Auld Lang Syne

Performed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

UPDATE: Congratulations on surviving 2016, those of you on the East Coast. Now for 2017.

Iceland Ends the Year with No Government

Iceland is ending an eventful year in a political quagmire, left without a government for two months after the Panama Papers scandal and a snap election reflecting deep divisions in the island nation.

"In recent years we thought we were seeing the craziest, but we were proven wrong every time -- Iceland found ways to be even crazier," a parliamentary assistant from the Icelandic opposition said on April 6, seeing a government in tatters hesitate on its next move.

Iceland, getting even crazier. Finland has some work to do.

Apparently, the Pirate Party made a run at it, but ultimately failed to take the ship of state.

Update: The AFP article doesn't tell us this, but according to the Wikipedia article linked above, the Pirates actually won 23.9% of the vote and are the largest party in Iceland right now.

But it's not all bad:

Its economy is flourishing with growth expected to reach five percent, after 4.2 percent in 2015. Unemployment has virtually disappeared. Incomes are rising fast. Construction is booming.

Iceland has become a hot spot for tourists from Britain, the US, Asia or Germany, at almost any time of the year, fuelling the creation of thousands of jobs and generous spending.

Cause? Effect?


One of these years, I have to get out to Edinburgh for this festival.

The Chronicles of the Black Company (and More Rogue One)

In the Rogue One thread (where, BTW, douglas has now weighed in) I brought up a series of military fantasy novels that I think many at the Hall would enjoy, Glen Cook's The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Ignore the cover art on that edition. Please.)

Cook himself, I believe, was a corpsman for a Marine Recon unit and fought in Vietnam, and the books read that way, although the Black Company is a medieval-style free company and instead of all the high-tech support Marine Recon gets the Company has their own section of sorcerers.

If you've ever wondered what a Vietnam-style counter-insurgency would look like in a sword & sorcery world, here it is. In the first novel, the Company is hired by the sorceress queen of an empire to root out and destroy a troublesome insurgency that seems to keep growing despite her own army's victories. Prophesies of the White Rose, a messianic figure, give many of the queen's subjects a religious fervor for the insurgency, and so the Company is tasked not only with fighting the insurgents but disproving the prophesies. There is some good military cloak-and-dagger work in that. Of course, the queen's own generals grow to hate the Company as she increasingly relies on it to do the job her  native regiments don't seem to be able to accomplish, so the Company is always watching its back as well. It's a great story.

Epic Rap Battle: J. R. R. Tolkien vs. George R. R. Martin

Pretty funny, though there's some foul language.

I Mean, I Suppose Illiteracy Is A Problem

[The former head of Obama's faith-based outreach] once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?
Possibly the staffer was from another religious tradition, of course. Still, that points out another problem. The American literary tradition is awash in Biblical references -- just consider Moby Dick. Even granting that Jefferson et al were followers of a Deist line of thought that is closer to secularism than Americans often appreciate today, drifting completely out of the Christian tradition means drifting away from much of the founding thought of the American ideal. And the best thought, too: Jefferson spoke of a separation of Church and state, but also of the rights granted by a Creator inalienably. The nation was founded in a tense relationship with the institution of slavery that it inherited, but the Abolitionists were also the most intensely Evangelical Christians of their age. Dr. King's oratory doesn't make sense outside of the Biblical tradition.

I wonder what they think the answer to that problem is, or if they recognize it to be a problem?

Top ten top tens from 2016

From ChrisTheBarker:

That link was via Jonah Goldberg's newsletter, whence also these:

The Year in Memes:  I got through the first ten and discovered I'd never heard of any of them.

2016 Internet Slang:  No, never heard of these, either.  Was I even present during 2016?

The Year in Space:  OK, a few of these.

Top Ten Top Ten Lists:  A complete bomb on all of them, even the books, which I had some tiny prayer of recognizing in principle.

I'm going to stop now.  This is too alienating.

How Not To Be Wrong and other book reviews

I have discovered the pleasures of "Audible," which is an Amazon-related service that allows you to download audiobooks.  It's a great thing for beadworking, gardening, jogging, and driving.  If you hate the book, you can even return it and download a replacement for free.  I wasn't tempted to return "How Not To Be Wrong," by Jordan Ellenberg, a book about probability, statistics, and generally reliable analysis written by a guy with an engaging style and a good sense of anecdote.  I wish I could quote from it, but that's the disadvantage of an audiobook.  This L.A. Times interview gives you a good flavor.  The anecdote that deserves quoting at length concerned a spoofed research article about detecting emotional responses to photographs by scanning the brain activity of deceased fish.  The deadpan introductory sections of that paper are priceless, setting out the relatively little difficulty the researchers had in ensuring that the fish did not alter their positions while in the scanning machines.  There is also an explanation of the pitfalls of "regression to the mean" analysis that I found very helpful as a layman lacking any systematic training in statistics.

I hated Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind"--too snide and preachy--so I exchanged it for Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture," which I'm still on the fence about.  It's interesting, but I have almost no patience for extended philosophical discussions in the "what if it's all just an illusion" vein.  He does have a nice exposition of what he calls "poetic naturalism," which tries to bridge the gap between fine-grained mechanistic explanations of scientific processes and humanistic treatments of concepts like personality and duty, which he groups in the "emergent order" category.  It's a good shot at avoiding absurd reductionism.

Nick Lane's newest book, "The Vital Question," was as terrific as Nick Lane books always are; they call for re-reading.  Because "The Vital Question" is about the origin of life, I hoped it would address my favorite mystery, the origin of the DNA code.  Sadly, it did not, but the treatment of the origin of metabolism, eukaryotes (that's everything from yeast to us), and multicellular life is nevertheless mind-blowing for a non-specialist like me.  It's remarkable what people have figured out since I was in school.

"The Crash Detectives" by Christine Negroni was OK as far as it went, but read like a well-constructed brief magazine article that didn't quite get expanded to book length and trailed off towards the end instead.  Michael Foley's "The Age of Absurdity" was not bad but a trifle forgettable.  Tim Harford's "Messy" was quite good in many spots, an entertaining listen for times when you can't concentrate your full attention.  The anecdote I remember best from this book concerned a traffic circle in the Netherlands, which an oddball thinker made safer by removing a lot of traffic signs and making the segregation between foot and auto traffic more ambiguous; this had the paradoxical effect of causing slightly confused drivers to slow down and pay more attention, with the result that traffic accidents decreased.  After reading "How Not To Be Wrong," I'm skeptical whether this story holds water, but it's entertaining nevertheless.

I get a new download every month on my subscription plan, but my next new one isn't available until January 17, and I haven't found a new title irresistible enough to inspire me to fork over another $20 yet.  When I find a good one, I really look forward to quiet times when I can listen, like running errands in the car.  These downloads would be terrific for long solo car trips, if I had any of those planned, but I have no sick relatives in distant cities at present.

I call this a good sign

Yes, the press makes no real effort to hide its bias, and it's troubling to think how many people get their information from it.  Nevertheless, when the press goes full-tilt bat-nuts on a subject that, for once, people care about and can check on fairly easily, I can't help thinking the result is going to be that a big new group of voters will have learned what's up.  To the minor degree that I can claim to understand the recent election, it seems to have been about a turning point of sorts in the PC machine I previously feared might be unstoppable.  The press has revealed itself as ridiculous and may now find it difficult to recover much of its position as arbiter of the truth.

Letter to the Editor

Something I published locally:
Last spring, Aransas County voters defeated a proposal to create a county Groundwater Commission by a vote of 8 to 1. The proposed Commission's directors continued to hold public meetings, which a number of citizens dutifully attended, continuing to express concerns and reservations though they seemed to be falling on deaf ears; the directors held out the hope of submitting their issue to yet another public election. More than half a year later, the Commission's directors finally listened to their public and have tendered their resignations to the County Commissioners.
This is the right result, but I want to make a point about how it happened. Lots of us showed up at tedious meetings and read tedious documents to try to understand what the County Commissioners were proposing for us and why. We got the word out to voters before the election at a time when there was practically no other information circulating publicly about what the proposed Commission was about and what kinds of powers it might have. While we were doing it, we complained among ourselves that our elected leaders weren't telling us what we needed to know and weren't listening to us. We all agreed it was no fun spending our evenings in public meetings. We certainly didn't feel like running for office ourselves!
Most of us won't ever run for public office. There is one thing we can do, though, as responsible voters. We can set our voting default switch to "no." Does that sound negative? Well, it is, but in a good way. If our elected leaders have to submit something to a public vote before they have the power to enact, we should be thinking, "There's a good reason for that." If it were routine and unimportant, they wouldn't have to ask us. If we don't know exactly what they're proposing and why it's a good idea, we shouldn't be writing a blank check just so we won't have to feel "negative."
Nor is it the voter's job to track down a county official, back him up against a wall, and interrogate him. If a proposal is important enough to hold an election for, there should have been lots of public discussion about it. Not just a couple of articles in the newspaper, but real discussion that got real people invested in the notion, so they'd talk to their neighbors and get them on board, too. Meetings, letters to the editor, social media, the whole nine yards.
We should all be thinking about this the next time the County puts a bond proposal out for our vote. Do you know why they need to borrow more money? Do you understand what they want to spend it on? If not, that's a good time to vote "no." Maybe the next time a County Commissioner wants to hold an election to get you to sign off on something, he'll know he has a lot of preliminary work to do first, getting the public to make an informed decision about it. Elections are a lot of trouble and expense. They shouldn't be called if they're not important enough to get our support for them. But no one's going to bother to convince you of much if you've made it clear you'll instinctively vote "yes." That's called being taken for granted, and it's no way to keep your government limited.
People who don't govern themselves get governed. You can't count on government just to "leave you alone" if you don't consistently stand up for yourself.
The chairman of the proposed commission's chairman's letter of resignation was a real piece of work: a petulant screed about the unwillingness of the public to be educated about his unimpeachable mission. These guys hid behind the Open Meetings Act to argue that they couldn't discuss anything with us at public meetings, because it wasn't on the agenda. And it wouldn't be on the next agenda, either, or the one after that, but they never gave up on the excuse.  I was gratified to see the depth of the public revulsion over these tactics, but I still thought I should publish my letter, because the voters of this county tend to rubber-stamp every bond proposal the County Commissioners or the school board throws out there.  It's such a dangerous habit of complaisance.

The odd thing is, a Groundwater Commission is something it wouldn't normally be that hard to get me to support.  Despite my skepticism of central-government solutions, protecting an aquifer is one of those areas that seems tailor-made for an exception.  In this case, though, the facts just didn't add up.  Our aquifer is a belt of below-sea-level sand in a coastal county.  To the extent its borders can be defined at all, they don't extend beyond our county boundaries.  The state environmental commission considers our risk of groundwater contamination, overharvesting, and subsidence minimal.  The water is so meager and brackish that it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to fear a water company's plan to sink a huge, thirsty well to sell our water to the distant city of Lubbock and run all the neighbors' wells dry in the process.

On the other hand, many of us could quite easily imagine how unpleasant a little board of self-righteous, thin-skinned tinpot dictators could be once they got the power to tax us, hire a bunch of consultants, start metering our wells, and dream up new groundwater extraction rules for our own good.  They did say they planned to protect household wells with grandfathering provisions, but frankly they lost all credibility after the first meeting or two.  Then, after they were ground into the dirt in last spring's election, they sealed their fate by announcing superciliously that they planned to hold another election in a year or so instead of packing up and going home.  At this point, you'd be hard-pressed to find a citizen of this county who supports their proposal to regulate the groundwater.  I'm pretty sure the one voter out of nine who supported them last spring amounted to themselves, their families, and their office staff.

Studying the Iliad

A military officer from the Australian Defence Forces encourages junior officers and NCOs to learn from Homer.

There's a lot to learn from Homer, and the Greeks generally. But that's preaching to the choir here.

Feast of the Holy Family

A bit of history on the long series of feasts:
The Second Council of Tours of 567 noted that, in the area for which its bishops were responsible, the days between Christmas and Epiphany were, like the month of August, taken up entirely with saints' days. Monks were therefore in principle not bound to fast on those days. However, the first three days of the year were to be days of prayer and penance so that faithful Christians would refrain from participating in the idolatrous practices and debauchery associated with the new year celebrations.

The root of evil

How bad does an anti-capitalist country's crisis have to get before even the Washington Post deplores it?--even if they continue to exhibit no understanding of what's gone wrong down there.  Obviously it's not Obama's fault Venezuela is a basket case, how churlish, but otherwise something or other is happening that we'd rather not get into.

My husband's comment:  "'Autocratic populist government'? 'Economically illiterate'? But we can't write 'socialism', because true socialism hasn't been tried yet." Well, far be it from me to get into another tired debate about the technical definition of socialism. What's clear enough is that a system that erases price signals, nationalizes industry it can't run on its own, and uses governmental power to redistribute goods instead of enforcing enough order and protection for property rights to create an incentive for economic production will produce . . . poverty and collapse. Welcome to paradise, where money isn't important!

Inedible fish

Back to pale, iridescent colors now:  I'm working on a dove.

The Feast of Holy Innocents

A sober feast during the 12 days of Christmas.

The Irish Rovers' "Songs of Christmas"

Grim posting one of their songs led me to a 45-minute album of Christmas music the Irish Rovers made.

Also, for anyone who wants to argue about Rogue One, I saw it last night and have commented on Grim's post about it. What? That's a perfectly Christmas thing to do!

The Feast of St. John the Divine

The Gospel According to John is thought to have been composed late, and incorporates an understanding of Greek philosophy not found in the other Gospels. There are also echoes of later history reflected in the text, or so scholars think.
Critical analysis makes it difficult to accept the idea that the gospel as it now stands was written by one person.... To solve these problems, scholars have proposed various rearrangements that would produce a smoother order. However, most have come to the conclusion that the inconsistencies were probably produced by subsequent editing in which homogeneous materials were added to a shorter original....

The polemic between synagogue and church produced bitter and harsh invective, especially regarding the hostility toward Jesus of the authorities—Pharisees and Sadducees—who are combined and referred to frequently as “the Jews” (see note on Jn 1:19). These opponents are even described in Jn 8:44 as springing from their father the devil, whose conduct they imitate in opposing God by rejecting Jesus, whom God has sent. On the other hand, the author of this gospel seems to take pains to show that women are not inferior to men in the Christian community: the woman at the well in Samaria (Jn 4) is presented as a prototype of a missionary (Jn 4:4–42), and the first witness of the resurrection is a woman (Jn 20:11–18).
Whatever the truth about the authorship, John was a man of courage, said to have sought out a robber among mountain fastnesses even when very old in order to redeem the young man. Had he done nothing else, that would have been worthy of honor. He did many other things.

Edible fish

Our neighbor's daughter and son-in-law are visiting, which makes for a big redfish limit.  His indifferent fillet technique (just grabbing the chunks suitable for tonight's fish-fry) makes in turn for excellent fishframes in our own kitchen.  We've harvested the rest of the useful meat and dropped about eight big frames into a large stockpot, heads and all.  There's a heroic batch of fish soup or gumbo on the way soon.

St. Stephen's Day

The Feast of Christmas

The steaks are ribeyes, some two inches thick, served medium rare. The croissants are filled with many things, from chocolate to ginger to orange marmalade.

I also made cheesecake, and my sister brought sugar cookies, and my mother made Christmas fudge. The wife made these sausage and cheese balls that she only does this one time every year, as otherwise we might eat nothing else.

Victorian Parlor Games

Since so many of our Christmas stories are rough-speaking Victorian, especially A Christmas Carol, you might enjoy some appropriate games for family and friends.
Traditionally played on Christmas Eve, players of Snapdragon must find themselves a broad, shallow bowl, and then prepare to risk their health. Into this bowl should be poured two dozen raisins. If raisins are hard to come by, almonds, grapes or plums will suffice. You should then pour a bottle of brandy into the bowl so that the raisins bob up and down like drowning flies. Place the bowl on a sturdy table, turn the lights down low, and then, with appropriate panache, ignite the brandy.

To play Snapdragon, arrange your family and friends around the blazing bowl so that their faces are lit in a demonic fashion and then, one by one, take turns plunging your hands into the flames in order to try and grab a raisin. If you can accomplish this, promptly extinguish the flaming raisin by popping it into your mouth and eating it.

Christmas Day