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Writing your own epitaph. Or something like that.

Blogger Andrew Olmstead was killed in Iraq, and left something behind to be published in case of his death.

Read it here.

May the earth lie lightly upon him.

(via Instapundit)

Friday Lyrics - The Idiot

Friday Lyrics:

Sometimes the right song can cheer me up just by thinking about it. During my first tour overseas, at the worst times, when the work wasn't going well and my mistakes were piling up, and the people I wanted to impress were thinking I was a fool and I was inclining to agree, so that southern Iraq was seeming less like a grand opportunity and more like a flat, muddy, buggy piece of ground...this song brought my spirits up again:

I often take these night-shift walks when the foreman's not around.
I turn my back on the cooling stacks and make for open ground.
For out beyond the tank-farm vents, where the gas-flare makes no sound,
I forget the stink and I always think back to that eastern town.

I remember back six years ago this western life I chose,
And every day the news would say, "Some factory's going to close."
Well, I could've stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those.
I get nothing free and that makes me -- an idiot, I suppose.

So I bid farewell to that eastern town I nevermore will see.
But work I must, so I eat this dust and breathe refinery.
Oh, I miss the green and the woods and streams, and I don't like cowboy clothes,
But I like being free and that makes me -- an idiot, I suppose.

In the notes to the album, the songwriter is careful to explain that he doesn't necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed in all his songs, but that they're the real voices of people he met in western Canada. An artist who can go beyond himself, to feel and write something like this, is someone I can admire. His lyrics aren't especially clever or innovative (as you can see from the rest of the album), but he has got imagination in the best sense of the word, and that counts for much.

Sam Harris - Mother Nature

A Splendid Answer:

At Gene Expression, I found a link to Edge, where many scientific and other figures were asked the simple question: What have you changed your mind about, and why?

Some writers we know well are there - Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker - and others I hadn't thought about in ages[1], such the chemist Robert Shapiro (he wrote an excellent popular book on origin-of-life theory back in the eighties). Right next to his entry, I found this one by Sam Harris, worth quoting:

Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology.

Extremely well put. A religious friend of mine once suggested that Man and his works ought, instead, to be considered a part of nature, as much as termite mounds or coral reefs, and while I didn't adopt most of his ideas, that one struck me as very convincing. I remember growing up with this contrary idea that Nature was something fundamentally different from Artifice - that this Nature was in some kind of static, harmonious "balance," that would continue more or less forever if wicked Man did not destroy it. As Harris says:
Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything that lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature's indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.
Perhaps the opposite view has a strong aesthetic appeal - I have always been emotionally attracted to the idea that our problems are the same as the ancients', and the basic human comedy and tragedy will go on as long as the species does - and if Grim tells me true, many thinkers who spend a lot of time experiencing the outdoors directly incline to spiritual ideas, to the idea that thoughts, and feelings, and perhaps some greater Mind than theirs, are eternal and unchanging. Yet in reading the science I do (in popular versions these days; graduate school is long behind), I can't find room for these eternal entities, or an ordering Power in Nature that thinks and feels, and that wanted humans to be as they are, and fixed them.

But there is a beautiful, hopeful side to this. Our coevals are learning, rapidly, more and ever more about how our minds and bodies are put together - and the technology to improve them will come, if not in our lifetimes, perhaps not long after. We've been able to change the form and abilities of our domestic animals through breeding - something much faster, with greater potential, is on the way.
Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.

Will this be a good thing? The question presupposes that we have a viable alternative. But what is the alternative to our taking charge of our biological destiny? Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature? I once believed this. But we know that Nature has no concern for individuals or for species.
Exactly. Suppose that a team of genetic engineers funded and equipped by a large corporation proceeded to create 10,000 superhuman specimens, supremely intelligent, healthy, naturally hardworking and honest - what would be your response? I would be rejoicing at the thought of all these newcomers might create or discover. Some others, who believe in a Creator, might be troubled at the implications of improving upon His handiwork (though the date suggesting that religiosity itself is heritable should be likewise troubling - if we are judged, in the end, by our beliefs. But theology is flexible, the more thoughtful believers accept a God who can tolerate things they scarce imagined before). (A few small-minded creatures wouldn't get past the naked fear - "They'll outdo me - they'll take my job!") If there's no overarching Order to sustain us "World Without End," there's no overarching Rule to stop us building better lives, better kinds of lives, than have ever existed before.

I come from a civilization far better than my ancestors a few centuries back could imagine - and I think I will die happy, even without descendants, if I expect it will be in better hands, and more vastly improved a century hence than I can hope to imagine.

[1] The author of this opinion might interest some people here, who discuss the merits of wood and plastic in gun butts...the old ways were the way they were for a purpose; and as I argued, roughly, in one of my first comments here, I would rather cultivate the practical spirit of the man who fought with a sword of bronze (because that was the best weapon available) than to try to fight with his actual weapons. But we have talked this over before.

The Land Without A King

The Land Without A King:

THEN stood the realm in great jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been king. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should to London come by Christmas, upon pain of cursing; and for this cause, that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm.

I have been gone too long.

I left behind a son I thought invincible; fearless. All his life, five years long, he feared 'neither fire nor iron,' as the heroes of Hrolf Kraki's hall swore they would not. He did not fear heights, nor strangers, nor thunder, nor anything at all. He never had.

Now he is terrified of everything. He clings to every leg, kisses and hugs everyone, as if to plead for kindness. He is given to illness and panic. I never knew how much of his courage was from me; but without me, his mother reminds me, he is only a little boy.

It has been a hard year. His grandmother's ashes will be buried tomorrow. His mother has been gone to care for her. His father has been gone long months, and will be gone long months yet. All the things he knew and trusted were swept away, and he was alone.

This is the message of Le Morte D'Arthur. It is the message of the Beowulf also: that the king is the land, and without his strength the people are broken apart, at the mercy of a merciless world. It is the message of the Odyssey:

There she found the lordly suitors seated on hides of the oxen which they had killed and eaten, and playing draughts in front of the house. Men-servants and pages were bustling about to wait upon them, some mixing wine with water in the mixing-bowls, some cleaning down the tables with wet sponges and laying them out again, and some cutting up great quantities of meat.

Telemachus saw her long before any one else did. He was sitting moodily among the suitors thinking about his brave father, and how he would send them flying out of the house, if he were to come to his own again and be honoured as in days gone by.
What have I done to this little boy?

What better men than me have done, I know. I know the reasons and could recite them better than most; and I believe in them. But there is the price, laid plain.
The Great Fall of China.

Via Instapundit, this article from the LA Times, in which the World Bank reports that China's economy is smaller than recently thought. About 40% smaller.

"...China, it turns out, isn't a $10-trillion economy on the brink of catching up with the United States. It is a $6-trillion economy, less than half our size. For the foreseeable future, China will have far less money to spend on its military and will face much deeper social and economic problems at home than experts previously believed."

Wow. 4 trillion dollars just went poof. Just wow.