The Long View: Something Rotten

To start the New Year off, let’s jump into a book review by John J. Reilly of a series I am entirely unfamiliar with!


Something Rotten: A Novel
By Jasper Fforde
Viking, 2004
385 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-670-03359-6

A Review in Dialogue
By John J. Reilly

----------


NURSE: “Doctor, he's starting to come out of it.”

DOCTOR: “Thank you, Nurse Dreadful. Wake up, Mr. Lector! How many did you take?”

PATIENT: “Hunh? How many what did I take? I deny everything. Get me a lawyer!”

DOCTOR: “We have to know how many Thursday Next novels you've read.”

PATIENT: “What makes you think I've been reading Thursday Next novels?”

DOCTOR: “You overdosed on Literary Conceit. We just pumped four liters of Running Gags out of your stomach. The swelling of your Pun Glands alone could prove fatal.”

PATIENT: “Just one, doctor. It was an accident: someone slipped it to me in a pile of used books...”

NURSE: “If he's been reading them since The Eyre Affair, doctor, we might as well just send him to the Obituary wing right now.”

PATIENT: “No, please! I've read only Something Rotten. I can beat this thing. I swear!”

DOCTOR: “It could be tough. We may have to kill off your literary sense entirely with weekly doses of Gender Analysis. First, though, we have to gauge the overload to the High Concept region of your brain. Can you describe the book?”

PATIENT: “Just snatches, doctor. I remember the Cheshire Cat's surprise that an 'alligator' is not someone who makes an allegation. And I remember how wrong I was for thinking that Uncle Mycroft's Ovinator was a machine for processing eggs.”

DOCTOR: “Yes, it may never be safe for you to open an etymological dictionary again. But can you remember anything about the book's premise?”

PATIENT: “It hurts my head!”

NURSE: “If we can get him to Obituaries now, doctor, we can leave the paperwork to the next shift.”

PATIENT: “The premise is that of all the Thursday Next novels. There is a technology called the Prose Portal that lets people travel through fiction like they travel through time in other stories, except that they also travel in time in these books. Thursday Next is the name of an agent for a sort of police force called 'Jurisfiction,' which is dedicated to keeping fiction stable.”

DOCTOR: “What exactly are they guarding against?”

PATIENT: “Left to themselves, the genres will fade into each other. H.G. Wells's Martians might invade Victorian novels, for instance, or the characters in one story might try to merge it with another story. 'King Lear' was originally two separate plays: 'The Daughters of Lear' and 'The Sons of Gloucester.' That merger was stable, so Jurisfiction left well enough alone; and once it was done, it was how literature had always been, as far as anyone could remember. One of the subplots in Something Rotten is about preventing a similar merger called 'The Merry Wives of Ellsinore.' Hamlet has to be taken into the real world for his own protection.”

DOCTOR: “Is this real world like our real world?”

PATIENT: “At rare points. It's always 1988. England was occupied during the Second World War. There are zeppelins rather than jets. Wales is an independent socialist republic. An aging vaudevillian and former freedom-fighter named George Formby is President of England. He is the only thing that prevents Chancellor Yorrick Kaine, a minor character who escaped from a bad romance novel, from becoming dictator. To that end, Kaine foments hatred against Denmark. It ties into the Hamlet business, you see.”

DOCTOR: “And Thursday Next is part of the effort to frustrate Chancellor Kaine?”

PATIENT: “Yes, if she can avoid being killed by an assassin called the Windowmaker.”

DOCTOR: “Could you say that again?”

PATIENT: “The Windowmaker. Doctor, the textual resonance in my ears is getting louder and louder!.”

DOCTOR: “Just stay conscious and you'll pull through. Do you remember anything about Uncle Mycroft's Memory Erasure Machine?”

PATIENT: “I do and I don't. All the details run together: the World Croquet Championship, the home cloning kits, the dodos and the Neanderthals. I seem to remember that Hamlet becomes an alpha dodo before he returns to the play. Doctor, do we have to keep going over this? I'm developing a rictus again!”

DOCTOR: “You should be fine, Mr. Lector, provided you stay on a low-irony diet for the next few weeks. No reruns of The Simpsons; no Marx Brothers movies. Nothing for you but Business Week and books on natural history; maybe some public affairs programs, but not from FOX! You had a close call, Mr. Lector: the least witticism could still push you over the edge. Nurse Dreadful, take this man to the Noam Chomsky Ward.”

The nurse bent over the gurney to push it into the hall, and Mr. Lector glanced at her uniform's blouse. His eyes widened. His body convulsed and arched like a tortured metaphor. Then he fell back. The man was dead.

On the nurse's blouse was a small, black nametag, incised with white lettering. Her first name was PENNY.



The reviewer takes no responsibility for the effects of Thursday Next books on the emotional or physical well-being of readers. Any complaints should be directed to the Toast Marketing Board. That's an inside joke. Another one.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Serenity City: Heroes Fall Book Review

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles  Artist:  Andy Duggan

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles

Artist: Andy Duggan

Heroes Fall: A Heroes Unleashed Novel
by Morgon Newquist
Published by Silver Empire (2018)

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout. Thanks to the author, Morgon Newquist, for reaching out on Twitter. I’m always happy to review new stuff.

As soon as I finished the first chapter, I was hooked. If this chapter didn’t start life as a short story, I think it could easily have stood alone, and been a damn fine piece of work. Each character comes to life in a few short pages, and the stage is set for everything that follows from the unexplained tragedy of the Rampage. I wept a little bit when I read it the first time, and then I wept again when I read it again at the end, now knowing why.

The question this book asks is: what is the greatest weakness of a superhero?

Achilles’ Heel  No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles’ Heel

No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

One might guess from the eponymous Achilles, the disgraced hero who nearly destroyed the city he was supposed to protect, that each and every superhero has their characteristic weakness, a secret that can be used to defeat them. While this is true, it isn’t as interesting as the realization that heroes [and villains] share our fallen human nature, no matter their powers, and are just as prone to vanity, foolishness, and moral turpitude.

A man who cannot control his passions is forever weak, no matter how much he can lift.

This sets the stage for Newquist’s world-building, which is about the kind of society that would emerge when powers can get you fame, influence, or money, but no one has been granted unusual wisdom or exceptionally good judgment beyond human ken.

In Serenity City, being a superhero is much like being an Instagram personality: a pretty facade hiding a winner-take-all mad dash for endorsements where appearance rules all. Into this cutthroat and remorseless world steps Victoria Westerdale, our young heroine and POV character. She is young, but not young enough not to be disillusioned by the phoniness and media-whoring of the hero business.

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “ Boyfriends of Serenity City ” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.  Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “Boyfriends of Serenity City” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.

Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

As the story progresses, we learn just how deeply Victoria was wounded by that world, and why she fled from her chance at fame and fortune for a walk up flat in the bad part of town and the night shift at a seedy convenience store. Nearly twenty years after Achilles fought his former friend and colleague Pendragon, devastating the city, Victoria finds herself drawn into all of the unanswered questions that lingered from that terrible day. Her inability to let this mystery go is in part because the answers give her the ability to finally stop running away from her own past.

Heroes Fall is the first novel in a shared universe, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The other four authors are J.D. Cowan, Kai Wai Cheah, Jon Mollison, and Richard Watts. I’ve previously reviewed a short story by Kai Wai Cheah, so I’m likely to give at least the initial five novels a read. Given how much I enjoyed Heroes Fall, I am looking forward to Newquist’s sequels as well.

My other book reviews

The Long View: Two Scientists

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

This essay from John is an extended reflection on the lives of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, who were famous at about the same time for about the same reason.

One hundred years later, I note that famous people’s personal lives are approximately as scandalous now as they were then. The mid-twentieth century placed a big premium on at least the appearance of propriety, and perhaps even encouraged it some, but the fin de siècle and Edwardian eras were a little bit more rowdy.

Because of Tim Powers’ novel Three Days to Never, I was familiar with Einstein’s martial adventures, but Curie’s were new to me. There is a fair bit here on the context in which both scientists’ work went on, which is handy if you like to see how everything fits together.


Two Scientists:
Common Topics in Biographies of
Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

An Essay
By
John J. Reilly

Toward the end of 2006, I happened to read back-to-back the biographies of two scientists who rose to prominence around 1900: Denis Brian’s Einstein (1997) and Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie (1996). Albert Einstein’s dates are 1879 – 1955 and Marie Curie’s (born Maria Sklodowska) are 1867 – 1934. To some extent their areas of study overlapped, so it’s not surprising that they often met, or even that their families sometimes vacationed together. Nonetheless, I was struck by the parallels in their lives, so much so that I began to wonder whether the parallels lay primarily in the lives of these contemporaneous people or in the interests of their contemporaneous biographers.

The biographies emphasize that both began as marginal, even bohemian figures, and ended their careers in that eminence beyond emeritus that attaches to the founders of major institutions. Einstein’s prestige saved the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from becoming just a make-work project for émigré Europeans, while the French state eventually created the Radium Institute to accommodate the Widow Curie. They both won Nobel Prizes: Curie twice, once for physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, and again for chemistry in 1911 on her own. She is the only person so far to win two Nobel prizes. Both her prizes were connected with the accomplishment she is famous for, the discovery and refinement of radium. Einstein received his prize in 1921 for his early work on the photoelectric effect rather than for relativity. Both Curie and Einstein became celebrities before the term was invented. Both had scandalous personal episodes that these biographies treated with similar, lengthy sympathy, though Einstein and his executors did a good job of keeping his scandal confidential until long after his death.

Maria Sklodowska’s outsider status rested on being Polish, and a woman, and an agnostic; in the first and third points she resembled her father. She came from a landless branch of the numerous Catholic gentry in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both her parents were teachers in Warsaw. Her biographer emphasizes just what an odd place Russian Poland was. The official language of instruction in the schools, even the private schools, was Russian. This led on one hand to the preparation of Potemkin curricula to show the state inspectors when they came to visit, and on the other to remarkably high levels of illiteracy. Still, readers will be struck by how much less onerous the Russian Empire was than Poland’s later status as a nominally independent ally of the USSR. Apparently, people, goods, and money could flow to and from Poland without much difficulty.

When the time came for Maria to consider a place for higher education (which really was impossible for women in Poland at the time), the options were St. Petersburg or Paris: Berlin was not even on the screen. That, perhaps, tells us something about the cultural spheres of influence in Eastern Europe at this period. When Marie, as she was soon known, arrived at the Sorbonne, she was very unusual in being a female student but less so by being a foreigner. The two actually went together: a far higher percentage of foreign students were women than could be found among the native French students.

Einstein was an outsider in part because he was Jewish, but far more because of his personal eccentricities. His family was not observant. His biographer describes how Einstein’s parents took care to dampen an episode of adolescent piety on their son’s part. Einstein was born in Germany, but spent much of his youth in Italy, where his father and uncle operated one of a series of unsuccessful electrical engineering firms. His biographer points out that Einstein was a pretty good nuts-and-bolts engineer. He held several patents, for instance, and continued to freelance as a patent consultant long after he had become a famous physicist. Curie’s biographer makes much the same claims for her subject: after all, Curie received two Nobel prizes for practicing table-top physics on a nearly industrial scale. Later, as a director of a government-subsidized institute, she managed what was in effect a small processing-plant for heavy elements.

Einstein’s early academic career was spent largely in Switzerland, with a brief posting to Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Again, the biographer is keen to make Eastern Europe seem as surreal as possible. In contrast to Curie, he was not a super-student. He was obviously very good at math and physics: he was able to secure just enough faculty patronage to ensure that his weaknesses in other areas were overlooked. He was not aggressive or confrontational, but he had no gift for faculty politics. He was the sort of person who would appear at an important social event not wearing socks. He wasn’t being rude; he would just forget. Once he had colleagues rather than superiors, however, he was able to develop the personal contacts that would secure him an appointment in 1914 at the University of Berlin. There he would remain until leaving Europe for Princeton in 1933.

Pierre and Marie Curie would have one of the great collaborative marriages in the history of science. Pierre Curie was older than Marie (his dates are 1859 – 1906). He came from yet another agnostic family, which was not so odd in academic France at the time, but he was very unusual in not having passed through the great preparatory schools. He was home-schooled; then he just showed up at the Sorbonne and started passing tests. He shared Einstein’s ineptitude for professionally advantageous socializing, but the lack of institutional alternatives to the Sorbonne in the French system may actually have helped to keep his professional progress steady. The Curies had two daughters, one of whom, Irène, would become a physicist and marry Frédéric Joliot: they became another noted husband-and-wife scientific team.

The interesting thing about the personal life of Einstein is that he tried to do just that with one Mileva Maric. She had been a science student, too. Unfortunately, she was not only not a super-student, she was unable to pass the Swiss qualifying exams that would have allowed her to teach science. They would have a daughter out of wedlock, whom Einstein insisted on giving up for adoption. He lost track of the child, but later dreaded the effect on his reputation should she make public her connection with him. He and Mileva married and later had two sons. The trajectory of their marriage seems to have been that, first, they could talk about science; then they could talk about domestic matters; then they could not talk at all. Einstein made no effort to remain faithful, and while he never abandoned Mileva in the sense of leaving her and his sons without support, the tale of the collapse of the marriage does him little credit. They divorced in 1919, against Mileva’s wishes. Albert later married his cousin, one Elsa Löwenthal, who never aspired to be his intellectual equal.

All these people were affected, more or less, by the intellectual fashions of their time. Einstein was mildly interested in spiritualism, at least to the extent of being persuaded that some reports of psychical phenomena were true, but he never pursued the matter. Pierre Curie, in contrast, was an enthusiast and a frequent participant at séances. Marie seems to have been persuaded, too, but like Einstein, she never chose to devote her own time to research in this area. Perhaps in a victory of ideology over the metaphysical impulse, both Curies felt that Émile Zola had said all that needed to be said when he attacked the reports of miracles at Lourdes. It would be inaccurate to call Einstein an atheist, or even an agnostic: he had a strong mystical streak, and though he repeatedly insisted he did not believe in a personal God, he made quite a few references to the Lord that do not seem to have been meant wholly metaphorically.

Einstein and the Curies were “people of the Left” in a general sort of way, but none was particularly interested in politics. Nonetheless, Marie’s academic career after the death of her husband in a traffic accident was affected by the Dreyfusard – anti-Dreyfusard structure which the politics of the Third Republic retained long after the Dreyfus Affair itself had been resolved.

Marie Curie was an obvious candidate when an opening became available for membership in the French Academy. However, there was another, somewhat senior, scientific candidate, one associated with the Catholic Institute, who had respectable qualifications. Curie’s work had been more important, but she was young and it was arguably the older candidate’s turn. This was the sort of question about which reasonable people could differ, but the anti-Dreyfusard press in particular was not in the business of being reasonable. Through some newspaper alchemy, Marie Curie became the candidate of a Jewish-atheist cabal at the Sorbonne, a cabal that sought to undermine French family life by touting the accomplishments of a woman working outside the home. We are informed that, even then, the French were worried about demographic collapse because of low birthrates: a reasonable point, though we should also note that France would have actually lost population in the first half of the 20th century had it not been for immigration from Eastern Europe. For whatever reason, Curie lost the election. That would not have been very important, were it not for the fact that the press had assigned her an ideological category and would react accordingly when she next became a figure of public note.

Marie Curie came close to public disgrace when, not long after the affair of the French Academy, she was revealed as The Other Woman in a different sort of affair, this one concerning the separation of her colleague, Paul Langevin, from his wife.

Langevin was an important physicist: Einstein once named him the person most likely to have formulated Special Relativity if Einstein had not done so first. In any case, by his own account, Langevin had a singularly unhappy marriage. His wife was physically abusive, he said, and extremely jealous; in Curie’s case, with good reason. After the scandal passed and the Langevins reconciled, she demonstrated that she was willing to tolerate her husband keeping an ordinary mistress of lower social status. The Nobel Laureate Curie, however, was at least his equal and a threat to the marriage.

The aggrieved wife went to the press and played the story brilliantly. Once again, the press chose sides; the biographer treats us to long samples of the invective that the reactionary Right heaped on Madame Curie. Entertaining as all this is, we may note that, by concentrating on the many unfair things that were said about her subject, the biographer relieves herself of the need to defend her subject. Curie really was conspiring to break up the marriage of a woman with four children, even if the mother-in-law told the newspapers there were six. In this case, Dreyfus was guilty.

The First World War obviated these matters. Curie soon won great public credit by designing and organizing the production of mobile X-ray wagons for the Allied field hospitals. Meanwhile, Einstein in Berlin continued to refine General Relativity: this biography makes clear the extent to which relativity was always a work-in-progress for him. Robert Heinlein once cruelly remarked that Einstein was a pacifist until his own ox was gored. In the First World War, that had not happened yet, and Einstein found himself more and more alienated from nationalist colleagues at the university. After the war, he tended to blame both sides equally. He generally sided with the moderate Left and maintained an early skepticism toward the Soviet Union. In later years he hesitated to criticize the USSR, however, having decided it was the chief bulwark against Nazism. Curie, for her part, never doubted that the Allies were wholly in the right, and was comfortable with such conventional initiatives as the League of Nations.

The one type of politics that always engaged the enthusiasm of both Curie and Einstein was ethnic. One of the first two new elements that the Curies isolated was named “polonium” after its co-discover’s homeland. Before Polish independence, Curie supported Polish causes to the extent she could do so without getting other émigrés in trouble; afterward, she was understandably made a national hero, and did what she could to promote Polish science and education. Einstein, for his part, was an early Zionist. After the First World War, his triumphal first trip to the United States was actually a fundraising campaign for Zionist causes. Of course, Einstein being Einstein, he could never quite stay on message: he was quite capable of describing Zionism as an effort to establish a Jewish homeland that would not necessarily be in the Middle East.

Curie made fundraising trips to America, too. The biographer seems rather scandalized that she let herself be taken in hand by one “Missy” Meloney, the editor of The Delineator, one of the major American women’s magazines of the era. This was a pro-family publication which made much of the fact Curie was raising two children. Nonetheless, the magazine saw no reason why Curie’s being a mother meant that she should not have the radium she needed for her institute, so a tour was organized to raise money to buy a gram of it. The gram, or rather the key to the lead-lined box in which the gram was kept, was presented to her by President Harding. A decade later, President Hoover presented her with another. Some people just attract hard-luck presidents, it seems.

Though Einstein and Curie were scientific celebrities during the same decade, and in large part because of their receptions in the United States, there was a difference in how the public viewed them. Neither of the Curies had ever dealt with the press very well, at least until Missy Meloney came along. They gave interviews, but favored one-word answers, and usually let reporters know they would be happy not to see them again. Einstein could be short with the press, too, but he quickly perfected the persona of the Trickster Sage. People wanted to know his opinions about everything. It was one of Einstein’s great strengths as a human being that he resisted the temptation to believe that he was omniscient just because everyone assumed he was. Nonetheless, he produced more than his share of quotable quotes on a wide range of subjects, most of them tactful and none with intent to cause offense. He was politely ironic, at a distance, to Adolf Hitler.

As for Marie Curie, Einstein knew her and liked her, but he remarked in correspondence that she was a grouch. If there are treasuries of the wit and wisdom of Madame Curie, her biographer does not mention them. She gave intelligent answers to intelligent questions about the medical uses of radium. For the most part, though, no one seemed much interested in what she had to say.

Einstein and Curie in later years were notable for their solicitude in helping young scholars get the support they themselves never had. As an academic bureaucrat, Marie Curie in particular was in a position to offer not just recommendations but jobs. Perhaps that is a predicate for biographies like these: you must produce a class of associates willing to talk about you.

A final point: Everyone knows that Einstein’s brain was removed from his body for study. Most of it is still in one jar, but parts have gone missing. From this biography I learned that Einstein’s eyes were taken, too: his ophthalmologist dropped by the morgue at the university hospital in Princeton where Einstein died and asked politely for them. They are now in a closet somewhere in New Jersey. Madame Curie died relatively young of what seems to have been anemia caused by radiation poisoning. You can read her notes at the Bibliotéque nationale if you have a mind, but to see some of the material you must sign a waiver of liability: it’s still “radioactive,” a term she and Pierre coined.

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

Is the rate of production of useful ideas really dependent on the number of people involved?

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony

By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Conversations with Tyler is one of my favorite long reads at the moment. This recent talk with economist Paul Romer [recent winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics] overlaps nicely with many of my current obsessions [including English orthography!]. Today, let’s look at the rate of production of useful ideas. Romer brings up a paper by Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?“.

The model used here is a pretty simple one:

Here is what Romer says on the subject:

Chad Jones has really been leading the push, saying that to understand the broad sweep of history, you’ve got to have something which is offsetting the substantial increase in the number of people who are going into the R&D-type business or the discovery business. And that could take the form either of a short-run kind of adjustment cost effect, so that it’s hard to increase the rate of growth of ideas. Or it could be, the more things you’ve discovered, the harder it is to find other ones, the fishing-out effect.

I’ve had some thoughts myself about whether it really is harder to find new ideas, but I wonder whether the model posited is really telling us anything interesting. The equation has the form of a rate [research productivity per researcher] multiplied by the number of researchers. But per the notes in the paper, research productivity is defined as TFP growth divided by research effort, which is proxied by the number of researchers scaled by wages. This just cancels out the number of researchers, and gives us something like growth equals research productivity with an average wage fudge factor.

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

What it looks like to me is the rate of intellectual discovery is flat to slightly declining [when defined as equal to TFP growth], and that the number of people involved is completely irrelevant once you reach some relatively small threshold. I think the growth model referenced above is mostly useless for what it purports to be about.

That is a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it. My prediction is that you would get about the same rate of growth if you took most of the people doing “research” and had them do something else. On balance, they contribute nothing. [Or in my darker moments, I suspect a net negative contribution is possible….] When I think about this, I’ve made a number of simplifying assumptions, so let’s look at those.

#1: Innovation and scientific discovery are almost wholly the product of a few brilliant minds

This growth model matches up with other kinds of growth models in economics. When you are talking about how fast you make stuff, it is pretty plausible to think that adding more people will increase the overall rate of making stuff, even if you account for differences in ability. This is because given a method of production, there really isn’t much absolute difference in ability to make stuff. You can probably useful model such things as a random normal, which works well in general linear models.

For intellectual activity, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The distribution of accomplishment is nothing like ability. In practice, a tiny fraction of scientists produce the vast majority of results, with a distribution that looks something like a power law distribution. This isn’t a particularly obscure result, but it doesn’t seem to enter into the model.

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

What was done instead was an attempt to account for variations in productivity by looking at average wages. But again, this has the wrong form. Wages don’t vary as much as productivity does, or in the same way.

#2: The roles of the most innovative researchers are already filled by the most productive people

I think this one is arguable, but close enough, especially for the kind of outsize talents that really drive Solovian growth. Especially in a meritocratic age, the vast majority of bright, talented people already get a chance. To a first approximation, the most talented people are already doing what they are good at, so if you add more people, you are going to be adding researchers with a small probability of adding anything of huge impact. This is true even if you find smart people to do more research, given assumption #1.


Counterarguments

I can think of plausible arguments that should count against my argument above. I’ve made some of them before.

#C1: We aren’t talking about science, but engineering

The data behind the Lotka curve and other similar metrics mostly looks at unusual accomplishments, like publishing a lot of papers or winning big prizes. However, the data Jones et al. are looking are are mostly about total factor productivity growth, which is pretty clearly applied science, or what most of us call technology and engineering. This of its very nature is more diffuse, and needs a broader range of talents to actualize than a seminal paper does.

#C2: The historical rates of accomplishment in technology growth probably should be discounted because important things were left out

It is easy to build great things fast if you don’t need to worry about fracture analysis or environmental impacts. I’m sometimes horrified by the huge costs borne by the public during the Industrial Revolution, but I don’t face the choices they did either. Modern engineering is more labor intensive than it used to be because we have to integrate a much more comprehensive body of knowledge. And consequently, accidents of all types, environmental pollution, and infrastructure disasters are all less common than they used to be [with a huge caveat for China].

I take this as a justification for including all of the extra people who get paid to generate intellectual property. To be fair, not everyone involved in STEM work in the US falls into this bucket, and depending on how broadly IP is defined, it could also include a lot of non-STEM workers too.

#C3: Sectors like Pharmaceuticals seem to show this pattern of declining efficiency

Eroom’s Law

Eroom’s Law


On balance, I still think it is a little off-base to inflate the number of effective researchers so heavily over the last 90 years. When you take everything into account, I think even in technology, real advances are more Lotka curve like, but you also need a lot more people to get things done, but not 20 or 30 times as many, which is what Figure 1 from the Jones paper implies.

Pharma does look bad, but if you look at something like how much better imaging is, which heavily leverages Moore’s Law, medicine as a whole has developed quite a lot of new technology. What you get for it is another story, of course.

The Long View 2006-12-01: Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days

1411680530936_wps_12_epa04416448_Syrian_refuge.jpg

I will admit I haven’t thought deeply about whether Turkey’s admission to the European Union would have in fact been good or bad. I do find Pope Emeritus Benedict’s acts less alarming in retrospect than John did at the time.

Some random thoughts:

  • Turkey wouldn’t have been part of the Schengen zone, so travel wouldn’t have been much different, nor would the 2016 migrant crisis have been much different. There were too many people to cross in normal ways, so the tragedies would probably have still happened.

  • If Turkey had adopted the Euro, it would have made Greece’s financial crisis look like nothing. I can’t imagine that Germany would have actually agreed to put Turkey in the Eurozone, but hey, weirder things have happened.

  • John J. Reilly’s point about religious liberty might have been interesting. Maybe the Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities would have benefited Or maybe they would just pack up and leave with easier access to more welcoming lands. I find this one harder to guess.

  • If you think of the EU as a new Christendom, which its founders assuredly did, then admitting Turkey is strange. If, like most people now, you would never even think of this connection, then being opposed for symbolic reasons is instead strange.

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars.  It’s not even subtle .

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars. It’s not even subtle.

  • I’m not sure that the current situation with Syria would really be much different either if the EU border was involved. Turkey is already in NATO.


Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days

The Pope took the turban, or so I thought in bleary dismay when the clock radio woke me up with a report like this:

Pope Benedict wound up a fence-mending visit to Turkey on Friday amid praise from the local press for visiting Istanbul's Blue Mosque and praying toward Mecca "like Muslims". ...Catholic officials also presented the mosque visit, where Benedict stood in silent prayer while Istanbul Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici prayed aloud, as a key moment of reconciliation... "I would compare the Pope's visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul's gestures at the Western Wall," said veteran Vatican mediator Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, referring to Pope John Paul II's prayers at Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000.

"Yesterday, Benedict did with the Muslims what John Paul did with the Jews."

This irenic gesture can be theologically defended, and Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News duly defended it a few hours later, but you know there's a problem when your friends are using the title: The Pope in a Mosque — Dialogue or Idolatry?

Promoting the positive elements in other religious traditions is not the same as sanctioning their creeds or whitewashing differences. It is to encourage all people of good will to seek and follow the truth in as much as God reveals it to them, in his own timing and mysterious ways.

The goodness Pope Benedict will be promoting today here in Istanbul is not the Quran or the prophet Mohammad; it is the honest piety of many Muslim believers. He believes that when they pray, if they do so sincerely, the same God who listens to him in papal robes and to the homeless man with no robes at all, also listens to them.

To put it more briefly, our relationship to God as "thou" must be distinguished from our knowledge of God as "it," which is lucky, because the latter always needs work. And in fact, it is not likely that the principal author of Dominus Iesus is going squishy on religious relativism. The problem is that, in Istanbul, the pope's job as a statesman collided with his job as a pastor, to the great detriment of the latter. This was true even of his diplomatically defensible hedging about the the admission of Turkey to the EU:

Pope Benedict and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians said on Thursday minority rights must be protected as the EU expands and appeared to jointly support Turkish membership if it protected religious liberties. ....Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, strongly supports Turkey's membership in the EU and two days ago the Pope did an about-face from his previous opposition to Ankara's bid.

We have to sympathize with the patriarch's position. He wants Turkey to join the EU because then he will be able to appeal to Brussels over the head of Ankara about the oppression of Christian minorities. However, Benedict knows as well as anyone that the admission of Turkey would be a catastrophe from which Europe might never recover. Indeed, he knows this better than almost any other Western statesman, and a lot of the public respect he had garnered was based on the fact he seemed to be the only political figure note who was willing to be publicly realistic on this subject.

The pope has now lost that respect. He has dismayed his own flock. He has alienated other Christians who admired his fortitude. And the irony is that the journey to Istanbul will advance Christian-Muslim relations not one centimeter. You cannot placate the implacable.

I have every confidence that Benedict will repair the damage. If he does achieve final reconciliation with the Orthodox, the current dismay might even have been worth it. I have my doubts, though: reconciliation is not really in Patriarch Bartholomew's gift.

* * *

History should be irrelevant to religious practice, much less current political questions. The remarks by Father Chrysogonus Waddell in Adoremus are really a sober appreciation about the relevance for today of the 12th-century movement for the reform of liturgical music, but I cannot resist sharing this ghost story:

There are numerous stories from medieval monastic literature which take for granted a connection between our sacred music and the music of heaven. ...Which brings me to a very similar account from the twentieth century. When the great French musicologist Nadia Boulanger lay in a coma just a few days before her death, Leonard Bernstein came to visit her, despite that fact that any kind of communication was absolutely impossible.

Suddenly she spoke: “Dear Lenny …” He searched his mind anxiously for the right thing to say, and then heard himself asking: “Do you hear music in your head?” Instant reply: “All the time.” Bernstein continued: “And what are you hearing at the moment?” He thought of her preferred loves. Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach? Stravinsky? Ravel? Long pause. And then: “One music … with no beginning, no end.” She was already there, wrote Bernstein, on the other side.

And this is the great challenge for the contemporary composer of sacred music: to write music that already anticipates and shares in that music from above; a music that has no beginning and no end; a music that draws us even now to the other side.

We don't usually think of the liturgy as an empirical science, but perhaps we should. The view would be fruitful even if you regard the whole thing as a product of neurochemistry.

* * *

Speaking of dismay, the ever more despondent Victor Davis Hanson entitled a speech he delivered at the Claremont Institute's annual dinner in honor of Sir Winston Churchill Losing the Enlightenment (or at least he called the print adaptation that), and suggested that a "civilization that has lost confidence in itself cannot confront the Islamists." He does, however, end on this note:

So let me quote Winston Churchill of old about the gift of our present ordeal:

"These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived."

I do not think that yet speaks to our condition. I am reminded much more of this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, about an earlier phase of the same crisis:

We live in one of the mightiest ages in all history, and no one sees, no one realizes it. We are experiencing a volcanic eruption that is without parallel. Night has set in, the earth trembles, and streams of lava are rolling down over entire nations - and we send for the fire-brigade!

I strongly suspect that, if Spengler had lived longer, he would have wound up on Churchill's side, but that's another story.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-11-28: The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Gilets Jaunes

Gilets Jaunes

While the alliance of Western Muslims and Western Leftists generates a lot of press, both now [cf. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission] and in the past, actual proletarian uprisings stubbornly refuse to follow suit.


The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Are you troubled by the wall of separation between church and state this Christmas season? Has the ACLU declared a jihad against your town's Christmas creche? Well, Fr. Neuhaus has these words of comfort for you in the December issue of First Things:

As we all know, "the wall of separation between church and state" is in the Constitution. Except that it isn’t. Daniel Dreisbach, professor of law at American University in Washington DC, reflects on the damage that has been done by "constitutionalizing" the phrase found in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptist association of Danbury, Connecticut. He writes:

A wall is a bilateral barrier that inhibits the activities of both the civil government and religion—unlike the First Amendment, which imposes restrictions on civil government only. In short, a wall not only prevents the civil state from intruding on the religious domain but also inhibits a religion from influencing the conduct of civil government. The various First Amendment guarantees, however, were entirely a check or restraints on civil government, specifically on Congress. The free press guarantee, for example, was not written to protect the civil state from the press, but to protect a free and independent press from control by the national government.

Actually, the idea of a First Amendment "wall of separation" between government and the press is not as strange as might at first appear. The principal of "petrolism," after all, is that the state will not interfere in the affairs of civil society if civil society promises not to interfere with affairs of state. That sounds fair.

* * *

There is even more about fairness in that December issue of First Things, such as this review by Justin Shubow of William Ian Miller's An Eye for an Eye:

A professor of law at the University of Michigan whose previous books concerned topics as disparate as courage, disgust, and Icelandic blood feuds, Miller here offers an "antitheory of justice," a concrete, unsystematic look Ask how people historically have perceived and achieved justice through revenge. To the extent that there is a unifying theme in this meandering but fascinating essay, it is that the mercantile diction of obligation—of payback and owning up, of settling accounts and obtaining redemption and--cuts to the heart of our deepest intuitions about right and wrong. So, too, does the closely related language of measurement and valuation.

May I suggest that this is important? For several decades now, informed opinion of all political persuasions has more or less accepted John Rawls's premise that "justice is fairness"; that is, that what people mean when they say that they have been treated justly is that they have been treated according to procedures that are unbiased in such a way as to minimize the role of chance. If this new study is to be believed, however, a natural-language investigation of the term "justice" shows that it actually means no such thing. Someone should turn this antitheory into a proper theory.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Wreck of Europa draws ever closer, if we are to believe the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard. I note particularly this item, Another French Revolution? The rioters and their admirers--on the right and the left, by Michel Gurfinkiel of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris:

Indeed, there are intellectuals on the left and right who relish the prospect of a new French Revolution, and welcome the suburban rioters as its spearhead. Nothing is more revealing, in this respect, than the success of a feverish political novel, Supplément au roman national (A Sequel to the National Narrative), by 28-year-old author Jean- ric Boulin. Published two months ago, it forecasts a "social and racial" revolution in France in 2007. First a wave of suicide bombings in Paris. Then martial law. Then, finally, the great rebellion of the French poor: the native underclass, the Arabs, and the blacks, who unite under the green flag of Islam and the tricolor of France and march on Paris--as a sort of Commune in reverse. Boulin gallantly supports such an outcome. [Despite the support on the Left for the unrest, this is just a novel. Nonetheless] it would be wise not to write off entirely the possibility of a green-red alliance. There is a historical precedent in the spread of Islam itself, in the 7th century. ...Even the green flag of Islam was borrowed from non-Arabs: It was originally the symbol of rebellion in Byzantium, the equivalent in its day of the red flag in ours.

Scary stuff: should we be comforted or disconcerted by the fact it is old scary stuff? Note this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, a book published in 1933 that treats of the menaces posed by the White Revolution (the radical European Left) and the Coloured Revolution (what we would now call the Third World, plus Russia, but minus Japan, which seemed to drift to Europe in Spengler's later thought):

But the greatest danger has not yet been even named. What if, one day, class war and race war joined forces to make an end of the white world? This lies in the nature of things, and neither of the two Revolutions will disdain the aid of the other simply because it despises its supporters. A common hate extinguishes mutual contempt. And what if some white adventurer - and there have been many such - whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilization and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastic colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion - should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face?

The leftist masses of Spengler's day have largely evaporated, and when he talked about the extra-European menace, he seems to have been thinking more about colonial revolt than immigration. Still, to the extent there is an ideological merger of the Red and the Green, he seems to have foreseen it.

On the other hand, think how pleasantly surprised he would be by Benedict XVI. He represents the sort of unflustered return to tradition that Spengler thought was the hope of the West.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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All of John's posts here

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Cascade Point and other Stories book review

Cascade Point and other Stories
by Timothy Zahn
405 pages
Published by Bluejay Books (1986)
ISBN 0-312-94041-6

Since I am working my way through Timothy Zahn’s back catalogue, when I saw this short story collection containing “Cascade Point”, the novella for which Zahn won the Hugo, I knew I needed to check it out.

Like my previous review of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction, each short story has its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ll conclude with my overall impressions of the collection.

This book can be bought used, or you can find another, more recent ebook that contains several of the same stories.


The Berlin Wall  Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall

Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Giftie Gie Us ****

A post-apocalyptic tale from the end of the Cold War, with the title inspired by Robert Burns’ poem "To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church". This was a serious throwback for me, with the final conflagration being a nuclear war over oil. The other thing that surprised with with vivid memories was a reference to the strength and permanence of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, those tropes were commonplace, but now they are dated enough to shock me.

Each story in this collection has a short afterword written by Zahn, and here he mentions that this was his first run in with the First Law of Science Fiction: there are no truly “new” ideas. Zahn’s trick in this story is nearly the same as “Anasazi”, a short story by Dean Ing published at nearly the same time. It also ends up being the same as Tim Powers’ much later Three Days to Never.

Which I don’t think matters much, and neither does Zahn, since he says this was also his introduction to the Second Law of Science Fiction: it is what you do with an idea that matters. I think Zahn wrote a believable story here about finding love, and common humanity, in the midst of disability and ruin. I’ve said before that I enjoy Zahn’s moral realism. This is an early example of just that.


A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

The Dreamsender **

This one was even more of a throwback than “The Giftie Gie Us”. With its setting, the Moon, and antagonists, mostly deadly serious military men, “The Dreamsender” felt like a 1950s juvenile. This was only Zahn’s second story he sold, so he can be forgiven for trying out different styles to see what fit.

One of the weakest stories in the collection, but still fun.


Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

The Energy Crisis of 2215 ***

This is the closest thing to hard sci fi I have come across in Zahn’s work. His afterword says this story came out of a series of lectures at the University of Illinois in 1979. In the novels I am familiar with, Zahn typically wears his education in physics lightly. Here, it comes to the forefront, providing a wealth of technical details about a power plant that uses a captured black hole as a power source.

I also liked the way in which Zahn subverted the trope of the anti-science politician here. Jerry Pournelle used to complain frequently about Senator Bill Proxmire, who campaigned against the kind of pie-in-the-sky projects that Jerry liked. I think Jerry even used to write unflattering caricatures of Senator Proxmire in his books. Zahn takes a more Machiavellian approach here, which is a minor theme of many works in this collection.


CRISPR technique  J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR technique

J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Return to the Fold ****

With the recent revelation that a researcher in China used the CRISPR technique to genetically engineer human children, this story could have been written yesterday. This is a fantastic exploration of what it would feel like to be a human engineered for a purpose by other men.

…what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Tied up in this naked exercise of power are genuine moral dilemmas about the sacrifices necessary for as grand a project as interstellar trade. I appreciate his approach to character motivation here, which feels like “let’s see what person would do in this situation”. Characters panic, make mistakes, connive, save face, and repent. Not bad for 37 pages.


The Shadows of Evening ***

This one blurs the line between sci fi and fantasy. The setup is clearly sci fi, with a crashed colony ship, but the mysterious shadow that grows upon any bit of refined metal or mechanism more complicated than a lever feels like magic. The people of Vesper managed to survive this massive handicap, and even learned to fight back, developing a mental technique that could disperse the shadow temporarily. A guild of Shadow Warriors is formed to allow a modest level of technological development by mastering the difficult technique.

Things go on this way for generations, until a new, easier technique is developed. The Shadow Warrior guild is not impressed, used to challenges from frauds and charlatans. Except this time, the Disciples of Light are actually on to something.

Change is hard, especially when it destroys your livelihood. The real action here is psychological, in the reactions of Turek, the grizzled veteran of many years struggle against the shadows, when someone comes up and takes it all away from him.


Not Always to the Strong ***

A previously unpublished followup to “The Shadows of Evening”. The Disciples of Light have unleashed a technological revolution on Vesper, but technological revolutions easily turn into political ones when technology is used to make new and better weapons.

Zahn spends some time looking at the unintended consequences of sudden flood of technology, and also at the character of the now marginalized men who sacrificed to give their fellow men a better life than they otherwise would have had.

In the afterword, Zahn expresses some regret he never got a chance to expand on this storyline. I would have liked that too, as a reflection of technological development and human choices, this could have been an interesting twist on the usual kind of rising from the ashes story you get in post-apocalyptic fiction.


The Challenge *****

This is videogame fiction a loooong time before there was videogame fiction. Zahn says as much in the afterword. The story itself was fun, but even more fun is seeing what Zahn guessed right and what he didn’t.

Good guesses:

  • Online videogames supporting the more mundane activities of the Internet through advertising

  • Multiple screens with heads up displays

  • Competitive level building

Not so good:

  • The interface is all text! You have to type out your actions like Zork. This would be really interesting to see if it existed now. I expect you could get really fast with practice, but this is so different from either joystick or mouse and keyboard control.

  • The numbers of people involved are so small. The most popular game in the world only has a few thousand fans. I can’t see how the ad budget works out. Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord reflect how big games could get as entertainment.

I enjoyed this one a lot. A prescient guess about the future, with a little bit about the consequences of electronic entertainment thrown in.


The Cassandra ****

A sci fi tale of social ostracism, disability, and sacrifice. In the afterword, Zahn notes this is one of the few tragic stories he has written. I had also noticed Zahn’s preference for the upbeat, but I think this one comes off well.

One of the best parts of this story is the working class supporting character who ends up training the outcast Alban to work in a commercial kitchen when he can’t find any other work. That guy feels just like people I have met in real life, which is my usual standard for good characterization.


Dragon Pax *****

I think this is plausibly a precursor to the Heir to Empire books. Zahn takes a hard, Machiavellian look at war, politics, and survival. And it’s got dragons. It asks much the same question as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, what would you give up to ensure that ordinary people can enjoy the fruits of order and prosperity? This story makes what would be a Straussian reading of the events in question, if you weren’t in on the secret.

I almost said there aren’t any real benevolent dictators, but then I remembered Lee Kuan Yew, who at least demonstrates that the concept isn’t purely a fantasy of Plato. At the very least, it doesn’t work out well often. But often enough, you can find examples of some hard bastard who did some good. Which explains the popularity of the argument, “yeah, but he’s our bastard”.


Job Inaction ***

Sci fi writers sometimes come up with interesting ideas about technocratic solutions to social problems, and this is a competitor to universal basic income, with a 1980s flavor. Zahn tried hard to come up with something that would work, even though he wouldn’t like it.


Teamwork **

Another throwback story, this one reminded me quite a bit of Ballard’s collection, except it has a happy ending. A psychological story with a thin veneer of 1950s era B-movies. I didn’t really find much of interest here, but this clearly isn’t where Zahn invested his storytelling long-term.


The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment *****

A moral thought experiment along the lines of his later Soulminder, itself a collection of short stories expanded to novel length. This explores the debate over whether fetuses are human, using the world’s only verified telepath as the investigator. I found Zahn’s story subtle and provocative, which is not where you really expect these things to end up.


Cascade Point *****

I can see why they put “Cascade Point” at the end. I probably would have been tempted to stop reading after I got here, because this was really good. Zahn deserved the Hugo for this. I also think his success here established [or reinforced?] his style, because “Cascade Point” feels like the Timothy Zahn I know and love. Most authors have a style, and this collection was fun to read precisely because I got to see Zahn trying on different styles early in his career. This one is clearly the best fit.

The story and characters are both familiar, and yet unexpected. Zahn’s characters are fully fleshed out, which is remarkable in so short a work. This could have been a novel, but being longer wouldn’t actually make it better [which is how I feel about Ender’s Game too, but Card went ahead and made it a novel anyways].

Zahn’s idea for faster-than-light travel here is more interesting than just about any that I have ever come across. Probably this is because we both have an education in physics, but I find his topological method of transforming a rotation into linear motion to be absolutely fascinating.

To then find a way to work in not only the convenient psychiatric patient subplot, but also the more interesting character development the ship’s crew undergoes as they claw their way back from the abyss is why Zahn has now been writing books for a living for almost forty years.


Ben’s final verdict *****

I am glad I picked this volume up. I got to see a different side of Timothy Zahn, as he explored different ways of telling stories. I also got to see the story that first made him famous, and justly so in my opinion. As a fan, I love this book, and I think any other fan of Zahn probably will too.

The blurb in the back of one of the most recent Zahn books I read said he is the author of nearly 100 short stories and novellas. I have my work cut out for me.


The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07F2M73XV

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-11-27: Atheists Panic; Democracy & Necessity; CO2/SCOTUS; Cannibalism Today

I’m about as disinterested in arguing with internet atheists as Ventakesh is with arguing with internet theists [that is Eve Keneinan’s beat], the reason I put this here is that the tendency John Reilly was describing is still pretty strong. Arguably, the two firmly committed poles here are just getting more entrenched.

As John says, I do think most internet atheists are unacquainted with the best arguments both against and for their position. For the most part, this turns on tribal identify and personality more than reasoned debate. However, much like null RCTs on diets, a lack of reasoned debate on God doesn’t mean conversions don’t happen.

Here is an argument that I think may have convinced me of the opposite of what John seems to mean here:

One way to restate Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis is that, at the end of the Cold War, the proponents of liberal democracy finally convinced everybody in the West, except for a few cranks, that democracy is irresistible in the long run. If democracy is not a universal imperative, however, then it is everywhere contingent. In other words, if it is not compatible with the current culture of the Middle East, then one could imagine situations arising in the West in which it would not be compatible, either. At the moment, no argues anything like this, except in the context of judicial review. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the prospect that "realism" will spread to domestic politics.

John was a big advocate of the Iraq war, but if you read the rest of his corpus, it is pretty clear that democracy isn’t a universal good at all times and in all places, not in Iraq now, and maybe not in the West anymore either.


Atheists Panic; Democracy & Necessity; CO2/SCOTUS; Cannibalism Today

Surely it is a splendid thing to be a " professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago," as is Richard A. Shweder. This morning, however, he rose to an even dizzier eminence with the publication of this opinion piece in The New York Times:

It has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith...Why, then, are the enlightened so conspicuously up in arms these days, reiterating every possible argument against the existence of God? ...The most obvious answer is that the armies of disbelief have been provoked....A deeper and far more unsettling answer, however, is that the popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real....

The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe. ...Unfortunately, as a theory of history, that story has had a predictive utility of approximately zero. At the turn of the millennium it was pretty hard not to notice that the 20th century was probably the worst one yet, and that the big causes of all the death and destruction had rather little to do with religion. ...Much to everyone’s surprise, that great dance on the Berlin Wall back in 1989 turned out not to be the apotheosis of the Enlightenment....

Science has not replaced religion; group loyalties have intensified, not eroded. The collapse of the cold war’s balance of power has not resulted in the end of collective faiths or a rush to democracy and individualism. In Iraq, the “West is best” default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos...

There are sophisticated arguments for atheism, but the scientists who take up iconoclasm as a hobby rarely seem to be aware of them. At least in part, that may be because the sophisticated arguments involve the sort of fundamental skepticism that would also undermine the optimistic epistemology on which the scientific enterprise depends. The price of making God invisible is to turn out all the lights.

* * *

Speaking of the default mode of politics, Mark Steyn's recent comments on the excellent British site, New Culture Forum actually have graver implications than he supposes:

The fact of the matter is that the snob right in Britain, the Max Hastings crowd, who denounce American adventurism in Iraq and all this, the Michael Moore conservatives as they are sometimes known over here, basically their argument - that George W. Bush is engaged in a hopeless task in Iraq, that Islam and democracy [are] completely incompatible - that’s not a problem for Iraq, that’s a problem for Britain, and Belgium and the Netherlands and Scandinavia. And to airily make that statement about Iraq and not to see its implications for your own country is almost unbelievably crass.

One way to restate Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis is that, at the end of the Cold War, the proponents of liberal democracy finally convinced everybody in the West, except for a few cranks, that democracy is irresistible in the long run. If democracy is not a universal imperative, however, then it is everywhere contingent. In other words, if it is not compatible with the current culture of the Middle East, then one could imagine situations arising in the West in which it would not be compatible, either. At the moment, no argues anything like this, except in the context of judicial review. Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the prospect that "realism" will spread to domestic politics.

* * *

Pigs will fly before the Supreme does what the plaintiffs are asking here:

The Supreme Court hears arguments this week in a case that could determine whether the Bush administration must change course in how it deals with the threat of global warming....The case is Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 05-1120...A dozen states as well as environmental groups and large cities are trying to convince the court that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate, as a matter of public health, the amount of carbon dioxide that comes from vehicles.

Even though the Court would not order the EPA to control CO2 emissions, however, I would not be surprised if it found the EPA already had the power to do so. This suit illustrates why it was so important for the United States not to sign the Kyoto Treaty. It would have done for climate policy what Roe v. Wade did for population control.

* * *

Enlightened atheists are correct when they fret that ancient brutalities are reasserting themselves these days; the problem is that they are looking in the wrong places. As we have noted before, uncontrolled illegal immigration has already re-created significant pockets of indentured servitude in sweatshop industries, and then there are the poor slave-nannies who dare not complain to authorities no matter how their employers treat them. Most gruesome of all, however, is the prospect of consensual cannibalism:

The wait for a kidney can stretch for years. People die waiting for one -- more than 4,000 in the United States alone last year.

A recent editorial in The Economist magazine suggested that instead of making it illegal for people to sell their kidneys, governments should permit it: even license and encourage it.

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Daniel Franklin, executive editor of The Economist, who says that legalizing the individual sale of kidneys would help. Legalizing the process, he says, would end a black market for the organs.

The key, Franklin says, would be "a robust system of regulation."

We all know how keen The Economist is for robust regulation.

All this reminds me of an episode in the Futurama series. The characters walk into a deli in New New York in the 31st century and see the food available from all across the galaxy. One of them says: "Boy, I bet you can find any kind of meat here but human!" The clawed and semi-aquatic shopkeeper asks, "You want human?"

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2006-11-25: A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

In retrospect, I absolutely prefer Bush 1’s approach to Iraq. My uncle came back from Desert Storm with nothing worse than a worry he might have been exposed to chemical weapons, but all of his limbs and with his mind intact.


A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

I can be terribly slow on the uptake about some things, one of which is the real motive behind the sort of diplomatic strategies that have entered public discourse in anticipation of the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group. The penny dropped, however, when I read this piece by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, What would victory in Iraq look like?.

The challenge here is not to avert civil war, however. Iraq is already in a civil war—and has been for a long time. It is too late for prevention. The real challenge now is termination...This means we need to shift from a strategy designed for classical counter-insurgency to one designed for terminating an ongoing civil war.

The use of the strangely neutral word "termination" in this context reminds me of Garrison Keillor's quip that Unitarians don't want salvation, they want closure. In any case, most civil wars that got terminated and stayed that way did so because one side demolished the other. That is not what The Usual Suspects are contemplating for Iraq, however. Biddle continues:

James Dobbins of Rand has proposed a regional diplomatic campaign to induce Iraq’s neighbors to use their influence with their Iraqi clients to compel compromise on a power-sharing deal. Given the Sunnis’ dependence on outside backers for money and supplies, and the growing Shi‘a links with Iran, an agreement by neighboring states to sever this support unless their clients compromise could have real traction. Of course, this means offering neighbors such as Iran and Syria inducements that would make this worth their while;...

This is the kind of deeply weird proposal that had me wondering about the sanity of its proponents. It does start to make sense, however, if we note the neighbor of Iraq that is not mentioned here: Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were content to see the Baathist government in Baghdad removed, but they then implored the Bush II Administration to leave the personnel of the old government in place and simply appoint a new dictator.

That was pretty much what the Saudis had advised Bush I to do in 1991. Bush I took the advice, in the sense of trying to promote a coup in Baghdad rather than removing the regime once and for all. The results of that policy have not been happy, but James Baker, who was Bush I's Secretary of State, regards the "realist" close of the war of 1990-1991 as his finest hour.

This time around, Bush II refused the realist advice, and tried to actually solve the problem. He was the the Bush who was not principally concerned with the oil. However, a democratic Iraq, even a populist Iraq, would be a disaster for the House of Saud. We must imagine their horror at seeing the Bush family, which had always been so solicitous of its interests (not least through the ministrations of chief family retainer James Baker) taking steps that would probably lead to the downfall of the monarchy. Now, however, Bush II's policy has bogged down, and the older heads in the Bush family are again in the ascendant. Am I overreading the situation in suggesting that the subtext of the ISG report will be ensuring Saudi Arabia preemptive chaos and a bit of influence?

* * *

God has a lot to answer for, according to most of the participants at a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The principal writers of popular science were there, or at least the ones who make a career of using their popularizing work to make metaphysical points and then express outrage when metaphysical objections are raised against them:

With a rough consensus that the grand stories of evolution by natural selection and the blossoming of the universe from the Big Bang are losing out in the intellectual marketplace, most of the discussion came down to strategy. How can science fight back without appearing to be just one more ideology?...By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.” ...“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”...[P]erhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

It's always tempting to mine stories like this for apologetic points. For instance, was the heartbreakingness an objective quality of those misshapen infants? If not, then the best course would be to desensitise yourself to human suffering. If real tragedy can occur anywhere in the universe, however, even locally for just a little while, then reality cannot be entirely impersonal.

Frankly, though, I don't like this kind of phenomenological argument: it has a sentimental quality that I find too tacky for theology. I also find that true of the sort of anti-theistic rhetoric at La Jolla, however. They do not disagree with religion: they are offended by it. They find it distasteful because they believe it to be dishonest. Honesty is a virtue. If you plant the tiniest virtue in an ontology, the most amazing tree will grow from it.

On a lighter note, however, we see that:

Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.

I could help but wonder whether this was the same crazy old aunt who played such a large role in the presidential election of 1996:

It was Ross Perot front and center who was talking about the budget deficit, crazy aunt in the attic, and he forced the other campaign staff to deal with something they didn't want to talk about.

That particular crazy old aunt badgered the political class into balancing the federal budget for a few years. But I digress.

* * *

Some prophets are more plausible than others, as we see in this disconcerting report:

ENCINITAS – There were lightsticks and earplugs. People danced and clapped. But this was no concert. This was church...Yesterday, as the sun went into its evening descent, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Encinitas joined a growing list of congregations around the world who are blending the music of the Irish rock band U2 with special Communion services. The result is something being called a “U2 Eucharist” – or “U2charist” for short...The mission of the U2 Eucharist movement is to help the United Nations achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals it adopted in 2000...U2's music is used because Bono, the band's lead singer and a Christian, is the global ambassador for the millennium campaign.

I am not surprised. Is it a secret that U2 is fundamentally a Christian band? The Alarm used to open for them. Of course, back then in the early 1980s, everyone in both bands looked like a poodle.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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Retribution: Galaxy's Edge Book 9 Review

Retribution: Galaxy's Edge #9
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published October 29th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07GNGLDWM

I threatened to write an elaborate thinkpiece on this book, and since no-one talked me off the cliff, here it is. I think I’m going to go full spoiler here, because I doubt I need to talk anyone into reading the 9th book in a series I’ve been recommending for a year. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read on unless you want me to ruin the ending for you.


The end has come.

In Message for the Dead, I thought the end was upon the galaxy, but Goth Sullus used his connection to the Crux to stem the tide, vanquishing the murderous and hateful Cybar and binding them to his will. Alas, it turns out that his victory was to be short-lived, and he would not succeed at building an Empire to last a thousand years. At the very moment of his triumph, his dreams turned to ashes in his mouth, and his power deserted him.

Unfortunately, despite his advanced age, Goth Sullus forgot to heed the advice of the venerable 100 Tips for Evil Overlords #22, “do not consume an energy field bigger than your head, no matter how much power is at stake”. [on a side note, I see that the author of the evil overlord list’s last name is Anspach. Coincidence?]

Of course, I am kidding. Goth Sullus pretty clearly knows most of these things. Sullus did not make any cartoonish mistakes. He was just undone by his moral failings, as nemesis follows hubris. It would be easy to condemn Sullus as a monster, which he is, but he is also genuinely a great man. Thus his end, when it comes, is all the more tragic.

I wish to focus here on Sullus, in part because I am fascinated by his character, but also because in retrospect, the entirety of the first nine books of the Galaxy’s Edge series turns upon Goth Sullus and his actions. Even the Battle of Kublar was but the preamble [with the collusion of X] to his campaign to bring justice to the galaxy.

If we now turn to the events of Retribution, one of the key threads is the final temptation of Goth Sullus. In Message for the Dead, the dread secret of the Cybar was heavily hinted, but here in Retribution, the truth is laid bare: the Cybar are but manifestations of demons and devils seeking to invade and despoil the galaxy.

I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

I would have thought Casper’s service in the Savage Wars, and his time on the lighthuggers, would have better prepared him for this

Blinded as he is by pride and ambition, Sullus cannot see this. Even though preventing this was why Sullus went seeking power! As surprising as this may seem, given his history, the temptation of Goth Sullus proceeds in a plausible fashion. Like the target of the apprentice devil Screwtape, the ultimate masters of the Cybar proceed from flattery, to practical advice, to offers of service, to demands of fealty. Reading this, I thought it felt about right. The whisperings of temptation do sound like this. From my own small experience, this felt real.

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

No death-bed conversion for Sullus

I had hoped for redemption for Sullus. In the end, he had spent far too long indulging his fantasies of power and revenge to act in time. Goth Sullus was vain-glorious and prideful, easy pickings for the masters of deceit. Casper might have resisted, but that persona was long diminished by the time he had completed his transformation into Sullus. Once he [Sullus] realized his danger, he [Casper] was too far gone to resist effectively. Virtue is simply what we habitually do, and for Sullus, his habits betrayed him in the end. When Wraith walked up and put a bullet in his head, it was the best thing that could have happened to him at that point. We can perhaps nonetheless hope that his final resistance will count in his favor at the final judgment.

Last Judgment  By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

Last Judgment

By Stefan Lochner - Postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153939

The end of Goth Sullus brings a fitting end to the first season of Galaxy’s Edge. Most everyone who deserved a bullet has gotten one. Order, of a sort, has been restored to the galaxy. Things will never be as they were, but life will go on.

There are just enough loose threads left for the authors to spin up another round of books, but I felt satisfied at the end of this. Each book in the series had its own feel, its own good moments, and then in the end it all came together cleanly. This was a hell of a good read, and I hope everyone else enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

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 Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review


What works in healthcare?

Short answer: almost nothing.

I’m being flip about a very serious subject, but at the same time I am in fact serious. Modern medicine probably works a lot less well than you probably think it does.

How could I say such a thing when you look at graphs like this?

Maternal mortality over time Our World in Data Global Health https://ourworldindata.org/health-meta

Maternal mortality over time
Our World in Data Global Health https://ourworldindata.org/health-meta

I say it because that is precisely what the evidence shows. If you look at Cochrane, the world’s preeminent aggregator of medical statistics, it is hard not to come away a bit disappointed. Effect sizes [usually the difference between the test group and the control group scaled to standard deviation units] tend to be rather modest.

Here are a few examples:

You can amuse yourself by finding your own examples. There are a few things that genuinely work well. But even for things like MMR, the evidence isn’t as good as you might think.

I suspect what is going on is that medicine works, just barely, on average. You get things like the long slow decline of maternal mortality from the confluence of lots and lots of little things added together. If you look at anything else, heart disease, or cancer, you will see the same pattern. Vaccines are an exception. Disease rates for things with effective vaccines just drop off immediately.

Polio dropped right off

Polio dropped right off

Heart disease is on a long, slow decline

Heart disease is on a long, slow decline

Which brings us to my motivation for bringing this up at all. Random C. Analysis just published an updated argument that healthcare spending in the United States isn’t badly out of line with the rest of the world, once you take into account how much richer we are than just about everyone else. We have more, so we spend more. According to RCA’s data, when income goes up 1x, healthcare spending goes up 1.6x.

My contribution to this is to suggest the reason for this is we purchase more and more healthcare is precisely because it doesn’t work very well. At lot of modern medicine treats symptoms better than causes, because we don’t understand the causes very well. You buy as much symptom relief as you can afford. Even when treatments are genuinely curative, the success rates are often low. For example, the controversial statistic number needed to treat attempts to quantify how many patients need to be treated in order to produce one cure.

This number is often quite large, often on the order of 50 to 100. Even for a really good treatment with an NNT of 10, 9 times out of 10 it isn’t better than the alternative it is being compared to. That is a lot of wasted time, effort, and money.

We just don’t know how to predict the 1 time it works, so we treat everybody and hope for the best.

You can find speculation like this from Goldman Sachs that you can’t make enough money curing disease as compared to offering palliative care. I’m sure there really are businessmen who would gladly milk you for everything you are worth, but I don’t worry about in reality because no one understands how to cure most of the things that ail us. It isn’t like miracle cures are being withheld, or even that research is being directed away from cures. We don’t know enough to do that.

If we really wanted to limit costs for healthcare, it might be possible if we ruthlessly limited access to only things that really worked. We would get 80% of the benefit for 20% of the cost. But people would be pissed. The other 20% of the benefit does actually work, sometimes. I don’t think this is possible, or even really a good idea. Any real solution will involve technology we don’t currently possess.

The Long View 2006-11-20: Steyn, Tesla, and Option Two

By LordHarris at English Wikipedia - Top left: (from here)Top right:(from here)Bottom:(from here).Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Pass3456., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17002806

By LordHarris at English Wikipedia - Top left: (from here)Top right:(from here)Bottom:(from here).Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Pass3456., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17002806

Here is an interesting reflection on social democracy. In the United States, it is a relatively common political position on the Left to advocate for some kind of social democracy, with some people being confused, thinking this is a variety of socialism, or even communism. In history, social democracy has been inseparable with nationalism, which provided the power to execute on ambitious social projects and the social cohesion necessary for success.

Option One is to recondense the social democratic state of the earlier 20th century. A necessary part of that project would be to dismantle the social-consumer state of the last third of the century, which actually produced the pathologies that Steyn deplores.

Option Two would require the judgement that social democracy is now anachronistic. A.J.P. Taylor remarked that one of the consequences of the First World War was that the fate of the English people and of the English state merged for the first time: that merger was "social democracy." The second option, then, would be to undo that merger in every advanced country. In the 18th century and in prior times the state was not that much more prominent than other corporate bodies. Government was the business of elites. The difference between civilized and barbarous states was that, in the civilized ones, government had reached a truce with civil society. People were allowed to go about their business without the need to worry much about what their "country" was doing. The survival of the state did not depend upon the patriotism of the population. Option Two is to reestablish that condition.

This observation dovetails nicely with the theory that we are due for the formation of a universal state sometime late this century. One of the reasons that nationalism has a bad reputation is that the need for social cohesion and the stakes of the struggle genuinely resulted in oppression. What usually isn’t taken into account is that social safety nets, environmental and workplace regulations, and civil rights were enforced upon recalcitrant minorities and dissenters as well, using the increased state power that nationalism made possible.

The minimalist states of the eighteenth century could never have done any of these things. It is possible that the states of the twenty second century will not be able to either.


Steyn, Tesla, and Option Two

Late modern monuments are usually appalling, but Mark Steyn finds some more appalling than others:

On the tomb of the great architect Sir Christopher Wren at St Paul’s Cathedral is a famous inscription: si monumentum requiris, circumspice; if you seek my monument, look around.” Conversely, if you’re seeking the tomb of western civilization, look around at the monuments. Not the old ones to generals and potentates, but the new ones. ...

Sharing the heart of the capital with King George IV, General Sir Charles Napier and Major General Sir Henry Havelock these days is Alison Lapper, an armless woman heavily pregnant. At the unveiling, Miss Lapper said the new statue would force Britons to “confront their prejudices” about disability...

Another monument: the Arizona 9/11 Memorial. It is a remarkable sight. ...the Arizona memorial is an almost parodic exercise in civilizational self-loathing, festooned in slogans that read like a brainstorming session for a Daily Kos publicity campaign: “You don’t win battles of terrorism with more battles.” “Foreign-born Americans afraid.” “Erroneous US airstrike kills 46 Uruzgan civilians.” And this is the official state memorial.

A third monument, a third country: France. This one was unveiled at the end of October in Clichy-sous-Bois. If that name rings a bell, it’s the bell on the fire truck racing through the streets to douse the flaming Citroens and Renaults in last year’s riots....Clichy-sous-Bois has put up a monument to the unfortunate Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore...

[I]f these monuments truly represent the spirit of each nation as those monuments to Nelson and Napier did in their day then you would have to be an unusually optimistic sort to bet on the long-term prospects of all three countries.

In Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, I believe, a character remarks on a bestselling autobiography by someone who had spent a lifetime doing nothing more than holding a routine job and chatting with neighbors: in such a cultural climate, the character explains, the fact that someone else has designed an excellent cathedral becomes invisible and unreportable. I wonder whether that is actually true: we can usually distinguish between important public figures and mere celebrities. However, it is true that new public monuments have become like cable-television stations: some have merit, but they are pitched to a niche audience, like the old broadcast television networks were. So, to some extent, the phenomenon is just another consequence of the evaporation of the mass public of the first half of the 20th century. The question is whether we want to recondense that mass.

The 911 monument that Steyn abhors really is just an other example of the general principle that modern monuments are almost invariably designed to reprove rather than to unify. This is not a defect of national spirit, I suspect, but of a lazy arts establishment.

* * *

The reply of 38 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address has already been discussed on this blog. Here is a rather less temperate criticism of the reply, from Islam Watch. Readers may find it interesting for its account (a rather jaundiced one) of the early days of Islam, but it is too angry and diffuse to be an effective polemic.

* * *

So you thought Nikola Tesla was mad, mad, did you? Well, he may well have been, but he seems to have been right about broadcast power:

US researchers have outlined a relatively simple system that could deliver power to devices such as laptop computers or MP3 players without wires....

The answer the team came up with was "resonance", a phenomenon that causes an object to vibrate when energy of a certain frequency is applied.

"When you have two resonant objects of the same frequency they tend to couple very strongly," Professor Soljacic told the BBC News website...the team's system exploits the resonance of electromagnetic waves. Electromagnetic radiation includes radio waves, infrared and X-rays.

Typically, systems that use electromagnetic radiation, such as radio antennas, are not suitable for the efficient transfer of energy because they scatter energy in all directions, wasting large amounts of it into free space.

To overcome this problem, the team investigated a special class of "non-radiative" objects with so-called "long-lived resonances".

When energy is applied to these objects it remains bound to them, rather than escaping to space. "Tails" of energy, which can be many metres long, flicker over the surface.

"If you bring another resonant object with the same frequency close enough to these tails then it turns out that the energy can tunnel from one object to another," said Professor Soljacic...Nineteenth-century physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla experimented with long-range wireless energy transfer, but his most ambitious attempt - the 29m high aerial known as Wardenclyffe Tower, in New York - failed when he ran out of money.

Broadcast power used to figure occasionally in science fiction, since you needed it to power the flying cars. The MIT project is not so ambitious. Still, I wonder whether this might have some application to, say, the Space Elevator. There is the lift question, for one thing. Also, magnets that don't need cables could come in handy in other ways.

* * *

Getting back to the condensation issue, Mark Steyn laments the rift in the Republican Party between the Win the War faction and the Small Government faction. He reasons thus:

I support the Bush Doctrine on two grounds -- first, for "utopian" reasons...second, it also makes sense from a cynical realpolitik perspective: Promoting liberty and democracy, even if they ultimately fail, is still a good way of messing with the thugs' heads...The president doesn't frame it like that, alas. Instead, he says stuff like: "Freedom is the desire of every human heart." Really?...The story of the Western world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and government "security," large numbers of people vote to dump freedom -- the freedom to make your own decisions about health care, education, property rights, seat belts and a ton of other stuff...If ever there was a time for not introducing a new prescription drug entitlement, wartime is it. Yet the president and Congress apparently decided that they could fight a long existential struggle abroad while Big Government continued to swell and bloat at home. ...Someone in the GOP needs to do what Ronald Reagan did so brilliantly a quarter-century ago: reconcile the big challenges abroad with a small-government philosophy at home. The House and the Senate will not return to Republican hands until they do.

This is an odd reading of the post-World War II West. While perhaps our right to drive without seat belts has been alienated from us, can we really be said to be less free in a world in which censorship has been almost entirely abolished? Conversely, perhaps the most odious thing about the health-care regime in the United States has been its evolution into a system that turns people into the indentured serfs of unsatisfactory employers.

I can only repeat: the expanding welfare state (well, welfare-and-regulation states) was characteristic of the participants in the world wars. Their establishment was part of the defense effort, even during the lulls between the wars, when people did not realize that war was what they were preparing for. Let me put it this way: socialism is war by other means. At least in the years from 1865-1945, the ability to wage an existential struggle abroad presupposed more welfare-and-regulation at home.

If there is another existential threat, there are just two options to deal with it.

Option One is to recondense the social democratic state of the earlier 20th century. A necessary part of that project would be to dismantle the social-consumer state of the last third of the century, which actually produced the pathologies that Steyn deplores.

Option Two would require the judgement that social democracy is now anachronistic. A.J.P. Taylor remarked that one of the consequences of the First World War was that the fate of the English people and of the English state merged for the first time: that merger was "social democracy." The second option, then, would be to undo that merger in every advanced country. In the 18th century and in prior times the state was not that much more prominent than other corporate bodies. Government was the business of elites. The difference between civilized and barbarous states was that, in the civilized ones, government had reached a truce with civil society. People were allowed to go about their business without the need to worry much about what their "country" was doing. The survival of the state did not depend upon the patriotism of the population. Option Two is to reestablish that condition.

Certain necessary features of such a regime are immediately obvious, such as a genuinely mercenary military. Also, tax revenues would have to be raised from more narrowly defined, institutional sources: levies on individuals would have to almost disappear, lest the taxpayers ask what their money was being used for. By the same token, popular control over government expenditures would have to be limited, since otherwise the electoral franchise would become just a license to spend other people's money. Option Two, in fact, would be very like the universal implementation of "petrolism," the sort of regime we often find in oil-producing countries where the government is funded by petroleum revenues and does not need to levy taxes domestically.

All this has current or historical precedent, and could be made to work. The one question is what motive the rulers of such a system would have for maintaining the societies from whose interests they had been at such pains to divorce themselves.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Builders and Breakers book review

Builders and Breakers
by Steve Light
Kindle edition,40 pages
Published by Candlewick Press (October 9, 2018)
ISBN 978-0763698720

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

This one was a sleeper hit in my house. I read it for bedtime once or twice when I first got my review copy, but the six-year-old and four-year-old never asked for it again. That is the metric I use most of the time for children’s books, so I set this one aside for a bit.

Then, the nearly-two-year-old started asking for this. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, he is big into trucks and construction right now. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is another current favorite.

71r6+OtwvKL.jpg

I think he also likes the narrative device of the two children looking for their father at the construction site, which runs in parallel to the text, a story told almost entirely in pictures. He gleefully shouts “DAD!” when we get to the page where the children finally catch up to their father with his forgotten lunch.

For my own part, I enjoy Steve Light’s fanciful drawings. He has a note in the book where he admits to a fascination with classical, Gothic, and Art Deco architecture. This results in a style of illustrated buildings that is only loosely grounded in any project that has ever seen the light of day, but is quite striking.

This is the kind of book that has enough going on to keep me from going crazy when I read it twice in a row every night for weeks on end. Thanks Steve.

My other book reviews

Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Pop Kult Warlord: Soda Pop Soldier Book 2
by Nick Cole
Kindle edition, 318 pages
Published November 4th, 2018 by Castalia House
ASIN B07K6SRSLW

A man with decisions to make. Choices that weigh heavily on him. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, someone once said.

I may be weird, but I found the opening chapter of Pop Kult Warlord riveting. I think I might actually watch the SuperBowl of videogames, if it existed as described. John Saxon, by now known only by his online alias PerfectQuestion, is competing in the world championship of online videogames in Havana. The game in question, WarWorld, is the ideal combination of FPS and MMO. You can LARP as a Colonial Marine in game, only communicating in scraps of dialogue from Aliens, or you can go pro like PQ did, and focus entirely on being better at putting digital bullets into digital heads than the other guy or girl in exchange for corporate sponsorship, fame, and fortune.

PerfectQuestion is a top-tier competitor, and he is in demand as a digital mercenary. In a world where e-sports pulls in billions in ad revenue, the world’s most popular and recognizable player can write his own ticket. Unfortunately for him, he is starting to feel like he is too old to be playing videogames all night, and longing for a simpler, more fulfilling life.

I’ve played a lot of videogames in my day, so I know what he means. I like videogames a lot, and I write about that frequently on my blog, but I would never trade videogames for my career and my family. The hours I’ve invested in gaming have tapered quite a bit over the years, in a natural progression of family involvement. John Saxon, alias PerfectQuestion, is on the outside looking in, and starting to wonder if the grass isn’t really greener in suburbia.

Unfortunately for him, fate has other plans. When his agent shows up with a truly sweet offer, PQ lacks any of the mundane grounding of a wife, kids, or a mortgage to effectively question whether a deal that is too-good-to-be-true really is. So he finds himself on a plane to Calistan, the Islamic Protectorate of Orange County. Once there, PQ quickly finds himself in over his head, and hilarity ensues.

Like some of my other favorite authors living [Tim Powers] and dead [Jerry Pournelle], Cole uses his favorite places in Southern California to add verisimilitude to Pop Kult Warlord. Even after the Meltdown, the rogue-AI apocalypse from the prequel CTRL ALT Revolt!, the denizens of Orange County remain much as they are now, a mishmash of different cultures jammed into some of the nicest real estate in America.

When he isn’t doing the bidding of Rashid, the Sultan’s son, PQ gets to see both the beauty and the squalor of Calistan. He can enjoy the gulls and the waves off of Rashid’s private island, drive fancy sports cars, tour slums and barrios, witness summary executions, you know, the usual. He even gets to fall for a doe-eyed Mexican beauty, who may or may not be involved with the Aztec Liberation Front [or is that Liberation Front of Azteca?]

tumblr_inline_o85q4mgqPu1r09uvv_250.gif

The Sultan has long suppressed Catholicism in his domain, but I was rather pleased to see that when PQ does finally meet up with an underground priest, he is in fact a faithful Catholic. Even in extremis, he counsels the Mexican terrorists to repent and follow the Gospel [which doesn’t rule out armed resurrection per se].

All of the intrigue and duplicity PerfectQuestion has found himself embroiled in comes to a head, and then to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, since this book really is hot off the presses, but for the most part, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. In a grand sense, justice is done, but the price is often severe. Some bear that price more than others.

Finally, I should comment on the book’s structure. This is the third book I have read in as many weeks that employs a parallel structure to tell a more complicated story than a simple narrative would allow. I don’t know whether that is a mere coincidence, or just the hot stuff for authors right now, but in this case I felt like it worked out fairly well. I wasn’t surprised when I saw how it all fit together in the end, and I liked how it tied into the last volume in the series, while pointing ahead to possible future works.

PerfectQuestion isn’t getting a white picket fence anytime soon, but I look forward to his next adventure.

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

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 Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

The Long View 2006-11-16: Rising through Humiliation; House; Quiverfull; Einstein

House of Representatives, 2006 election compared to 2018 [preliminary as of Nov. 11]

House of Representatives, 2006 election compared to 2018 [preliminary as of Nov. 11]

Last month, I guessed that the House would swing Democratic, but the Senate would not quite. That looks pretty close, but I didn’t make any kind of fancy prediction with numerical probabilities. I just looked at 2006, which seemed similar, and asked myself what seemed different this time.

There is still some settling to happen in the results. Arizona’s senate race was very close at first, and as votes were counted the Democratic candidate has strongly pulled into the lead.

US Senate, 2006 compared to 2018 [preliminary as of Nov. 11]

US Senate, 2006 compared to 2018 [preliminary as of Nov. 11]


Rising through Humiliation; House; Quiverfull; Einstein

American conservatism is suffering from the worst kind of nostalgia, the kind that distorts the recollection of the past that it idolizes. We see an example of this syndrome in this comment from National Review OnlineNew Age Conservatism:

Last Tuesdayís elections were, as widely expected, a solid thrashing for the Republican party. But the real loser was classical liberalism. And the winner was conservatism but of a relatively new and perverse kind. ... The Republicans had governed as Democrats, and the voters unsurprisingly decided to get themselves the real thing.

The Republicans have been strongest when they have adhered to classical liberal principles and articulated them boldly, as in the Reagan years and New Gingrich's Republican revolution. They have been weakest when they have attempted to be New Age conservatives, as during the two Bush administrations when they have governed as Democrats Lite.

In reality, the Republicans were at their strongest when they were the party of reform, and they had a specific agenda for the deregulation of certain industries. That agenda was largely carried out, successfully. The measures were popular. They were seen as part of a reform movement that included the end of patronage-spending and influence-buying in Congress. The articulation of classical liberalism helped in some quarters, perhaps, but at this point one suspects that any gesture toward consistency would have served as well. Reform, for electoral purposes, is an end in itself.

* * *

There should be a public-relations version of the Peter Principle, perhaps something like: "Celebrity tends to increase to a point where biography becomes an embarrassment." That seems to be the problem with Congressman John Murtha, the apple of the eye of House-Speaker presumptive Nancy Pelosi. He played very well as a gruff old Marine uttering blunt criticisms of the Bush Administration's military policy. Unfortunately, the attention he attracted to himself revealed a career that has not been invariably flattering. Whatever else happens, we can be sure that the new Congress will not be esteemed for reformist leadership.

Of course, the Democratic leadership seems in little danger of being upstaged by the Republican minority, as Dean Barnett notes (by way of Hugh Hewitt through Instapundit):

Trent Lott has won the number two job among Republicans in the Senate! Whoopee! If there's one message that the electorate sent the Republican Party last week, it's that we hadn't given them enough of Trent Lott. I cannot adequately express my delight that Senate Republicans have moved with such expediency to right this egregious wrong.

Is it just me, or is it becoming increasingly apparent that the Republicans and Democrats are determined to engage in a two year dumb-off? If it weren't for the fact that there are some very determined lunatics out there trying to kill us, this would be funny.

But they are out there, so it isn't.

One may doubt whether they will have two years to be stupid in. The United States after the Cold War became a little like Earth in The Seafort Saga. We have attracted the attention of the Fish. History thereafter becomes almost a cybernetic process of action, reaction, and action again.

* * *

I try to watch as many episodes as I can of House, the Fox surrealist drama about a misanthropic diagnostician and his exasperated staff. The star is the British actor, Hugh Laurie, who may have been new to many American viewers, but has actually had a long career:

Laurie plays Dr Gregory House, a cranky hospital doctor lacking a bedside manner, with a flawless American accent. It is a far cry from his upper-class twit roles in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, which helped to make his name in Britain.

Watching the most recent episode on Tuesday, however, in which Dr. House conspired with his friend the oncologist to abet the suicide of a patient in order to get a heart to transplant into the patient's son, it occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of scrape that Bertie Wooster would get into. The merriment is set in a casino in Atlantic City; the oncologist friend, as loyal as Jeeves, creates an ingenious alibi by making a disgusting proposal to a player at a gaming table. For that matter, the administrator at House's hospital might easily be seen as the most terrifying of Great Aunts, whose displeasure House is chiefly concerned to avoid.

I can't catch every episode, so if the series actually starts to allude to the Wodehouse books, please let me know.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Mewling Infant Front, there have been several pieces in the media recently about the Quiverfull movement, of which the most horrified may have been this one in The Nation:

There are signs of denominations and churches picking up the Quiverfull philosophy, not least among these the statements made by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler last year, who wrote that deliberate childlessness among Christian couples is "moral rebellion" and "an absolute revolt against God's design." Meanwhile, Phillip Longman hardly offers a left-wing counterpoint. Instead, he's searching--at the request of the Democratic Leadership Council, which published his policy proposals in its Blueprint magazine--for a way to appeal to the same voters [Allan ] Carlson [an economic historian who heads the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society] is organizing: a typically "radical middle" quest to figure out how Democrats can make nice with Kansas....Longman says that no society can survive to reproduce itself without following patriarchy. "As secular and libertarian elements in society fail to reproduce, people adhering to more traditional, patriarchal values inherit society by default..."

I do know people sort of like this, but they all have advanced academic degrees, are multilingual, and travel widely. If there is another babyboom, the "philosophy" will be a symptom rather than a cause.

* * *

I received Denis Brian's Einstein: A Life, a few years ago as a review book, but there was no venue for a review, so I had not gotten around to reading it until now. The book is heavy on detail and short on analysis, which is probably just as well. In any case, I noted this anecdote from an interview that Einstein gave around 1920:

Moszkowski wanted to know if the twins paradox was true. Einstein said that the effect illustrated by the paradox had been wildly exaggerated. The reason for this is that the speeds attainable by humans are so much less than light-speed that the resulting age difference would be insignificant. If, for example, the young space traveler had covered 19 billion miles as 600 miles a second (which is about 100 times faster than the greatest speed yet attained in space flight but still only 1/320 of light-speed), when he returned to earth he would be just one second younger than his brother.

I have garbled lesser subjects more thoroughly than this in speaking to the press, but I cannot help but note that this response avoid the issue. The paradoxical thing about the twin paradox is that , once both twins are back in the same frame of reference, both will have an equal right to say, "You were the one who was moving; I stayed here."

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Thrawn: Alliances Book Review

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn

Old School Star Wars by Timothy Zahn


Thrawn: Alliances
by Timothy Zahn
Del Rey (2018)
350 pages
ISBN 978-0-525-48048-8

This book was a breath of fresh air for me. Timothy Zahn has written something that feels like an old-school Star Wars adventure in the new Star Wars canon. The Star Wars novels written since Disney nuked the Extended Universe have ranged from the merely competent to downright awful, with a few excursions into active hostility towards the fanbase. So far, other than Zahn’s reboot of Thrawn, none have been fun.

This book was a lot of fun.

It might even be better than Thrawn, although that book was trying to do something very different than this one, which makes the comparison difficult. The last book in Thrawn’s story was a political thriller. This one is simple adventure, although Zahn made an interesting choice to tell two stories, widely separated in time, but unified in setting and protagonists.

The settings Zahn chose map onto The Clone Wars and Rebels respectively. We thus have one foot in the sunset of the Republic, and another in the dawn of the Empire. This book makes the most sense seen within the context of those cartoons, which are among my favorites of the Disney era.

We also lack the window into Thrawn’s mind the previous book provided, other than some brief observations on body language. Instead, we get to see into Vader’s head. I didn’t mind the shift in emphasis, because Zahn was able to deftly explain the way Vader sees himself. Years ago, I remember reading a fan theory that Obi-wan’s betrayal, the shock of accidentally killing his wife, and the process of being made into Vader caused a psychotic break in Anakin’s mind. Vader remembers being Anakin, but it was like it all happened to someone else. And precisely because of how horrible those experiences were, and his own complicity in how it all turned out, Vader doesn’t have much interest in introspection regarding his former life.

I don’t know who wrote that fan theory, or even where I read it, but they nailed it.

Zahn also gets to have a bit of fun with fan-service. Dave Filoni’s Rebels took a clever Thrawn gambit from the original trilogy of books, the Marg Sabl, and returned it to the canon by having Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s padawan in The Clone Wars, invent it. In Alliances, Zahn brings it full circle by having Anakin teach it to Thrawn.

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Another super popular character that arose from the margins of Star Wars

Zahn resurrects the Noghri commandos here, who were the nemesis that brought justice upon Thrawn’s hubris in the original story arc. It isn’t at all clear what might happen this time, since Thrawn’s new origin story shifted his personality subtly. Padmé also makes an appearance here, and I feel like Alliances does her justice. Since Zahn also created one of the most popular female Star Wars characters, Mara Jade [whom I suspect of being based on his wife], I’m not surprised that he can write Padmé convincingly.

Of course, Zahn needs to pay his dues as well. One of the worlds in the book is Batuu, and the city upon it Black Spire Outpost, which is the name of one of the attractions under construction at the Galaxy’s Edge theme park at Disneyland. Zahn works hard to find a way to tell an interesting story while still putting in the requisite product placement and nods to other products in Disney’s Star Wars portfolio.

It probably helps that this isn’t the first time he’s tried.

Zahn has written this book before, Outbound Flight. I read it in 2016, and so far, it has been the only Zahn book I’ve given a tepid review. I felt it was just too hard for Zahn to try to reconcile his early 1990s inventions for the course of the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi with the later prequels. This was Zahn’s opportunity to reboot that story, where Anakin Skywalker met Thrawn out beyond known space, and he made the best of it.

I would say that this is hearkening back to the Star Wars that could have been, the road that was not taken, but Timothy Zahn and Ron Howard and Dave Filoni and Gareth Edwards make me think there is an active resistance to the identitarian overreach of The Last Jedi.

This isn’t just the Star Wars that was, in the old Extended Universe, it is the Star Wars that is.

My other book reviews

Thrawn

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review

Soulminder

Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

The Long View 2006-11-13: TXT, Steyn, Spengler, Tridentine

2004 Madrid Train Bombings

2004 Madrid Train Bombings

It has genuinely been long enough that a terrorist attack that I have no personal stake in, like the Madrid bomadmbings of 2004, with 193 people killed and 2,000 injured, seems like it happened in another lifetime. At the time, I remember reading hot takes [which wasn’t a thing then, if I remember aright. Merriam-Webster backs me up.] like Steyn’s that credited that bombing with redirecting Spain’s involvement in the Middle East.

I don’t have any idea whether that is actually true, and I don’t care to find out at this point. It is more interesting to me to reflect upon what John J. Reilly said here:

I think that if the jihadis had been able to blow up subways and airliners in the US, they would have been doing so right along, no matter what the tracking polls said.

At lot of what happened in the United States post 9/11 has clearly been useless or worse, but also we haven’t had anything on that same scale since. In retrospect, our enemies really are stupid and feckless, and incompetent as well. 9/11 was shocking, but it also seems to have been sui generis. Unfortunately, there was a whole cottage industry of people turning out purple prose about the imminence of another terrorist attack on the United States for quite some time afterwards. Most of them haven’t really owned up to that foolishness, with a few notable exceptions. Despite writing things like this, John J. Reilly himself perpetuated some of this foolishness.

This quote is still useful twelve years later:

In the Reagan Administration, "small government" had semantic content: it meant the deregulation of banks, airlines, and telecommunications. That project was necessary and largely successful. However, the term "small government" has outlived its referrent. Now, like "nondiscrimination," it is used in contexts where its application means anarchy facilitated by fraud.

Both of the despicable frames mentioned here are still going strong in 2018.


TXT, Steyn, Spengler, Tridentine

Yet another educational jurisdiction is accepting text-messaging conventions on exams, and Simon Jenkins could not be more pleased:

Thank you, Scotland. First John Knox, then the Enlightenment and now the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In a direct challenge to the English at their most reactionary, the authority has declared that it will accept text-messaging short forms in school examinations. The dark riders of archaism will protest and the backwoods will howl. No spell is cast as dire as spellcheck. But the champions of reason are massing north of the border and need our support...I have no quarrel with grammatical authoritarianism. Grammar is a vehicle that needs a highway code of human communication. To parse is to prosper. Grammar evolves to reflect the new uses that language requires of it, as dictionaries include new words. Adverbs and adjectives fight the good fight against poverty-stricken nouns and verbs. Prepositions and conjunctions are hurled into the fray. A controversial time is had by all.

In contrast, spelling has become a no-go area, an intellectual tundra. While plain writing is considered a stylistic virtue, plain spelling is a vice. English orthography is an edifice of unreason. Word endings are the last gasp of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions, embedded in the cultural DNA of literary Brahmins. Not to spell properly is a sign of being common, as once was ignorance of Latin. Knowing your "ie" from "ei" or -ible from -able does not affect a word's meaning one jot. It is a caste mark, its distinction deriving from its very obscurity....The Scottish examiners are adamant that they are not rewarding text spelling, since there will be no marks for it, only for accuracy of meaning. Pupils will be credited for quoting "2b or not 2b" but will get higher marks if they spell it conventionally. That they should be penalised for an offence that Shakespeare himself committed is strange.

From the point of view of orthographic reform, we should applaud this development only conditionally. The text conventions that Scotland is now tolerating are often suboptimal. It also really isn't true that Sam Johnson's Dictionary became the basis for the current conventional spelling in order to grind the faces of the poor: the striving classes required a teachable standard, and Johnson's Dictionary was the only resource on the shelf. Still, as Jenkins notes, texting is the first mass-experience of an alternative orthography for English. It is news to many people that such a thing is even possible.

* * *

Mark Steyn is disenthused about the results of last week's election; he argues that the U.S. must prove it's a staying power:

On the radio a couple of weeks ago, Hugh Hewitt suggested to me the terrorists might try to pull a Spain on the U.S. elections. You'll recall (though evidently many Americans don't) that in 2004 hundreds of commuters were slaughtered in multiple train bombings in Madrid. ... they employed a craftier strategy. Their view of America is roughly that of the British historian Niall Ferguson -- that the Great Satan is the first superpower with ADHD. They reasoned that if you could subject Americans to the drip-drip-drip of remorseless water torture in the deserts of Mesopotamia -- a couple of deaths here, a market bombing there, cars burning, smoke over the city on the evening news, day after day after day, and ratcheted up a notch or two for the weeks before the election -- you could grind down enough of the electorate and persuade them to vote like Spaniards, without even realizing it. And it worked. ...On Tuesday, the national security vote evaporated, and, without it, what's left for the GOP? Congressional Republicans wound up running on the worst of all worlds -- big bloated porked-up entitlements-a-go-go government at home and a fainthearted tentative policing operation abroad. As it happens, my new book argues for the opposite: small lean efficient government at home and muscular assertiveness abroad. It does a superb job, if I do say so myself, of connecting war and foreign policy with the domestic issues. Of course, it doesn't have to be that superb if the GOP's incoherent inversion is the only alternative on offer...

I think that if the jihadis had been able to blow up subways and airliners in the US, they would have been doing so right along, no matter what the tracking polls said. However, it does seem to me that now they have an added incentive to accelerate whatever plans they have: they believe they have the US on the run, but from their perspective, a collapse would be far better than a staged withdrawal. One of the effects of the election, ironically, is that any attacks that do occur in the US will now be blamed on Democratic capitulationism, rather than on the Administration (which of course is actually responsible for preventing terrorism).

It really is not true that the national-security vote evaporated on the first Tuesday in November. The Bush Administration made a deliberate decision after the president's reelection to make the war politically sustainable by lowering its profile, which meant making it just another of the many important items in the president's second-term agenda. The Republicans lost the benefit of the national-security vote because they had long ago stopped cultivating it.

Steyn is right about the catastrophic effects of the congressional Republicans' bovine certainty that raiding the treasury was the same as good constituent-service. However, that has nothing to do with the "big government/small government" dichotomy, a rhetorical device that increasingly impedes thought. In the Reagan Administration, "small government" had semantic content: it meant the deregulation of banks, airlines, and telecommunications. That project was necessary and largely successful. However, the term "small government" has outlived its referrent. Now, like "nondiscrimination," it is used in contexts where its application means anarchy facilitated by fraud.

Readers will know that I am a great fan of Steyn's America Alone, but as I have also observed, his attempt to link the defense against the Jihad with domestic policy is the book's great weakness. You cannot fight Churchill's war abroad and maintain Coolidge's Normalcy at home. That is exactly what the Bush Administration tried to do.

Steyn further tells us:

Whatever it started out as, Iraq is a test of American seriousness. And, if the Great Satan can't win in Vietnam or Iraq, where can it win? That's how China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela and a whole lot of others look at it. "These Colors Don't Run" is a fine T-shirt slogan, but in reality these colors have spent 40 years running from the jungles of Southeast Asia, the helicopters in the Persian desert, the streets of Mogadishu. ... To add the sands of Mesopotamia to the list will be an act of weakness from which America will never recover.

For the near term, we must remember that the outcome in Iraq has not yet come out. There is no equivalent there of North Vietnamese heavy infantry waiting to pour across the borders when US forces leave. Neither, for that matter, is there really much sentiment in the US for total withdrawal, especially from secure areas like Kurdistan. For the longer term, I would point out that the era of half-measures, bad deals, and actual defeats began with the Korean War in the Truman Administration and extended through the Clinton Administration, which did one damned stupid thing after another, with no discernible diminution of US influence. It's not that the US is so splendiferous as that the world seems to have lost capacity to generate an alternative.

* * *

Spengler takes these things in stride, noting from his perch at Asia Times that Halloween came late in Washington

The sina qua non of a ghost is that it is condemned for eternity to reenact the delinquencies of its past life. That is just what we should expect from Robert Gates [the nominee for Secretary of Defense]. As chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet desk during the early 1980s, Gates shared the consensus academic view that the Soviet economy was strong and stable. A prosperous Russia, he reckoned, would respond rationally to management by carrot and stick. Fortunately for the United States, then-CIA director William Casey recruited outsiders such as journalist Herbert E Meyer, and listened to them rather than to Gates...

If the Soviet economy was crumbling, some leftist commentators object, what justified the Reagan administration's military buildup of the 1980s? The answer is that a failing empire is far more likely to undertake dangerous adventures than a successful one. That was true of the Soviet Union, whose 1979 invasion of Afghanistan threatened US power at the moment of its greatest vulnerability. It is equally true today of Iran, which faces demographic implosion and economic ruin during the next generation...we cannot easily imagine a world in which we will not exist because the world has no use for us. Self-styled power brokers of the James Baker ilk have no place in the world when power asserts itself in its naked form and there is nothing more to broker. The realists fancy themselves the general managers in a world of hierarchy, status and security. Replace these with insecurity and chaos, and there no longer is any need for such people...For the past five years I have counseled the United States to learn to live with the chaos that it can do nothing to prevent. No matter: Americans will learn, late and at cost, the way they always do.

Actually, i was having thoughts along these lines a few weeks back when I saw Zbigniew Brzezinski on the PBS New Hour explaining that there is no such thing as Islamofascism. When he was President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State, he never quite said there was no such thing as Communism, but there was a certain resemblance between his policy of disengaging from the Cold War and his attitude toward the Middle East today.

* * *

The Tridentine Restoration approaches, or so we may judge from this report:

Cardinal Francis Arinze, one of the most popular and powerful Vatican officials to visit St. Louis since Pope John Paul II's 1999 visit, told more than 250 people at the Chase Park Plaza Saturday morning that Latin should be used more frequently in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

The Latin language now, he said "is in the ecclesiastical refrigerator ... Mass today should be in Latin from time to time." ...In an hourlong, often humorous, address that received several standing ovations, Arinze suggested that, in order to give Catholics options, large parishes offer the Mass in Latin at least once a week, and in smaller, rural parishes, at least once a month. (Homilies, he said, should always be in the faithful's native language.) Latin "suits a church that is universal. It has a stability modern languages don't have," he said.

It is in the nature of restorations often to be substantial improvements on what they purport to restore. This variety of usage that the Cardinal describes is precisely what should have happened in the 1960s. Doing it now will not eliminate the vernacular liturgy; it will shame it into perfection.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2006-11-10: The Morning of the Day Before

I hadn’t known [or had forgotten] that John J. Reilly was among the Catholics who find the logic of Humane Vitae less than airtight. He was also among the much smaller group who thinks the doctrine is correct, it just needs to be explained a bit better.


The Morning of the Day Before

Peggy Noonan has the sanest response to Tuesday's midterm elections:

We are in a 30-year war. It is no good for it to be led by, identified with, one party. It is no good for half the nation to feel estranged from its government's decisions. It's no good for us to be broken up more than a nation normally would be. And straight down the middle is a bad break, the kind that snaps.... One day in the future either New York or Washington or both will be hit again, hard. It will be more deadly than 9/11. And on that day, those who experience it, who see the flash or hear the alarms, will try to help each other....Make believe it's already happened.

Possibly no other election in history has elicited so many acknowledgements by the losers that it was not a bad thing for their side to lose.

* * *

The only connection with UK nonprofits I have ever had is the Simplified Spelling Society, of which I have the honor to be a member. Something that always mystified me about the Society, however, was that it did not function as a not-for-profit: it has to pay taxes on its modest endowment and even on its fees. I was told that the problem was that the Society had done a bit of lobbying in the 1950s, which had branded it as a political group for all time. I thought that strange, since in America charitable tax-exemptions are not hard to obtain. Now I see that the situation in the UK is about to get worse:

Next week, the new Charities' Bill will finish its passage through Parliament. It should become law before the end of the year. In spite of being billed as "the biggest review of charity legislation in the past 400 years", it has generated very little comment. This is surprising, because the Bill will vastly increase the power of the Charities' Commission to dissolve charities, confiscate their endowments and assets, and give them to what the Commission considers a more genuinely "charitable" cause.

That threat is alarming and real. It used to be taken for granted that organisations devoted to education, to religion, or to the relief of poverty, were automatically providing a "public benefit". The new legislation dissolves that assumption. Even more worryingly, it also leaves it up to the Charities Commission to decide what constitutes a "public benefit". There is no guidance in the legislation on how that slippery notion should be defined. Ministers and members of the Commission have referred to "case law", but there is almost none, precisely because, for the last 400 years, there has been so firm a consensus that education, religion and the relief of poverty constitute public benefits.

...The motive behind redefining that notion seems to have been the desire to ensure that charities benefit all the public, not just some small section of it. That is why, for instance, schools and hospitals that charge fees are being threatened with the withdrawal of their charitable status: they are said only to benefit people who can afford to pay, and not the whole of the British public. In fact, every charity benefits a portion of the population rather than all of it

One could argue that the American nonprofit sector is too big and too irresponsible, but perhaps we should prefer it to the alternative.

* * *

Here is one of the ways the Iraq War differs from the Vietnam War, as revealed by the election on Tuesday:

Forget the war in Iraq. The political war in America this year proved to be a bloodbath for the "fighting Dems," who might more aptly be called the "fallen Dems" after Tuesday's election.

After Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a Democrat, nearly scored a special-election upset in Ohio's strongly Republican 2nd District last summer, bloggers and other Democrats began touting war veterans as candidates for 2006. They touted dozens of such candidates as the antidote for the Democratic Party's long-running electoral ailments on the defense and security fronts.

But if Democrats have the same low tolerance for political casualties as they have shown for battlefield casualties in Iraq, their push to recruit and elect to Congress military veterans who run as Democrats will be short-lived.

Actually, it would be a poor notion to "forget the war in Iraq," which is still ongoing. As I have remarked before, no outcome of that conflict will be acknowledged to be a victory. The opponents of the Bush Administration might accept a pretty good result, however, provided the Administration does not get credit for it. Current thinking seems to run along the lines of the plan put forward by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware in The National Interest (a publication which continues to get a little more disconcerting every time I see it). The plan is of the variety that leans heavily on the division of Iraq into federal cantons, based on negotiations with the Sunnis of the northwest. It is not clear to me that this is terribly different from what the Bush Administration has been trying to do. It is also not clear to me that peace is in the gift of the interlocutors that Senator Biden's plan contemplates.

In any case, domestic morale in the US is not as great a constraint on policy as the recent election may have led us to believe:

The US Army exceeded most of its recruiting and retention goals for October, the service said, even as it launched a new television and radio ad campaign dubbed "Army Strong." ...Re-enlistments in October far surpassed the goals for the active army (30 percent), the reserve (14 percent) and the national guard (43 percent).

Note that these figures coincide with an unemployment rate well under 5%. This is not 1974; Any party that works on the assumption that today is like then will get its head handed to it.

* * *

Meanwhile, here's a bit of preemptive disinformation about events in the Catholic Church:

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH laid down a tough, absolute law in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: no condoms, no abortion, no contraceptives. Never. Now the condom part of that rule is being reviewed, and if it is changed, expect new challenges to the entire contraception doctrine, to the doctrine of papal infallibility and even to the church's abortion rules....Pope Benedict XVI has ordered a Vatican staff report on whether condoms can be approved for situations in which there is potential for HIV infection. That report is imminent, according to Vatican rumors, and it is likely that Benedict will act quickly on it given that it was undertaken on his initiative...And yet Humanae Vitae is not, in its reasoning, as absolute as one might think. Paul wrote: "A right conscience is the true interpreter … of the objective moral order which was established by God." Thus he left a sort of conscientious-objector status for those Catholics who could not believe in the evil of contraception.

The actual text of Humanae Vitae does leave quite a bit of interpretive room for maneuver, though not in the way this editorial suggests. Humanae Vitae does, for instance, distinguish contraceptive intent from mere contraceptive effect (and it is not all clear the logic of the encyclical has any application outside marriage at all). The use of condoms for epidemiological purposes would not constitute an abandonment of the basic doctrine.

Like many people, I have never found the logic of Humanae Vitae altogether compelling. Like many exercises in natural-law reasoning, it is rhetorically persuasive without ever really locking into place with a rigorous proof. The irony is that, as sociology, the encyclical is the key to understanding the demographic and cultural evolution of the developed world over the past quarter century. The logic could use an upgrade, but to change the doctrine at this point would be wildly anachronistic.

I have my own notions of a class of argument to supplement natural law for civil purposes, but I don't particularly commend it to the Vatican.

* * *

Markus Wolf has died, the head of East German espionage for many years, and perhaps the most successful (though hardly the best known) spy in history. He died on November 9, an already overstuffed date in German history. I have a long review of Leslie Colitt's biography of Wolf, Spymaster.

* * *

Will it never end? Massachusetts continues to pursue the Darwin Award:

BOSTON, Nov. 9 — Lawmakers in Massachusetts, the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, dealt what appeared to be a fatal blow Thursday to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it.

In a flurry of strategic maneuvering, supporters of same-sex marriage managed to persuade enough legislators to vote to recess a constitutional convention until the afternoon of Jan. 2, the last day of the legislative session.

On that day, lawmakers and advocates on both sides said, it appeared likely that the legislature would adjourn without voting on the measure, killing it.

“For all intents and purposes, the debate has ended,” said Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and the assistant majority leader. “What members are expecting is that the majority of constituents are going to say, ‘Thank you, we’re glad it’s over, we think it has been discussed enough.’ ”

You could write a blog, you could run a news service, dedicated to nothing but stories about how this sort of issue has been settled once and for all, followed by accounts of the mass movements that spring up to insist that the matter has by no means been settled. You cannot settle the matter of abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia by judicial ukase; not even if, as happened here, you are in a position to sabotage the legislative process that might reverse it. More than a generation of experience shows that the strategy just does not work. Anyone who thinks otherwise in 2006 is ineducable.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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