sacrifice that seems, unworthy. If pressed on why I think so, it is a lot of little things. Much like Cain, after his sacrifice, Sullus kills his brother. He is indifferent to the fate of little girls, especially little girls he arguably owes a debt to. His deepest well-springs of motivation seem to be fear and revenge. It was Nietzsche, perhaps in light of the tradition I cited above, who said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

There is a kind of man for whom the abyss holds no fascinations. The kind of man whose life is duty, who is an immovable rock. The man who became Goth Sullus, is not that man. When good, his archetype is Merlin, the powerful wizard who manipulates behind the scenes. When bad, his archetype is Faust, the man who gambles for power and knowledge.

Turning from myth to history, the first emperor, the man who unites all under heaven, can either be an inspiration, or a tyrant, hated by all who follow, even when they follow in his footsteps.

 Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

In Imperator, we get much of the backstory of the Galactic Republic. The Savage Wars, so frequently referenced in the earlier books, were far more horrible than I had imagined. Savage AF. The things that Rechs and Sullus saw are nigh unimaginable, but since I wasted my youth with videogames, I can come pretty close. 

 We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

The Savage Wars, and the depraved millenarian lighthugger societies that spawned them, are a reminder that no matter how bad you think things are, there is almost always a way for it to be far, far worse.

One lighthugger had tried to develop the powers of the mind by living in total darkness and going long periods without sleep. When the UNS found the ship and cracked the hull, the people they found within referred to themselves as demons. They said the humans who had once occupied their bodies were all gone now. They said they, the demons, had come in from the outer dark. Their minds were shattered. They were stark raving mad.

They were mad, right? Right?

In addition to the origins of the Galactic Republic, and the fate of the long-lost and fabled Earth, we get some tantalizing hints of what made Tyrus Rechs who he was. We see Rechs through the eyes of the man who will eventually kill him, because of a broken promise. That betrayal, the inevitable consequence of a temptation that was not resisted, was perhaps fated.

We'll have to wait for his standalone novel to truly see Tyrus Rechs for who he was. In the meanwhile, we can now see Goth Sullus for what he was, and what he has become.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator (Galaxy's Edge)
By Nick Cole, Jason Anspach

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

 Prisoners of Darkness

Prisoners of Darkness

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 338 pages
Published December 19th 2017 by Galaxy's Edge

 " know thyself " ( Greek : γνῶθι σεαυτόν)

"know thyself" (Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν)

My favorite theme of Prisoners of Darkness is the contrast between Captains Chhun and Ford. Formerly teammates, and even friends, as the book progresses Chhun and Ford are revealed to have chosen different paths in life, even though they started in more or less the same place. 

Either man could be called a hero, and in fact they both receive a commendation, the Order of the Centurion, normally awarded posthumously. Yet, they slowly realize that they no longer really know each other. Chhun has stayed on the well-trodden path, rising through the ranks of the Legion, doing his best to do his duty. Ford, as the deep-cover agent Aeson Keel, has spent so long playing the rogue that he has simply become one. Each one of them is a good man, yet they make each other extremely uncomfortable.

For the most part, they do both want the same things. Ford, as Keel, has developed quite a mercenary streak, but is still more loyal than the part he plays. Time and circumstances have created attachments to different things, which serve to pull the former comrades apart, but I'm guessing they will find they need each other again at some point.

Because the galaxy is falling apart. What looked like the Galactic Republic versus Goth Sullus' Empire is devolving into factions within each bloc jockeying for position, with a still unknown outside force manipulating events from a hidden redoubt. Two sides will rapidly become three or four simultaneously contesting for control of the galaxy.

And some damn fool gave the donkeys jetpacks. That's at least as bad of an idea as giving missiles AI.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness
By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole