The Long View 2007-03-06: Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

I will admit that I went through an Ayn Rand phase when I was young. Here a repeat of the best thing I ever said on the subject:

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.

This line from John J. Reilly recapitulates my opinions on writing:

Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

Yes, it does seem like 50 years since Atlas Shrugged was published, for the excellent reason that 50 years seems like just enough time to read a book that long. In any case, Mark Skousen of the Christian Science Monitor has some useful comments about the great anniversary:

NEW YORK - When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans...Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset.

Skousen says in that piece that "children do not appear" in Rand's world of Objectivist Capitalism. That's not quite true: I seem to recall that one of John Galt's colleagues, the Norwegian one, is described as having two kids. Nonetheless, Skousen does have a point if he means that Objectivism does not do a particularly good job of connecting the present to the future. The philosophy would work best for a race of immortals, which I suppose explains the Randian streak in Transhumanism.

Something else that I would argue Atlas Shrugged does not do particularly well is critique totalitarianism, or even describe it. The book is about the implosion of the welfare state, but a welfare state with no particular ideology, and certainly without any ideological connection to developments abroad. Atlas Shrugged is devoid of geopolitics. In the Objectivist perspective, perhaps, war is just another form of socialism. A military might exist in Rand's capitalist utopia, but as an anomaly: its ethos could have nothing to do with the larger society.

George Bush is by no means a Randian, but perhaps it is not an accident that his Administration's War on terror, especially in Iraq, has always been just such an anomaly in the context of his fiscal and immigration policies.

* * *

Asia Times Spengler also faults President Bush, this time for failing to coordinate the different branches of his foreign policy, as we see here:

Washington had the opportunity at the turn of 2007 to isolate and neutralize the Mahmud Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, but through stupidity and arrogance has made war the most probable outcome.

Misreading Russia...may have been the irreparable blunder. Meddling in the Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prompt Russia to step on Washington's toes in the one place that hurts, namely West Asia...[T]his has an unintended consequence: it has led Iran to believe that without Russian support, the United States will be isolated and impotent to act against it. That is not true, for the US can and will act to forefend a nuclear-armed Iran, alone if need be.

For myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could perceive NATO as threatening, though its expansion to the east does diminish Russia's ability to make costless threats to the rim of states on its western border. Russia's unhelpfulness with regard to Iran is, perhaps, overdetermined by many other considerations. I rather doubt that the Russian government is any better than the US at coordinating policy in Europe and the Near East.

* * *

There is another early online review (in addition to my own) of John Crowley's Endless Things, this one by Kestrell Rath at Green Man Review. Yes, that review is favorable, too, but perhaps more appreciative than I am of the complex structure of the tetralogy. Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

* * *

Here is a brief reply to all reviewers, offered by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion:

In the BBC TV adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ 1986 novel The Old Devils, John Stride gives a gleeful, roaring performance as Alun Weaver, a celebrity novelist and professional Welshman recently returned from London to his native clime. There’s a scene set at a book-signing for mostly effusive customers, to whom Weaver responds with a glance up from the table and some labored demurring: “No, no, you are too kind. This is mere hack work.”

And then an intense young man appears. “I’m a great fan,” he begins, “but I didn’t think this book quite captured the lyrical freshness of Mumbles Boy.”

There is the briefest of pauses, just time for a malicious smile from the novelist. “Why, thank you very much,” he replies. “And what on earth makes you think I’m interested in the opinion of young shags like you? Bugger off now, and a very good afternoon to you.”

A word to the wise: it is best to devise comebacks to remarks like that before they happen.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-03-02: Restoration; McCain; Solar Warming

Detail from The Vision of the Cross by assistants of Raphael, depicting the vision of the cross and the Greek writing "Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα" in the sky, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  By, Public Domain,

Detail from The Vision of the Cross by assistants of Raphael, depicting the vision of the cross and the Greek writing "Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα" in the sky, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

By, Public Domain,

I still remember reading this post, and the associated First Things article, because it was where I learned that Episcopalians of the early American era shunned public display of the cross. It was much later I learned that the cross wasn’t a symbol of Christians in general until about the fourth century AD or so. Until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the symbolism was a little too fresh.

Restoration; McCain; Solar Warming

My condominium association is tormented day and night by the municipal Historic Preservation Commission. They make us take down things on the facade of the buildings that are necessary for safety or security; they refuse to let us make necessary improvements or even repairs, because there is no way to do than at reasonable cost that would be consistent with the condition of the buildings in 1930.

The condominium consists of two slum apartment buildings that were restored at the end of the 1980s; the restoration was possible only because the Historic Preservation Commission had not yet been established. So, I know from personal experience that there is more to sane restoration than historical fidelity. Even so, however, I am not sure what to make of this restoration controversy to which Meredith Henne at First Things brings our attention:

In October of 2006, William & Mary’s new college president, Gene R. Nichol, ordered the altar cross removed from the university’s colonial-era Wren Chapel. His goal was to make the chapel “less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to . . . visitors of all faiths.” The eighteen-inch-high brass cross, a gift from neighboring Bruton Parish Church in the 1930s, had been on display unless guests using the chapel requested its removal, according to previous policy....For more than two hundred of its 274 years, a cross was not displayed on the Wren Chapel’s communion table. Episcopal chapels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shunned crosses as “popish” trappings....This dilemma, faced by the staff at William & Mary, is a standard consideration in historical restoration projects. “Historically accurate” architecture often means that a building or interior reflects the time of founding or origin, the point at which the most illustrious tenant resided there, or the years when a particularly significant event occurred.

The fatuous multiculturalism that seems to have been the real reason for the removal of the cross needs to be combatted. However, it seems to me that a chapel that was not built with a cross in mind probably should not add one later: the room will lack a proper focus for it.

* * *

John McCain has been openly running for president in 2008 for some time. However, his latest announcement to that effect, this time on late-night television, did not go well:

Republican presidential contender John McCain...a staunch backer of the Iraq war but critic of how President Bush has waged it, said U.S. lives had been "wasted" in the four-year-old conflict...McCain, who repeated his assertion that U.S. troops must remain in Iraq rather than withdrawing early, made the "wasted" remark after confirming to Letterman what has been clear for at least a year or more — that he's in the running for the 2008 Republican nomination.

And what can one say of the prospects of a candidacy that has been discountenanced by such great statesfolk as former-senator Rick Santorum:

“The only one I wouldn't support is McCain,” Santorum said during an interview in his office at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where he is a senior fellow.

“I don’t agree with him on hardly any issues,’’ Santorum said. “I don’t think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction.”

Let him whose tongue has never been tied in public cast the first stone at the ambiguity of "don't agree...on hardly any..." The disturbing thing about that remark is this "anyone but" business. That smacks too much of the saying on the French Right during the 1930s about the socialist premier: "Better Hitler than Blum." Actually, it also sounds like a saying from the final generation of the Byzantine Empire: "Better the sultan's turban than the pope's tiara."

Even McCain's great supporter, Peggy Noonan, had some rather obituary comments today about McCain's candidacy:

But Americans don't elect résumés, they elect men. Here some aspects of Mr. McCain's highly individualistic nature hurt him. He is funny, quick, brave, colorful. He is emotional, has a temper, carries grudges, harbors resentments. If the latter set of traits were not true, the former set would have won the Washington political establishment. As it is he has a portion of it, but many were hired, for money, as political advisers. This is a traditional, but at this point old-fashioned, way to spend money.

Better the family retainers of the Bushes, I suppose, than the humorless (and usually idealess) governments-in-waiting that tend to collect around ambitious senators. McCain did not need those people in 2000, and neither did Bill Clinton in 1992. Both McCain and Hillary Clinton need them now because, though they both have fans, neither has enthusiasts.

Noonan puts her finger on what I think is the key to McCain's popularity:

I suspect Mr. McCain knew no one could question his life, that it showed who he was, and so he could do what he wanted in terms of policy and not jeopardize his support.

That was certainly my attitude in 2000, when I endorsed Senator McCain here. On that page I explained that I did not much care about his views on campaign-finance reform. If he had any ideas about education, I would have been content if he kept them to himself. As for why I did support him, my views may not have been prescient, but they do seem to have been relevant to subsequent events:

It is not enough just to examine each foreign affairs and defense issue as it comes up. Policy has to be set within a larger understanding of how the world works and of the position of the United States in the society of nations. John McCain has this understanding. He knows and respects the existing system of international institutions within which the United States must operate. He is familiar with the military, and can be trusted not to work it to death or to use it as a theater for the prosecution of the culture wars. More intangibly, he has a sense of geopolitics, of how one area of the world affects another. These are not the sort of qualifications that pollsters are looking for in 2000, but they are what the American president needs.

Would happy birds now be chirping in every tree if McCain had been elected in 2000? Perhaps not. McCain, like Colin Powell, belong to the conciliatory generation that lies between the Babyboomers and Gen-xers. They are given to compromise through the elaboration of new procedures: a fine instinct, most of the time, but they are less likely than Babyboomers to see when discontinuity with the past is necessary. The McCain Administration would have invaded Iraq after 911. We should recall that McCain was the neocon favorite, the apple of the eye of The Weekly Standard; George Bush was the anti-interventionist alternative. Nonetheless, I suspect that the McCain occupation policy would not have been as Wilsonian as Bush's. Rather, there would have been a rapid installation of a neo-Baathist regime. The US, withdrawing quickly to a few small bases, would have turned a blind eye to how that regime secured its position. Iran and the human-rights industry would have been outraged. By now, the American electorate would be asking if the war had been worth the effort.

Would some things have been different? Yes. We can be certain that the McCain Administration would not have confined its case for the war to a monotone repetition of the "weapons of mass destruction" talking-point. The federal budget would be balanced again by now. However, the collapse of immigration control would have been even worse. Similarly with the healthcare system: McCain's instinct would have been to bolster a system that should be dismantled. In a way, the Bush Administration's neglect has been better than that.

And what about 2008? McCain is my default candidate. However, I don't see how anyone now running could be elected.

* * *

Global warming is not confined to Earth, as many commentators (including me) have observed. In any case, here's the idea again. Instapundit reports that National Geographic reports that one Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of the St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory, reports:

[T]he Mars data is evidence that the current global warming on Earth is being caused by changes in the sun.

"The long-term increase in solar irradiance is heating both Earth and Mars," he said. Abdussamatov believes that changes in the sun's heat output can account for almost all the climate changes we see on both planets.

Maybe, though I had understood that the most recent climate models had been corrected for changes in solar output. In any case, even if all the changes in global temperature were explicable from astronomical causes, that does not let us completely off the hook. A warmer world means endangered beachfront property and shifting agricultural regions. The difference is that there would be less we could do alter the climate ourselves.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Twentieth Century The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 By J.M. Roberts

VNV Nation – Automatic

VNV Nation – Automatic

If I could pick a musical representation of the twentieth century, it might be VNV Nation’s album, Automatic. Ronan Harris has an ability to write lyrics that distill things to their essence, and the essence of this album is the twentieth century’s technological progress and scientific optimism. This isn’t the whole story of course, but we have plenty of pop culture about the nasty things. It is nice to remember the good parts too.

As for the book review, I didn’t actually get much out of it, probably because John J. Reilly didn’t either.

Here are the best two bits;

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book.

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole.

Twentieth Century
The History of the World, 1901 to 2000
By J.M. Roberts

Viking (Penguin Putnam), 1999
US$39.95, 905 pages
ISBN: 0-670-88456-1

Back in the 20th century, the US Department of Agriculture sometimes used to distribute slabs of surplus butter to old people. (I know this because, one way and another, my family came into possession of more than one of them. We had a large family, and they did us for a month.) These slabs were about the same size as this block of a book. They also had the same creamy, undifferentiated texture as its prose. Other similarities are that the butter and the book were both probably well meant, but neither was very nutritious.

J.M. (John Morris) Roberts is a former Warden of Oxford's Merton College. As his recent History of the World and History of Europe prove, he is neither a stupid man nor a bad writer. He reminds us on more than one occasion that it is really too early to be writing a history of the 20th century, since we will not have anything like a usable perspective for generations to come. (He also labored under the handicap that by no stretch of the imagination could the century be said to have been over by the time the book went to press, though he gets high marks for recording events quite late into 1999.) Certainly his "Twentieth Century" is very readable, and often insightful. Its failings are two: it is oddly factless, and it is too cautious about connecting the dots to make a sustained narrative.

Roberts is predictably good when he discusses ordinary diplomatic history. He notes, acutely, that the historiographical fashion for "history from below" has little application to the final years before the First World War, since the outbreak of the war really was the work of Europe's foreign ministries and general staffs. Regarding that war, Roberts suggests that the outcome of the Dardanelles campaign, when the Allies failed to take Constantinople and so relieve Russia through the Black Sea, was the decisive event of the whole century. It was largely for that reason that both the Czarist and the ephemeral social-democratic Kerensky regimes in Russia collapsed, to be followed by 70 years of Bolshevism. Without the menace and lure of the Soviet Union, it is hard to see how either fascism or the Second World War could have occurred in anything like the forms they did, much less the Cold War.

There are two great trends that Roberts sees as characteristic of the 20th century. The first was the end of European history as a largely autonomous story. In 1901, most of the world was ruled by white people from a small number of European capitals. Within fifty years, this was no longer the case, and Europe itself was divided between two power-blocks whose centers lay outside it. (As always, Roberts cannot quite decide whether Russia is a European country, but then neither can the Russians.) The century as a whole, Roberts notes, falls rather neatly into two halves defined by this "end of European history." The most important thing about the 20th century, however, is that it was the time when all the planet's local histories finally merged into a universal history. This is new, and it is reason enough to accord the period something like the sense of unique importance that the people who lived in it claimed for themselves at the time.

The previous two paragraphs give you all the conceptual structure that "Twentieth Century" has. This might have provided the backbone for a good, extended essay. In fact, there are several good essays in "Twentieth Century" that can stand on their own. What they cannot do is stand together. Far too much of the book is page after page of dateless explanations about trends in economics or Chinese politics or what not. There are memorable truisms, such as, "To extend the idea of what is possible is to change the way people think as well as the way they act," and "What this means for organized religion, except that it means something, is almost impossible to say." Writing like this might be understandable in a book with a title like "Neanderthal Culture: 300,000 to 100,000 BC." To use this level of abstraction is writing about a carnival of a century, especially when you have lived through most of it yourself, is to indulge an unnecessary austerity.

Judging from this book, there don't seem to have been many people in the 20th century. There were no interesting ones, aside from Winston Churchill. The names of usual-suspect politicians are given, as well as, awkwardly, those of a small circle of scientists. That just about exhausts 20th century biography. As far as I can tell, there were no artists or philosophers after 1901. There were also no influential philosophical ideas, except for the great gasbags of Marxism and Freudianism and Darwinism. It may or may not be significant that the century seems to have had a singular dearth of notable historians.

Even within his narrow parameters, Roberts has odd notions about who merits a mention. Maybe only American chauvinism makes me wonder how anyone could write an essay on the origins of rocket technology and not mention Robert Goddard. It is simply mystifying, however, to read an extended discussion of the influence of Cuban Marxism in Latin America, a discussion that, moreover, alludes to the failed Bolivian insurgency in the 1960s, and still not find any mention of Che Guevara, who died in the Bolivian uprising.

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book. Still, surely something along the lines of Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" is not too much to ask for? (The original edition, which covered only the 1920s to the 1980s, is still the best.)

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole. That story may not be writable for another 100 years, though publishers may well be tempted to jump the gun so as to get it on the market first.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-27: The Bush & Jesus Dynasties; D'Souza's Consistency; Big Easy Eloi

Dinesh D’Souza’s reputation hasn’t improved in the last twelve years, but I am intrigued by John’s comment here that now makes me think D’Souza was a populist ahead of the curve.

The Bush & Jesus Dynasties; D'Souza's Consistency; Big Easy Eloi

Hostile reviews of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home continue to pour in, including this one by Scott W. Johnson, which appears in the March New Criterion and in today's Opinion Journal:

Whatever [D'Souza's] earlier attainments, he established himself as a writer of substance with his 1991 book "Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus," a critique of political correctness and multiculturalism...."The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11"--Mr. D'Souza's new book--is something else entirely. The book works a strange metamorphosis. Whereas "Illiberal Education" and "The End of Racism" proved Mr. D'Souza a precocious commentator and gifted polemicist, the new book is crude and sophomoric. Worse than its sophomoric treatment of serious issues is its presentation of a blinkered and politically correct version of the Muslim world. It is a presentation that the young Mr. D'Souza would have scorned. It is as though, having arrived on the scene as Franz Kafka, he has turned himself into Gregor Samsa.

I find fault with the book on critical points, too, but I disagree that The Enemy at Home is discontinuous with Illiberal Education. Rather the opposite: The Enemy at Home simply applies to the international arena the domestic culture-war analysis of Illiberal Education. This is not an idea that libertarian-conservatives find congenial.

* * *

Nobody wants Jeb Bush to get the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Certainly Quin Hillyer of The American Spectator does not want that, as he tells us in this piece, which is not a Jeb-candidacy trial balloon about how Jeb could be nominated. The gist of it is that the redesign of the primary schedule to decide the nomination early could have a perverse effect:

RATHER THAN PROVIDING UNSTOPPABLE momentum to any one candidate, in other words, the widespread voting on Feb. 5 could serve to keep all three "major" candidates and even a couple of minor ones alive. Nobody could claim a mandate, the vitriol would continue to grow, and the dissatisfaction already being..voiced by conservatives might take on pandemic proportions...Meanwhile, a number of states may have qualifying dates for candidates or delegates that post-date Feb. 5. Nine states still won't vote until May. A white night with a big enough name could conceivably jump in the race, sweep all the later contests, and lay claim to be the candidate of consensus and unity. Think of another president's brother, Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and you get the idea...BUT WHY WOULD HE RUN when the name Bush is so unpopular these days?...Perhaps because a lot can change in a year. ...In actuality, though, 2008 may be the best year possible to overcome the argument against dynasties. After all, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the anti-dynasticism argument will cut both ways. What better time for Jeb Bush to argue that a political inheritance should not be a disqualifier than when his opponent's entire career as an elected official is seen as a political inheritance?

I rarely quote Dick Morris, but I thought he had a point when he said over the weekend that we are already paying the price of dynastic politics, in which people achieve high office because their family ties have made their names familiar and provided them with political alliances they did not have to make themselves. The electorate is aware of this. I doubt that Senator Clinton can overcome the presumption against dynasty. I am sure that Jeb could not, even were he so inclined. Nonetheless, his name continues to be mentioned.

Of course, it is true that a lot can change in a year. If any of the changes are good, especially in Iraq, the one thing we can be sure of is that President Bush will not get credit for them. General Petraeus might, however. And just what is his party affiliation?

* * *

Here's a tale of Eloi and Morlocks, cruelly told by Mark Steyn:

This was the story of Paul Gailiunas, raised in Edmonton, and his wife Helen Hill, whom he met at Harvard. On January 4th, at their home in the Big Easy's Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood, Ms. Hill was shot and killed, and Dr. Gailiunas was wounded by four bullets while shielding their two-year-old son. The couple had moved to New Orleans from Dalhousie in 2001 because the doctor, according to the Globe, "wanted to work in a Third World environment." His wife was a filmmaker who showed her work at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center. Dr. Gailiunas also has his artistic side, as a vocalist and guitarist with a band called the New Orleans Troublemakers. According to the paper, "his lyrics explore universal health care, flag burning and early anarchist Emma Goldman." One gets the strong impression the doctor was in favour of all three...[A]lthough the population has halved, the number of murders in the city each month has stayed pretty much the same. Which means, in effect, the murder rate has doubled. ...Some suggest the National Guard be sent in, or that the Justice Department take over the city's police department. But it's hard to believe Dr. Gailiunas or his late wife would have endorsed such proposals. They ran a charitable enterprise called "Food Not Bombs," and Ms. Hill led "filmmaking bees" in agitprop documentary production.

I rather doubt that there is an essential connection between bohemian neighborhoods and high crime. Such connection as there is comes from the fact that bad neighborhoods have low-cost housing for artists to starve in. In the case of New Orleans, however, it has become an article of faith in progressive circles that jazz will never be the same again until every slum is rebuilt, down to the shot-out streetlights in the public housing projects.

* * *

This year's Easter Hoax is a listless enterprise. You can see for yourself Cameron and Jacobovici's case for having found the burial cave of the Jesus Family: go to the website of the Discovery Channel. Again, we are dealing here with an archeological find, made in 1980, of an unremarkable tomb in Jerusalem containing one of several ossuaries known to archeology inscribed "Jesus Son of Joseph." The tomb also contained several other inscribed ossuaries, some with names one might expect to find in the tomb of Jesus's family, and some with names there would be no reason to expect: it lacks several names one would expect to find. Cameron presents a statistical estimate that the particular set of names in the tomb had a likelihood of 600-to-1 of occurring by chance. No doubt that's true, but it would also be true of other combinations of names, and in fact there is nothing particularly suggestive in the set at issue here.

So what has changed since the tomb was discovered in 1980? The Da Vinci Code was published. Still, this is the kind of stunt about which one may not neglect to state the obvious, one element of which was well put by Mark Goldblatt in The New York Post:

Cameron and Jacobovici will mortally offend many Christians. Some critics will personally vilify them, while others question their motives and integrity.

But prominent Christian clergymen won't issue any death warrants, and the Vatican won't call upon "all believing Christians" to avenge the insult. Neither Cameron nor Jacobovici will have to spend the next decade or so in hiding.

Now imagine if they'd gone after Mohammad instead of Jesus . . .

Actually, there is an Islamic angle that is not hypothetical. The Islamic view of Jesus is of just another prophet, whose bones one might well expect to find in a tomb. Indeed, there is more than one "tomb of Jesus" in the Islamic world. We may expect the Cameron and Jacobovici film to become a feature of Islamic evangelization.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-23: Goracle Redux; War & Sovereignty; Dan Brown Copycat


This is an interesting idea.

The serious long-term point here is that debellicized states (states that have lost the capacity to wage war) are renouncing a key feature of modern sovereignty: not the right to self-defense, but the right to be consulted about the use of force elsewhere.

If anything, the intervening twelve years have seen a decrease in debellicization, since the world has mostly gotten to be a less stable and friendly place.

Goracle Redux; War & Sovereignty; Dan Brown Copycat

The ecoSanity site on whose credibility I cast aspersions yesterday has reappeared, again displaying its Heed the Goracle banner:


There now: what could be fairer than that?

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has some cutting things to say about the withdrawal of Coalition troops from Iraq:

Thus, even for reliable allies with capable militaries, the political price of marching into battle alongside the Great Satan is steep and getting steeper. This does not bode well for the general health of the planet. When the wilier Democrats berate Bush for not maintaining an adequate military, they have a sort of crude point, albeit not the one they think they're making: if the time, money and energy expended in getting pseudo-allies to make pseudo-contributions were to be spent instead on the Vermont National Guard, you'd get more troops more quickly with more capability. Yet for wealthy countries to deny Washington even the figleaf of token multilateralism is, in the end, to gamble with their own futures....[Australian Prime Minister] Howard is perhaps the last Western leader to understand this.

In this connection Pat Buchanan counsels the shortest way with dissenters:

Only the Americans are going deeper in. Aussies excepted, the "coalition of the willing" is no longer willing..... There is a larger meaning to all this, and Americans must come to terms with it. NATO is packing it in as a world power. NATO is little more than a U.S. guarantee to pull Europe's chestnuts out of the fire if Europeans encounter a fight they cannot handle, like an insurgency in Bosnia or Kosovo. NATO has one breadwinner, and 25 dependents. ...This isn't an alliance. This isn't a partnership. Time to split the blanket. If they won't defend themselves, let them, as weaker nations have done to stronger states down through the ages, pay tribute.

Well, perhaps he does not exactly counsel this. Buchanan wants the whole post-World War II alliance system dismantled. Making NATO a tribute-levying organization would just break it up all the sooner. (Also, perhaps, like many Americans, he never took on board the fact that Japan and the NATO countries cover all or most of the costs of the American bases on their territories.)

The serious long-term point here is that debellicized states (states that have lost the capacity to wage war) are renouncing a key feature of modern sovereignty: not the right to self-defense, but the right to be consulted about the use of force elsewhere.

* * *

Just in time for Lent, wouldn't you know, a documentary is about to be broadcast called The Burial Cave of Jesus:

The cave in which Jesus Christ was buried has been found in Jerusalem, claim the makers of a new documentary film. ...Jointly produced by Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Oscar winning director James Cameron, the film tells the exciting and tortuous story of the archeological discovery.

The story starts in 1980 in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood, with the discovery of a 2,000 year old cave containing ten coffins. Six of the ten coffins were carved with inscriptions reading the names: Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Matthew, Jofa (Joseph, identified as Jesus’ brother), Judah son of Jesua (Jesus’ son - the filmmakers claim).

The team of Jacobovici and Cameron are no strangers to edgy Biblical speculation. In this case, though, the evidence is less than overwhelming:

But the senior Israeli archaeologist who thoroughly researched the tombs after their discovery, and at the time deciphered the inscriptions, cast serious doubt on it.

"It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever," Professor Amos Kloner, who had published the findings of his research in the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa Friday.

"The names that are found on the tombs are names that are similar to the names of the family of Jesus," he conceded.

"But those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE," he added.

Will Time magazine make this their Easter Week cover story? I would not bet against it.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Dungeon Samurai Book Review

Dungeon Samurai Volume 1: Kamikaze
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published May 28, 2019

Dungeon Samurai is an isekai dungeon-crawler built on the principle that “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics”.

Depending on where you are coming from, that might be a lot to unpack, so let’s go through it. Isekai is the Japanese name for the kind of story where the characters are transported to another world, often gaining miraculous or magical powers in the process. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a notable example. This is an old kind of story even in Western adventure fiction, but it is realllly popular in Japan, which is probably why the Japanese name stuck.

A dungeon-crawler is any kind of story that focuses on the exploration of a monster-filled labyrinth. Role-playing games, whether tabletop or videogame, are the dominant form. You might think this would make Dungeon Samurai a LitRPG, but Cheah says he set out to make an anti-LitRPG, and I think he succeeded. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Finally, Dungeon Samurai ends up being a nice companion to another one of my recent obsessions, the blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, which looks at pop culture depictions of historical battles. A notable recent series looks at the siege of Gondor in both Peter Jackson’s movie and J. R. R. Tolkien’s book. As Devereaux notes, a big problem for any army is how to get your soldiers and their stuff to the place they need to be, at the right time, with enough food and water to get done whatever needs to get done. And hopefully get them out again.

Logistics are one of the things that makes Dungeon Samurai a compelling read for me. An expedition into the eponymous dungeon must be supplied with food, water, sources of light, and all manner of equipment. Soldiers must be trained to use their kit, and how to work with one another in the dark and cramped labyrinth. A whole society provides the many specialized functions you need to support such an effort.

Finally, I like the way Cheah approached his pretty clearly videogame inspired work. Games provided ideas, but not mechanics. No one has hit points or a GUI. People have abilities, but it feels more like a fantasy world where the rules are different, than picking a command from a menu. If you are going to find inspiration from videogames, and other books I have liked have done so, then this way seems better to me.

I was sorry this book was over so quickly. I am looking forward to seeing whether Yamada Yuuki can defeat the akuma and find a way back to his own world. If you can accept the premise, this is a pretty fun book, with a core of serious thought as to what this kind of a world would be like.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Cheah Kit Sun

Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

The Long View 2007-02-22: Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

Spitzer Space Telescope  By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

Spitzer Space Telescope

By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

I too would like to find some way to colonize space, but damned if I know how to make it economically possible. Tech billionaires are making it possible to reach space more cheaply, but it still isn’t clear what people could do in orbit or on other astronomical bodies that would be useful.

Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

How is manned space exploration different from astronomical space exploration? The chief difference so far seems to be that the only things the manned flights discover are appalling design flaws in the spacecraft, while space-based astronomy is always coming up with scientific surprises. A good example of the latter is the recent report, based on results from the Spitzer Space Telescope, that the atmospheres of two superhot, Jovian, extrasolar planets have no detectable water:

The discovery was also in keeping with the history of planets orbiting other stars, or extrasolar planets, which has been nothing but a series of surprises over the last 10 years as planetary systems out there have so far looked nothing like our own. Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution who was not involved in the work, said: “This is a field where observers are leading the way. The scorecard should read, ‘Observers 200, Theorists 0.’ ”

Indeed, these results are an insult to the new scientific method, which is more about tweaking computer models than uncovering mere facts. But be that as it may, these discoveries are yet another illustration of the fact we are in space for two reasons. One is scientific exploration; the other is a public works program that should be, ultimately, aimed at human settlement.

I am not one of those people who think that only private entrepreneurs have a role to play in the development of space. However, I do think that there should be two, separate, federal agencies to manage these different functions. They need different hardware and they have distinct constituencies.

* * *

Evil spambots have been making ever bolder attacks on this site's forum. Deleting them has become a daily chore. Therefore, I would like to thank Clan Orb for making public an easily accessible list of the ISPs of those damnable entities that have been banned from its own forum. Clan Orb is a World of Warcraft site. I can't say that I am greatly familiar with WoW, but I admire the graphics.

* * *

The notion that climate-change environmentalism is a religion has become so common that even the newspapers have heard of it. At any rate, the Globe & Mail has:

They came in their hundreds to hear him speak, and even those left standing outside the crowded hall would not be deterred from lingering in the proximity of the Baptist prophet from Tennessee.

It wasn't any old-time religion that drew these believers to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, but a concept they feel is every bit as crucial to humanity -- global warming -- that made them want to get close to Al Gore, the impassioned former U.S. vice-president, as he delivered his now famous Inconvenient Truth about climate change.

Like many a bygone leader who happened along at a key moment in history, Mr. Gore -- who has been sounding the environmental warning bell for years -- has suddenly inspired the kind of faith and fervour in others that he insists will be needed to overcome such a monumental problem.

"From my perspective, it is a form of religion," said Bruce Crofts, 69, as he held a banner aloft for the East Toronto Climate Action Group amid a lively prelecture crowd outside the old hall....Across the driveway in front of the hall, a large banner exhorted the crowd to "Heed the Goracle." Belonging to a fledgling group called ecoSanity, it was still there hours later, as Mr. Gore enjoyed a reception at the adjacent Simcoe Hall and the dispersing crowd voiced its praise.

We pass over in silence the anomaly of god-fearing conservatives using the word "religion" as a term of invective. We do not, however, pass over the term, "The Goracle," which sounds too good to be true for the political opponents of global-warming activism. Here is the sign mentioned in the story above; it links to the ecoSanity website:

This had been an
image of the 
"Heed the Goracle" 
banner mentioned above, 
but it has 
been removed, 
along with the 
ecoSanity site on 
which it was

Were we dealing here with agents-provocateurs? My suspicions only increased when I came across this review by John A. Baden at the Acton Institute of Eco-Sanity, by Joseph L. Blast, Peter J. Hill, & Richard C. Rue:

In addition to providing brief but reasonably complete treatments of the various "crisis of the month-club" events, Eco-Sanity helps unmask the attorneys, MBAs and "scientists" who posture as selfless defenders of the public interest. These opportunists use the perceived importance and legitimacy of their mission as a cloak to conceal the pursuit of personal gain. Decency and the canons of science are ignored as laws and politics are twisted for private ends.

Perhaps I should have confined myself to the latest scientific method by simply speculating about the elegances suggested by the data. However, I spoiled a perfectly good conspiracy theory by emailing ecoSanity about whether they had any connection with the book of similar name. Here is their reply (I delete the name of the writer, though I don't think he would mind being mentioned):

Thanks for writing! Nope, no connection. However, we did become aware of the existence of the book after the name occurred to us and we began the title search process. As it was the only match we found and written a good while ago, we proceeded to embrace it. And we have not read the book, just summaries, etc. We're an impassioned, Grassroots effort that also does a lot of volunteer work with Greenpeace in Toronto and we're working hard (with little funds) to get phase one of the full website up in a couple of weeks. Please don't hesitate to be in touch further about this or any other concerns you may have. Hope you feel supportive.

Frankly, I don't think I would be all that supportive, but they do seem to be on the up-and-up [or so I thought until the site disappeared a few hours after I mentioned it]. That does have a downside from their point of view, however, since it means that ill-disposed persons may now use "Goracle" in good conscience. [The matter has grown ambiguous.]

* * *

Fans of John Crowley will have noted that my site now has a review of his upcoming novel, Endless things, the conclusion of the Aegypt series. (I had been told the publication date was May; now the publisher is talking about June.) In any case, interested parties may order now, if they are so inclined. Note, too, that the other three volumes in the series are soon to be reissued.

Fans will also be interested to learn that the author has his own blog, Crowley Crow.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-20: The Deluge; School Stories; Hyperinflation; Murtha Plan

Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell

This blog post from 2007 is kind of eerie in how it could almost be current:

  • Cardinal Pell

  • Harry Potter

  • The implosion of Venezula

Apparently nothing new ever happens.

The Deluge; School Stories; Hyperinflation; Murtha Plan

Disturbed by charges in the press of religious obscurantism in connection with global warming, George Cardinal Pell of Sydney had some cutting remarks of his own about the cult of climate change:

What we were seeing from the doomsayers was an induced dose of mild hysteria -- semi-religious if you like, but dangerously close to superstition...I'm deeply sceptical about man-made catastrophic global warming, but still open to further evidence...I would be surprised if industrial pollution and carbon emissions had no ill-effects at all...But enough is enough...We know that enormous climate changes have occurred in world history -- for example, the ice ages and Noah's flood, when human causation could only have been negligible.

Actually, Genesis says that it was precisely human misbehavior that occasioned the Flood, though the narrative suggests that the causation was final rather than efficient. However, is that so different from the rhetoric of the Climate Cult? (I am more convinced of global warming than the cardinal appears to be, but yes, the idea has spawned a cult with dynamics independent of the science.) Civilization is in danger, we are told, because the human race has been bad. The excessive production of CO2 is just one of the manifestations of the badness of capitalist industrialism, or something. The big difference is that the cultists propose to save God the trouble of promulgating a new Covenant by correcting the badness themselves.

* * *

Just how conservative of genre is the Harry Potter series? It is conservative to a high degree, if you believe Mark Steyn:

Contemplating the rise of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the top of the hit parade six months ahead of publication, those of us toiling in the literary foothills can only marvel. Who would have thought an English boarding-school story would be the global hit of the 21st century? ...

Hogwarts is certainly a boarding school (a VoTech school, as more than one commentator has noted), but is it really like the boarding schools of juvenile fiction? I think it makes a difference that Hogwarts is co-ed, which was true of none of the classic stories. Stories and screenplays about traditional boarding schools are still written, of course, but they tend to be murder-mysteries.

On the other hand, Steyn suggests that the key element is the setting and not the demographics of the characters.

Rather, as J. K. Rowling is only the latest to demonstrate, boarding school is the perfect structure for almost any narrative: it enables you to create a self-contained world free of parents, with its own codes and conventions, yet constrained in both place (a world that ends at the school grounds) and time (a three-term year instantly divides your story into the perfect three-act play).

To be a really perfect setting, the school has to be snowed in.

* * *

Speaking of traditions, the implosion of Venezuela is following a scenario that has become venerable:

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's plan to curb inflation by lopping three zeros from the currency may backfire because the move fails to address production bottlenecks that are pushing prices higher, economists said. ...The annual inflation rate rose to 18.4 percent last month, the highest in Latin America, from 10.4 percent in May...

Government officials blame private businesses and citizens who buy dollars outside government channels for accelerating inflation. Chavez said those found guilty of "hoarding" and "speculating" may receive prison terms of two-to-six years.

And a bit more:

Faced with an accelerating inflation rate and shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken and milk, President Hugo Chávez has threatened to jail grocery store owners and nationalize their businesses if they violate the country's expanding price controls....The economy grew by more than 10 percent last year...Entering a supermarket here is a bizarre experience. Shelves are fully stocked with Scotch whiskey, Argentine wines and imported cheeses like brie and Camembert, but basic staples like black beans and desirable cuts of beef like sirloin are often absent. Customers, even those in the government's own Mercal chain of subsidized grocery stores, are left with choices like pork neck bones, rabbit and unusual cuts of lamb.

20% inflation is annoying but manageable. However, when you get to 60%, it becomes difficult for private persons to plan because it is no longer clear what prices mean. However, when you get to the zero-lopping stage and begin to criminalize retail, the situation is usually terminal: you are on your way to hyperinflation.

The question is how the Venezuelan government has managed to make such a hash of the situation. Russia and Saudi Arabia are petrolist states, too, but at least they have reasonably sound currencies.

* * *

But what does Mark Steyn think of the recent antiwar resolutions in Congress? Not much, it would appear:

So "the Murtha plan" is to deny the president the possibility of victory while making sure Democrats don't have to share the blame for the defeat. But of course he's a great American! He's a patriot! He supports the troops! He doesn't support them in the mission, but he'd like them to continue failing at it for a couple more years. As John Kerry wondered during Vietnam, how do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake? By nominally "fully funding" a war you don't believe in but "limiting his ability to use the money." Or as the endearingly honest anti-war group put it, in an e-mail preview of an exclusive interview with the wise old Murtha:

"Chairman Murtha will describe his strategy for not only limiting the deployment of troops to Iraq but undermining other aspects of the president's foreign and national security policy."

What struck me about the debates in both Houses of Congress was that the proponents of the resolutions did not seem to understand that they were not just handicapping the diplomacy of the United States; they were also putting themselves in physical danger. There was, for instance, a fairly direct connection between the precipitous American withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and the attacks on US targets on September 11, 2001. However the matter appeared from the United States, the withdrawal was read in the Middle East as evidence that the United States was fairly easy to intimidate; it made sense to raise the stakes with an assault on the American mainland. The US Capitol building seems to have survived that attack by accident. If the Murtha Plan has its intended effect, it's not likely to survive the next one.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Takeover: Part 1 Book Review

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by  Tommaso Renieri

Cover art for Takeover: Part 1 by Tommaso Renieri

Takeover: Part 1
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Published 2018 by Galaxy's Edge Press

Takeover brings us back to where it all began, the dusty world of Kublar. Except now, after Chhun’s victory over Goth Sullus on Utopion, everything is different. In the years since the Battle of Kublar, the Kublarens have been integrated into the galactic economy, built up glittering cities, and even acquired a Zhee refugee problem. All of this was sponsored and shepherded by the Republic. There is just the little problem that the Republic doesn’t exist anymore.

The Chinese word for crisis isn’t actually comprised of danger and opportunity, but it makes for a good story. Breaking up the Republic means that ambition plus good luck can make you a king in some out-of-the-way corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, lots of other people have the same idea, so potential potentates need rough men with guns to guard them while they sleep.

Which makes for interesting times on Kublar. The power vacuum created by the fall of the Republic allows men of wealth and power to set up personal fiefdoms in the quest for more power, and more money. Which is where our two POV characters, Carter and Bowie, come in.

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0,

By Tomchen1989 - Own work, CC0,

Carter is an ex-legionnaire, hired out to the highest bidder in a desperate attempt to keep his marriage together and his kids in a good school. The money is good, but working for shady characters in far-flung places puts even more strain on family life than a regular deployment does. At least when you work for the government, everyone can pretend what you are doing is legit.

In our world, the forever war in Iraq and Afghanistan produced lots of guys just like Carter. Their primary skills are in killing people and breaking stuff, and if they are really honest with themselves, they kinda miss being deployed, even though it is hell on your marriage, and you miss all the stuff your kids are doing.

Bowie, on the other hand, strikes me as much less of a team player than Carter. While Bowie has useful skills, he is just a little too focused on looking out for # 1. You want him on your side, but not necessarily on your team. Which is probably just fine with him.

I can’t think of any real-world analogues of Bowie, but he did strike me as being a bit like Agent 47.

Hitman: Sniper Challenge  by  PatrickBrown

Hitman: Sniper Challenge

by PatrickBrown

While Kublar seemed a lot like Afghanistan in Legionnaire, this doesn’t really seem like the model in Takeover. Excepting their strategic rock deposits, there isn’t actually much economic opportunity in Afghanistan today. Nobody other than the locals is much interested in fighting over it. What Kublar reminds me most of is China around the turn of the twentieth century.

This is also known as the Warlord Era. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, and a failed attempt to unify China as a Republic under Yuan Shikai. There was danger and opportunity aplenty, with intrigue, battles, fortunes made and lost as China rapidly modernized after the sclerotic Qing dynasty was overthrown. This is the China of the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a brief period where anything could happen, and foreign influences mingled freely with local tradition.

Takeover is a bit of an experiment, a serial sold only on Part 2 is already out, and I’ll likely review that one too shortly. The price is right, only a couple of bucks for a short story with a lot of punch, done in a style similar to Nick and Jason’s previous work together. I hope this experiment works out, because I would really like more of this.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Galaxy’s Edge season 1:
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
Retribution: Galaxy’s Edge #9 Book Review

Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations:
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

The Long View 2007-02-16: 911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

2007 was about the point when even John J. Reilly started to get tired of the administration of President George W. Bush.

911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

There is more than one history of the world, as John Crowley never tires of reminding his readers. This comes through very strongly in an excellent review by James Meek in The London Review of Books of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida’s Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The book was published last year. I have not read it, but apparently I should have. Anyone interested can order it here. This is how the review ends:

Long before [911], the US intelligence establishment (together with the British) deafened itself to revolutionary Islam’s loud message that it intended to change the world. Two prevailing narratives – of the West v. Soviet Communism, and of Israel v. the Arab world – overwhelmed understanding of another emerging one, in which most of Europe and most of America, together with the Soviet bloc and the secular intelligentsia of developing countries, were on the same side. Although this is not what it explicitly sets out to do, Wright’s book supports the conclusion that the direct struggle between revolutionary, counter-Enlightenment Islam and the post-Enlightenment world began some time before the Cold War ended – specifically, in 1979. That was the year of Iran’s revolution, in which, significantly, Islamic revolutionaries overcame not only the pro-American Shah but also their leftist counterparts; the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to protect its leftist regime against Islamic rebels; and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, was seized by a band of Islamic fundamentalists. It took Saudi forces more than two weeks to overcome the four to five hundred insurgents involved, who had demanded that Saudi Arabia isolate itself culturally and politically from the West, remove the royal family, expel all Westerners and stop selling oil to the US. Before the battle ended, women among the insurgents shot the faces off their dead male comrades to stop them being recognised. It was the first fortnight of the new Islamic year, the year 1400, the dawn of Islam’s 15th century. The rest of the world was still operating according to a different calendar.

Actually, an Arabist explained to me the significance of 1400 AH well before 911, as well as the fact that century years are often felt to be pregnant with meaning in Islamic culture in a way that Christian century-years typically have not been. My recollection is that I then turned the discussion to the eschatology of Tim McVeigh.

What I gather from this review is that the proposals for disengagement and accommodation made by people as different as Patrick Buchanan and Michael Scheuer are not so much misguided as irrelevant. Surrender is impossible, not because the terms would be so onerous, but because they are incomprehensible.

* * *

More than one old Cold Warrior felt rejuvenated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent performance at the Wehrkunde (Defense Study) Conference in Munich, an annual event for NATO diplomats to which the Russian president had been invited as a further step in the integration of Europe. Tod Lindberg of The Washington Times has this account of what Putin actually accomplished:

He clearly relished the platform, and with a little prelude in which he said he welcomed the opportunity to speak without "excessive politeness," he launched zestily into a denunciation of the United States and the Atlantic alliance... by the time he finished, an audience that was largely prepared, [despite] misgivings [about civil liberties in Russia], to welcome him warmly and to embrace his unprecedented accession to participation in the Western security dialogue was instead knocked back and reeling....[it] brought a troubled partnership back together, not in opposition to him, but in support of common values that he quite flamboyantly doesn't share.

The Realist School of foreign policy is composed of people who yearn for diplomacy to be about ordinary big-power deterence again; they want the UN to be taken seriously as the chief public forum (though not the ultimate arbiter) of international disputes; they never want to hear the terms "religion" and "geopolitics" in the same sentence again. The Realists are not delusional; there really are aspects of the international system that can still be thought of in this way. Events like the Wehrkunde Conference must give them hope that reality is reasserting itself. I fear, though, that the conference may have been rather like the funeral of Edward VII in 1910: a fine display of monarchy at the last moment before the institution was revealed to be an anachronism.

* * *

Speaking of anachronisms, Mark Steyn might agree with the view that the American political class has joined their number:

[Hugh Hewitt]:...Let’s turn to the debate in Congress. First of all, the news this afternoon, Mark Steyn, is that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was wounded, his name is Abu Ayub al-Masri, and his second in command, Abu Adawa al-Majahami was killed today. Muqtada al Sadr has bugged out to Iran, and the security situation in Baghdad appears to be calming.

[Mark Steyn]: Well you know, this is the stuff that matters if you’re in Iraq. The President gets no credit for it over here, because the war has in effect departed the physical constraints of Iraq, and is essentially now being waged for political considerations in Washington. And no news is good news, and sadder news is badder news, basically. I mean, the New York Times had this ludicrous piece yesterday arguing that the departure of Muqtada al Sadr for Iran could leave a power vacuum in Iraq that would be filled by even more extreme forces.

As I have said before, no outcome in Iraq will be counted as a success by the mainstream media and elements of the political class if the Bush Administration would get the credit for it. If the situation in Iraq finally crystalizes in a positive way, the issue will be methodically forgotten.

In any case, Steyn has further harsh words: :

This is simply a political class that is unworthy of a serious power. And it is difficult to see how this idea of discussing Iraq as if it’s some kind of board game about…it’s like the McGuffin in a Hitchcock movie, it’s merely the pretext for a lot of domestic political positioning. It’s not. It’s a real country, and it’s a real war, and it ought to be discussed in those terms.

If they are unworthy of it, then they will lose it. Already, I think, they have jumped the shark. The problem is that President Bush jumped the shark long since, with the attempted appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. He will not benefit from Congress's impending discomfiture, or even from his government's increasingly effective diplomacy.

I would not have thought it possible, but the late Bush Administration is starting to look like the crepuscular last two years of the Hoover Administration.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-14: Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos


I would have definitely read this magazine.

Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos

This study may have implications as unnerving as a trapdoor, if you think about it:

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is the worst country in the industrialized world in which to be a child, the United Nations Children's Fund ( UNICEF) said on Wednesday...Britain lagged behind on key measures of poverty and deprivation, happiness, relationships, and risky or bad behavior, the study showed.

It scored a little better for education but languished in the bottom third for all other measures, giving it the lowest overall placing, along with the United States.

Children's happiness was rated highest in northern Europe, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark leading the list. ...The study found there was no consistent relationship between a country's wealth, as measured in gross domestic product per capita, and a child's quality of life.

The Czech Republic, for example, achieved a higher overall ranking than economically wealthier France....

Colette Marshall, UK director of charity Save the Children...said "drastic action," including an injection of 4.5 billion pounds, was needed to meet a government target of halving the number of children in poverty by 2010.

I am as opposed to neglecting children as the next guy is, but may I point out that this ranking of child welfare correlates inversely with fertility rates? It does not do so perfectly: France has a somewhat higher fertility rate than Britain does, for instance. Nonetheless, the countries singled out for the best treatment of children all seem to be on a glide-path to extinction. Could it be that one effect of "halving the number of children in poverty" would be halving the number of children?

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has broadened his area of concern to include the zombie menace. "Who lost Britain?" Indeed.

* * *

Is the United States no longer a status quo power? That is one way to read this assessment from Spengler at Asia Times:

Some years ago I suggested that option theory offered insights into geopolitics. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the spoiler, seeking advantage from instability, while the United States sought to maintain stability. In financial parlance, the Russians were long volatility; they stood to exercise their political options opportunistically, and the more chaotic and uncertain the state of the world, the better for Moscow. For the past 20 years, though, it is Washington that is long volatility; in the absence of a contending superpower, instability frightens all contending parties into seeking help from Washington. The more unstable and uncertain the world, the stronger the position of the United States. Whether or not the US recognizes this is beside the point; the fact that President George W Bush has made a dog's breakfast of Iraq makes America's world position stronger.

If so, then what are we to make of these further observations?

A friend in financial markets observes that the world appears to be safer than at any time on record, judging by the cost of insurance against economic disaster...

Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard observes that world markets anticipated the outbreak of neither World War I nor II.

This is just another example of the return of the Long Boom mentality. Regarding the most recent Davos meeting, for instance, Richard Landes quotes a report on the many meetings about climate change, but notes this:

And apparently, no one mentioned global Jihad, which puts “real war” in the shade for its wide range of fronts and tactics.

The Eloi never know what the Morlochs are up to, until dinner time.

* * *

Sometimes I think it would be more fun to publish a little magazine than to write articles for one, but look at the kind of ideas I come up with. [see the post header for JJR’s magazine cover -BE]

* * *

I was always a great fan of Carl Sagan. I was never put of by his occasional effusions of agnosticism. Like many agnostics of high general intelligence, he did not realize that he did not know enough theology to make a serious critique of it. Unfortunately, his widow has seen fit to publish a compendium of this weakest aspect of his legacy:

“The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator....

It was Ms. Druyan’s impatience with religious fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Dr. Sagan’s lectures, which were part of the Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology that has been going on since the 19th century.....

Ever the questioner, Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that “He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is” allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

There are many reasons why religious people in recent decades have tried to edit the physical science taught in the schools, but one of the chief reasons was the efforts of popular-science writers to present their own metaphysical views as the results of modern science. Creationism is nonsense, but no greater nonsense than Stephen Jay Gould's postmodern biology.

The late Cold War did not always see Sagan at his best. His Nuclear Winter hypothesis has not held up very well, either.

* * *

Vox Day does know enough theology to rise to the level of refutable error, or so I would characterize this exercise in walking the plank:

If I am correct that my God is the Creator God, that we are all his creations, then killing every child under two on the planet is no more inherently significant than a programmer unilaterally wiping out his AI-bots in a game universe. He alone has the right to define right and wrong, and as the Biblical example of King Saul and the Amalekites demonstrates, He has occasionally deemed it a moral duty to wipe out a people.

The argument about whether God is arbitrary is not new, but it is currently topical. Benedict XVI took the other side of the question in the Regensburg Address:

Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the [logos]". This is the very word used by the [Byzantine] emperor [Manuel II]: God acts, [su 'n logos], with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.

Actually, I am inclined to think that Benedict is wrong when he says that the rationality of the logos is incompatible with violence under any circumstances. (And yes, anyone can disagree with the address, since Benedict was speaking as a speculative theologian, not ex cathedra.) However, the point is that reason belongs to the divine substance; it is not a mere creation of the divine.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Radioactive Evolution Book Review

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Radioactive Evolution: A Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic Adventure
by Richard Hummel
Hummel Books (November 15, 2018)

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from

Richard Hummel’s Radioactive Evolution is now the third or fourth variant [depending on what counts] on the relatively new LitRPG category that I have reviewed. Hummel himself identifies the book as Gamelit, adventure fiction influenced by videogames. In this case, the game-like element is the omnipresence of nanites within the humans and animals who inhabit the radioactive and depopulated Earth.

Due to a chance encounter with a dragon egg in the ruins of New York City and a perhaps foolish bit of self-experimentation, Jared Cartwright discovers that the nanites can be collected from the world by killing animals [and presumably people] and then directed to produce targeted changes in his body and mind, allowing him to “level up” in a sense. I envision the process much like Scott Pilgrim collecting coins from his fallen foes.

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

There are even “boss fights”, which is exactly how Jared describes his encounter with a giant mutated rat after killing dozens of rodents of merely unusual size. This was fairly early in the book, and it bogged me down some. I’ve found that I don’t particularly care much for the typical LitRPG or Gamelit conceits. I am relatively more willing to tolerate this kind of thing in the trapped in the game style of book, such as Paul Bellow’s Hack. In this case, where it is just a way of describing a feature of the fictional world, I tend to find it breaks the suspension of disbelief a bit, but I think this tends to be an idiosyncratic and personal thing.

St. George cooks the dragon

St. George cooks the dragon

The second obstacle to enjoyment for me was Jared’s recruitment by the Matriarch of Dragons in an ancient war against humans. In the history she mentally communicates to him the humans who took the dragons’ side were considered traitors. Well, yeah, that is what the word means. In the third chapter, where this all goes down, all we get is the dragon’s side of it, and it isn’t even clear at this point that the humans weren’t justified in exterminating the dragons. Given the abilities of the dragons in the book, it must have been a hell of a lot of work to do it. Later in the book, we get some hints that the eventual destination of this isn’t actually Jared and the dragons against humanity, but that is exactly how it is presented in the beginning.

I rooted for this guy in  Avatar

I rooted for this guy in Avatar

Fortunately, I found that the book picked up a bit once we moved past Jared’s initial encounter with the dragon egg and him learning about his new abilities. The part of the book that followed was more conventionally post-apocalyptic, with Jared learning to navigate the complexity of a world where alliances are made of desperation and fear, much like his contract with the dragons [which was made under duress, clearly acceptable to dragonkind, but not the norm for humans].

This part of the book was pretty clearly inspired by videogames as well, but more as a theme than a mechanic, which is an improvement in my opinion. Jared gets to explore, establish a base of operations, and meet a love interest, which are the basic kinds of things you do in many RPGs. The things that happen seem more like the natural consequence of choices that Jared or other characters make, rather than, well, I need to grind some EXP by killing some rats.

Since the second act is so much stronger than the the first, I have some hope that this series will turn out well, but I think that the rest of this series is a pass for me. If you like the more explicit videogame elements, and there is a market segment that clearly does, then this is a middle of the road adventure story you may enjoy.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

The Long View 2007-02-09: Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

Mette Frederiksen, attacking immigration from the Left

It is a real pity that John J. Reilly didn’t live long enough to see President Trump. As a longtime Jersey resident, I’m sure he would have had opinions. Here is a funny bit on Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton:

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

What appeal the Trump campaign in 2016 had was achieved by making inarticulate noises in the direction of what John suggested here: pick a couple of issues that could be popular and propose a big government solution. Populist-style campaigns all over the Western world have been going in this direction. Some of them are more successful than others.

Steyn on D'Souza; Hillary v. Rudolph; Climate Crimes; Mystery History

Mark Steyn has reviewed Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home. The remarks that I quote here more or less match some observations in my own review of that book, which I promise readers will see as soon as I am at liberty to post it. In any case, Steyn here takes issue with the proposition that the Islamists were incited to attack the United States by recent American debaucheries:

Where I part company is in his belief that this will make any difference to the war on terror. In what feels like a slightly dishonest passage, the author devotes considerable space to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual progenitor of what passes for modern Islamist “thought”. “Qutb became fiercely anti-American after living in the United States,” writes D’Souza without once mentioning where or when this occurred: New York in the disco era? San Francisco in the summer of love? No. It was 1949 – the year when America’s lascivious debauched popular culture produced Doris Day, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and South Pacific. ...The reality is that Islam sees our decadence not as a threat but as an opportunity. For the west to reverse the gains of the cultural left would not endear us to Islam but would make us better suited to resisting its depredations. We should reject Britney because she’s rubbish not as a geopolitical strategy.

D'Souza's argument has the most force in the context of the use of transnational institutions to impose a cultural revolution for which there is no global consensus. Nonetheless, I think that the more transgressive features of American popular culture really are a strategic liability.

* * *

Speaking of things that children should not see, Peggy Noonan's latest column meditates on the prospect that the 2008 presidential race will be between Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate and Rudolph Giuliani as the republican. Given that choice, Noonan clearly prefers the latter:

But it is significant that in Mrs. Clinton's case, for the past 30 years, from 1978 through 2007--which is to say throughout most, almost all, of her adulthood--her view of America, and of American life, came through the tinted window of a limousine. (Now the view is, mostly, through the tinted window of an SUV.)

From first lady of Arkansas through first lady of the United States to U.S. senator, her life has been eased and cosseted by staff--by aides, drivers, cooks, Secret Service, etc. Her life has been lived within a motorcade. And so she didn't have to worry about crime, the cost of things, the culture. Status incubates. Rudy Giuliani was fighting a deterioration she didn't have to face. That's a big difference. It's the difference between the New Yorker in the subway and the Wall Street titan in the town car.

My own suspicion is that Senator Clinton's candidacy is a media artifact that will disintegrate on take-off; about that we will see. As for Rudolph Giuliani, I am pretty sure that he is too much the New York exotic to succeed nationally. Certainly he is an unusually bad fit for the Republican Party.

Rudolph Giuliani did not save New York City singlehandedly, but he was the most effective big-city mayor during the second half of the 20th century. However, the sort of infrastructure and institutional collapse that Giuliani set himself to reverse is precisely the sort of thing that the post-Reagan Republican Party is designed not to see. Today, on the national level, both the unravelling of the health-insurance system and the loss of control of the borders are issues of the sort that New York City faced when Giuliani became mayor, and both health care and immigration are losers for the Republicans. Why is this? Because the expensive, labor-intensive, highly detailed governance that Giuliani provided is what is needed to address those issues, and that sort of governance has been declared impossible by modern conservatism.

* * *

What fun the era of Climate Dread promises to be, if we may judge by this retort from Jonah Goldberg to Ellen Goodman:

[Stupid, illogical, disgusting] are just some of the words that come to mind from this passage by Ellen Goodman:

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

No, Ellen. Let's not just say that. Denying that the industrialized mass-murder of millions actually happened isn't really quite the same thing as refusing to believe global warming is real....I know people who don't believe global warming is happening and let me just say they aren't the same people and to equate them with Holocaust deniers is a reprehensible attempt to dehumanize opponents in an argument.

It is a mistake to attribute the collapse in the last few weeks of all political resistance to the idea of anthropogenic global warming to the triumph of pseudoscience among the elites. For one thing, the science is not all that pseudo; the burden of proof really has flipped. The interesting point, though, is that global warming is popular, in the sense that people find the idea intuitive. In that it resembles global nuclear war, which was blowing up Earth and many other planets in science fiction for decades before the politicians finally bowed to popular demand and built the necessary infrastructure.

Nonetheless, I view these events with a measure of frustration. As I have no doubt mentioned before, in the late 1980s I tried to sell the management of Warren, Gorham & Lamont on a new publication dedicated to reporting on new laws and regulations related to climate change. The audience would have been local environmental agencies and the environmental bar. The reporter would have covered debates on the subject at the national and international levels, of course, but until laws were passed at those levels, the reporter would focus on local environmental initiatives, with a view to encouraging the standardization of local regulation. I acknowledged that this was all a little speculative at the time, but the market was certain to grow, and it would be an advantage to be first in the field. The weather itself would sell it for us.

That reporter was a good idea. It was just 20 years too early, if indeed it is not too early still. This has been typical of my experience of prescience. People are often right about what will happen, eventually. Getting the clock-time right is another matter. Perhaps it's one of those quantum-nonlocality things: you can send information as fast as you like, provided it doesn't mean anything.

* * *

And why am I waxing mystical? I just finished reading a review copy of Endless Things, the final book in John Crowley's Aegypt series. Actually, I just finished a review; that is another which I am not at the moment at liberty to upload. Until I can, here are some thoughts from a Crowley character on historical causality. They occur to him in Prague in 1969, as he looks up at the window from which the famous Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, and from which a Czech patriot was martyred in 1948:

Defenestration. Kraft looked up with the others. It was as though the sources of certain events lay not in their antecedent causes but in mirror or shadow events that lay far in the past or in the future; as though by chance a secret lever on a clockwork could be pressed that made it go after being long still, or as though a wind blowing up in one age could tear off leaves from trees and bring down steeples in another.

Is this helpful? Possibly not, but it's a lot of fun.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic Book Review

Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic
by Matt McCarthy, MD
Avery (May 21, 2019)
ISBN 0735217505

I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

Superbugs is a fascinating book, and I’m glad I had the chance to review it. This book is a window into the management, and hopefully curing, of difficult antibiotic-resistant infections from the point-of-view of a physician who sees the worst the world has to offer. McCarthy wrote it in a chatty, personable, and slightly ADD style that probably makes it more accessible. This is a difficult thing to get right with a work of popular science, which I take this book to be.

There is an infamous rule of thumb that including one mathematical formula in your book will reduce your readers by half. Each additional formula continues the process of exponential decay. McCarthy has clearly decided to maximize his potential readership by avoiding mathematical formulae, or worse, skeletal formulae of organic molecules.

Dalbavancin, public domain  By Hbf878 - Own work, CC0,

Dalbavancin, public domain

By Hbf878 - Own work, CC0,

However, while he doesn’t show them, he talks about them a lot. If you know what is going on, you can either envision the diagrams or look them up, but organic chemistry isn’t needed to tell the stories that McCarthy wants to tell.

The first story is McCarthy’s work with Allergan on the antibiotic dalbavancin, and his journey to learn how to write a protocol for a clinical trial and gain consent from often frightened and bewildered patients who show up in Emergency Rooms with methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus infections. His meandering style allows him to digress into the second story, which is a capsule history of the development of antibiotics, and the sometimes checkered history of human experimentation in medicine.

Sir Alexander Fleming, looking rather intense for the photographer  By Official photographer - is photograph TR 1468 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Sir Alexander Fleming, looking rather intense for the photographer

By Official photographer - is photograph TR 1468 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

His history of antibiotic development includes well-known figures like Alexander Fleming, and the overlooked, like Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown, who developed nystatin, the first antifungal drug.

Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown  By Smithsonian Institution - Flickr: Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980), No restrictions,

Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown

By Smithsonian Institution - Flickr: Elizabeth Lee Hazen (1888-1975) and Rachel Brown (1898-1980), No restrictions,

The book is probably worth it just for this well-done short summary of the powerhouses of modern pharmaceuticals [and more evidence for my theory that the greatest period of technological advancement in the twentieth century was between 1920-1950]

By the early 1950s, ninety percent of the prescriptions filled by patients were for drugs that had not even existed in 1938. pg 101 [citing Miracle Cure by William Rosen 2017]

However, you also get a good look at how medicine is practiced in the United States today, from the practitioner’s point-of-view. Physicians need to manage conflicts of interest, like the portion of McCarthy’s salary that is paid by Allergan and other corporations, patients that are bound and determined to pursue courses of treatment that the evidence doesn’t support, and the sheer soul-crushing burden of seeing so much suffering day-in and day-out.

We Americans expect our doctors to be superhuman: to work without rest, to diagnose without fail, and resist the siren call of wealth. Doctors receive enormous deference for our unrealistic expectations, but a subtext of McCarthy’s book is the toll this takes on our often genuinely selfless and dedicated physicians. Who do in fact accept honoraria and speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies and miss their children while they work long hours.

Another interesting aspect of American medical practice is its insularity. Nearly every reference in McCarthy’s book is from a medical journal, which is the mental world of most physicians. However, medicine might progress faster if physicians were to be a little bit more widely read. For example, McCarthy devotes a fair bit of space to the research of Vincent Fischetti, who isolates enzymes from bacteriophages. But phage therapy was a thing before antibiotics were invented, and was largely forgotten in the initial enthusiasm for antibiotics. Phages and adjacent technologies would be a useful adjunct to antibiotics, but medicine, meaning mostly expert physician opinion, has been pointedly disinterested for seventy years or more. I appreciate that McCarthy is trying to do something about that, but reading and citing mostly medical journals is only going to perpetuate the attitude that pushed useful therapies aside because it wasn’t the hot new thing, or because it came from the wrong field.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I think McCarthy did a fine job making the history of antibiotics accessible, and was remarkably honest about himself and his field, frankly admitting the challenges physicians face today. This book could have been dry, but it wasn’t, so I am willing to embrace the rapid alternation between the present and the past. McCarthy made this style work. One can learn a lot about the world, past and present, from this book.

In a final note, there is a short letter tucked in my review copy that public results for McCarthy’s dalba study are expected on or around May 21st, just under a week from the publication of this review. I hope everything went well, because I like having options when the bacteria evolve faster than us.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

The Long View 2007-02-07: Islamic Reformation; Pro-Natalist Irony; Kakutani on D'Souza

A less relaxed blogger might explain in angry detail that reproduction is only the central circle in the Ven diagram of the human model of marriage. The next layer is regulation of the co-existence of men and women, the next layer is the care of the elderly, and the last the transfer of property between generations. However, it almost is not worth making these points: Darwin will judge between the viability of those societies that favor gendered over gender-neutral models of marriage and those that do not.

I’ve always appreciated John J. Reilly’s point that marriage is an anthropological institution as much as a legal one. Natural marriage doesn’t require a ceremony or a license to come into being, which explains why Scandinavians don’t get married as much anymore, but you don’t see much change otherwise. They are in fact married, and act like it in terms of raising children and forming households, they are just skipping the ceremony and the paperwork. It is the behavior that matters, a stable orbit into which human beings can fall in a number of ways.

The state has its own reasons for regulating marriage, mostly related to stability and taxation and population growth. John referred to this as a pre-constitutional function of government, this is something any state has to do, because it is a state. Aristotle talked about this at length.

One of the greatest projects of the twentieth century was to find a way to lower the birthrate. Everyone who was anyone thought about it, and it looks like it actually worked!

Whether this was in fact a good idea is another matter. How this program interacted with the quite unplanned mechanism of the demographic transition is not well-explored, but it at least conceivable that the birth rate would have fallen regardless, given that it started to go down long before the middle of the twentieth century in America and Western Europe.

The Baby Boom post-WWII was a genuine departure from trend, which probably explains the reaction at the time. But the birth rate had been declining for a century, at least. At this point, we do seem to have hit some kind of floor.

Islamic Reformation; Pro-Natalist Irony; Kakutani on D'Souza

The hypothesis of an Islamic Reformation continues to surface, as we see in the current Newsweek piece by Fareed Zakaria:

For those in the West asking when Islam will have its Reformation, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the process appears to have begun. The bad news is it's been marked by calumny, hatred and bloody violence. In this way it mirrors the Reformation itself, which we now remember in a highly sanitized way. During that era, Christians of differing sects massacred each other as they fought to own the true interpretation of their religion. No analogy is exact, but something similar seems to be happening within Islam. Here the divide is between the Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the Muslim world, and the Shiites, who represent most of the other 15 percent.

The author notes that Al Qaeda as originally conceived was supposed to be indifferent to the Shia-Sunni divide. However, the radical Sunnis where Al Qaeda was able use violence also happened to have traditions of anti-Shiism, thus giving Al Qaeda's enterprise an unintended sectarian spin.

The trouble for Al Qaeda is that as a practical matter, loathing Shiites works in only a few places: principally Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some parts of the gulf....

These emerging divisions weaken Al Qaeda, but they will help most Muslims only if this story ends as the Reformation did. What is currently a war of sects must become a war of ideas. First, Islam must make space for differing views about what makes a good Muslim. Then it will be able to take the next step and accept the diversity among religions, each true in its own way.

The Reformation model does not really fit. There are some liturgical and ecclesial differences between Sunni and Shia, but the differences are more like those between Protestant denominations than between Rome and Luther. As I have perhaps already said once too often, in many ways Islam is a Reformation. Certainly with regard to the sort of tolerance that the author proposes as a goal, Islam has been there, done that, got the T-shirt. In fact, what we are seeing now is the combustion of that old consensus.

The conflict within Islam today is morbid in a way that the Western Reformation was not. At least as far as I know, there is no struggle of competing lines of doctrinal development, or a competition of views about the nature of reality and how the world should work. Essentially, oil money has provided the energy to put fossils in collision. Fossils can be very tough, but they are fundamentally brittle. Watch.

* * *

Here's a bit of irony waiting to happen. It comes to us from Washington State:

OLYMPIA, Wash. - An initiative filed by proponents of same-sex marriage would require heterosexual couples to have kids within three years or else have their marriage annulled...“For many years, social conservatives have claimed that marriage exists solely for the purpose of procreation ... The time has come for these conservatives to be dosed with their own medicine," said WA-DOMA organizer Gregory Gadow in a printed statement.

A less relaxed blogger might explain in angry detail that reproduction is only the central circle in the Ven diagram of the human model of marriage. The next layer is regulation of the co-existence of men and women, the next layer is the care of the elderly, and the last the transfer of property between generations. However, it almost is not worth making these points: Darwin will judge between the viability of those societies that favor gendered over gender-neutral models of marriage and those that do not.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that we are in the last few years when it will immediately be perceived as a joke. There are below-replacement-level birthrate societies in Europe and East Asia, and even some depopulating states in the United States, that really should be considering pro-natalist schemes at least this radical, if not this stupid. It's a good bet that they soon will.

* * *

I hope soon to be able to publish a thorough response to Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home. Until then, though, let us amuse ourselves by considering the spluttering outrage that the book has elicited, not least on the part of The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani:

It’s a nasty stewpot of intellectually untenable premises and irresponsible speculation that frequently reads like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of the crackpot right...

[D'Souza says] that “the left is the primary reason for Islamic anti-Americanism as well as the anti-Americanism of other traditional cultures around the world” because “liberals defend and promote values that are controversial in America and deeply revolting to people in traditional societies, especially in the Muslim world.”

He ignores the host of experts like the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer and the terrorism analyst Peter Bergen who have cited, as Mr. bin Laden’s chief grievances against America, the continued presence of American troops on the Arabian peninsula ...He similarly denounces liberals for promoting ideas like women’s rights around the world: this meddling, he argues, angers Muslims who see such foreign forms of liberation as undermining their religion and traditional family values. But he praises the Bush administration for trying to export democracy to Iraq....

Actually, D'Souza does address Steuer's assessment of the motivations of Al Qaeda, and does not wholly disagree. In fact, D'Souza often sounds rather like Steuer, and I think that is one of the problems with the book. In any case, Kakutani continues:

In the course of this book, Mr. D’Souza rages against the separation of church and state in American public life, and denounces what he calls “Secular Warriors” who are “trying to eradicate every public trace of the religious and moral values that most of the world lives by.” He contends that freedom in America “has come to be defined by its grossest abuses” and complains that in movies and television shows, “the white businessman in the suit is usually the villain,” “prostitutes are always portrayed more favorably and decently than anyone who criticizes them” and “homosexuals are typically presented as good-looking and charming, and unappealing features of the gay lifestyle are either ignored or presented in an amusing light.”

In this shrill, slipshod book, Mr. D’Souza often sounds as if he has a lot in common with those radical Middle Eastern mullahs who are eager to subject daily life to religious strictures and want to curtail individuals’ freedoms and civil liberties.

The book is indeed partisan, but by no means slipshod. As for the assertion that D'Souza is trying to accommodate the mullahs, all I can say is that those Times writers are just as sharp as a tack.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village

C. S. Lewis famously made much the same argument in the Abolition of Man that McFaul makes here: the ethical systems of most world religions are strikingly similar, no matter how incompatible their ultimate claims about reality are.

An interesting aside here is if you look at the ethnographic literature, which typically doesn’t weight by the number of people who possess a particular culture, you will find much greater diversity of ethical systems. The number of people involved is often as few as thousands, rather than millions or billions which is what you get when you look at world religions.

Peter Kreeft took that idea and ran with it in his book Ecumenical Jihad, but John J. Reilly was skeptical of grand alliances between religions in the manner that Kreeft and McFaul describe.

The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village : The Role of the World Religions in the 21st Century
By Thomas R. McFaul
$49.95, Approx. 310 pp.
Praeger Publishers, 10/30/2006
ISBN: 0275993132

The hypothesis that the whole world is on a glide path toward a post-religious future is no longer accepted uncritically. Having gotten that far, however, political scientists have little notion what role religion will play in a world whose component parts seem fated to react with each other ever more intimately. Thomas R. McFaul, Professor of Ethics and Religious Studies Emeritus at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois (and author of Transformation Ethics) tries in this book to sketch the religious topography of the world and suggest ways that its main religious components might contribute to the harmonization of a more united world, or at least help to prevent a world of perpetual sectarian strife.

The author’s argument is essentially that of John Rawls: the most likely way to achieve concord is by prescinding from questions of worldview or theology and by focusing on those elements of the world’s ethical traditions that are compatible with the categorical imperative. He comes to this conclusion after an analysis of what he takes to be the seven major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism in the Asian group; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism in the Middle Eastern group. These faiths simply do not have compatible views on God, the afterlife, or the ontological status of their scriptures. He also rejects the proposal that the religions could easily unite transcendentally, at the level of religious experience. Even if the wordless apprehension of the divine is the same for mystics of all faiths, they eventually have to talk about what they have experienced, and then the fist-fights start. In contrast, standards of decent behavior are remarkably similar around the world whether people justify them in terms of the will of God or the need to avoid bad karma. Variations on the Golden Rule, the author argues, are very close to being universal.

The author would settle provisionally for a world of religious pluralism, but expects a near-term future of exclusivity, in which religious groups seek to divinize war and the state. His preference, however, is for a world in which the great religions reinterpret their traditions in such a way as to withdraw their claims to exclusive truth. He expounds at length on the different ways the Asian and Middle Eastern groups might do this, but the common theme is the need for an acknowledgment that none of theses faiths exhausts the truth and all of them are moving toward it. Only unity, or the prospect of unity, would really conduce to a stable world. In the long run, we are told, the tolerance necessary for pluralism is unacceptable, because tolerance can protect oppression.

Resistance is useless, particularly in the case of gender relations. The author purports to be in search of common ground among the great religions. However, when he finds one such common patch in the fact that no religious tradition treats men and women identically, he immediately digs up the patch and paves it over with gender equality. Similarly, it will be necessary for the ancient faiths in most cases to abandon their assumption that certain social institutions are “in the nature of things.” The state itself, of course, would have to be secular.

This book is a useful and interesting exercise. It is also good evidence, if any more were needed, that the one place that a Rawlsian reformation will not lead is to peace.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Clock's Watch Book Review

Clock’s Watch
by Michael Reyes, cover art by MV, interior art by Sean Bova, Jay Campbell, and MV
Mycelium Press (January 5, 2018)

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into here, as this was a sale that popped up on Twitter.

It turns out, I liked this collection of vignettes about Jerry Clock, the lone guardian of Coney Island against the demons and chthonic entities that attempt to enter the realms of men through it. To start, we don’t know much about Clock, other than that he wears a coonskin cap and no one can see him. Not just because he’s really short, a Little Person, but because there is something about him that most people just don’t notice anymore.

Which probably makes his job easier, since he can skulk around the boardwalk or get drunk on the beach without anyone asking impertinent questions like: why are you following that guy? or what are you doing with that crossbow and giant knife!?!

We see a fair bit of Jerry and his work through the eyes of the unfortunates who get caught up in the schemes of some unspeakable monster from the deep that needs a host to complete a summoning ritual, or some such. The details tend to vary here, since Clock’s Watch isn’t an exercise in elaborate world-building, but rather a pastiche of fantasy and horror and scifi villains that are consistently thwarted by a foul-mouthed dwarf who gets drunk and stabs things.

I’m a born Westerner, so I don’t know much about Coney Island or its environs, but I can detect the kind of passionate love of place that I enjoy in other authors’ work. So while I don’t know the place in the same way a local might, I could at least tell that Reyes wanted to tell fun stories set in a place he loved, even if [or because] it was a little weird.

This isn’t a book that takes itself too seriously, and was a lot of fun to read. I’m looking forward to volume II, and seeing what other kinds of trouble Clock finds himself in.

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The Long View 2007-02-04: Glitter & Doom

This Weimar era art exhibition John J. Reilly describes here sounds fascinating. I found a few examples from the three artists John said were most prominent in the show: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917  Public domain in the US

Max Beckmann – Descent from the Cross 1917

Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923  Public domain in the US

Otto Dix – The Trench 1923

Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917  Public domain in the US

George Grosz – The City 1916 -1917

Public domain in the US

Their work is fascinating, but I can see why the Weimar era couldn’t hold the hearts of Germans. Much of this art is striking, but very little of it is beautiful.

Glitter & Doom

This is the name of an exhibition, now at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, of paintings and sketches from the Weimar era in Germany. They are portraits, for the most part. The artists were Max Beckmann, Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Karl Hubbuch, Ludwig Meidner, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Scholz, and Gert H. Wollheim. The emphasis is on Dix, Beckmann, and Grosz, but particularly Dix. I visited the exhibition, which runs for two more weeks, on Saturday, February 3. The website is here.

The show is supposed to be a survey of the Verist tendency of the now venerable Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) School. Given the general inflation of depravity in high culture in the intervening years, it has been a long time since Weimar was able to shock, but visitors to this exhibition may doubt how shocking its components were even when they were new. A sign at the entrance to gallery warns that some of the pictures may not be suitable for children, and indeed there are a few pictures of prostitutes that would probably merit some blackout bars if the pictures were ever shown on American television. Frankly, though, most of the more tarted-up denizens of the Weimar demimonde seem to be paint-by-numbers illustrations of the theme “Respectability Brought Low.” Beckmann denied any connection with the Verists on the grounds that the school was too literary, and he may have had a point.

Actually, the kids who visit the exhibition are most likely to be scared by the Crypt Keeper intensity of some of the portraits of the artists' friends. Dix in particular was famous for his hallucinogenically unflattering portraits of his patrons, who nevertheless were not a small group. Still, for the most part, these artists were good draftsman: you never get the impression that their departures from reality are due to an inability to represent it. And in fact, the ratio of sentiment and even affection is quite high, especially among the sketches of wives and girl friends.

One perhaps unintended effect of this exhibition is that I will never regard George Grosz's work in quite the same way again. In some ways his pictures of bad, bobble-headed bourgeoisie are as much fun as Disney cartoons, but to see them in the company of other paintings from the same time and place is to realize that they have more to do with George Grosz than with Weimar.

I noted particularly the businessmen. Grosz's are studies in porcine greed. For the other artists, though, the Weimar businessman was a vigorous, young, unsympathetic intelligence, perhaps unsympathetic because the intelligence on their unlined faces is unrelated to experience. And there was this: for the most part, they were shown either holding a telephone, or a telephone was at their elbow. What did the possession of a telephone mean in Germany in the 1920s?

After I left the show, I wandered for a while around the Metropolitan; as usual, I got lost. I don't believe I had seen the garden by the American Art section before. It is one of the finest enclosed spaces in New York. When I got to the Egyptian section, I noticed that visitors were walking on the platform of the Temple of Dendr. I remember that when I walked on that platform many years ago klaxons sounded and guards erupted from every doorway to take me off it. I made up the bit about the klaxons, but apparently the museum management has changed its mind about the fragility of the monument.

I finally had to ask a guard to direct me toward the exit. She sniffed and pointed, apparently offended that anyone would want to leave her wonderful museum.

* * *

Meanwhile, quite without any coordination with me, Spengler at Asia Times has favored us with his own views on modern art:

Admit it - you really hate modern art

You, however, hate and detest the 20th century's entire output in the plastic arts, as do I. ...You have been browbeaten into feigning pleasure at the sight of so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl,...Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly detest, and prices paid for modern art keep rising....

An enormous literature exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet....The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is this: the price of Kandinsky's smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg's music. ..

It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists...It is not supposed to "please" the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider. ...

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control....When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist's chair....You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance. ...By inflicting sufficient ugliness upon us, the modern artists believe, they will wear down our capacity to see beauty.

Again, much 20th-century art is very fine, but Paul Johnson has a point when he suggests that the production of "fashion objects" is a racket. The epilogue of the story of modern art will be the bursting of the investment bubble that has seized on these fashion objects as assets. As is the nature of these things, the collapse could all happen very quickly. Museums and galleries dedicated to this kind of art could become as deserted as Anglican churches, but they are less likely to be turned into mosques: the rooms lack a central focus.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-02-02: Groundhog's Day

Homo floresensis is definitely a new species. Time flies with ancient DNA.

Groundhog's Day

The case against homo floresensis is not quite closed, if this report is to be believed:

The tiny woman dubbed the Hobbit who lived 18,000 years ago on a remote Indonesian island deserves to be deemed a new human species and not a deformed modern human as skeptics assert, researchers said on Monday....rebutting scientists like primatologist Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago ...Two features in the frontal lobes and a structure called the cerebellum separated [normal humans from microcephalics], with the Flores woman fitting in with normal humans, not microcephalics, the study found. But she was unlike modern humans in four other features distinguishing her from Homo sapiens, crying out for recognition as a separate species, the researchers said....Martin said the new study was flawed, questioned whether Falk's team knew enough about microcephaly and insisted the question of a separate species is unresolved.

Be this as it may, I am about to finish reading a book by W.Y. Evans-Wentz called The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) (it's available from The Gutenberg Project, but I can't get a link to the file right now). Regarding the legends and continuing reports about contacts with the Good People in northwestern Europe and worldwide, the authors proposes that the most reasonable explanations are the psychical theory, the ancient-pygmy theory, and the Druid-tradition theory. He resolves the conflict among them by embracing all three.

* * *

Speaking of fairy stories, this article by Donald Stoker of the U.S. Naval War College's Monterey Program throws cold water on the myth of insurgent invincibility:

Insurgencies Rarely Win – And Iraq Won’t Be Any Different (Maybe).....

Insurgencies generally fail if all they are able to do is fight an irregular war. Successful practitioners of the guerrilla art from Nathanael Greene in the American Revolution to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War have insisted upon having a regular army for which their guerrilla forces served mainly as an adjunct. Insurgencies also have inherent weaknesses and disadvantages vis-à-vis an established state. They lack governmental authority, established training areas, and secure supply lines. The danger is that insurgents can create these things, if given the time to do so. And, once they have them, they are well on their way to establishing themselves as a functioning and powerful alternative to the government. If they reach this point, they can very well succeed.

Marx was right when he said that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. A lot of odd things happened in Congress during the Vietnam War, but nothing as strange as the new Democratic majority's project of reenacting their slightly garbled memories of 1975. The ironic thing is that this pantomime is taking the form of opposition to the Administration's plan for the pacification of Baghdad, a relatively minor undertaking that I suspect the president chose to emphasize in public chiefly because he needed to be able to point to some initiative that would be quickly successful.

Mickey Kaus notes that some of the Republican senators who have lately opposed the surge worry that they may be embarrassed if the surge succeeds:

Cynic's Scorecard: 7 Outs and Counting: Are Senators who vote for the Warner anti-surge resolution taking any political risk, or are they just protecting themselves against anti-war sentiment? In other words, on the off chance that the surge works, would they be embarrassed? Bob Wright says yes. But Senators in this situation have been known to leave themselves escape hatches.

The fewer escape hatches, of course, the greater the political consequences of getting it wrong, and the more support for the anti-surge resolution should actually reflect a senator's judgment that the chances of an embarrassing surge success are small. The more escape hatches, the more the Warner resolution seems simply a convenient way for pols to hedge their bets against any outcome...

I think that the senators need not worry. As I have remarked before, the political class is less interested in losing the war than in making sure that the Bush Administration does not get credit for a victory. One might judge the progress of the war, I suspect, by creating a News Alert for "Pyrrhic Victory" and counting the increase in occurrences over the course of the year.

* * *

Another C.S. Lewis film is in the works. Ralph Winter Prods. is producing The Screwtape Letters along with Walden Media, as we see from IGN:

Planned for a 2008 release, Screwtape Letters is described as follows: "[It] takes the form of a series of missives from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his wannabe diabolical nephew, Wormwood. As a mentor, Screwtape advises his protégé on the finer points of undermining faith and promoting sin. His instructions are interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine."

I hope they have sense enough to keep the story a period-piece. The "novel" is just a string of essays about dealing with temptation. There is a love story, but the only strong narrative thread in the book is the beginning of World War II and the growing menace of the Blitz. It would be difficult to move all this into the early 21st century.

Let me repeat yet again: the Lewis book that should be made into a major film is That Hideous Strength. Well, maybe that and this alternative biography.

* * *

Columnists should wax nostalgic when writing a memorial piece, but this one by Peggy Noonan is nostalgic in a dangerous way:

Next Tuesday would have been Ronald Reagan's 96th birthday, which is amazing when you consider he is, in a way, more with us than ever: his memory and meaning summoned in political conversation, his name evoked by candidates.

Certainly Ronald Reagan's name is often invoked, but the invocations are starting to sound like the references that old-style Democrats in the 1970s and '80s used to make to FDR. The Republican establishment delude themselves if they think the intervening Clinton years are remembered as a dark time.

Be that as it may, do I detect another dig at Bush II and his rich kid ways?

There was the courage to swim against the tide, to show not a burst of bravery but guts in the long haul. The good cheer and good nature that amounted to a kind of faith. The air of pleasure Reagan emanated on meeting others, and his egalitarianism.

By most accounts, George Bush is sharp and personable when you meet him in person. However, whoever thought that he had the public presence for a national stage should have their license to consult revoked.

* * *

What this country needs are British-style tabloids, according to Mark Steyn. Here he explains to Hugh Hewitt why the American newspaper industry is in secular decline:

MS: And the thing about this, the thing about this is when you look at the numbers for Fleet Street newspapers, they’ve actually, basically, held up over the last forty years. They’re not significantly in overall decline since 1965. Now there is…the problem here is that the American model of just being a pompous newspaper, that offends no one, but at the same time, delights no one, I think simply doesn’t work. If you take the average Gannett newspaper, monopoly newspaper in a medium sized American city, it’s boring.

Well, yes, the papers are boring. If you want invective and scandal, you listen to talk radio or watch Fox News. About the Internet we need not speak. Maybe the newspapers in Britain are livelier because the media there are otherwise so controlled and monopolized that there is no place else for the liveliness to go.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Hollow City Book Review

Hollow City: Book of Karma book 1
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Hollow City is the second book in the Heroes Unleashed universe I have reviewed. I picked up this copy on my own, so you can’t blame the author for my opinions.

My opinion is: I like this book. Adam Song is a fascinating character, and I’ll delve into why at some length. Adam’s interests and profession also make this book a kind of gun pr0n, which is fun for me since I am also interested in firearms. Finally, I am enjoying the Heroes Unleashed take on superheroes, which doesn’t make them mundane, but at least routine. Not everyone has super powers, but you better take the possibility into account when making any kind of serious plan.

I doubt this review would pass a strict spoiler policy, but I’ll try to keep it under control. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s get into why I find Adam so interesting. Adam Song is a cop. Not just any cop, but a member of the elite Special Tactics and Rescue team. He is a doorkicker, a life-taker, and a heart-breaker. Well, probably not the last, now that I think about it. In so far as Adam has killed an average of one person a year in the course of his duties with the Hollow City Police Department, he definitely qualifies as a life-taker. But he lacks the dark triad traits that make murderers and terrorists the recipients of gushing fan mail in prison. If anyone’s heart is going to be broken, it is probably Adam’s.

Adam also has a secret. He is a Prime, the Heroes Unleashed version of a superhero. His powers are precisely what elevated him to the STAR unit. At the beginning of Hollow City, Adam has been a cop for six years, but a member of STAR for only eighteen months. Which just happens to coincide with the time since he gained his powers. This is because STAR, like Detroit SWAT, specializes in no-knock raids. But in Hollow City, unlike Detroit, the guy on the other side might have superpowers too, so HCPD makes sure to even the odds by having a Prime on the entry team. In that capacity, he goes by his codename Amp, and wears a mask when he is working.

Knock knock.

Knock knock.

Many men in Adam’s position would probably be insufferably arrogant, but Adam strikes me as a quiet, unassuming type. In part, this is a matter of self-protection, since his public persona would be liable to reprisals if his enemies knew where he lived, but also I get the feeling Adam would have acted the same way in public if there were no danger. His primary motivation is not fame or money, but duty.

His dutifulness is the prime hinge of his character, and the source of the two major conflicts Adam experiences in the book. In each case, he feels duty-bound to do two-incompatible things. In a sense, his life [and this book] is a quest to reconcile these moral imperatives.

First, Adam is first-generation Chinese immigrant. His parents brought him to America when he was thirteen, by way of Singapore and Hong Kong. He was old enough to remember his previous life, but also young enough to imprint on his new home. His parents have definite ideas about what constitutes honest employment, and neither his previous job [Marine] nor his current job [Cop], meet that definition. In the straightforward expectation of his culture, duty would require him to follow his parent’s wishes, and work in the family business.

Aaron and I were outsiders. Always had been, always were. In Singapore, primary schoolers made fun of our funny accents and weird speech patterns. In Halo City high schoolers did the same. Everywhere we went, the old rules no longer applied. We had to learn quickly, adapt even faster.

Aaron kept his head down, submerged himself into the local Chinese community, and followed in Father’s footsteps. I almost did the same, until I saw my first USMC recruiting advertisement. In the Marines, I saw a way to become a man. I wanted to prove that I was an American, more American than everyone else.

In America, duty primarily means service to the nation, rather than the family. So when Adam decides that he wants to be a good American, he does the thing that is expected of him as an American. He travels to distant lands, meets interesting people, and kills them.

This decision flows into his second conflict, which is secondary to his character, but primary to the plot. After Adam gets out of the Marines, his duty to the nation fulfilled, he naturally flows down to the next lower level of loyalty, and joins the Halo City Police Department. In America, the basic motto of any police department is To Protect and to Serve. It just happens that Adam is really really good at protecting the public by shooting bad guys in the face.

Which is exactly what he is hired to do once he becomes a Prime. Adam’s history with the HCPD prior to the STAR unit is a bit less explored in the book, but we do know that Adam was the trigger puller in more than one OIS [officer involved shooting] before he joined the high risk STAR unit. It is possible that this was overlooked in the overwhelming need to put an already employed Prime officer into the high risk STAR unit, but I suspect it is more likely that this was seen as a feature and not a bug.

At least until he became a political liability by killing an admittedly dangerous man [a Prime with the ability to shoot anything he pointed at] who was also the son of a gangster in the process of crossing the line between crime lord and pillar of the community. When Adam was in the Marines, this was his job, full stop. You killed anyone who was dangerous, and you did so in a way that maximized your odds of coming home at the end of the day. This is uncomplicated when you can identify your targets as enemy combatants, and potentially explosive then they are American citizens who are innocent until proven guilty.

In this way, Adam serves as the personification of the militarization of the police in the United States. The actual military is famously forbidden from engaging in police activities by the Posse Comitatus Act, but there is a creeping influence which can probably be measured by looking the kind of uniforms police officers wear, as can be seen by the image above of a no-knock raid training exercise. The fear is that the distinction between accused or suspected criminals and open enemies of the state is being erased.

There is also a positive sense, insofar as the militarization of the police has coincided with a professionalization of the police. Cops used to do pretty much any damn thing they felt like. Now, there is at least a standard to which they are expected to adhere. At the best, this means less chance of death for both the cop and the perp, insofar as options are sought that seek to maximize that outcome.

Adam Song occupies the ground precisely where that question comes into play. A question that is interesting to me is where does the line lie for police work as opposed to war? When is it acceptable to kill a man who might be a danger to public order? Or who is definitely dangerous, but not currently in the act of shooting his victims? For a soldier, that question is relatively simple. You act with maximum force at the first opportunity. For a police officer, the answer is always NO, you cannot kill except when your life or the life of another is directly at risk, or at least that is the moral and legal presumption in our society. What makes this hard is that a lot of former soldiers eventually find themselves in service as cops. Men just like Adam Song.

For Adam Song, what makes a strait-laced cop go rogue is the feeling of betrayal when your superiors throw you to the wolves for doing precisely what they hired you to do. Adam’s job, as Amp, the HCPD Prime, is to serve the warrants on dangerous Primes that would otherwise simply kill all of the arresting officers and then disappear.

This gets even more complicated when your job is to arrest the bad guys that are widely known to be bad, but who of course enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. When you mix in Halo City’s high-diversity, low-trust environment, along with a dash of corruption, you get a lot of guys like Adam, who start to feel that the military way has its attractions. Adam clearly loves his city, but he also feels like there are good guys, and bad guys, and he isn’t particularly interested in watching the bad guys take advantage of a system that was designed for a high-trust environment.

Since I happened to read Hollow City at about the same time I read Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series, I was struck by the differing trajectories the main characters in these books take. Jack Morgan starts as an outlaw, and over the course of the series eventually is reconciled to polite society. Adam Song starts out as a respected member of the community, and ends up becoming exactly what his detractors call him: a rogue cop, a vigilante, and a criminal defendant.

However, in many respects, what each of them do isn’t actually that different. Jack mostly tries to avoid killing, but his symbiont Draycos, the K’da warrior-poet who possesses the rights of judge, jury, and executioner in one person, kills a man in the first book because Draycos seems him commit a murder. This can only loosely be called defense of another, since the man was threatening Jack, but the book makes it clear that Draycos is like a monster of legend, as much greater in combat power than a human as a powerful Prime like Amp is. Also, Jack’s AI guardian, Uncle Virge, does lots of killing, it is just the kind where he shoots down other ships to protect Jack.

Once I realized that, my whole opinion of the weight of the Dragonback series started to shift. There are some real similarities, but also some real differences with Adam Song’s Halo City. Jack Morgan’s universe is a lot further down the path of societal dissolution that Halo City is only starting to tread. Is Adam’s vigilantism worth it if it prevents open slavery and corporations hiring mercenaries to fight literal turf battles over their commercial interests?

Even if we temporarily ignore the question of how probable the odds of success are for Adam’s attempt to stave off further dissolution, this is a worthy question. In the moral and legal framework of the United States, which is clearly the setting of Halo City, which I take to be an analogue of Los Angeles, Adam is pretty clearly beyond the pale. However, the reason I bring in Zahn’s more speculative universe here is that other arrangements that still seem just are imaginable.

Adam is pretty clearly doing what he finds to be his duty, in the circumstances he finds himself. We might judge that he has nonetheless crossed a line that should not be crossed, even if the results are otherwise just. That tension is exactly what makes this book fascinating. I don’t know what Cheah has in mind for Adam after this, but I would like to find out.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist

Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1