The Long View 2005-06-01: Reinventing The Wheel

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

By Alexander Blecher, blecher.info, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44929395

I seriously doubt the proto-clickbait article cited here about mutated super-intelligent children in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and surrounding areas, but I do find the unintentional wildlife reserve created in Ukraine fascinating.


Reinventing The Wheel

 

The fact that Stanley Fish, formerly the prince of postmodern criticism, is now teaching elementary courses in composition is alarming. More alarming still is his opinion piece in The New York Times of May 31, Devoid of Content, in which he explains how he teaches.

His thesis is that elementary writing courses should concentrate on the formal elements of language rather than on the content of what the students write about. That is reasonable enough; but see how he does this:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

That is what they used to teach Latin for. Students who would never be able to read a classical author with profit would nevertheless remember for the rest of their lives what the subjunctive mood is, and what the dative case is for. The very fact that some features of Latin have no analogue in modern English made the exercise all the more valuable.

I like artificial languages, too, but the students would be better served by a serious requirement to study a suitable natural language.

* * *

Here is good news, after a fashion: The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has spawned a generation of ‘mutant’ super-brainy children:

Kids growing up in areas damaged by radiation from the plant have a higher IQ and faster reaction times, say Russian doctors...They are also growing faster and have stronger immune systems.

This could be true. From what I hear, the Ukrainian government has made a serious effort to rehabilitate the areas affected by the nuclear disaster. The social investment has even created a small babyboom. It would be no wonder if the kids produced better vital statistics.

* * *

The Shameless Spengler at Asia Times explains why Benedict XVI is seeking to reverse the medievalizing wrong turn that the Church allegedly made in the 19th century, and why it is vital to the future of the West that he succeed. The column is called The Laach Maria monster. Here are some of the good bits:

The Church did not create Hitler, but the means by which it concocted a fake medieval past made it easier for the race theorists of Nazism to create their own medieval past as well. If it was convenient to concoct an Age of Faith, then why not also concoct a golden age of Aryan supremacy?

I see what he is talking about. In Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor mentions two German medievalists, Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, whom he calls "the Nazi Twins," and who were responsible for giving the Füherprinzip faux-medieval fairytale glow. However, I need a lot of convincing to be persuaded that the 19th-century Medieval Revival was chiefly Catholic in inspiration. Rather the opposite, if you look at the history of the Holy Grail. Was Wagner Catholic?

In any case, Spengler also has this interesting aside about the geneology of the liberal wing of the 20th-century liturgical reform:

James Carroll's 2001 bestseller, The Sword of Constantine, makes its villain the miserable Herwegen [the abbot of the Nazi-leaning monastery at Loch Maria], but Carroll discovers to his confusion that he has more in common with the pro-Hitler Benedictines of 1933 than with the present leadership of the Church. As Carroll reports, the "liturgical movement" of the 1920s introduced congregational participation in the Mass, that is, making the "people of God" (whoever might have wandered in) into the actor. Carroll approves, explaining, "No longer do we attend Mass as a collection of isolatos, each on his or her knees, face buried in hands from which dangle rosary beads. We do not approach God alone but as members of a praying community, members of a folk." Benedict XVI rejects the "folk" Mass on the simple grounds that God, rather than the "folk", is the actor in the Mass.

It is a little more complicated than that, but certainly one should look askance at any clergyman who says "community" where "God" would fit better.

* * *

Readers of my site will know that I am a great fan of C.S. Lewis. I was particularly impressed by his description of "joy," a term he uses in a way that is roughly equivalent to "Sehnsucht," or the Welsh "hireath." I knew what he meant, but I thought his treatment of the subject was wholly original. Recently, however, I have been reading Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo, where I found some material related to this topic.

Augustine, like Lewis, was one of that not inconsiderable class of people who are converted in their early 30s, only to discover that their spiritual lives do not then progress to a state of unshakeable bliss:

Briefly, Augustine had analyzed the psychology of "delight." "Delight" is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will...But "delight" itself is no longer a simple matter. It is not a spontaneous reaction, the natural thrill of the refined soul when confronted with beauty...the processes that prepare a man's heart to take 'delight' in his God are not only hidden, but actually unconscious and beyond his control...Delight is discontinuous, startlingly erratic: Augustine now moves in a world of 'love at first sight,' of chance encounters, and, just as important, of sudden, equally inexplicable patches of deadness. (pp 148-9)

I am starting to wonder: has anyone, ever, had an original idea?

* * *

My amazement at the shoddy draftsmanship of the proposed Constitution of the European Union only grows with time. On policy grounds, I object to the International Criminal Court. However, as I have noted, its charter is clear, even inspiring in places, and it is of reasonable length. Again: what is wrong with Brussels?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-02-10: Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

By Pebble_bed_reactor_scheme_(italiano).jpg: Picoterawattderivative work: OrbiterSpacethingytranslation: Cryptex - This file was derived from Pebble bed reactor scheme (italiano) svg.svg:, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24456605

By Pebble_bed_reactor_scheme_(italiano).jpg: Picoterawattderivative work: OrbiterSpacethingytranslation: Cryptex - This file was derived from Pebble bed reactor scheme (italiano) svg.svg:, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24456605

I remain a cautious advocate of nuclear power. I don't have subject matter knowledge about specific reactor designs, but I think we could do it right, if we wanted to. It would sure fix carbon emissions. We just don't want to. I will note that the pebble-bed reactors John mentioned here don't seem to have taken off in the last fifteen years.

This blog post, and the associated book review Halfway Heaven, guided me to read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie. That is a great book, and one I heartily recommend. John's quote sums it up:

Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

 

As we see from yesterday's headline, DOE Urged to Encourage New Nuclear Power Plants, the United States is about to begin a debate about when it is going to do the obvious thing and nuclearize its power industry. This debate will produce unnecessary delays, most of them created by environmental reactionaries who use the courts to block the disposal of nuclear waste and then argue that the nuclear industry cannot expand until the nuclear-waste disposal issue is unblocked. Eventually the reactors will be built, but history suggests they will be in the NASA tradition of glitchy overdesign, done at the highest possible cost. That is why I was particularly interested to see this headline earlier this week: China to pioneer "pebble bed" N-reactor. There we read:

China is poised to develop the world's first commercially operated "pebble bed" nuclear reactor after a Chinese energy consortium chose a site in the eastern province of Shandong to build a 195MW gas-cooled power plant...China and South Africa have led efforts to develop "pebble bed" reactors, so called because they are fuelled by small graphite spheres the size of billiard balls, with uranium cores. The reactor's proponents say its small core and the dispersal of its fuel among hundreds of thousands of spheres prevents a meltdown.

Maybe the simplest thing would just be to wait five years and then buy the Chinese designs.

* * *

Fans of the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of People of the Lie, will be pleased to know that a diagnosis of Evil is gaining clinical respectability. According to the New York Times:

Still, many career forensic examiners say their work forces them to reflect on the concept of evil, and some acknowledge they can find no other term for certain individuals they have evaluated...In an effort to standardize what makes a crime particularly heinous, a group at New York University has been developing what it calls a depravity scale, which rates the horror of an act by the sum of its grim details...And a prominent personality expert at Columbia University has published a 22-level hierarchy of evil behavior, derived from detailed biographies of more than 500 violent criminals...He is now working on a book urging the profession not to shrink from thinking in terms of evil when appraising certain offenders, even if the E-word cannot be used as part of an official examination or diagnosis.

"We are talking about people who commit breathtaking acts, who do so repeatedly, who know what they're doing, and are doing it in peacetime" under no threat to themselves, said Dr. Michael Stone, the Columbia psychiatrist, who has examined several hundred killers at Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in New Hampton, N.Y., and others at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where he consults and teaches. "We know from experience who these people are, and how they behave," and it is time, he said, to give their behavior "the proper appellation."

This could be useful, and it's certainly interesting, but I wonder whether the association of evil with extreme violence may not miss the point. Even in the case of a notorious crime, the most disturbing element may not be the final scene of blood and dismemberment, but the disclosure of the perpetrator's nonviolent thoughts.

Where there is evil, there may be no violence. The scariest people in Dr. Peck's case studies are impeccably polite and thoroughly respectable. He meets them, not as his patients, but as the persons responsible for his patients' misery. Evil usually destroys itself quite quickly, but sometimes it achieves "islands of stability" in the sort of people who spread Hell on Earth without ever raising their voices.

* * *

Meanwhile, that Other Spengler at Asia Times has been reading books again. In his recent review of Michael Wyschogrod's Abraham's Promise, he gets his knickers all in a bundle about the prospect of American theocracy:

Not until I read Michael Wyschogrod's new book Abraham's Promise did it occur to me the long-departed spirit of American Puritanism might once again become flesh. US evangelicals might awaken one morning as a New Israel not merely in metaphor, but self-aware as a New Chosen People in a New Promised Land. The most paranoid imagining about the Christian Right pales beside this prospect. We are talking about the real thing, not a Straussian imitation: a politicized Protestantism in the mold of the 17th-century Separatists. A "Judaizing heresy" made the United States of America possible to begin with, I have argued on other occasions, and Professor Wyschogrod argues a strong case for the evangelicals to Judaize yet again.

I suppose that US evangelicals might awaken one morning as giant cockroaches, but I would not bet on it. Someone who uses "Spengler" as a byline should know that some developments simply cannot occur in a civilization's life after a certain point. Among the things that cannot happen in the United States is the transformation of the political culture to exclusivist, messianic nationalism. There is a strong messianic streak in American culture, of course, but the trajectory of its development is not inward-looking. Quite the opposite: what we are seeing today is the fusion of that cultural insistence with Kantian universalism; or if you prefer, the appearance of a genuinely popular Wilsonianism.

Besides, if America Judaized, what would the dietary laws look like? Mandatory turkey on national holidays, and no French salad dressing, on penalty of deportation to Canada?

* * *

And speaking of American mental problems: with regard to the Bush Administration's Terror War strategy, the ice cracked this week. It's like when the Russians won the Siege of Stalingrad. The war is far from over, but it looks as if we are actually going to win. So, at any rate, one might think from stories like this: U.S., Europe drawing closer together after elections here and in Iraq. James K. Glassman tell us:

Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Bush wants democracy to make the world safe.

This clearer, more powerful formulation of policy would have been welcome before the Iraq war, but it's better late than never, and it is being treated with respect among Europeans who previously saw U.S. policy as simply naive and cynical...the European Union itself is different, with the accession last year of 10 new countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. Members of the European parliament from such countries recognize the role the United States played in freeing them from Soviet domination. Ronald Reagan is their hero.

Meanwhile, whether because wishful thinking has wings or because great minds think alike, we hear much the same from Australia:

This is a fascinating detail to observe. All of the US's East Asian allies and de facto allies ended up adopting the same or similar positions. Australia, as the most intimate and active US ally in the region, sent troops to the combat phase as well as the peacekeeping phase. The other US allies did not send troops to the combat phase but offered political support to the US and sent troops for peacekeeping...Far from Howard's support of Bush alienating us from Asia, Howard took an absolutely orthodox Asian position, for an ally of the US, on Iraq.

The irony may be that the world will declare George Bush to be All Grand High Emperor-in-Chief just as his party is run out of Washington on a rail because of his fiscal policies. Pretty much the same happened to Ronald Reagan because of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-11-29: Reactors; Stem Cells; Architecture; UN

I'm dubious of embryonic stem cell therapies too. They don't seem to have gone through the formality of working yet.


Reactors; Stem Cells; Architecture; UN

 

Yes, I do watch The West Wing, which is sort of like a yakitty yakitty police drama, except that it's set in the the West Wing of the White House, and the gruff-but-lovable police commander is the president of the United States. In the most recent episode, one of the subplots involved a meeting in the White House of the proponents of various sources of energy for a post-petroleum economy. There was a solar-energy fanatic, a wind nut, and various people who had complicated ideas about bio mass. The show was honest enough to admit that none of these notions would quite work, but the president directed that similar meetings should be held regularly, because someday they would reveal a solution.

Conspicuous by its absence from those discussions was any mention of research into new forms of nuclear power. In the real world, however, that is where the solution is coming from:

Nov. 27 - Researchers at a government nuclear laboratory and a ceramics company in Salt Lake City say they have found a way to produce pure hydrogen with far less energy than other methods, raising the possibility of using nuclear power to indirectly wean the transportation system from its dependence on oil...The part of the plan that the laboratory and the ceramics company have tested is high-temperature electrolysis. There is only limited experience building high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, though, and no one in this country has ordered any kind of big reactor, even those of more conventional design, in 30 years, except for those whose construction was canceled before completion.

When I read this, I was a little astonished that no one had done it already. The problem with commercial nuclear power is that it is still using scaled-up versions of nuclear-submarine reactors, the system that Admiral Rickover devised for nuclear submarines over 50 years ago.

* * *

One should take all initial reports of medical breakthroughs with a grain of salt, but this story is an illustration of why the debate about embryonic stem-cell research is a misdirection:

SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean woman paralyzed for 20 years is walking again after scientists say they repaired her damaged spine using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood...So-called "multipotent" stem cells -- those found in cord blood -- are capable of forming a limited number of specialised cell types, unlike the more versatile "undifferentiated" cells that are derived from embryos...Additionally, umbilical cord blood stem cells trigger little immune response in the recipient...embryonic stem cells have a tendency to form tumors when injected into animals or human beings.

Again, this result might not be replicated, and I am frankly of two minds about banning research that uses embryonic stem cells. Something I am certain of, however, is that the hype for embryonic stem-cell research is a hoax. Embryonic stem-cells are the last avenue to pursue, not the first.

* * *

Frank Gehry designs the most god-awful major buildings in human history. Everybody knows this. Why are people afraid to say so out loud? Consider his recent crime against Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Just looking at it makes my brain hurt. But that's the least of it. Even from a distance, the damn thing is dangerous:

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles...is just too brilliant. That is the conclusion, anyway, of a new report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which will decide whether to sandblast portions of the building's shimmering facade of stainless steel to reduce its glare on motorists. Although no traffic accidents are known to have been caused by the building's reflected light, consultants found that the rays irritate drivers and cause temperatures on nearby sidewalks to rise as high as 138 degrees, The Daily News of Los Angeles reported. The county supervisors are to decide on the sandblasting in January; as a temporary solution, a gray mesh fabric was placed over one section.

For those readers living outside the United States, that's 138 degrees Fahrenheit (59 degrees centigrade). Or so we must suppose; with a Gehry building, you can never tell.

* * *

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a Instapundit) has some thoughts in The Wall Street Journal Online about the increasing demand to relieve Kofi Annan of the cares of high office and replace him with Vaclav Havel as Secretary General of the United Nations:

But however you assess Mr. Havel's chances of becoming secretary general, for Mr. Annan the comparison is devastating. Mr. Havel, after all, is a hero on behalf of freedom...Mr. Annan, by contrast, is a trimmer and temporizer who has stood up for tyrants far more than he has stood up to them.

As Reynolds remarks, Havel would be unlikely to take the job if it were offered to him. Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to appoint any statesman of the first order to the secretary generalship. The Secretary General is supposed to be more like a chief of staff than like a head of government. Half the job is pure bureaucratic management; the other half is facilitating discussions among the UN's members, especially those who are not publicly on speaking terms. This is a job for a good manager, not for a hero.

The Reynolds piece makes light of the United Nations as an institution, by the way. Many of the criticisms are merited, but some such entity has to exist.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-03-03

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Socialism is bad

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