One for Eric Blair

Apparently the tomb of Scipio Africanus, and others of his lineage, is now open to visitors for the first time in two decades.

For those of you not familiar with the general who defeated Hannibal, here is his biography.  He was noted not only for his military excellence, but for his attention to virtue.

This painting of him celebrates his reunion of a captured maiden and her fiance, when under the prevailing law he had every right to take her as a war prize.  Not only that, he gave back the ransom her parents had sent to buy her liberty.

Driving is a Grandfathered Liberty

Frank J. is a comedy writer, but I think he's really on to something here.
Imagine if cars hadn’t been around for a century, but instead were just invented today. Is there any way they’d be approved for individual use? It’s an era of bans on incandescent bulbs; if you suggested putting millions of internal-combustion engines out there....

“So you’re proposing that people speed around in tons of metal? You must mean only really smart, well-trained people?” 
“No. Everyone. Even stupid people."
“Won’t millions be killed?”
“Oh, no. Not that many. Just a little more than 40,000 a year.”
“And injuries?”
“Oh . . . millions.”
There’s no way that would get approved today.
Driving is basically a grandfathered freedom from back when people cared less about pollution and danger and valued progress and liberty over safety.
The next question is, how long will this grandfathered freedom last?

Ignorance is Bliss

Wired talks about a study that appears to demonstrate that ignorance is good for democracy.
Not surprisingly, when the majority of animals had a strong preference to move to one location, the group moved there. Even when the majority’s preference was equal in strength to the minority’s preference, the majority won out. However, when the strength of the minority’s preference was increased past a certain threshold, the minority could dictate the group’s behavior. These results suggest that an opinionated minority can win out over a majority with weaker convictions.
Things got more interesting when the researchers added animals without a preference to the model. Under these conditions, even when the minority’s preference was extremely strong, the presence of the “uninformed” individuals actually returned control to the majority. The more uninformed individuals there were, the stronger this effect became (up to a point; eventually noise took over).
The researchers then used an experimental approach to ask the same questions using golden shiners, a very social species of fish known for their schooling behavior. Some fish were trained to swim to a yellow target in the tank, and some were trained to move toward a blue target. Intrinsically, the fish preferred the yellow target—even after training, their preference for the yellow target was stronger than their preference for the blue target. This created an natural way to test the researchers’ theories.
The results from these lab tests mirrored the findings of the computational model. When the minority of fish in the tank were those trained to go to the yellow target (meaning they had a strong preference for the option), they won out and the group went there. When untrained fish were introduced into the tank, however, the majority regained control, even though their preference for the blue target was weaker.
In this country, we seem to move toward whatever a vocal minority wants, unless there is an opposing vocal minority:  then, it has been my observation, the minority usually wins that has the worse idea.  Perhaps we need more ignorance to straighten things out, although I'm also increasingly thinking that we just need less social tolerance for vocal minorities.

Rabbit in the Headlights

Author Jeff Wise specializes in the human response to fear. His book "Extreme Fear" examines how many people have coped with paralyzing danger, from wild animal attacks to forest fires to aircraft emergencies. He notes that exercise helps the brain cope with anxiety; nervous parachuters on their way to a drop perform better on mental puzzles like crosswords in proportion to their physical fitness. Another trick is either to be in control, or at least to visualize oneself in control. (I learned decades ago that imagining myself behind the throttle in a commercial aircraft cut way down on the fear of flying that used to afflict me from time to time.) Staying warm is surprisingly effective, too. Scuba divers without wetsuits tend to have more panic-related mishaps.

In a recent article for Popular Mechanics, Wise tries to unravel how an Air France co-pilot over the tropical Atlantic in 2009 could have responded so disastrously to anxiety-provoking severe weather and a relatively minor icing-up incident by putting his aircraft into a completely unnecessary and deadly stall. Part of the explanation may be that most of us lose our higher brain functions under the influence of extreme fear and must fall back on rote training. Repetitive training under high stress can be a life-saver, but the Air France pilot, unfortunately, fell back on a singularly inappropriate routine.

These recommendations are nothing very startling or new, except for one: studies show that having sex cuts down measurably on the fear of public speaking. Now they tell me.

I'm not sure if the movie "Three Kings" is one I'd recommend to this audience without reservations, but one line did stick with me. George Clooney counsels a terrified young recruit by explaining: "Here's how it works. You do the thing you're scared ****less of, and you get the courage afterwards, not before."

A Climate Skepticism Denialist

Skepticism about skepticism: this is very meta. I followed a link from my favorite science compilation page, Not Exactly Rocket Science, to this article from a British blogger agonizing over recent polling data suggesting that the global warming narrative is losing steam in Great Britain. The number of her countrymen who believe claims about environmental threats are exaggerated is 37%, a sharp increase from the 24% with similar beliefs a decade ago. But she's quick to point out that data can be misleading, especially in the hands of media with an interest in presenting a narrative:
The survey also considered whether people agreed more with these two statements: “We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today” and “People worry too much about human progress harming the environment”* (p95). From this, the BSA report argues that the public are more sceptical that a threat exists. I’m not sure that follows. Maybe, but it’s a jump to cite scepticism. It could just be that people think we worry too much. Perhaps they just think there are other things to worry about. As the report itself suggests, the “financial pinch” of the recession may well be having an impact on the ways people make choices about the environment. Or, perhaps people agree that climate change is happening, just that there is nothing we can do. Again, this doesn’t mean climate sceptics aren’t winning the communications battle here, I just mean I don’t necessarily see that from the data. It all rather depends on how we unpack and then define denialism/ climate scepticism, and I don’t think the report does that very clearly (not that it necessarily should, but we need to keep that lack of definition in mind when reading the data).
The blogger also notes that, in evaluating sweeping claims, it's important to examine the source of the underlying data:
One final thing that bugged me about this report was that it didn’t really examine how and where people got their information about the environment from, and yet still felt able to make loose connections between the timing of Climategate and the apparent rise in scepticism. From the final pages: “we conclude that media coverage may make a difference – not least ‘new’ media and the internet ‘blogosphere’ where unfounded opinion can sometimes be favoured over scientific fact” (p106). The impact of the media on people’s understanding, reasoning and framing of any issue, perhaps in particular ones including esoteric expertise like climate science, is incredibly complex, and the BSA report writers should have known better. They should certainly know better than to make loose comments about unfounded opinion on blogosphere (which is a large, diverse and porous area of activity). I also don’t see how they can look at a change over ten years and say it has to be something that happened in 2009, no matter how much media ink was spilled. To their credit they do also say it could also be matter of fatigue and refer to financial cost, etc.
Don't you hate it when people are secretive about their data sources? She concludes with this poignant plea:
Personally, I’d like to see them acknowledge that they don’t know and call for investment in more research here.
The only thing missing was a demand for sounder science before society was expected to invest trillions of dollars and wreck the world economy to address a potentially non-existent threat. I do admire the blogger's choice of art, though:

RIP Christopher Hitchens

When the embassies of Denmark were burning around the globe, Christopher Hitchens organized the only protest I ever wanted to attend:  a manifestation in support of the Mark.  I went, and he was there giving speeches and talking to the press about "solidarity."  The concept was one from his Trotsyite youth; by then he applied it to the defense of Western civilization instead.

His last piece was on Nietzsche, informed by his own intense suffering from the radiation cure that failed to save him.
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker. Nietzsche was destined to find this out in the hardest possible way, which makes it additionally perplexing that he chose to include the maxim in his 1889 anthology Twilight of the Idols. (In German this is rendered as Götzen-Dämmerung, which contains a clear echo of Wagner’s epic. Possibly his great quarrel with the composer, in which he recoiled with horror from Wagner’s repudiation of the classics in favor of German blood myths and legends, was one of the things that did lend Nietzsche moral strength and fortitude. Certainly the book’s subtitle—“How to Philosophize with a Hammer”—has plenty of bravado.) 
In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger.
In what follows he examined the intensity of his own suffering with a clear eye.  It is a powerful piece, and it underlies why this morning finds us reading tributes to him from people who disagreed with him sharply.  And that category includes almost everyone.  Catholics were outraged by his attacks on Mother Theresa.  Feminists hated his writings on women.  Capitalists grind their teeth at his kind words for Trotsky; Leftists, at his support of the Iraq war.

Wherever he planted his flag, he defended it fearlessly:  and in the vigor of his defense, even his enemies of the hour gained insight, and sharpened their steel.  We are told we ought to love our enemies; this is the sort it is easy to love.  Thus, not in spite but indeed because of his outrages, he has no want of men to mourn for him.

A Telephone Town Hall?

Apparently my congressman decided to call his entire district tonight to invite us to have a 'town hall' meeting by phone.  That's about a hundred and fifty thousand people; I had no idea that you could run a teleconference with that many participants.

I write my congressman from time to time (in fact, I'd just written him today), but I had never spoken to him before.  Listening to his comments, I learned several things about him.

1)  He apparently does not believe that the 14th Amendment includes birthright citizenship, which he would like to end.  I was under the impression that it does, but having looked into the controversy, it sounds like there may be an argument to be made here -- the question arises based on whether one is fully subject to the jurisdiction of the United States government or not.  Children of ambassadors of foreign nations born in the United States, for example, are not granted citizenship.

I'm not sure that window is wide enough to admit of denying birthright citizenship to the children of illegal aliens, although I can see how one would structure an argument from it:  'If their parents had subjected themselves to our jurisdiction, they would not have been present to have the child on our soil.  Thus...' etc.

2)  He believes that the government is going "to destroy this country" if people do not begin demanding Constitutionally limited government.

3)  He has confidence in the House, but thinks the Senate is broken.  His contention is that the House has sent forward 28 bipartisan bills that would improve the jobs picture, but that Harry Reid in the Senate won't let them make the floor.

4)  He was very quick to make sure that elderly citizens on the call understood that Social Security was secure.  If they were afraid of cuts, he would ensure they understood that there was absolutely no proposal to cut 'a single penny' from their check.

5)  However, when another citizen raised the possibility that there would not actually be elections in the fall -- due to some sort of Obama-led coup -- he did not offer the same level of reassurance.  Whether that is pure politics, or because he has concerns about a coup, I could not say.

Still, I would have thought the danger of a coup was far more remote than the danger of cuts to Social Security.  The question about Social Security (and Medicare and Medicaid and Federal Pensions) is not if they will be cut, but how much, and when, and which of the programs will suffer most.  The danger of a coup is surely fantastic at this point:  no left-leaning coup could be effected in the face of a military that would not support it, and an armed citizenry that would not support it.

6)  He believes that regulations and taxes on business are the reason our economy is not recovering.  In seeking advice on how to vote on the economy, he has chiefly sought such advice from small businessmen and factory owners.  However, he also cited a conversation with Laffer, of the Laffer curve, whom he said had approved of his own bill on the subject of the economy (which bill will never, however, apparently pass the Harry-Reid-controlled-Senate; I think he had more to say about Sen. Reid than anyone else).

7)  Not surprising given the district, but he is an outspoken Evangelical Christian.  He did think to say something nice about Hanukkah at the end of the call, though; and he had earlier said that he was against all foreign aid except to Israel.  ('We're borrowing money to give it away,' being the reason for opposing all foreign aid; but apparently Israel is worth it.)

All in all, an interesting experience -- and apparently he will be doing more such calls in the future.

There's Something Odd About this Test

Harvard's Project Implicit has an interesting set of tests online, which are meant to show you where your implicit biases may be.  You may be strongly or moderately biased toward light skinned people, for example -- if their tests are accurate, 56% of people are.

However, there's something strange about the methodology that I can't quite place.  It's based on how fast you can process words and images.  I took the religion test, and it tells me that my biases work out this way:

Strongest positive bias:  Islam
Moderate positive bias:  Christianity/Judiasm (tie)
Less positive bias:  Hinduism

Now, while I make no bones about having some biases in this department, I'm pretty sure that isn't an accurate picture of how my biases actually shake out.  I can understand how this method would lead to a bad result on Hinduism:  of course there will be a processing delay there, because Hindu concepts aren't something my brain uses often.  I have to take the instant to remember what "karma" is before I can sort the word, and the concept is packed back in the back of the brain.  

The other religions have concepts I use regularly, so naturally they would come out on top.  If you were to ask me, though, I would think I had the strongest bias toward Christianity.  That suggests there is something odd about the method of determining biases; otherwise, I'd have to accept the existence of an unconscious bias in favor of Islam over my own faith.  I think I do have a stronger pro-Islam bias than many Americans, having known some very brave Muslims that I liked and admired, but still, that seems unlikely.

A Failure of Education

"Faith in humanity," yes.  However, there is a little matter of physics.

It takes a train more than a mile to stop once it begins to apply the brakes. Even if the engineer has very good eyes, then, he may just kill your 4-year-old child simply because the train won't stop in time to do otherwise.

Well, 4-year-olds are nimble. Not like you tied her to the track, I hope?

Atholl Highlanders

Honestly, the pipes never get old.

Speak, of the Old Things:

For Barnabas and his Gentile Christian followers, the covenant between God and the Jews was a sham; it was never ratified. When, bringing down the Law from Sinai, Moses saw that the Jews were engaged in the worship of the golden calf, he smashed into pieces the two stone tablets inscribed by God's hand, and thus rendered the Jewish covenant null and void. It had to be replaced by the covenant sealed by the redemptive blood of the "beloved Jesus" in the heart of the Christians (Barn. 4. 6-8; 14. 1-7). 
Barnabas's portrait of Jesus is considerably more advanced than the Didache's "Servant" of God. He calls Jesus "the Son" or "the Son of God" no less than a dozen times. This "Son of God" had existed since all eternity and was active before the creation of the world. It was to this pre-existent Jesus that at the time of "the foundation of the world" God addressed the words, "Let us make man according to our image and likeness" (Barn. 5.5; 6.12). The quasi-divine character of Jesus is implied when Barnabas explains that the Son of God took on a human body because without such a disguise no one would have been able to look at him and stay alive (Barn. 5. 9-10). 
The ultimate purpose of the descent of "the Lord of the entire world" among men was to enable himself to suffer "in order to destroy death and show that there is resurrection" (Barn. 5. 5-6). We are in, and perhaps slightly beyond, the Pauline-Johannine vision of Christ and his work of salvation. 
The type of outlook represented by the Didache has no place in the religious vision of Barnabas. The parting of the ways between Jewish and Gentile Christianity is manifest already at this stage and the Epistle of Barnabas marks the start of the future doctrinal evolution of the church on exclusively Gentile lines. Half a century after Barnabas, for the bishop of Sardis, Melito, the Jews are judged guilty of deicide: "God has been the right hand of Israel" (Paschal Homily 96). Jewish Christianity makes no sense any longer.

The Didache is the last flowering of Judaeo-Christianity. In the second century, and especially after the suppression of the second revolt of the Jews by Hadrian in 135 CE, its decline began.
And it fell, as Chesterton said of Carthage, like nothing has fallen since... well, perhaps the image is inapt here.  If it is, though, we might ask just why.

Christmas Cookies

When you cut them with a knife before baking, the shape aftewards is inexact; but this a cross pattée (or "Cross Patty" in English-language heraldry).  Some few of you will understand why that is the right cross for this house; but for the rest of you, isn't it cool to have a sugar cookie that is nearly four inches square?

An Argument for Polyandry

Since we're on the subject of the pipes, and since we've walked this ground in great detail this year, here's a counterargument to Aquinas' concern that polyandry is against nature.

Once Again, Ready for the Solstice

No danger this year of the sun's not coming back out of the cave.

A Wee Walk Around the Office:

One wonders two things:  how anyone did anything at work that day; and why we have accepted a society in which men sit in cubicles instead of playing the warpipes.

No, really.  Why do we do this?  So we can pay for this?  So those programs can pay for this?  We spend a lot of our lives on wasted garbage, which we have every right to hate:  most of it accomplishes nothing beyond satisfying the internal urges of some bureaucracy, and for what?

We who work could work a lot less if we were working only for ourselves, and those we love.  I wonder why we endure it.  Charity to the poor is a great good, so I have heard:  faith, hope, and charity.  Yet we have passed charity, which encourages the virtues, and moved to a thing which seems to destroy them.

So, What Do You Say... it the new Bluesmobile, or what?


But you must think you know a more familiar version of the lyric "Gloria In Excelsis Deo."  As, indeed, you do.

Einarr Þambarskelfir

It occurs to me that there may be a few of you -- I trust not too many -- who are unmoved by the opening line of Mr. Walker's description of his book.  "Who is Olav Trygvasson," you few may be asking, "and why should I care that he is dead?"

Well, now!  You few have missed a tale.

Once, Olav Trygvasson sailed against the forces of a man, a man who had driven his own wife from his arms.  She had come to Olav, declared herself a free woman, and married him.  He in turn set out to defend her rights.  Yet she was the former wife of a powerful king, Burislav, who held her still to be his own; and she was the sister of the king of the Danemark, who wished to see Norway brought under his own command.

So it was that Olav's fleet came under the combined assault of Danish and Wendish fleets, with Swedish allies.  Olav sailed in the most famous Viking ship to grace the sagas, a mighty warship named Ormen Lange, "The Long Serpent."  He saw the enemy coming, and made ready for battle.

The Viking war-band, as the Anglo-Saxons before them, preferred to fight with a shield-wall.  This meant a band of men at the front of their effort locked shields together, and lashed over them with axe or sword or, most likely, spear.  Ranks of spearmen stood behind them to reinforce the shield-wall, to prevent cavalry from simply jumping it, and to step into the ranks of anyone killed.  The shield-wall formation was powerful as long as the cavalry opposing it did not overwhelm its ability to countermaneuver.  There are few horses on these ships, though, and so that danger is readily faced.

In order to facilitate the shield-wall, the warriors of each side lashed their ships together into long lines.  The business then was to drive into your enemy's line with your wall, and push to the rear, clearing the ship of your enemies by slaying them or driving them into the sea.  Olav Trygvasson was a great warrior and a successful, so that his men fought under the comforting weight of mail -- and this gave them great staying power against their foes.

Yet I do not come to praise Olav Trygvasson, but one of his loyal friends.  Einarr Þambarskelfir was a true master of his craft:  in his case, the craft of archery.  When the weight of the foes facing Olav brought the enemy even onto the Long Serpent, Einarr made the difference.  He stood at the rear of the ship, by Olav, and shot with his mighty bow so that no one could withstand him.  That, until:

Einar Thambarskelfir, one of the sharpest of bowshooters, stood by the mast, and shot with his bow. Einar shot an arrow at Earl Eirik [...] Then said the earl to a man called Finn, [...] "Shoot that tall man by the mast." Finn shot; and the arrow hit the middle of Einar's bow just at the moment that Einar was drawing it, and the bow was split in two parts. "What is that," cried King Olaf, "that broke with such a noise?" "Norway, king, from your hands," cried Einar. "No! not quite so much as that," says the king; "take my bow, and shoot," flinging the bow to him. Einar took the bow, and drew it over the head of the arrow. "Too weak, too weak," said he, "for the bow of a mighty king!" and, throwing the bow aside, he took sword and shield, and fought Valiantly.
Einarr, too strong for the king's bow, survived the battle that Olav Trygvasson did not.  In later years he made himself master of Norway by his own hand, and in spite of the designs of kings... but that, though true, is another story.

The Christmas Gift Thread

It's getting to the point at which we are thinking about provisioning gifts to commemorate the holidays, and show respect, friendship, or love.

In addition to showing respect or friendship to those to whom we give the gifts, though, we can do so also to those whose creations we choose as gifts.  I'd like to make some recommendations, and then throw the discussion open for your suggestions.  The idea should be that we highlight as potential gifts things made by our friends, and/or those we respect and wish to encourage in their arts.


West Oversea, by Lars Walker. "King Olaf Trygvesson is dead, but his sister’s husband, Erling Skjalgsson, carries on his dream of a Christian Norway that preserves its traditional freedoms. Rather than do a dishonorable deed, Erling relinquishes his power and lands. He and his household board ships and sail west..."

Tale of the Tigers, by Julianne Ochieng.  "What is the Tale of the Tigers?  At a southwestern university, a young man and a young woman do something that’s done every day: they fall in love. There’s just one thing–he’s white and she’s black. Set in the early 1990s, Tale of the Tigers tells the story of how the tables have turned on race relations and sexual jealousy and of how two young Americans weather the storm of that heritage in the post-Civil Rights Era."


I met and was very impressed by the harpist Sarah Marie Mullen.  I'd like to recommend her music, especially for those interested in the Celtic harp; but she is classically trained and, particularly in Harper's Bizarre, extends to French, Andalusian, and some eastern European forms.

Weapons of War:

I would appreciate suggestions from you in this area.  Of the three best weaponsmiths I knew, one died last year; another gave up his work due to arthritis; the third went out of business due to the economy.  I know no craftsman whose work in steel suits me, although there are some reasonably good production companies now.