Interesting Phrase

Natural Theology:

In a review of books, a comment on political philosophy:

But there is no denying [John Gray's] central insight, which is that such parades, if left unchecked, can turn quickly into military marches. Institutions progress but human beings don't, and their capacity for cruelty and violence is infinite.

A pessimistic thought, to be sure. But British philosopher Roger Scruton is rather optimistic about pessimism. Indeed, in The Uses of Pessimism he prescribes "a dose" of that very tendency as the tonic for the kind of utopian thinking indulged in by thinkers such as Badiou and Zizek. We should respond to their irrational exuberance and "unscrupulous optimism", he suggests, through respect for custom and tradition; the "we" of unruffled compromise and gradual mutuality.
That phrase interests me: "Institutions progress but human beings don't." I like that: it captures something of the idea that I have often felt to be true, which is that institutions change how people act and talk in this way and that; but in their core, each generation is still as deadly as the last.

However, it's not clear to me that institutions actually progress either. We've talked about moral progress often in the past: about whether there is actually moral progress, or just change. We'd like to think so, but how would you set an objective standard as a measurement? If you go by what you personally think is right, then all you've proven is that people closer to you in time agree with you more than people further away in time. That's just what we'd expect to be true, regardless, because people have an effect on each others' thoughts and feelings about morality. All we've proven is that people we've rubbed up against are more like us, and more like others they have rubbed up against, than those people who have had no direct contact with us.

Institutions stand in by providing us something besides each other to rub against. Insofar as institutions are built of humans, rubbing up against one of them is like rubbing up against those people who have contributed to it. For example, you can readily rub up against St. Augustine by going to church or by going to a university. The two experiences will be different, though, because of the other people who have contributed to those two different institutions. Both could be valuable, but they will be different; and you'll be different, too, depending on whether you do one, the other, or both.

So if we can't judge from our own morality, what is the objective standard that we can use? Several candidates put themselves forward: Christianity in its many forms, Islam in its several, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Enlightenment, the Romantic period, Communism, and so forth. How to judge which one is the right "objective" standard? We can't use our own moral intuition and remain objective. Since these philosophies point in various directions, we have no way of knowing if we are steering to something better, or just moving around.

Nor can we project a line from our moral beginnings to where we are now, and thereby divine a path. There are so many different beginnings on record, for one thing: do we project from ancient China or ancient Greece? From Gilgamesh or what we can divine of pre-Columbian people in the Americas?

For another, there have plainly been cycles even when you can point to something that can reasonably be called a tradition. In ancient Rome, it was considered manly and honorable to commit suicide to avoid being disgraced by your enemies, or circumstances beyond your command. Later, the same faith Constantine the Great imposed said that this was sinful and wicked, the worst of sins. Now, we seem to be seeing a return to suicide as an ethic among a class of people who refuse to be ruled by their biology: who prefer to order their own death, in order to avoid the disgrace of suffering what they cannot control. Where was the progress? Was there a fall in the loss of the old Roman ethic, or are we falling now? How do we know?

If we do settle on a definition, we find that everything snaps into place: but, as we really have no final way of being sure that we have chosen correctly, we cannot make a final and certain claim about whether we are -- or society is, or humanity is, or a given institution is -- actually experiencing "progress" as opposed to mere change.

Faith is the answer. Reason can't serve as a guide until faith tells us where the end of the road should lie. Yet different men in different ages, or in the same age but from different traditions, may find that faith points them at different ends.

This is why I have held that moral progress is not possible. There are two roads that lead away from that conclusion.

The first is to say that morality is not important. As it is so uncertain, it must be unreliable; and we should teach ourselves to let it go. The best attitude toward morality would be never to fight over a question arising from it; after all, fighting is trouble, and why put yourself to trouble and discomfort for something that doesn't matter?

The other is to believe in the importance of faith: of fighting for what you believe even though you cannot prove you are right. It is to accept faith as reason's light: to trust your heart and do your best, according to what faith and reason tell you is right. If that means we fight, we are both fighting for the right as we understand it: and so, if there are souls, both your soul and mine is being trained to fight for what it believes is right.

If the first is right, our lives here are of little importance: the right posture is one of hedonism, doing what you find pleasurable and avoiding what you find painful. This is certainly the mainstream position in modern America, which believes lightly in a God who will love them and accept them largely without regard to what they may have ever done; or whether they ever did anything at all. Or they may believe in no god; and indeed, that makes sense also, since one of the things humans seem to want from their gods is clear direction on moral questions.

The second believes there is a strong break between those who strive for the right as they see it, and those who do not. If the last is true, natural theology suggests instead a God that is chiefly interested in the effects of conflict on your soul -- that is, in training souls to fight for the right.

To say that is to raise many myths, about wars beyond the walls of the world for which such souls are needed: 'The grey wolf watches the abode of the gods.' This view is found in the Eiriksmol, and in some variations of Christian theology that posit a war at the end of the world; but it is also present in a modified form in the Hindu religion, where there is no greater war, but only the current need for drama as a means of self-examination by the god of whom we are all, unknowingly, just parts ('O Arjuna! Neither you are slayer nor you can be slain by anybody').

There are two other roads, which both reject the original claim that it is impossible to establish an objective standard for morality. The first is to assert that reason does indeed endorse faith -- that reason is faith's light, just as faith is reason's. This is the road that Kant took, in asserting that both the respect he felt for the moral law he found in his heart and the awe he experienced in observing the starry heavens was the same sense: a kind of awe, which led him to recognize the smallness of everything about him except that moral law. It was what he saw, looking within, that could match the stars above. Faith here is faith that your experience of a feeling of respect from both these causes means something that your reason can determine. But this seems questionable: A man may feel that his favorite movie is as important as the survival of Ethiopia; or very much more important, if we judge him from his action of spending thirty bucks on the special edition of the movie when he already owns another copy, and when he might have donated the money to the starving. Does that prove something real about the minimal importance of starving in Ethiopia?

The fourth road -- to reject faith, and go with reason alone -- leads nowhere. Some men believe they have made this leap, but in fact it is impossible for a human mind to make. On matters of morality, you have to place your faith somewhere, if only in yourself or the people you find you most respect. As flawed as we are, placing your faith in the moral opinions of one man or a handful -- even the men you know best, even yourself -- is in its way a greater act of pure faith than anything asked by religion. I think both these third and fourth roads are not workable paths.

The Time of Cholera

The Time of Cholera

What happens when over 10% of the population of a nuclear power is homeless, a $2 billion cotton crop is destroyed, 1.7 million acres of cropland are inundated, and cholera breaks out?

Floods have affected about one-third of Pakistan. Some of the worst flooding is in the Swat Valley, a focus of the worst Taliban fighting in recent years. The same area was hit hard by an earthquake in 2005, which affected over 3 million Pakistanis. Twenty million are affected now.

There have been 36,000 suspected cases of potentially fatal acute watery diarrhea reported so far, many of which may be cholera. The disease is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which rapidly dehydrates the host and can kill within hours of the onset of symptoms. It creates a salt-water environment in the small intestine, whose osmotic pressure can pull as much as six liters of water per day through the intestinal walls. Although treatment with antibiotics such as tetracycline can shorten the course of the disease, the primary treatment is to give a dilute mixture of saltwater and sugar orally or, in the most severe cases, intravenously. Prompt and aggressive treatment lowers the death rate to 1%, which otherwise can rise to 50% or 60%.

Cholera is fairly easily controlled in developed countries that enforce water treatment and sewage disposal standards, but it's the devil to beat in a poor and flooded country, since it spreads through fecal contamination of water. All water used for drinking, washing, or cooking should be sterilized by boiling, chorination, ozone treatment, UV sterlization, or fine filtration, and how likely is that? Fine cloth filters lessen but do not eliminate the spread. Vaccines are under development but currently are administered only to health personnel and other very limited populations; methods of mass vaccination are still being studied.

Cholera pandemics claimed millions of lives worldwide in the 19th and early 20th centuries. An outbreak in London in 1853-54 led pioneering epidemiologist John Snow to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump, thus proving (by the immediate cessation of disease in the area) that cholera was spread by contaminated water via a means not fully understood (or widely believed) until many years later.

People with Type O blood are most susceptible to cholera, followed by Types B, A, and AB, the most resistant. The use of antacids, a weakened immune system, and malnourishment also heighten susceptibility. Some believe that non-symptomatic carriers of the cystic fibrosis genetic mutation are relatively resistant to cholera, just as carriers of the sickle-cell mutation are relatively resistant to malaria, which may explain why the genes for these awful diseases have not disappeared through selective pressure.

Real or Fake?

Real or Fake?

H/t: Wintry Knight.

So... this is a joke, right? Well, no... not exactly.


Cowgirls: Not as Universal, Still Pretty Awesome

H/t: T99's favorite blog. Aside from this one, of course.

Tale of the Tiger

Tale of the Tigers:

Juliette Ochieng -- or "Baldilocks," as longtime readers will remember her -- is a friend who is also an author. Her new book hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. She's self-publishing, so she hasn't got anyone but herself and her friends to do her marketing. She asks that I mention it to you, and I'm glad to do so.

She says it's about America, right now. One of her readers says, "You know what I really enjoyed about this book? It didn't skirt politically correct comments, afraid of offending anyone."

If you know Juliette, it's easy to believe that is true!

Cowboys are universal.

These sorts of mash-ups amuse me to no end.

Like this sort of remake of Leone's magnum opus:


Little Looter

Little Looter:

A writer mocks Ayn Rand:

When little Aiden toddled up our daughter Johanna and asked to play with her Elmo ball, he was, admittedly, very sweet and polite. I think his exact words were, "Have a ball, peas [sic]?" And I'm sure you were very proud of him for using his manners.

To be sure, I was equally proud when Johanna yelled, "No! Looter!" right in his looter face, and then only marginally less proud when she sort of shoved him....

You see, that Elmo ball was Johanna's reward for consistently using the potty this past week. She wasn't given the ball simply because she'd demonstrated an exceptional need for it—she earned it. And from the way Aiden's pants sagged as he tried in vain to run away from our daughter, it was clear that he wasn't anywhere close to deserving that kind of remuneration.

Moses 7:63

Moses 7:63

"Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other."

I haven't any loved ones in the service, but this makes a fine image of Paradise.

Impact Craters

Impact Craters

What with my fixation on apocalypse, you can imagine that I'm crazy for the geological evidence for impact craters. Lots of us probably have seen the Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. I was reading about diamonds this morning when I learned that there is a Bavarian medieval town called Nördlingen that not only sits within a 14-million-year-old crater (called the Nördlinger Ries), but also has buildings made of impact stone containing millions of very tiny diamonds formed when the meteor struck a local graphite deposit.

Nördlingen is an impossibly quaint town that boasts one of the few intact city walls in Germany. It was the setting for the 1970 version of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Here, from the Earth Impact Database site, is a geological map showing the small town's placement toward the southwestern edge of the 15-mile-wide crater, which shows up clearly as a flattened disk set in an otherwise hilly area. The map also shows the interesting splattered mineral deposits.

Here is a delightful site covering all kinds of impact craters, with some of the best and most varied pictures I've ever seen. Take a look at this Siberian rock mess resulting from an impact at Popigai about 35 million years ago:

The website has a long and interesting explanation of the evidence for and against the meteor at Chicxulub, Yucatan, as the Dinosaur Killer that ended the Mesozoic (Cretaceous) and started the Cenozoic (Tertiary) 65 million years ago. It looks like the Yucatan meteor may have hit about 300,000 years too early to be a perfect explanation for the fate of the dinosaurs, but there may have been another huge strike that coincides more closely with the big die-off at the K-T Boundary. If so, you've got to call that some spectacular bad luck, since strikes of that size normally are separated by more like 60 million than 300,000 years. The website shows a map of the hot-rock splash and tsunami debris line from the Yucatan hit that extends well into Central Texas. Not that it would have mattered much; either strike probably would have set off worldwide firestorms.

Other strikes may account for earlier, even more catastrophic die-offs, such as the Permian Extinction between the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic 248 million years ago, but of course the older the craters get, the harder it is to identify them.

One last picture: some beautiful glass spherules splashed up by the Yucatan impact:

Whose Side?

Whose Side Are You On?

Democrats cut funding for food stamps, to provide money for government employees to stay on payroll. The pose of being on the side of the poor -- instead of being on the side of the government -- wears thinner all the time.

Death and Survival

Death and Survival:

Is it really true, what the author says?

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.
All the theories surveyed do not approach my own sense of the thing, unless it is the last warning:
There is, of course, a counterpossibility: If we do in fact perdure, perhaps we transit into a realm beyond good and evil—a realm so radically other that science, theology, and philosophy cannot fathom its contours.
But this is only what is well known, to poets. The question is whether that realm is the Hades of Homer, the Purgatory of Dante, or the Otherworld of Celtic myth, or Elfland. Or something else!

Five for Six

Five for Six:

Mrs. Palin's effort to swing the race for governor in Georgia appears to have failed. With 86% reporting, there is a very narrow 50.4% margin for Nathan Deal. It is mostly absentee and "early" ballots that remain to be counted.

I have nothing against Mrs. Palin, as will be clear to those who have read these pages for a long while. I want to support her, and indeed I do believe that she is well positioned to be a positive force in American politics.

Nevertheless, this time she was wrong. She entered this race without taking due care to understand it. She supported a woman who had no obvious qualifications, and while it is easy to understand how she might have felt some sympathy -- how many said just that about her? -- the fact is that she was vastly more qualified for the Vice Presidency than Mrs. Handel was to be governor. It is unwise to internalize your enemy's critique of you: there was nothing wrong with Sarah Palin of 2008, and nothing right with Barack Obama of 2008. It just wasn't the year, all things considered.

Assuming the result holds, Nathan Deal should be a fine governor. He was one of the few who managed to be a good congressman; and the pressures at the state house are much less.

Congratulations to the victor.

UPDATE: With 99% reporting, the margin has narrowed to 50.2%. No final winner will be called until military votes are counted. In Georgia, we still do count them.

Useful furniture.

Because, you never know.

A Natural Nuclear Reactor

A Natural Nuclear Reactor

Almost forty years ago, analysts at a French nuclear fuel-processing plant stumbled on startling evidence from the Oklo uranium deposit in Gabon, West Africa. What they found, in effect, was a natural geological repository of spent reactor fuel.

In the modern world, uranium isotopes appear in very stable proportions, whether they're found in the Earth's crust, on the Moon, or in meteorites: we expect to see mostly U-238, a tiny trace of U-234, and a uniform 0.720 percent of U-235, the fissile material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction. If the proportion of U-235 is short, alarms go off. The Gabon proportion was only 0.717 percent, which seems like a small discrepancy, but that made the total shortfall 200 kilograms (440 pounds), enough to make six or so bombs.

After some excitement, the analysts realized that conditions in the distant past had been just right to permit the uranium ore to undergo spontaneous self-sustained fission, which used up some of the U-235 that should have been there. One required condition is a uranium ore deposit at least several feet thick; this ensures that the emitted neutrons, which travel no more than a couple of feet on average, will be absorbed by other uranium atoms before escaping the vein of ore. Another requirement is the presence of groundwater, which acts as a neutron moderator (it slows the bouncing particles down). A third requirement is the absence of neutron-absorbing impurities such as boron or lithium.

Lest we panic at the notion of natural China Syndromes popping up all over the Earth, it's comforting to learn that one additional required condition no longer obtains anywhere we know of in the Solar System: the proportion of U-235 must be around 3 percent, as it is in the kind of enriched uranium that fuels power stations. These days the natural proportion of U-235 is always under 1 percent, but the same was not true two billion years ago.

Examination of the fissile products at Gabon shows that this ancient reactor was active for several hundred thousand years, during which time it produced more than two tons of plutonium, some of which itself underwent fission to form lighter elements. Intermediate fissile products included iodine and tellurium and, finally, stable xenon gas, which was trapped in nearby minerals and preserved throughout geological ages for study by fascinated physicists today. Not every bit of the heavier elements decayed, but what stayed behind stayed put to a surprising degree. The remaining plutonium, for instance, has moved less than ten feet in 2 billion years.

The energy rate of the natural reactor was not high -- perhaps 100 kilowatts, or about nine times the size of my household's emergency generator -- but it went on long enough to produce 15 gigawatt-years before winding down. There is no evidence of an explosion, only a long, slow simmer at perhaps 300 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit) until the proportion of fissile U-235 dropped too low to sustain any further reaction.

Sources: Scientific American;; Wikipedia

South Carolina

A Lady from South Carolina:

My father sends.

It's true what she says.

Out East

Out East:

A man's got to go somewhere. the 1820s young Benjamin Disraeli found The Arabian Nights an enchanting alternative to his life as a London law clerk — and he wanted out. Escaping from Swain, Stevens, Maples, Pearce and Hunt, and inspired by tales of Scheherazade, this dandified young man headed east where he dressed up as a pirate in “blood-red shirt, with silver studs as big as shillings,” and a sash stuffed with pistols and daggers. That was on a boat sailing from Malta to Corfu.

Then in 1839 Austen Henry Layard followed Disraeli’s example...

Puzzles and Perfect Beauty

Puzzles, and Perfect Beauty:

That is the name of this group's album. Here is a piece that starts with a two minute percussion solo, and then gets interesting:

Try this too, with vocals.

Njal Five

Njal's Saga, Week Five:

Image from a Clan McLeod piper's webpage.

I should begin by noting that Lars Walker had a post up earlier this week on Norse Law.

This week's reading is here, and next week's is here.

So let's start with this:
The day after he gets ready early for his journey to the ship,
and told all his people that he would ride away for good and all,
and men took that much to heart, but still they said that they
looked to his coming back afterwards.

Gunnar threw his arms round each of the household when he was
"boun," and every one of them went out of doors with him; he
leans on the butt of his spear and leaps into the saddle, and he
and Kolskegg ride away.

They ride down along Markfleet, and just then Gunnar's horse
tripped and threw him off. He turned with his face up towards
the Lithe and the homestead at Lithend, and said:

"Fair is the Lithe; so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair;
the corn fields are white to harvest and the home mead is mown;
and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all."
We have all been there -- looking last on home, and with a long deployment ahead before our beloved family and friends will be seen again. We know how much the heart longs not to go!

Gunnar does not go. For the sake of the story, Njal has foresight and has told him truthfully what the consequences of his choice will be. Yet we can think on what it might be like for a brave man, who really has no wish to leave home -- and one who has often known success in battle -- to decide to dare outlawry instead of leaving everything he loves.

And indeed, for a time it works.
It is said that Gunnar rode to all meetings of men, and to all lawful Things, and his foes never dared to fall on him.

And so some time went on that he went about as a free and guiltless man.
Note that he is not defying the law: this is the law. The law does not compel anyone to attack him, or to drive him away from Things. It merely has removed its protection from him. Had he gone abroad for three years, he would have come home to its restored protection. Because instead he remains, anyone may attack him blamelessly under the law: but no one dares.

At last, though, the shame of having their enemy break his atonement with them -- and now go about free and careless -- drives his foes to a sneak attack in force.
Gunnar's hall was made all of wood, and roofed with beams above,
and there were window-slits under the beams that carried the
roof, and they were fitted with shutters.

Gunnar slept in a loft above the hall, and so did Hallgerda and
his mother.

Now when they were come near to the house they knew not whether
Gunnar were at home, and bade that some one would go straight up
to the house and see if he could find out. But the rest sat them
down on the ground.

Thorgrim the Easterling went and began to climb up on the hall;
Gunnar sees that a red kirtle passed before the windowslit, and
thrusts out the bill, and smote him on the middle. Thorgrim's
feet slipped from under him, and he dropped his shield, and down
he toppled from the roof.

Then he goes to Gizur and his band as they sat on the ground.

Gizur looked at him and said, "Well, is Gunnar at home?

"Find that out for yourselves," said Thorgrim; "but this I am
sure of, that his bill is at home," and with that he fell down
Hallgerda, it proves, has long remembered the time her husband struck her for a misdeed. She refuses him a braid of her hair to use as a bowstring when his breaks, with which he might have held off her attackers. He does not make any attempt to force her, but instead meets his death in battle.
Of this defence of his, Thorkell the Skald of Gota-Elf sang in
the verses which follow --

"We have heard how south in Iceland
Gunnar guarded well himself,
Boldly battle's thunder wielding,
Fiercest foeman on the wave;
Hero of the golden collar,
Sixteen with the sword he wounded;
In the shock that Odin loveth,
Two before him tasted death."

But this is what Thormod Olaf's son sang --

"None that scattered sea's bright sunbeams,
Won more glorious fame than Gunnar,
So runs fame of old in Iceland,
Fitting fame of heathen men;
Lord of fight when helms were crashing,
Lives of foeman twain he took,
Wielding bitter steel he sorely
Wounded twelve, and four besides."
And this is only the beginning of this week's story!

Bel m'es qu'eu chant

Bel M'es Qu'eu Chant:

Farewell to the Chief

Farewell to the Chief

Our small town said goodbye today to its Assistant Fire Chief (and former longtime Chief), who died at the age of only 55. The funeral ceremony did things up right. All the fire trucks were there at the high school auditorium. Two trucks extended their ladders over the entrance with an enormous American flag hanging down between them. A nearby city's fire department band, two bagpipes and three drums, led in a procession of many dozens of area volunteer firemen in their dress blues. An honor guard before the casket changed out every 15 minutes with formal salutes, and took care of folding and delivering the casket flag to the Chief's son. At the end of the service, the county emergency coordinator called up the dispatch operator, who came on the fire radio and announced "Fireman 227, 10-7, Out of Service. He's going home," while the bagpipes broke into "Going Home" for the recessional.

At the reception afterward, we learned that a neighboring county's volunteer fire department had teamed up with the local Methodist Church to pile many serving tables full of food -- and while the Chief's department was at the funeral, they went and cleaned the fire station from top to bottom.

New Header

New Header:

Some of you may have noticed that I've been playing with the header this weekend. Eric in particular noticed, since it must have broken his display. So, I finally went to the trouble -- only seven years plus into this affair -- of designing an actual header graphic. It is actually something of a return to roots, for those of you with the Papyrus font on your machines, since the original "Grim's Hall" design put in Papyrus until I figured out that only a few machines would be able to display that font. Now, since it's a jpeg, you can all see what it was supposed to look like from the beginning.

If you have any suggestions for further improvements, let me know and -- in another four or five years -- I'll get to them.

Sinister, Dextrous Science

Sinister, Dextrous Science

Something else from the Anchoress: I'll bet you didn't know that five of the last seven Presidents have been left-handed, which is quite a statistical anomaly considering that only something like 10% of all people are. The rest of the LiveScience article that the Anchoress links to struck me as the usual twaddle, so I went off in search of articles that, if no better grounded in research, were at least more entertaining.

Wikipedia reinforces the common knowledge that most languages include a strong bias against left-handers, such as the association of the left with evil ("sinister") and of the right with skill or virtue ("dextrous"). Among Incas, however, southpaws were thought to have special magic and healing powers. Other useful Wiki bits include the fact that, although European knives are usually ground symmetrically, Japanese knives (especially sushi knives) are biased toward right-handed use, and left-handed versions are rare and expensive.

Jimi Hendrix famously flipped his guitar upsidedown in order to play it left-handed. While French horns are made to be played with the left hand, a piano must be specially constructed backwards for that purpose. That makes my head hurt, but here's a video of the impressive results:


The Water Bird

I wanted to post not only this video (h/t Anchoress) but some more detailed information about how the thing works, but I'm striking out. All I can find out is that it's a hydrofoil. It seems to be manufactured in China. Here's one for sale on eBay for about $300-- from Australia.

An Anchoress commenter supplied this:

I saw a show on the TV just the other day that featured this twin wing design. US Special Forces (Seals) are testing a small underwater version that seems to require something like one third the energy of swim fins. It straps on below the knees and the swimmer uses (what looked like) a dolphin kick to move the apparatus. A three-way race against submerged swimmers with this design vs flippers vs barefoot had this design far far ahead and arriving much less tired.
And that sounded interesting, too, but I couldn't find anything with a net search.