Southern accents

I wish this audio clip were longer.  A woman explains the sources of a handful of common Southern accents by slipping effortlessly in and out of their linguistic ancestors.  She's really good at it.

How May of These Categories...

...could you nail just by reading the Bible?

An Excellent Example from Nashville PD

While the civic culture in New York shows troubling signs, we might take some comfort from this letter from the chief of the Nashville, TN police. He is responding to a citizen concerned by the protests arising from the several recent cases of civilian deaths at police hands resulting in no indictments. The citizen worries that the police failure to stop the demonstrations is eroding faith in public order as the demonstrations are often cases of trespassing, leading to a spectacle of the police being cowed into not enforcing the law. Not so, the chief says:
First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures. However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected. The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people. Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Later, it might be good to point out that the government needs to be, and is, somewhat flexible, especially in situations where there are minor violations of law. A government that had zero tolerance for even minor infractions would prove unworkable in short order....

In the year 2013, our officers made over four hundred thousand vehicle stops, mostly for traffic violations. A citation was issued in only about one in six of those stops. Five of the six received warnings. This is the police exercising discretion for minor violations of the law. Few, if any, persons would argue that the police should have no discretion. This is an explanation you might give your son.... Nashville, and all of America, will be even more diverse when your son becomes an adult. Certainly, tolerance, respect and consideration for the views of all persons would be valuable attributes for him to take into adulthood.
This is generally my sense of how policing should be done. The point is not to administer punishments, but to ensure the common peace. This is especially true in difficult moments, when it requires care and discretion.

CDR S on James Fallows

It's a thoroughgoing response to that Atlantic piece about America being a 'chickenhawk nation,' so I'll just post the conclusion up front.
1. Fallows needs to get over the draft guilt he's been working on a long time. Enough. You were an arrogant, selfish, physical coward as a youth. You've got a lot of company. You're absolved, so carry on and don't burden younger generations with your generation's sin. From all indications you've led a good life and are a patriotic American doing your best to serve your nation in the way you believe is correct, that is good enough and more than most.
2. We are a representative republic that has no natural need or desire for a large standing army. Neither you nor I would want to live in a republic that used the police power of the state to randomly put its citizens (due to the small numbers needed and that could be afforded, a draft would be far from universal, and an exceptionally arbitrary lottery) under bondage without an existential threat just to make a socio-political point - or as Mike Mullen puts it - force pain on the population by intentionally keeping the nation weak until crisis. Let me be clear; a draft in peace is an anathema to a free society and is tyranny without an existential threat breathing at the door. Full stop.
3. If you don't like professional politicians and their habits, then work for term limits so more people, including perhaps those with military experience, have openings with a realistic opportunity to win a seat.
4. If, rightly in my mind, you find the senior military leadership lacking, then root and branch work to change the system that produced them. Decimate the Beltway bureaucracy and nomenclature of the Department of Defence. Let Goldwater-Nichols go in to the dustbin of history and replace it with a new, modern system that best fits the needs of this century.
5. Lastly, go to Harvard, Columbia, and the other deepest blue parts of the country where those who have gained the most from our nation live and educate their children. Help build a culture there that expects much from the elite, where wearing the uniform is the price they must pay, we expect, and the duty they want, to justify their high position in society. Shame the selfish who, like you in your youth, let others do the work for them - made excuses so others would go in their place. Reward those who, however short in time or modest of service record, chose to add their name to the roster.
Discuss, if you like.

Keeping the peace

New York cops are engaged in an unofficial strike, sending the number of arrests plummeting.  Is mayhem around the corner? Timothy Carney at the Washington Examiner argues that we overestimate the role of the police in preventing crime.  I'd guess it depends on the neighborhood, how long the police have to withdraw enforcement before things go wild.  For lots of people, the presence or absence of police has almost nothing to do with whether they're likely to steal or start shooting up the place.  In other neighborhoods, it doesn't seem to take much to spur looting and drive-by shootings.  I suspect we're about to collect a lot of interesting new data.

What are semi-conductor chips?

Semi-conductors are materials in which nearly all the electrons are paired off and inert, but a very few electrons are sailing for the New World or taking jobs as pirates on the open sea. The exact impurities ("dopants") added to the original material (which is often but not always a crystal) affect the band gap that inhibits an electron from bolting. When semi-conductor materials are combined into the form we call a transistor, its band gap controls the precise amount of light or electric current needed to goose the transistor into its "on" position. ("Transistor" is a special form of semi-conductor that's sandwiched and wired up a particular way, but the terms are linguistically related: a transistor neither transfers nor resists indiscriminately, just as a semi-conductor neither conducts nor insulates completely. Instead, like an efficient doorman, they both let through just the electrons we want to pass.)

Tiny electrical-current devices that can be efficiently switched on and off with tiny amounts of electricity lend themselves to compact logic circuits. Transistors can be hooked up so that their output connections feed back into their inputs, an arrangement called a "logic gate." A transistor in one of these arrangements stays on even when the base current is removed, but when a new base current flows, the transistor flips back off, then on again with a new current, and so on. This is called a flip-flop, which amounts to a simple memory device that stores a zero (when it's off) or a one (when it's on). It is the basic technology behind computer memory chips. They are simple or complex depending on our ingenuity in constructing the interactive logic gates.

Modern, miniaturized logic circuits are laid down on a chip by a kind of etching process. For instance, a tiny little light pattern can be shone on the chip, and then a circuit material is painted on in an incredibly thin coat that sticks differently depending on where the light hit the surface. Chip-makers have gotten so good at this miniaturization that they're approaching the nano-scale--still bigger than an individual atom, but getting near that neighborhood. The smaller the wavelength of the light, the finer the pattern we can achieve. Visible light is in the 400-700 nanometer range, but of course wavelengths get smaller and smaller as you move up into the ultraviolet and gamma-ray ranges. If we can get the etching pattern down to the atomic scale (1/10 of a nanometer), we'll obviously be able to pack a lot more circuits into a small space.

I think I always had the notion that silicon chips were made of the same material as beach sand. Sand is really silicone dioxide, though, whereas the silicon in chips is elemental, crystallized silicon, which looks a bit like a silvery metal.

What is electric current?

It's something else I've never understood: what is electricity, anyway? I was always told it had something to do with loosely affiliated electrons moving around, but it's not quite like totally free electrons scooting along a pipe. As I understand it, electrons very rarely behave in ways that are analogous to the ballistic movement of large particles, and when they do it's generally in a vacuum (as in a cathode ray tube--the "rays" are projectile electrons), not in a solid material like the copper in an electrical wire.

To start with, we look at electrons in their most characteristic state, all staid and settled down in orbit around a positively charged atomic nucleus. I guess there are, on average, about the same number of electrons in the world as protons, and most of them have found a nice girl and moved to the suburbs with a 9-to-5 job. Electrons in a fully completed atomic shell or "band" don't produce an electric current; if they're "moving" in some sense, it's not the same sense as a movement along an identifiable path that we call an electric "current."

The outer shell of electrons around an atom is called the "valence band," and is associated with the kind of chemical reactions that we learned about in school: +2-valence atoms like to pair up with -2-valence atoms, and so on, until together they've achieved a stable, full valence band that conducts no current. But if a bit of energy shoots into a full valence band and juices up a particular electron enough to bounce it out so that it's still nearby, but not quite nailed down any more, we call its new hovering location a "conduction band." It's out there cruising around trying out new musical acts, starting up new tech ventures, and looking for girls, and it's capable of conducting electricity if circumstances are such as to line it up with a lot of other similarly bored, disaffected electrons.

The difficulty in bridging the gap between a stodgy suburban valence band and an exciting urban conduction band is called the "band gap" for that particular material. In good conductors like metals, the two bands may overlap, so there is no identifiable band gap; in that case a high percentage of electrons may wander around like ronin. In good insulators, the band gap is hopelessly huge; hardly anyone escapes the gray flannel suit. In certain very small or very pure samples of materials, however, there is a nice, clear band gap, fairly small but of slightly variable size, which can be affected by clever things we do to it. "Tuning" the band-gap produces little nano- or quantum-objects with various useful properties. Quantum dots, for instance, drink in all flavors of light, then spit out a single color consistently, depending on how hard the dot is squeezed into a smaller and smaller space, and therefore how big the band-gap is and what wave-length of light will be "fit" in it. More traditionally, a transistor has a characteristic band gap that controls what kind of current is needed to overcome its electrical "gate."

Republicans past and present

There was a lot of talk about the 2014 Republican sweep, particularly how it was the largest R majority in the House since 1928.  Michael Barone points out that the Republican and Democratic parties of today are quite different from their early 20th-century incarnations.  The earlier Republican party was dominated by Northerners, political heirs to 19th-century Republicans who pushed for the Civil War.  After WWII, they backed the expensive Marshall Plan.  They passed the Taft-Hartley bill over Truman's veto, limiting the power of labor unions in ways that have lasted to the present.

The modern R-D split is still geographical, but characterized by a thin strip of D on each coast and a huge field of R in between.  The Democrats by and large favor a strong central government; the Republicans are uneasy about the size of government but lack a unified strategy to alter it.

I see a 3-way split:  big-tent strong government (populist/nanny state), small-tent strong government (crony capitalist oligarchs), and big-tent small government (libertarian/free marketists).

Designer elements

To start with some corrections to my previous post about nanotechnology: First, it was not George Smalley but William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor in 1947, who made the "amplification" analogy about the bale of hay attached to the mule's tail.

Second, I'm still struggling with the concept of the location of an unlocatable electron. The truth, it seems, is that the electron does very much have a position, but in the odd sense that there is a wave function describing its location at any particular time as a varying probability. (Just as a sine-wave-ish function describing a water wave has an amplitude that corresponds to the height of the water, a Schroedinger wave function describes the probability of an election being somewhere at a particular time.) That is, it may not be in our power to pinpoint where an electron is at any particular moment, but there are many areas where the electron is so unlikely to be that you can pretty much ignore the possibility. The areas of likely location may be more or less confined and comprehensible, such as the surface of a rather small, fuzzy sphere in an identifiable neighborhood.

On to more wonders about nanotechnology: I was surprised to read that all atoms, from tiny one-proton hydrogen to obese, unwieldy uranium with its 92 protons (we can ignore larger atoms, which are too unstable to stay together long), are roughly a tenth of a nanometer in diameter. Despite the difference in the size of their nuclei, all the atoms in the periodic table have an effective "size" that corresponds to the cloud formed by the outer layer of their electrons. The negatively charged electrons are all being sucked into toward the nucleus by their electrical attraction to the positive protons, but at the same time the electrons are fiercely repelling each other, so they stand off from the nucleus in the stable positions permitted by the mysterious laws of quantum mechanics. (The protons in the nucleus try to repel each other, too, but there's an attraction between protons called the "strong nuclear force" that, at extremely short distances, vastly overwhelms the repulsive electric force.) For whatever reason, the stable positions for the outermost orbiting electrons are pretty close to the same distance from the nucleus no matter how many of them are packed in below; there's an awful lot of empty space in there, and a very powerful electrical attraction keeping things tight.

It's the outer layer of electrons that concerns us most in daily life. Just about everything we normally experience as the properties of atoms has to do with their outer shell of electrons; that's where the phenomena of chemical bonding and the absorption or reflection of light mostly take place. That's one reason elements in the same column of the periodic table have such similar properties: the difference in atomic weight and number is often less important than the similarity in outer electron shells.

That brings us to artificial atoms. According to this terrific Wired article from several years ago, when we manufacture quantum dots, their electron clouds act a lot like ordinary atoms, despite their hollow cores.  For instance, they can make pseudo-chemical bonds just as the electrons in normal atoms do. But artificial atoms need not simply mimic elements number 1-92 on the periodic table. Their electron shells don't necessarily have to be roughly spherical, as those of natural atoms are, because we are shaping them with a variety of forces that need not be as simple as the radially symmetric pull of a nucleus. That means that there may be bazillions of artificial atoms available to us, each with its own chemical and spectral behavior. What's more, we may be able, by doing something as simple as altering the shaping magnetic field, to alter the electron shell and therefore transmute one artificial element instantaneously into another.

A Man After My Own Heart

But, of course he is.
Milius, who wrote... Apocalypse Now and... directed Conan the Barbarian... is there when Pauline Kael arrives. Kael is the liberal New Yorker film critic. To her, a Milius film is only slightly better than a slime mold.

Milius has had some wine. He has an intermediary tell Kael that he would like a “conference” with her. A message comes back: Kael wants to know if Milius, who in meetings with executives was fond of displaying pistols, is armed.

“Tell her I’m not armed,” Milius says. “But I myself am a weapon.”
His greatest stroke in Conan was in getting Basil Poledouris to do the score. It wouldn't be a tenth the movie it is if it had the ordinary score of a Sword & Sorcery film.

Some Advice From The World of Chivalry

So there's this article about a guy trying to turn frat boys into gentlemen.
“What I find, when I ask [what it means to be a good man] of men, is words like honor, integrity, doing the right thing, standing up for the little guy.” All of which are crucially different, in Kimmel’s mind, from the words they use to describe “being a man”—words like to win, get laid, get rich."...

By way of contrast, he says that he might very well be able to persuade fraternity members to show respect for women by urging them to “live up to the ideals you yourself profess in your charter.” He quiets down a little. “I think I can sell that.”
Those fraternity charters are by and large artifacts of 19th century college culture. This model of what it means to be a gentleman was self-consciously drawn from medieval sources, but the extraction was troubled by this very question. The part the 19th century proper gentleman admired was the honor, the courtesy to ladies, the moral uprightness (which I notice our left-leaning gentleman has substituted with 'standing up for the little guy'; but since it was an explicitly Christian sort of moral uprightness that the Victorians wanted, the substitution is not ridiculous).

What the knights and their ladies themselves wanted, if you go back and read the Medievals directly, was first and foremost prowess. The quest to win is not severable from the quest to be a good man.

The Medievals wanted the other things too. Honor in doing one's duty was the very foundation of their civilization, which was much more fragile than ours if people lied or cheated. Keeping one's word was deeply important. Lancelot, in the long vulgate prose stories from Middle French, is so willing to be obedient to ladies that he allows himself to be kept in prison without resistance for a long time at the orders of a woman. She values his prowess, though, recognizing that it is somehow at the core of his being a good man and a good knight: when battles or tournaments occur, she paroles him to go and fight. In return, he meekly returns to resume his imprisonment after his victories.

What they were able to do, which we have not so far been able to do, is to resolve the conflict between 'developing and proving prowess' and 'being nice to the little guy and to ladies.' Those things are definitely in conflict -- one is about pursuing your own interests, and the other about relinquishing some of what your power could have claimed in order that others may be happier. Still, this conflict is not necessarily a logical contradiction.

If you want this to work, you have to be smarter than the Victorians, and as smart as that Medieval lady. If you try to force them not to win, to drive out this ethic of prowess and competition with one another, you will fail. They will not buy that at any price. This is too much at the essence of manhood.

They can strive mightily in war and competition, and yet gently in service to the lady who respects and honors them for their striving. You should want them to strive for prowess and for victory, as a precondition and training for striving for moral uprightness and kindness. Institutions, faiths, civilizations can make headway on this ground if they do not make the mistake of trying to turn this into a bloodless ethic. It is the ethic of blooded men.

A Tale of Two Thomases

On an allied topic to the repetition of the Herod story in the tales of King Arthur, Universalis notes that scholars sometimes make a similar argument for two early figures. "The prophets Elijah and Elisha are a bit of an embarrassment," they note, because they have not only such similar names but reputed miracles that are often so similar in character that scholars argue there is really one story here that somehow got divided in two in the record, rather than two lives more or less accurately recounted.

Since this is the feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury, they note a similar coincidence:
A learned and worldly man called Thomas, a close and trusted friend of King Henry, is appointed by the king to a high office where he is expected to be loyal... Thomas suffers an interior conversion and resolves to follow his conscience, God's voice within him [which] leads to a conflict with the king, who feels betrayed by his trusted friend....

Are we talking about Henry II of England and Thomas à Becket? Or Henry VIII of England and Thomas More?
A fair argument! Sometimes the rhymes are in history itself, and not just in our stories about our history.

Last snowflake of the season

Artificial atoms

My mission this winter has been to understand electronics a little better, and in aid of that I listened to an excellent Great Course on nanotechnology.  What a stunning field!  The course fully delivered in terms of explaining what might be accomplished by nanotechnology in the near future in terms of things like cameras, medical treatment, and solar power.  It fell down considerably in the more difficult task of explaining how these things can be accomplished, frequently reverting to jargon and ill-defined terms.  In one breath, the lecturer was unsure whether his audience had heard of the periodic table of the elements.  In the next, he was throwing around terms like "quantum dot" and "band gap" as if they meant something to the average layman.

So with my free time today, I tried to run down popularized sources that would help me understand semiconductors, microelectronics, and quantum dots in a way accessible to people who have no command of the mathematics of wave mechanics.  Here are some of the things I found out.

Any popular discussion of nanotechnology is going to throw out all kinds of exciting possibilities of quantum dots, but what are the little thingummies?  The definition is often given as something like electrons confined in a space measured in a fairly small number of nanometers. But what do we mean by "confining" the electron, exactly?  We've been told we can neither stop them nor ever know exactly where they are.

The answer apparently lies in the same sort of thing that goes on when we say an electron is in orbit around an atomic nucleus.  One of the quandaries that led to the development of quantum mechanics was our inability to visualize how electrons behave in an atom.  In classical mechanics, an oscillating or rotating electron should be generating an electromagnetic wave.  In other words, it should emit light and, in so doing, lose energy.  It should therefore spiral gradually into its nucleus after a while, but it doesn't.  What gives?  Apparently the thinking is that electrons in certain kinds of permitted energy states, which we call "orbits" (though they're not like planetary orbits), are stable and neither emit light nor lose energy and fall into the center of the atom.  If they gain or lose just the right amount of energy, they can jump up or down into the next permitted energy state, but until that happens they're on autopilot.  I gather we don't know why this is so, only that it's the way things happen.  So it must be that electrons in certain states can hang out more or less indefinitely under the influence of a particular atomic nucleus, and that's what we mean--loosely--by their "confined location."  I gather further that a quantum dot pulls off something like the same trick, but without benefit of a nucleus.  In that sense, a quantum dot has been called an "artificial atom."

How does a nanotechnologist confine electrons in a dot, without using an atomic nucleus as an ordering device?  He relies on the special qualities of the materials we call semiconductors.  These are materials that neither freely conduct electricity, as metal does, nor totally insulate it, like glass.  Instead, they allow a very tiny amount of electricity to pass, but only if we excite the system very slightly, such as by introducing a tiny charge or some light.  As I understand it, natural semiconductors tend to be crystalline structures formed from elements with four electrons in their outermost 8-type shell, which form covalent bonds with other similar atoms.  The addition of trace amounts of elements with either 3 or 5 electrons in their outer shells creates a situation in which the crystal is either slightly short of electrons or slightly overstocked with them.  (Something about the regular array of the crystal is conducive to the electrons moving about in a useful way.)  The movement of the spare electrons, or the movement of the missing spaces where an electron should be (as in the case of those little puzzles that are solved by moving around the "hole"), or both, function as the carriers of electric current.  We have developed considerable ingenuity in adding just the right sort of this or that to produce the excess-electron materials ("N"-type) and electron-depleted materials ("P"-type) that we need.  When we sandwich N and P materials together, we find that we can precisely control when current will and will not pass across the boundary between them.

One very handy semiconductor device is a diode, or rectifier, which basically is some N-material stacked against some P-material that functions as a one-way valve:  electric current will go through on one voltage but not on its opposite.  This is what we use, for instance, to convert AC current to DC.  An even handier device is a transistor, which is in essence two diodes back to back.  It is a sandwiching of electron-oversupply and electron-undersupply materials (N-P-N or P-N-P) in such a configuration that applying a tiny current to the middle part of the sandwich permits a current to pass through the whole shebang.  That is, the transistor is either an off-switch or an amplifier, depending on whether it's put in the "on" position by a small current.  (Electrical switches weren't new when transistors were developed, of course, but the old style required a big "gate" of conducting material that could be opened or shut by brute force.  The "switch" in a transistor can be tiny and energy efficient.)

Even cooler, when the current passes through the transistor, it has been amplified.  How does the amplification part work?  George Smalley, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for nanotechnology in the 1990s, used this analogy:  Tie a bale of hay to the tail of a mule, then put a bit of effort into striking a match to light the hay, and observe the level of energy expended by the mule.  A transistor is a device in which a lot of current is ready to flow once an initial stimulus has triggered it.  Until the trigger happens, nothing flows, but after the trigger happens, the information contained in the trigger is transmitted in vastly louder form.

It turns out that judicious manipulation of semiconductor materials permits us to shave away the crystalline structure in which electrons are permitted to flow until, at last, they are confined to a plane (a "quantum well"), or to a long, narrow tunnel (a "quantum wire"), or a little cube or sphere (a "quantum dot").  Why bother?  Well, to take the case of quantum dots, it turns out that we can fine-tune the size of the dot in order to exert a precise control over the size of the little packet of energy that's required to enter the system and bump the electron to another level.  When it falls back down, it will emit a tiny bit of light at a precise and controllable frequency.  This is proving handy in the development of TV screens in the form of extremely thin layers that emit bright, clear light in any color we like upon the application of an extremely small current.  It's also possible to construct medical nanoparticles that combine antigen-like recognition particles and light-emitting quantum dots, so we can let them roam in the bloodstream until they encounter a microbe or a cancer cell, then emit light that's color-coded to let us know which problem they found.  They can even be programmed to release a toxin to destroy the microbe or cancer cell with minimal effects on surrounding tissue, which should not only decrease side-effects but also lessen the ability of the problem cells to develop resistance.  In the context of solar power, quantum dots hold the promise of something very much like artificial photosynthesis that produces electricity rather than sugar.

It's perfectly amazing how far this field has advance in the last couple of decades.

That's Not What They Mean, Volokh

I generally have a lot of respect for Eugene Volokh, but he's fighting a straw man in his post on regulating guns like cars. The people who argue for this have in mind especially two ordinary car regulations they would like to see applied to guns, neither of which he mentions.

1) Registration of all cars with the government at time of sale or transfer,

2) Mandatory insurance to cover likely potential costs should you operate it in a way that causes harm.

So that would mean universal registration of firearms, as well as mandatory (and rather expensive) insurance for each and every firearm you intend to operate.

In other words, the proposal is for a much stricter regime of firearm regulation than currently common across the country -- not a lesser regime.

Richard Fernandez: Adapt, Survive, Profit

I thought this was an excellent piece.
One of the most salient characteristic of American culture is “can do” — its ability to find a way around obstacles placed in its path. Reuters recently reported that ice-cream shops in Venezuela are closing due to the unavailability of milk. In America the outcome may have been the invention of a source of artificial milk. Instead of closing the shops they might have reopened as artificial ice cream parlors.

American oil and gas companies reacted precisely in this way to government discouragement. The industry simply invented new technologies which made America the biggest oil producer in the world.

In the United States failure appears to be a profit opportunity.... Take for example the case of New York City resident Nicolas Karlson. The Affordable Care Act gave him the shaft.... So what does Karlson do? He adapts by hiring an adviser named Brett Sigler of Client Focused Advisors in New York. Brett will get him a deal somehow....

Obamacare will be great for guys like Sigler.
That seems like a strong insight. Government creates problems, but that means there's money to be made solving the problems created by government. I've been worried about automation putting people out of work, but here's a near-endless source of potential employment: developing workarounds and fixes for the idiocy that government devises.


Today is apparently the "Feast of Holy Innocents," meaning those children Herod had killed in his attempt to eliminate Jesus. In Le Morte D'Arthur, Malory has King Arthur repeat this infamy in an attempt to eliminate Mordred, about whom he is warned by a prophecy of Merlin's.
THEN King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all, upon pain of death; and so there were found many lords' sons, and all were sent unto the king, and so was Mordred sent by King Lot's wife, and all were put in a ship to the sea, and some were four weeks old, and some less. And so by fortune the ship drave unto a castle, and was all to-riven, and destroyed the most part, save that Mordred was cast up, and a good man found him, and nourished him till he was fourteen year old, and then he brought him to the court, as it rehearseth afterward, toward the end of the Death of Arthur. So many lords and barons of this realm were displeased, for their children were so lost, and many put the wite on Merlin more than on Arthur; so what for dread and for love, they held their peace.
I've always read this part of Malory's tale as being a reiteration of the Biblical story, and a rather implausible one. I'm not sure whether a Jewish king, with the backing of Roman soldiers, might have really carried out such an order. Perhaps the Romans would have been willing to sustain him on his throne against the outrage it would merit, as it would weaken and divide a subject population. Perhaps the kingdom was at that point so inflected by the kind of tyrannies common to that region in that time of the world that it was not out of order.

It is just the sort of thing, though, that the British tradition in Malory's time could not have accepted. Kings would and did ask for hostages from powerful families at times, as a guarantee of good behavior. But they treated them well and raised them so long as good behavior was assured. To have killed the hostages, not of one family but of many across the kingdom, would have brought open war from the nobility against the king. Certainly in Malory's own day the Wars of the Roses -- in which he had some part -- showed that the dignity of royalty was not unlimited if they abused their authority.

In any case today we are supposed to reflect on them, and all innocents killed for someone else's purposes, convenience, or benefit. It would seem we have quite a score of our own to admit to on this day.

How To Start a Fight in One Easy Step

Actually there are ten, but the first one is enough if, as a man, you follow the advice to 'confront men' about it. By the time we get to telling other men's sons how to grow up thinking about their 'male privilege,' you'll be lucky if you don't get worse than a fight.

I realize that with society structured as it is we need women to do this kind of thing. We even give female soldiers medals for it now. As well we might, given that fighting sexual harassment is now the Army's "primary mission." Why wouldn't you give out medals for the soldiers who are at the forefront of aggressively pursuing your primary mission?

Still, let's be clear about the limits of your 'male privilege.' What you're suggesting is well into the realm of female privilege. I'll listen to women talk about these things with great courtesy if they really want to discuss it. If you as a man come up to me and tell me I shouldn't prop my feet up in a chair at Starbucks because it might possibly make some woman somewhere feel uncomfortable, though, you're asking for trouble. I'd give the woman the chair I was sitting in, unasked, if chairs were short in supply. If she refused to take it, I'd stand anyway rather than sit while a woman stood. As Lewis Grizzard used to say, if I didn't do it my ancestors would come up out of the grave after me.

But if you as a man undertake to go about lecturing other men about it, that's a privilege you don't have. You'd better well know it.

Nullification in 2015?

Why not?
The judiciary has consistently ruled against the nullification doctrine, asserting its unique, judicial right to declare laws unconstitutional. But this executive order isn’t a law. And given its extremely shaky legal footing, it isn’t difficult to imagine a federal bench recognizing the states’ right to disregard federal orders that don’t clearly have the force of law.... It would force the Obama administration to go on offense, suing the states to enforce a law that isn’t a law. And I don’t think that case can be made.
There are a couple of the old options that are back on the table in terms of restraining runaway executive power. Once the new Congress is seated, expect to hear about Letters of Marque and Reprisal as an Article I power that the President has no control over whatsoever.

The Feast of St. John the Evangelist

Thanks to a helpful application, I'm learning a bit more about the twelve-day feast that begins on Christmas day. Today is the feast of St. John, presumed to be the author of the Gospel of John and other works.

Wren Day

Also, of course, the Feast of St. Stephen, martyr of Jerusalem, and the first recorded martyr of Christianity (unless one considers Jesus a competitor).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Part II

On Christmas Eve, the story continues.

This translation is not my favorite, but it's nice to hear the tale.


Christmas Eve in Rural Georgia

The closest town to here is small enough that the Post Office doesn't deliver mail. It doesn't have a stop light, either, just a four-way stop in the middle of town. There are no extravagant displays, as the country about is rather poor, and much of the population is older as the young have chiefly had to move away to look for work.

It is small enough that the manager of the Post Office called me personally to tell me that we'd gotten a package, and I should get over there before they close to make sure we didn't miss having it for Christmas. We took her a basket with newly-potted plants, garnished with a candy cane.

A Christmas Story, On Christmas Adam

(So calls this night a child of an old friend of mine, because 'Adam comes before Eve.')

Proverbs 12:10

I never liked Dickens.

John Hawkins, Man of the People

You're only likely to disagree with everything or nothing he has to say.

Reminds me of something Waylon Jennings said: 'Only thing wrong with being a dinosaur is there's no future in it.'

A Much Easier (Hypothetical) Question

There's a Frenchman claiming that the US Navy shot down the Malaysian airlines Boeing 777 that went missing this year.

It's just a theory, but the argument for such a policy is much easier than the torture policy we've been discussing below. On the one hand, it's always wrong to intentionally kill the innocent. On the other hand, the people who put the innocent in a position of needing to be killed to avoid a great harm are not members of the US Navy, but members of the enemy organization that hijacked the plane for presumably terrorist purposes.

So unlike the case of torture-for-information, here we have a case that is really justified. If this was done, the harm lies on the wicked who hijacked the plane for evil reasons.

Getting Closer to Christmas

Not quite there yet. But a universal faith must appeal to all human modes.

Since Tex mentioned Die Hard:

Christmas in a rockabilly moment:

If you think your family is crazy...

Two days left of Advent, including today. See you at midnight tomorrow.


A discussion at Maggie's Farm:
A Politically Correct Zen Riddle
"One civil rights group is outraged at Bowdoin College’s outrageous punishment of students who dressed up as pilgrims and American Indians for a Thanksgiving party – calling it 'cultural appropriation'"
"Attorney General Eric Holder has issued an edict, through a memorandum, that cross dressing and transsexualism [are] now protected under federal civil rights laws which were designed to protect women from sex discrimination."
So is it punishable, or protected, conduct for a male to dress up as a female Pilgrim or Indian on Thanksgiving?
 Seems fair.  If a man can be a woman, why can't he be an Indian?

Reading Into Silence

Given the recent discussion of torture as practiced by the United States in the war on terror, dug up a 2006 article called "Aquinas on Torture." It turns out, actually, that Aquinas said nothing whatsoever about the practice. It is an interesting ommission, the author argues:
Here we are faced with something that, for this writer at least, is something of an enigma. It does not appear that Aquinas approved of this practice. Nowhere does he defend it... [H]e neither defends or condemns the judicial institution of torture. The omission is curious, to say the least.... What are we to conclude? One is tempted to say that Aquinas “copped out,” that he ducked the question, perhaps because the temper of the times would not have tolerated an honest answer.

The torture of witnesses, as mandated in Roman law, involves inflicting pain on persons who are, at law, innocent of any crime. In his discussion of homicide, he absolutely rejects the killing of innocent persons. In the following question, concerned with “other injuries committed against persons” he does not raise the question of mutilating, beating or incarcerating the innocent. One likes to think that for him, the question could not arise: the context is clearly that of justice. Here, as with Aristotle, there is no question of “justifying” actions otherwise reprehensible on the basis of some greater good. Punishing the innocent is quite simply unjust. Hence there can be no justification for it.

Yet he was faced with an institution which was not only practiced, but legislated, both by the Church at the highest level, and by all contemporary civil societies.
There's a signal difference between the cases, which is that judicial torture is designed to compel confessions that will allow us to settle at law matters that have happened in the past; the American cases involve an attempt to prevent a harm in the future. The person under questioning may be presumed innocent, as there has been no trial: there may not even be a crime for which he might later be tried if the questioning is successful. Some of those taken and questioned were not even conspirators, but drivers or associates who may not know the significance of what they know. They might simply know something that could stop a crime, were it made known to the right people in the right hour.

So we're running right into the teeth of the problem that Aristotle is describing, and about which Aquinas was silent. But Aquinas does speak to the question of things we would consider torture in terms of correcting slaves.
Now it is unlawful to do a person a harm, except by way of punishment in the cause of justice. Again, no man justly punishes another, except one who is subject to his jurisdiction. Therefore it is not lawful for a man to strike another, unless he have some power over the one whom he strikes. And since the child is subject to the power of the parent, and the slave to the power of his master, a parent can lawfully strike his child, and a master his slave that instruction may be enforced by correction.
Then the question becomes one of whether we have proper jurisdiction to administer the correction -- as for example by explaining that it is improper to withhold information that might prevent a terrorist attack! Oddly enough, we seem to have decided that we have the right exactly where we don't have the jurisdiction: an American citizen is normally protected by the Eighth Amendment, whereas those captured in Afghanistan who are not and have never been American citizens (nor, perhaps, ever on American soil) are the ones we tend to use these techniques against.

I'm not sure we haven't gotten this one wrong all the way around. Some things can't be justified. If we feel we have to do it anyway, because the matter of preventing terrorist assaults is so grave, we should not think ourselves justified in doing it. We should think ourselves guilty of a sin, at least; and that's what confession is for.

Falling oil prices a problem?

We like the lower prices a the gas pump, but everyone's worried about the effect of the falling price of crude oil on the oil industry and the economy. So, as my husband observes, "You asked for a miracle to reduce the oil supply and I give you the D ... O ... T."

Speaking of channeling that fine old holiday movie "Die Hard," I'm reading the recently re-released 1979 novel on which the movie was loosely based, and enjoying it thoroughly. Empty-headed nonsense.


C.S. Lewis believed that all old mythologies were shadows of the Christian truth, and liked to play with the influences on Earth of the five classical planets:  Mercury, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter.  In "That Hideous Strength," the angel-overseers in charge of each planet visit our hero and his group of insurgents in a country house on Earth, bringing their different influences in turn. Last to arrive is Jupiter:
Suddenly a greater spirit came--one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.
In the kitchen his coming was felt.  No one afterwards knew how it happened, but somehow the kettle was put on, the hot toddy was brewed.   Arthur--the only musician among them--was bidden to get out his fiddle.  The chairs were pushed back, the floor cleared.   They danced.  What they danced no one could remember.   It was some round dance, no modern shuffling: it involved beating the floor, clapping of hands, leaping high.   And no one, while it lasted, thought himself or his fellows ridiculous.  It may, in fact, have been some village measure, not ill-suited to the tiled kitchen: the spirit in which they danced it was not so.   It seemed to each that the room was filled with kings and queens, that the wildness of their dance expressed heroic energy, and its quieter movements had seized the very spirit behind all noble ceremonies.
Upstairs his mighty beam turned the Blue Room into a blaze of lights.  Before the other angels a man might sink; before this he might die, but if he lived at all he would laugh. If you had caught one breath of the air that came from him, you would have felt yourself taller than before.  Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously.   Kingship and power and festal pomp and courtesy shot from him as sparks fly from an anvil.   The ringing of bells, the blowing of trumpets, the spreading out of banners are means used on earth to make a faint symbol of his quality.  It was like a long sunlit wave, creamy-crested and arched with emerald, that comes on nine feet tall, with roaring and with terror and unquenchable laughter.  It was like the first beginning of music in the halls of some king so high and at some festival so solemn that a tremor akin to fear runs through young hearts when they hear it.  For this was great Glund-Oyarsa, King of Kings, through whom the joy of creation principally blows across these fields of Arbol, known to men in old times as Jove and under that name, by fatal but not inexplicable misprision, confused with his Maker--so little did they dream by how many degrees the stair even of created being rises above him.
At his coming there was holiday in the Blue Room. The two mortals, momentarily caught up into the Gloria which those five excellent Natures perpetually sing, forgot for a time the lower and more immediate purpose of their meeting.

A Little Battalion

As we sort out a very difficult moment, a tradition holds.
For 32 years, Steinbrenner's Yankee Silver Shield Foundation has provided for the education of the children of New York City police officers, firemen and Port Authority employees who died in the line of duty, and will do so for the family of NYPD officer Rafael Ramos, gunned down by a cold-blooded killer Saturday along with his partner, Wenjian Liu [who had no children]....

Steinbrenner started his foundation in 1982 after seeing a news account of four children flanking their mother and folding an American flag at the funeral of their father, an NYPD officer who had been killed in the line of duty. "Who's going to take care of these kids," Steinbrenner asked his friend, former Olympian Jim Fuchs, who would run the foundation until his death, also in 2010. "We are."
At a moment when little in New York's civic culture seems to work, this still works.

Outside the Walls of Jerusalem

Looking back at the city from the Church of Scotland.

From the gardens of Gethsemane.

Between the Zion and Jaffa gates.

The last month of the year

This rousing old gospel Christmas tune is also a folk mnemonic for the months of the year.

Rockabilly Time

Even this close to Christmas, you have to make time for a little hot rodding.


It cries out for a caption contest, doesn't it?

The WSJ (Google link here) reports on a desperate need:
Frustrated by the dearth of holiday movies for ferret lovers, Alison Parker, a Vancouver-based filmmaker, directed “Santa’s Little Ferrets,” which she plans to start shopping to television networks early next year.  “If you’re a dog or cat person, you’re covered when it comes to holiday movies,” says Ms. Parker.  “There’s nothing out there for people who have ferrets.”
Most of the article addresses the compulsion to dress up our animals in seasonal themes, which I understand very well.  My smallest dog always acts like she's cold, snuggling under blankets if the house falls below 72 degrees.   It seemed a perfect excuse to buy her an adorable little snowflake-patterned sweater this Christmas.  I can't quite decide if she likes it. She certainly objects to being put into it, but is the look she gives me afterward one of grateful warmth, mute anguish, or just her usual inscrutable googly-eyed stare?  My niece reports that her chihuahua loves being dressed and rolls over in anticipation.  This is not my experience.
“Treating a pet like a family member makes you feel really happy,” [pet stylist Dara Foster] says.  “If people could put a Christmas sweater on a fish, they would.”
Oh, don't count us out yet.  But I think my dogs would prefer finding some Christmas ferrets under the tree.   I'll never forget, some thirty years ago, watching a housemate's cat run up the trunk of a fully decorated Christmas tree, pursued by a single-minded visiting dog.

The Christian Quarter

Home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Christian Quarter is both like and unlike the other quarters of the city.  

The Jerusalem Headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller.

Saint George and the Dragon.

A modest "palace."

The Zion Gate

The stone walls of Jerusalem were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Zion Gate is near the room of the Last Supper, and was chewed up (as you can see) during the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. The Jews were pushed out of the Old City during this time.

When you have heard American politicians advocating for a 'two state solution' along the 'pre-1967 lines,' did you realize this meant telling the Jews that they had to give up the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest site in their faith? I didn't realize it until last week.

It's already the case that the very holiest site of all, the Temple Mount, is denied to them. Even though it is Israeli territory, no Jew can go there and pray. Any Jew who wishes to go there must be accompanied by a policeman who is charged to remove them at the imam's orders, to be given the minute they start anything like a prayer on the Temple Mount. It is Israeli police who enforce these orders, on their own brethren.

Amazing stuff. The only parts of the Old City I didn't walk were the ones I was denied access to, by Israeli police, because I was not a Muslim.

The Jesus Story... told by the tourist guidebooks in a hotel in Jerusalem.

It's not wrong, but how mysterious that explanation must seem if you don't happen to know the rest of the story.

How Grendel Stole Christmas

An amusing poem from The Heretic's Mirror:
Every Scylding in Heorot liked mead a lot,
But Grendel the beast, roaring outside did not.

Grendel hated Scyldings, the whole Danish clan.
Can I say why? I don’t think I can.

He spied on the Scyldings, he fumed and he wailed.
He watched as in Heorot they drank mead and drank ale.

“How can I hurt them, the king and his thanes?”
Alone in his barrow, it drove him insane.

Then he got an idea! An awful idea!
Grendel got a horrible, awful idea!

That fiendish old monster was up to no good.
He decided to kill them and gorge on their blood....
It's a funny poem, but that structure suggests that we have a lot of real-life Grendels in the world these days. Fortunately, we know what the answer to that problem looks like.

Not a tortured artist

I like to work on tiny things.

Here's a guy with an obsession that puts mine to shame, and on a huge scale, too.  He reminds me of what an old art history professor said about Matisse, that he had strong feelings about only one thing--painting--and painting was pure joy to him.

Making a splash

You know you've arrived on the national progressive scene when your impassioned plea to be excused from final exams at Harvard Law School (because social injustice bums you out) generates an argument in the comments section over whether it's meant as a parody.

A fine teacher

My friend's pianist son has finally started college, in the music department of our alma mater.  He's an intense and self-conscious young man with wildly romantic notions, so he over-reacted a bit recently when he felt he had underperformed a jury.  He immediately wrote a mea culpa to his advisor full of wild explanations of where his life and career might have begun to go off-track.  His humane and sensible advisor wrote back with this advice:
First of all, your jury, while quite under your best level of playing at present, did show some big improvements in important areas, especially more natural use of your body and in overall musicality of approach. Of course, I knew as you were playing that you were very uncomfortable internally and that the mistakes were getting you rattled. However, contrary to what you said, your sound was not bad except for some harshness at the beginning . . . .
Internal feelings not withstanding, your jury was from an expressive point of view quite decent and ALL of the faculty noted a fine improvement in overall artistry over their previous impressions of your playing. . . . These people are all good musicians, [name redacted], and I don’t think they would lie to you; you can read the jury sheets and they are all very complimentary. . . .
You are right in having high standards, wanting only the best level for yourself. You are also partially right in being disappointed with your showing today and in knowing that you cannot claim a professional level of public performance with these kinds of mistakes. You must keep in mind, though, where you are pianistically at the moment and also that the players in the school who are consistently free of errors slave away at the instrument six hours a day or more at present and have done so for many years prior to coming into the school. You have not focused so single-mindedly on the piano, although you have cultivated other areas in compensation--intellect, general musical knowledge and artistic creativity. There is plenty of good stuff to build upon. . . . There will be successes such as your first master class performance and disappointments too. Expect a bumpy ride as a matter of course. It will take a tremendous amount of will for you to succeed at this. The important thing is to stay centered--treat both success and failure as the impostors that they really are. . . .
Your email is very soul searching and thoughtful, but I think there is a simpler explanation to what happened today. It is not so much that you played the wrong repertoire or are on the wrong path (although mindless practicing is obviously bad and more mental practicing indeed is an important piece of the puzzle for you). My feeling at present is that you simply need more experience performing to get used to nervous pressure. Just get up and do it. Your hyper-active mind can be your enemy--I would advise you not to overanalyze situations like this. And of course, we will roll up our sleeves and figure out what repertoire and technique you must do now to make you a stronger player.
. . . Above all, don’t let any one uncomfortable performance stop you. It is only one performance. If you played this same jury again tomorrow, there would be a good chance that you would ace it. You know what your real level is at present and more experience will narrow the gap between intention and result.
I admire this teacher's balance between encouragement and discipline.  He's not likely to let his sensitive but driven young charge fall into either discouragement or complacency.

Handmade law

Perhaps inspired by the Williams-Sonoma catalogue rant, Cassandra sent me this mission statement from an artisanal attorney.  I think I'd have been better suited to practicing law if it had been like this:
Are you tired of large corporate law firms making the same cookie cutter litigation? Do you fondly remember a time when quality mattered in law suits, when there was art and craftsmanship in every court motion filed, when company records were drafted using the traditional methods and tools? If you have become dissatisfied with mass-produced legal representation, stop by my scriveners shop; for I am an artisanal attorney.
* * *
How is an artisanal attorney different from any other attorney? Like other artisans, I pay close attention to my ingredients and process; I am intimately involved in all stages of creation. Other attorneys print their documents on paper they buy in mass-produced boxes, tens of thousands of sheets at a time, using ink that mechanically jets onto the page. I make my own paper by hand, using the traditional methods of 14th-century book publishers, who printed their works on linen and vellum. The flax for the linen grows along the sides of a nearby swimming hole, and the plants’ growth is influenced by the laughter of children in the summer, when I pick it by hand. . . .
And all the law is imported from Portugal.

Gaudete Sunday

Roman-era Mosaic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

I am still in Jerusalem.  Today I heard a Latin Mass sung in a stone church by a minor order of brothers charged with keeping the sacred places in this city.  I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of King David, and a room vaulted by Crusaders because they believed it to be the hall of the Last Supper.  Yesterday I heard a Mass, or their equivalent, by the Armenian church which remains quite important here.  They have a tremendously beautiful form.  Later I walked by the garden of Gethsemane, through the Valley of Kings, and to the Mount of Olives.  

Look for me to return home toward the end of the week.  Greetings, though:  I wish you well this third Sunday of Advent.

"What-Ebola?" Czar

Have you noticed that, ever since we got an Ebola Czar, the disease has practically disappeared from the news?  From the American news, anyway.  As you can see from this Guardian summary page, there are still plenty of stories, including new patients in the U.S.  This page, from late October, noted the 10,000th Ebola case, but an update later in the story shows that number has since increased to nearly 18,000.

I guess that's what happens when you put a PR specialist in charge of handling an epidemic.  The problem gets fixed one way or another.

Poisoned nets

Beginning a roundup of Saturday Rocket Science links:

Since the turn of the millennium, worldwide deaths from malaria have been cut almost in half, largely through the use of mosquito nets treated with long-lasting insecticide.

The Senate budget (yawn) weekend drama

It's not easy to tell what all these clowns are arguing about.  The gist seems to be that the leadership of both chambers of Congress, which is to say both parties, wants to do a fairly long-term $1+ trillion 1600-page budget compromise bill that takes us through next September rather than only through February, when the newly elected Congress will feature a very new mix of votes.  In order to reach their compromise, both sides honored the season by tacking some ornaments onto the tree, the most controversial of which is a technical change to the Dodd-Frank financial institution "reform" bill.

The Dodd-Frank amendment generally is described in the press as a measure to allow large federally insured banks to continue trading in derivatives, i.e. swaps and futures. Progressive darling Sen. Warren is more likely to call it a measure that all but guarantees future taxpayer bailouts of banks that will be permitted to engage in just the sort of mystifying financial shenanigans that caused the 2007-2008 financial crisis, to the extent that the crisis was not personally caused by President Bush's reading of "My Pet Goat" and secondarily by Vice President Chaney's coddling of torturers within the CIA. In fact, however, the Dodd-Frank provision on derivatives has very little to do with either increasing or decreasing the inherent riskiness of banks' business, or the risk of a future taxpayer bailout, as is ably explained in this Powerline piece:
The original legislation required major banks to “push out” some of their swaps business — for example, hedging the risk in their securities trading book for market making on behalf of clients — into “non-bank” subsidiaries which do not take deposits and are not insured or covered by the deposit insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The idea was that a failure of one of these “push out” subsidiaries would have no call on the FDIC and “taxpayer bailouts”. Most more-or-less conventional hedging activity such as interest rate swaps, which mitigate risk in the banks’ loan books, was allowed to remain in the bank subsidiaries anyway. Hedging on equity securities and commodities would be forced into a non-bank subsidiary by the “push-out” rule. While relatively modest in volume terms for the banks, they are more profitable and likely have more strategic value for the banks’ clients (especially commodities hedging).
The revision would loosen this requirement of Dodd-Frank and permit much of the “push-out” swap activity to remain in the FDIC-insured bank subsidiaries of the large bank holding companies–mainly Citicorp, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. (Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs already conduct their swaps and derivatives activity in non-bank subsidiaries.) There are efficiency, cost and operational benefits for these institutions to retain all swaps activity done for hedging purposes in the bank subsidiaries, as explained by Fitch Ratings. Regional banks are interested in the change to Dodd-Frank as well since they do not typically have securities (non-bank) subsidiaries and conduct their swaps activities as a commercial banking service within their FDIC bank. But, admittedly, this is of interest to no more than about two dozen institutions, so politically could be viewed as narrow interest legislation.
However, there is no reason to think that the “push-out” provision of Dodd-Frank has lessened the “too big to fail” risk of major financial institutions at all! The recent analysis of the effects on “too big to fail”, i.e., “taxpayer” “bailouts” by the House Financial Services Committee, detailed the several mechanisms by which Dodd-Frank itself provides bailouts irrespective of whether an institution is an FDIC bank. Quite simply, if the concern is the risk in regulated FDIC backed banks, hedging of risks with swaps and other derivatives would seem beneficial. Indeed, both the former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman and FDIC Chairman, neither an ideologue and the latter a Democrat, support the change because to move this risk management hedging activity out of tightly regulated banks may actually increase systemic risk, as well as cost, for little discernible benefit.
So why oppose it? The counterargument is that all these activities simply cannot be controlled within the banks and inevitably will lead to future “bailouts”. In particular, I suspect that an exemption for high quality hedges on structured securities, i.e., bundles of underlying loans, has raised concerns among the Dems. But why a Credit Default Swap is a “risky bet,” but loans with the same borrower are not “risky bets,” has never been explained.
Eh. What difference, at this point, does it make? It has to do with big banks, and it's arcane, and journalists are as inclined as their reading public to equate "derivatives" with the collapse of the American banking system. So it's a good way to explain why attacking this budget deal and risking a government shutdown has suddenly become a principled Progressive stand in favor of middle-class America, instead of the terroristic right-wing tactic of only a couple of years ago.

The real problem with CROmnibus

Forget everything you've been reading about the unacceptable cost of avoiding a government shutdown.  The really big deal is the impact on the First Lady's healthy school lunch program.

Name that medieval map

Fun with cartography.

Fun with electromagnetism

Admittedly this parlor trick wouldn't scale up well in the field of public transport, unless copper were available by the mountainful for a dime, but it still looks like a good way to entertain the kids over the holidays.

Fun new ideas for Christmas parties

NSFW, so I won't quote it here, but if you're as crudely immune to all notions of propriety as I am, you'll enjoy this.  I'm going to go stock up on some cognac and piping supplies.

A centenary

The man who would become novelist Patrick O'Brian was born 100 years ago today.  The WSJ ran a short piece that perfectly captures the pleasures of O'Brian's most famous work, a series of 20 novels that he began at the age of 55, detailing an unlikely friendship during the Napoleonic Wars:
For those unfamiliar with the books, the two men meet cute. On the opening page of “Master and Commander,” the 1969 debut of what would become a fiction series with devotees around the world, Aubrey is attending a musical performance at the Governor’s House in Port Mahon, Minorca. A large man—his “big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there”—the young lieutenant loses himself in the music and starts to keep time with gusto. This causes the small, dark man next to him, Dr. Maturin, to whisper, “If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”
Aubrey broods on the rebuke and decides to challenge the man to a duel, though this is entirely a case of misplaced anger: He is far less bothered by the remark than by the dismal state of his career. Aubrey’s mood soars, though, when he receives unexpected word that he has been given command of a sloop. “There you are, sir,’’ says Aubrey when he sees Maturin the next day. “I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music—are so little used to genteel company—that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.”
The novel continues: “ ‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life.’ ”
And with that exchange, a great literary friendship begins.

The democratization of blood testing

Elizabeth Holmes, the world's youngest female self-made billionaire (at age 30), is the developer and majority owner of a $9 billion company that provides ultra-cheap blood tests requiring only a couple of drops of blood.  Her company's first director was one of her former Stanford University professors, who retired from his tenured position to join her after she dropped out in her sophomore year.  Later additions to the board included George P. Shultz, former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State; Dr. William H. Foege, former director of the CDC; Dr. Bill Frist, a trained cardiac surgeon and former Senate Republican Majority Leader; Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State; Sam Nunn, former Democratic senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee; William J. Perry, former Defense Secretary; and Richard Kovacevich, former C.E.O. and chairman of Wells Fargo.

Although Holmes' company is advancing steadily in its market, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of making blood tests so easy and cheap that patients can get them without going through a doctor.
Holmes believes that the seventy-five-billion-dollar testing marketplace could grow to two hundred billion dollars, as more people take it upon themselves to go to a pharmacy and request blood tests for pregnancy, high cholesterol, and other common medical issues. At the moment, most such blood tests require a doctor’s note; Holmes says that this would have to change, and could. “There are states in the U.S. where citizens can order tests directly,” she said. “The fact that in some states it’s illegal for someone to be able to get basic data about their body—for example, you’re pregnant or you’re not, you have an allergy or you don’t. Not a lot of sophistication has to go into the interpretation of that test.”
* * *
Prescriptionless blood tests raise a host of questions. “Will insurance be willing to pay for patient-ordered blood tests?” Bruce Deitchman, a dermatologist and pathologist, said. Deitchman has served as an alternate member of the American Medical Association’s expert panel that recommends reimbursement rates to Medicare. “Will Theranos insist that test results be sent to physicians, and will patients want their doctors to know?” He noted that doctors are legally obligated to follow up and address abnormal blood tests with patients. In the absence of a doctor, will Theranos be held to that standard?
If blood tests become as cheap and easy as Holmes wants, however, the medical establishment will no more be able to block patients' access to them than it can prevent their taking their own temperature and blood pressure.

Slow Yule progress

I don't remember taking a week to get my tree up in past years.  I am really slowing down!  Day three, and I've got the lights on and something less than half the ornaments; you can see the rest strewn all over my dining table.

But the hard part is behind me.  The empty boxes are even back upstairs in the closet, always a wearying task, which leaves only reassembling the stacking bookcase that the closet is behind.

This year's tree is a more moderate 9-foot specimen, because I promised I wouldn't do the 11-foot thing again.  It was hard enough dragging this guy upstairs, not to mention reaching the top without killing either of us.  That's a 6-foot ladder on the left, and an 8-foot ladder on the right.

My adorable husband, as always, has my number.  He presented me with several early Christmas presents in the form of extravagantly beautiful ornaments he saw me admiring:

A red truck with a Christmas tree in its bed.

These are probably Asian cranes, but they look just like whooping cranes.


A sea turtle with presents stacked on his back.

All my shopping is done and (I think) even all of my shipping, with the possible exception of some items that I somehow managed to direct to an apartment I briefly kept in Houston seven years ago when I was commuting up there to work on an extended case.  I think those have now been redirected to me here.  It's only December 10th!  This is fabulous progress.

Project Gutenberg has put a dent in my handicrafts, but this time of year a powerful urge comes over me to drop everything else and crochet angels, snowflakes, miniature stockings, and the like.  It also becomes difficult to resist buying little packages of stick-on jewels and beads every time I walk through the aisles of the local WalMart, even though I already have enough craft materials to choke a horse.

So that's enough ornament-hanging for today. Time to crochet.


The most interesting design website I've run across in a while.

Red spread

As predicted, Mary Landrieu (D-Obamacare) has lost her run-off for the Senate seat in Lousiana, about 57-43%.  Her debate strategy of explaining that she really didn't support the President on Obamacare because he wanted single-payer, but she and other courageous Democrats confined him to wrecking our health insurance market, evidently didn't fly with the Louisiana voters.

"Why won't they look at my record?"

Don't stand so close to me

"Jonathan Who?" syndrome strikes again.

Boredom at traffic lights

This is a great idea for entertaining people they wait for the light to change.

This and the next few posts will be from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Catching fraud with Benford's Law

For reasons I can't imagine, digits between 0 and 9 in financial transactions are not equally likely, even in the later digits.  They follow a distribution described by "Benford's Law," and any deviation from this pattern may signal fraud.  In the linked article, an overabundance of "4s" raised suspicions that operators with the authority issue cash refunds up to $50 without a supervisor's OK were issuing fraudulent refunds to co-conspirators.  But even without the special problem of concentrating on fake numbers just under $50, numbers randomly chosen by fraudsters will produce a pattern unlike that of natural financial digit distribution.

The Chaos

by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (Netherlands, 1870-1946)

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation's OK
When you correctly say croquet,
 Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation -- think of Psyche!
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough --
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

Setting Up for Failure

Good luck with this latest grand jury decision.

I'll be out of the country for about two weeks. Let me know how it turns out.

Crimes Against Humanity

So the Pope got some good press today.
Religious leaders from a half-dozen faiths have signed on to a new Vatican initiative to end modern-day slavery by 2020, declaring that human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution are crimes against humanity.

Pope Francis and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, were joined Tuesday by the Hindu guru Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, as well as Buddhist, Jewish and Shiite and Sunni Muslim representatives for a signing ceremony of a joint declaration against modern slavery....

Francis has made eliminating human trafficking and modern-day slavery one of the key priorities of his pontificate, instructing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to focus on it in their academic conferences and studies... . "Here he came into contact with the drug situation, the situation of the excluded — and naturally the most dramatic form of exclusion is slavery, which is forced labor and prostitution," [Bishop] Sanchez Sorondo said in an interview ahead of the ceremony.
I find the inclusion of prostitution very interesting. In both cases it's coupled with forced labor without an Oxford comma, so I'm not sure if the intent is to couple "forced prostitution" with "forced labor," or if it is prostitution per se that is being condemned as a crime against humanity. The Pope's actual remarks suggest it may only be forced prostitution, but it isn't clear there either.

It's an interesting question, because St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine both found that prostitution -- though gravely immoral -- probably ought not to be illegal. I dissent from that particular point of argument, but it is a position supported by thinkers with significant authority.