Thursday, January 31, 2008
While it’s a popular strip, it’s also lame, or maybe it’s popular because it’s lame. Nevertheless, I remember one strip from many years ago that reached some sort of (possibly accidental) transcendence.
The guys are all ragging on Zero, as usual, including Sarge. Suddenly, Zero bursts out, “Hey Sarge! Are you fat, or what?”
There follows a momentary stunned silence, and Zero cracks up. “Ha!” he says. “I turned the tables on you there, boy! Ol’ Zero doesn’t do it often, but sometimes he gets a real zinger off. Ha, ha! Bet you never saw that one coming, did you, Sarge?” Or words to that effect.
And with each self-congratulatory remark, a few more of the guys leave, until finally, Sarge is also gone, leaving Zero all alone, still with a self-satisfied grin on his face. He turns and faces out at the reader and says, “They really hate it when you turn the tables on them.”
I view the entire thing as a sort of Zen fable. Did he “turn the tables on them?” Well, no, not in the sense of actually making a clever remark at their expense. So the ending is ironic; the joke is still on Zero.
Except, no, it isn’t. Many of the jokes at his expense are really no more clever than his. Moreover, they did leave the room when confronted with…what? Joyful innocence? Impenetrable obliviousness? The Fool, in the archetypical sense?
Hard to say, really. But Zero turned what was supposed to be his own humiliation into something else, and he did it by virtue of the very qualities that were the object of derision. It’s hard to see that as anything other than poetic justice.
Because we really do hate it when you turn the tables on us.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Still, Suck, Squeeze, Pop, Fooey. In the Suck (intake) stroke, the piston moves out from the cylinder head, pulling in external air in the case of diesel engines, or an air fuel mixture, in the case of gasoline engines. Both diesels and modern gasoline engines use fuel injection, but the diesel engine doesn’t do the injection until the top of the compression stroke.
For the Squeeze (compression) stroke, the intake valve closes and the piston rams the column of air/fuel toward the cylinder head. That compresses the air and heats it up. Compression ratios for gasoline engines go from about 10:1 as high maybe 18:1; for diesels, it’s more like 25:1, and diesels have to be much more ruggedly constructed to avoid being damaged by the higher pressures and temperatures.
At about the top of the stroke a spark plug triggers the ignition of the air fuel mix in a gasoline engine; in a diesel, the fuel is injected at high pressure, and ignition occurs because the air is already hot enough to ignite the fuel. The increase in temperature and pressure in both engines then pushes the piston away from the head. That’s Pop, or the power stroke.
Once the piston has reached its limit, the exhaust valve opens, and the final stroke (Fooey or exhaust stroke), clears the combusted gases from the system, which is now ready to start all over again.
All well and good. But it turns out that things don’t always work so well on the compression/ignition side of things for the gasoline engine. Because gasoline is easier to ignite than diesel fuel, sometimes the heat of compression alone will ignite the air/fuel mixture on the compression stroke, before full compression is achieved. That’s bad, because then some of the engine power winds up fighting itself, which reduces efficiency. Moreover, it puts more strain on the engine parts, and can damage the engine.
You could just back off on the compression when this sort of thing occurs, but then you’re also reducing efficiency, because lower compression ratios mean lower peak temperatures for your heat engine, and thermodynamics always wins in the end. So typically, you tune an engine to as close as you can get to the pre-ignition point.
Pre-ignition is also called “knock,” and it’s why we have “octane ratings” for gasoline. The name derives from an isomer of octane, 2,2,4 tri-methylpentane, and it’s defined as the ability to resist knocking of a fractional mixture of this octane isomer and n-heptane, heptane having a defined octane number of zero. The octane isomer has a good ability to resist premature detonation of an air fuel mix.
Real fuel mixtures are much more complex, of course, and the octane rating isn’t just a summation of all the individual components of the fuel. Instead, each component of gasoline has a “blending number” that better describes how it changes the octane rating.
Then there are “octane boosters,” things that are added to gasoline specifically to bring up the octane rating, despite your having put a lot of other low-octane trash into the fuel.
As higher compression IC engines began to really move in the 1920s, the need for octane boosters became apparent. Previously, when high compression engines were primarily for motor racing and aviation, specially blended fuels were used, but mass markets meant mass solutions.
There were two hydrocarbon octane boosters that were first suggested for fuels, alcohol and benzene. Alcohol was the better of the two. Benzene required almost 40% in fuel to really allow for high compression engines; ethyl alcohol only 20%. For a while, it looked like the fuel of the future was “Ethyl” meaning ethyl alcohol.
But then research showed that a number of inorganic elements could reduce engine knock. Iodine and selenium were too corrosive, but lead did the trick. Eventually, tetra ethyl lead (TEL) was developed, and it had the additional advantage that it was patentable, and thereby under corporate control for corporate profit. At first, TEL was blended in with gasoline at garages, or by the motorists themselves, but that wound up with a few too many cases of lead poisoning. After that, it was done at refineries, where it also produced lead poisonings, but those could be hushed up better. It also helped that the public health services helped to suppress the idea that there was a danger.
In other countries, particularly European countries, TEL had something of an uphill battle, because ethanol production was tied to farm policy. But with the weight of the U.S. Government behind it (and then, as now, U.S. foreign policy was at the disposal of those making money), TEL became the octane booster of choice.
Time passed and a lot of airborne lead got emitted into the environment. Fact is, tailpipe lead was in the form of very fine particles that stayed suspended for very long periods, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances were common enough so that detectable amounts of lead wound up in the Arctic even.
Then, in the 1970s, California passed some very tough clean air laws, and suddenly, automobile manufacturers were having trouble meeting them. In fact, the only way to meet them seemed to be to install catalytic converters on automobiles. (Actually, there was a while when lean burn engines such as the Honda CVCC could still meet the California regs, but, I mean really, you couldn’t hold Detroit to standards that the Japanese could meet, could you?).
Lead is toxic to people, but that’s nothing to the way it poisons catalysts. A single tankfull of leaded gasoline would reduce a catalyst’s efficiency by more than 50%. So unleaded fuel was born (fun fact: in Mexico, unleaded fuel is called Magna Sin).
The oil industry fought it, but maybe not as much as you’d think. I suspect that what they were doing was to manage the changeover, and to profit from it as much as possible. And they did profit, largely because the elimination of lead created a squeeze on refining capacity, and any time there is a capacity squeeze in the industry, profits increase, owing to the magic of inelastic demand. Sell less, make more money. Such a deal. They also get so squeeze out some independent refiners and distributors when expensive regulations take effect.
But the industry was also working on alternative octane boosters, again ones that weren’t ethanol, because, well, ethanol is evil, isn’t it? I mean, after all, demon rum.
Anyway, in the nick of time, they began producing MTBE, another oxygenated hydrocarbon, an ether instead of an alcohol, and it had all the good aspects of ethanol, with the added benefit (from an oil industry perspective) that it was made from natural gas.
Oxygenated fuels like ethanol and MTBE also have some interesting combustion characteristics in that they reduce the amount of carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides that come from automobiles before the catalysts warm up (after they warm up you don’t even get enough CO to kill yourself in a closed garage). So some localities, like Denver, had been mandating oxygenated fuels in winter, in order to reduce their CO problem.
Then MTBE began to leak into the water supplies of some cities.
Refinery operations are a lot more sophisticated now than they were in the 1920s, and can generally turn almost anything into almost anything else – for a price. The oil industry has also become pretty good at using whatever comes their way, be it hurricanes, environmental regulations, or war to their advantage. I knew that the cheap oil prices in the late 1990s were transient and that there would be a big windfall coming, though I had no idea it would be built on so much blood. Even so, I didn’t put any money into oil stocks, because it just seemed like bad karma, and I can be such a prig sometimes.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
In the character of Mr. Spock, the creators of Star Trek hit a vein of pop culture gold. A little google-estimation suggests that Spock is not as well known as Bugs Bunny, but is better known that Daffy Duck. That’s impressive.
In trying to understand the phenomenon, the first thing that we can dismiss is the notion that Spock is actually what he’s claimed to be: a representative of an alien species that exists sans emotion. It’s pretty obvious from canon that neither Spock nor Vulcans generally are devoid of emotion. My favorite example of this comes from the first Trek movie, where Spock undergoes a ritual that supposedly cleanses him of the last vestiges of emotion. At the end of it, he receives…a medal! I’m sure that every Vulcan who gets the medal cherishes it forever.
A remarkably sly critique of the “unemotional” trope came through in the obscure (and very brief) TV show, Quark, created by Buck Henry. In that show, the character of Ficus Pandurata is without emotion, being a “vegeton,” i.e. seemingly human but actually a plant. In one scene, Ficus is being tortured by being subjected to dry heat and no water. He’s saved by “Princess Libido” who has a crush on him. “Tell me you love me,” she asks as she unties him. His reply:
“Princess, as a Vegeton, and I think you’ll find this interesting, not only do I not love you, I’m not even grateful for your having rescued me.”
Within the context of Star Trek, it is quite obvious that Vulcans possess plenty of emotion; they simply repress them, just as humans do. Vulcans simply repress their emotions better, because they do everything better. Spock is, in every respect, superior to humans, being smarter, stronger, longer-lived, and at least somewhat telepathic. In short, Vulcans are Slans without the tendrils, and in full control of those messy emotions that adolescents have such a lot of trouble with. You may think of Spock as Gary Cooper with pointy ears.
The “without emotion” trope has a substantial pop culture resonance, no doubt for the reason I’ve just suggested, that male adolescent fantasies like to turn teenage awkwardness into an ideal image of “the strong silent type,” and female adolescent fantasies imagine the goodies that accompany the proper unlocking of repressed desire. That seems to have given way to K/S (Kirk/Spock) fiction, also known as “slash fiction,” where predominantly female writers/audiences imagine hot boy-on-boy action between the two Trek protagonists.
Other variations on “unemotional” abound, one of my favorite being the Marvel Comics Tales of the Zombie, where the character lacks emotions because he’s, you know, dead. Hannibal Lector offers another example, being described as having bitten someone’s tongue off while his pulse rate never goes above 70. Both Lector and the Zombie seem like unappealing characters, yet each have their fans, a lot of them in the case of Lector.
The fact that an adolescent fantasy tends toward idolizing the sociopathic (or worse), is not, in and of itself, pathological. Fantasy is not reality. But there are those who try to live in dream castles, and there are those whose day-to-day existence is informed by pathological ideals. To those, I’d suggest that maybe Sulu or Checkov might make better role models, funny accents and all. Certainly would be better than thinking you’ve found Spock and discovering that he’s actually Lector.
It's also worth noting that, in the original pilot for Star Trek, the "unemotional" character was the female, "Number One," played by Majel Barrett. The character tested very poorly with audiences in the late 1960s, and it took several further iterations before the cold analytical female Trek character became acceptable, with Seven of Nine and T'pol being the exemplars. I strongly suspect that this is part of the "Battle Babe" phenomenon, where the lady's ability to kick your ass takes those pesky adolescent qualms about propriety and renders them moot.
Monday, January 28, 2008
One of the participants in one discussion reported that there was a considerable literature attempting to attribute success in sports to some separately testable ability, or even to correlate cross-sport success, to account for Bo Jackson, for example, although the case of Michael Jordan was also mentioned.
At any rate, our correspondent reported that all such statistical studies of sports yielded one primary component that correlated with success: the amount of time spent practicing and playing the sport in question. Everything else just vanished into the noise.
Now the "talent" side of the talent vs practice argument can come up with a quick explanation for the practice effect: self-selection. People who are naturally gifted at a given sport tend to enjoy playing and practicing that sport, so they practice more, etc. The difficulty with that explanation is that it is devilishly difficult to predict who is "talented" at a particular sport a priori, at least insofar as creating a testing matrix that will give a good prediction of later success.
There is a similar argument that has recently been made by the authors of Freakonomics.
Dubner and Levitt cite data that suggests that children who are some months older when they begin to play soccer (football to you Euros), owing to what time of the year the children were born, tend to be more heavily represented in professional teams. The argument here is that those few extra months of growth make the children a bit larger and quicker (on average) when they begin to play, so they have an extra edge, tend to do better from the beginning, and, hey, who doesn't spend more time on something that they're better at?
Notice, however, that we're talking about some pretty slim differences in ability here, equivalent to a few months worth of extra maturity, with the differences diminishing over time. So what you're really getting is a very strong feedback loop, where a little extra preliminary edge translates into huge differences in training and practice over time.
The Freakonomics source for this material is K. Anders Ericsson, who was probably the source for my original correspondent on Compuserve (thus do loops close on the Internet). Ericsson has been studying the practice effect phenomenon for several decades, and he's quite convinced that there is much less to talent than commonly believed. He does note that there are some sports that have physical constraints (no one has ever had to make the choice between being a Sumo wrestler or a jockey, for example), but other than that, Ericsson seems to believe that it's all about practice, and, more importantly, effective practice.
Again, drawing from sports, records are still being broken in most sports, on a regular basis. At some point, the total time spent on practice fills all available time, so there must be some improvements in how athletes practice in order for improvements to continue. And even if the improvements are such things as the use of anabolic steroids and HGH, there are still more (and less) effective ways of using those things. Weight training without steroids is more effective than the other way around, for example.
There's one other phenomenon that is often overlooked in the talent/practice debate, however, and that is the random factor. In sports, that is most obvious in how injuries can derail careers. Certainly some of the improvements in training over the past century involve learning how to train with less risk of being injured, but in the heat of the game, injuries happen. Then, later, great pressure is placed on the athlete to "play through it," and thereby increase the severity of the injury. It takes a really tough-minded coach to demand that a player wait until fully recovered before resuming competition. Most are going to go for the appearance of tough-mindedness; after all, there are always plenty more guys who want to play the game. Besides, it's hard to keep up the practice from the sidelines.
It's been a strange couple of months. People getting sick, getting biopsies, getting tested. Berkeley legend Betty Ann Webster died, disappointing all of us who believed she was immortal. I've wondered whether it's just a sign of aging; I'm just more likely to know sick people now. But four months ago I was only four months younger, and everybody was doing fine. And some of the recently sick people in my life are, sadly, way younger than I.
It's just my turn in the barrel of fear. I've heard the word "stent" used in conversation way too much recently. It gives me the jimjams; it gives everyone the jimjams.
So I talk to the afflicted, and almost always I say, "Please let me know if there's anything I can do." It's a thing that people say. They say, "I'm sorry for your loss," if an actual loss is involved - would that include amputations? They say, "Everything happens for a reason," and then a large bolt of lightning turns them into a mound of charcoal, and a ghostly voice says, "What have we learned from this experience?" -- Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 28, 2008
I began to get sick in the late summer of 1984, with a series of days where I just felt “off,” nothing terribly specific, but a feeling of not being well.
The first serious symptoms were episodes of what I now identify as smooth muscle spasms, abdominal cramps, esophageal and bronchial spasms, that sort of thing. I saw a doctor, who prescribed donatal. Later, I was given tagamet, for acid reflux. These were entirely symptomatic palliatives, and are distinguished as being the only things that any physician ever gave me to positive effect. Everything else, including diagnosis, was completely futile.
The phrase “chronic fatigue syndrome” is close to pernicious. It sounds like your only problem is being tired. Well, hell, everybody is tired. That’s just modern life. I lost count of the number of people who told me how tired they were. Sometimes I was perverse enough to ask them if they also had the feeling that someone was driving an ice pick into their solar plexus, or what they did when they woke up at night with the sweats so bad that it pooled in their ears, or dripped from their nose if they got up to use the bathroom.
Usually, though, I just didn’t have the energy.
I made a mistake in my first interactions with physicians. I responded to their questions about stress by admitting well, yes, I had been under a lot of stress, job, romantic entanglements, various amounts of high end partying. So that made my malady “stress related.” It took me a long time to decode that. Stress related = psychogenic = psychosomatic = mental = it’s all in your imagination and in any case, it’s your own fault, so get out of my office and start living right.
That’s one of the lessons learned. Doctors hate their patients when they don’t get better. All those phrases like “taking control of your own health” and “the importance of attitude in health,” are actually ways to make it okay to blame people for getting sick.
There were other lessons learned, few of them happy. It’s okay to be sick if you get well quickly. It’s also okay if you “tough it out,” if you “play injured,” if you don’t inconvenience too many people, in other words, and if you demonstrate the proper “mind over matter” attitude. But don’t stay sick for long; people might think there is something wrong with you.
A long term illness brings in the jackals. There are plenty of people who will take the opportunity to tell you all the things they don’t like about you, or use the occasion to get even for whatever you’ve done that they don’t like, sometimes for slights you don’t even remember committing. You think that you’re so well-liked that no one would do that to you? Try having an extended illness and find out for sure.
A lot of people simply can’t handle others’ illness, so they just stop calling. That’s one of the more benign manifestations, of course, since a bad illness leaves you without the energy to be sociable. Worse are the people who feel compelled to “help,” said help consisting of giving you advice on how to deal with the illness. I noticed that such “advice” frequently consisted of telling me things to do, the best ways (according to them) to spend my limited resources of money and energy, and that it often (who would have imagined?) involved trying to be more like them. After all, they weren’t sick and I was. Clearly they were doing something right and I had done something wrong.
Eventually I whittled it all down to practically nothing. I found that I had the energy to do maybe one thing per day. Pay bills. Go shopping. Clean my room. Do the laundry. Go to the doctor. Each one took a day. It was that realization that caused me to give up on seeing doctors. It took energy I didn’t have and it never helped, so I quit.
My typical day became one of getting up in the morning, having breakfast, then going back to bed. Around noon, I’d get up and have lunch. Then I’d watch television or read for a few hours. On “accomplishment days,” I’d then do one of those tasks. Then I’d have dinner. Maybe another hour or two of television, then back to bed. I was sleeping maybe 16-18 hours a day.
That was pretty much the entirety of 1985, excepting one six week period when I went to Georgia to stay with my folks. The daily rhythm was about the same, though.
Slowly, very slowly, I got better. Less and less sleep was needed. I could get more and more done. I went for long walks to get reacquainted with exercise. I also took up various projects that could be done in my bedroom, like learning about personal computers. Professionally, I managed to attach myself as a subcontractor to several projects, including some more smog chamber modeling and atmospheric data analysis. I think my average workweek was down around 10 hours a week in 1986, but that was enough for my, as it were, restricted lifestyle.
Over the next several years, my health slowly improved. The flexibility that I needed for work made it possible to travel a bit, and I spent more time with my folks, and also time visiting old friends “back East” including high school and college buddies. This flexibility also allowed me to be home after my father was diagnosed with cancer in 1989, and I was there when he died. I was still sick, sleeping maybe 12-14 hours a day at that point, but seeing my father die put it into perspective.
I also spent substantial amounts of time in New York City, at one point spending several weeks following a scholarly tic that involved my reading several years worth of newspapers from 1910-1912. My time flexibility allowed me to court Amy when the time came, and to marry her and kidnap her back to California.
Everything is connected, of course. Even minor events change the future; major events change who you are. I have no idea what life would have been like without the illness. I got sick; I got better. It took a long time. I went to sleep when I was young and I woke up middle aged.
I don’t actually remember what it was like. Selective forgetting is one of the things we do to protect our sanity. Occasionally, when I get a cold or a stomach bug, I’ll catch a flicker of a memory of some long departed symptom of the long illness and I will briefly fall prey to a Fear. Then it will pass, and I’ll remind myself that we’re mostly in the hands of Dr. Time, who cures and kills with equanimity.
Nowadays, when someone I know gets sick, or has some difficult period, I seldom offer advice. I do ask them if there is anything I can do to help, but there's more to it than that general question leading to avoidance of the issues. I ask if they need some grocery shopping done. I offer to do some housework. I’ll take food over and give it to them so they don’t have to cook.
Compassion? Altruism? I tend not to think of it in those terms. I’m more inclined toward the notion that while I don’t remember what it was like to be that sick, I do remember the anger at having been treated so badly by so many people who thought they were well meaning. I look on it as the dues I pay to not betray that anger, and to maintain my own high opinion of myself.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Mugging is a high risk occupation, without much upside potential, so muggers tend to be pretty stupid. There was a locally famous student at the New York Aikikai many years ago, “Harry, the Muggers’ Mugger” as he was known. Harry was in his 60s, and liked to dress like a “pigeon,” mugger bait in other words, and go out walking in Greenwich Village late at night. He had decorated a wall of his apartment with switchblades, ice picks, and sharpened screwdrivers that he’d taken away from would-be muggers. I don’t know whether he did more than remove their weapons. Aikido, as I have said before, offers the option of being kind and gentle, but there are other options as well.
Dennis, who was a member of Aikido of Berkeley back when I first began the practice, was once standing at a bus stop in the rain with his umbrella over his head. A guy sidled up beside him and put a knife to his ribs, saying “Don’t make any sudden moves.”
“You mean like this?” Dennis said, and raised the umbrella up higher. The guy’s eyes went up to follow the umbrella…
The way I remember the story is that, after Dennis took the guy’s knife away from him, he remarked that the guy was lucky to still have all four limbs still attached, and possibly that such attachment remained optional. Again, as I recall, the guy then politely asked for his knife back. You may imagine the laughter that this produced.
As I say, mugging is not a career for the intelligent.
My friend Dale and his wife Susan were out walking one day, along with a friend of theirs. Susan was six months pregnant at the time. Two men jumped out of the bushes and tried to snatch Susan’s purse. Dale and the friend tried to pull Susan back out of harm’s way, but Susan was having none of it. She was a) holding onto her purse, and b) defending herself with what she had in her other hand, which was a folded umbrella.
She got one of them in the eye.
As the two fled, blood streaming from the one, his buddy called back over his shoulder, “You didn’t have to be so rough about it!”
Mugging is not … oh, hell, you know.
Friday, January 25, 2008
I've noticed that, whenever anyone wants to give the devil his due, they first must stand up and announce in a loud voice that it is, in fact, the very devil we're dealing with, so bad, bad, bad, old devil, and then they can say what they set out to say. I've seen this in action where people analyze the infant mortality rates in Cuba, which are far lower than any other country in Latin America and close to those of the U.S., but Castro is a bad, bad man, so let's be sure we get that in. Similarly, if one wishes to locate where in south central Asia the USSR has occupied, now or in the past, one can find a very good map of it by just looking at literacy rates, as compared to the neighboring countries, with the former USSR countries having over 97% literacy rates. The outlier is Afghanistan, which, despite a violent and unsuccessful occupation by the USSR in the 1980s, nevertheless saw large increases in both male (increasing from 30% to over 40%) and female (6% to about 15%) literacy during that time.
But communism, especially in the Russian and Chinese models, was an authoritarian political form that demanded a single Party state, censorship, secret police, and all the trappings that gave George Orwell the heebie jeebies. Bad old Commies.
So let's pretend, somehow, that it's possible to divorce communism from those things. What do we have left? Can we somehow rewind the tape and start all over again from the French Revolution and the Paris Commune and somehow get it to work better? Ah, that seems pretty dubious, so that's probably a dead end.
Still, from my recent review of the French Revolution (granted, more the Cliff Notes version than anything deep or substantive), one of the things that stuck was the degree to which foreign intervention kept the pot on the boil. The monarchies in the rest of Europe felt that they could not afford to let the French Revolution succeed; the American Revolution was bad enough, and that was just a slaveholder rebellion as far as many Europeans were concerned. The Americans were half a world away, besides. But this new French thing…no, best to nip it in the bud.
And even Napoleon, who rose like a cork from the stormy sea, well, he named himself Emperor and put his cronies in charge of things. They may have despised the little twerp, but at least Napoleon they understood.
So what about Soviet Russia? Well, again, was there ever a time when the Western powers just let it ride? The Red and White armies marched all over hell and gone in the 1920s, and not without plenty of outside interference and support for various factions. In the twenty years before the Second World War, Europe looked like a tossup match between Communism and Fascism, and liberal democracy was hardly considered worthy of a seat at the debate. The Hitler/Stalin pact looks insane at this distance (and was a head bender at the time, as well), but I've seen it explained as the natural outcome of Stalin's actually being a real Communist. He considered England to be the real enemy, and it was trivial for Hitler to play on that. Hitler had his own delusions, of course; he viewed England as a natural ally, and thought the British royalty (who were "racial Germans," after all) would swing his way.
Then, big war, one that wiped out almost an entire generation of Russian males, followed by the Cold War. England had spent itself in the war, and divested itself of its colonial empire, in a series of moves so ham fisted that they guaranteed several generations of blood and conflict in the former colonies. But hey, that's the White Man's Burden, isn't it?
The United States took up the great cause of anti-communism, though, and wasn't that a peach? We built up an Armageddon arsenal of nuclear weapons, and then, when the Russians got themselves a bomb or ten, the U.S. went absolutely batshit berserk, seeing Communists under every bed, with neighbor denouncing neighbor, lives ruined on rumor, and drunken old Joe McCarthy scaring the pants off of everyone. In college I knew a few old lefties who'd been through that wringer, and it's not something I ever want to see up close and personal. After 9/11 people were killed for just wearing turbans. Imagine how it would have been if the mark of Cain had been belonging to some club in college 10 or 20 years ago. In other words, imagine if it could be _you_ under the hammer.
It also makes me wonder what sort of derangement would have resulted if the U.S. had actually been _invaded_ in WWII, or if the first ones with the nukes had been some other country, which is to say, if the U.S. had experienced even a fraction of what the USSR went through. But, of course, trying to imagine the world from the perspective of a "godless communist" is exactly the sort of thing that could have gotten you blacklisted in 1950.
Exactly what is it that created the Cold War? The Russians grabbed a lot of land in eastern Europe, I get that. They supposedly threatened Western Europe militarily, I get that, too. But it's not as if there wasn’t a "vice versa" there as well.
And as nearly as I can tell, nothing justifies the general plan that seems to have been in place for "containment" of communism, which, in practice, worked out to replacing democratically elected governments with authoritarian dictatorships that were "friendly" to the West, which is to say the U.S., which is to say U.S. commercial interests. The list of those is long and brutal, and we all know who they were. The other option seems to have been putting a lot of U.S. soldiers into the place, as hostages. That was pretty much how it was for Germany and South Korea.
For the life of me it looks like the United States and the European democracies simply didn't believe in their own forms of government. Democratic principles were (and still are) considered "weak," things to be replaced by authoritarian command-and-control whenever things got tough, or scary, or even hard to understand.
My own belief is that the USSR fell because of the generation gap. The War Generation (the Russians had a "greatest generation" of their own, after all), got old, and boring, and the young elites of Russia saw the cool stuff that was going on elsewhere in the world and they wanted a piece of it. They wanted sex and drugs and rock and roll, just like every other younger generation in the history of the world. So as the new technocrats took over, they just let the whole communism thing slip away. I imagine the same thing happened in China; Tiananmen Square was an urban youth rebellion, put down by soldiers drawn from the countryside—the Chinese Red States, if you will.
From time to time, I see someone writing about the "internal contradictions" of Russian Communism, and the "inefficiency" of the Soviet economic system. I think that there are truths buried in there, but I have to observe that an oligarchic command-and-control structure is the model for every corporation in America. And yes, corporations do go bankrupt, and they do get bought out, but the same can be said for the USSR. And corporations generally don't have to have their own armies, and they don't have foreign governments trying to subvert their every move.
I do believe in those things that we all wave at when we talk about "freedom" and "democratic principles." I just wish that I were more certain that the rest of my countrymen did.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Once, during one of my extended visits with Murray, his brother Sol decided to do an oral history of the family and got out a tape recorder to get some of Meyer’s stories down for posterity. Because I was the only one in attendance who hadn’t heard the stories, Meyer basically told them to me, which I’ve always considered quite a privilege. One of them, for reasons that will be obvious, always stuck in my mind.
It was from the Soviet labor camp, a frontier post out in a Siberian forest, cutting trees to supply wood for the war effort. The conditions were as brutal as you might imagine, though, since timber output was the main purpose, the camp wasn’t deliberately for the purpose of killing people. Nevertheless, no one in authority cared much when someone died, and sometimes the prescribed rules had that effect.
One particularly pernicious rule was the timber quota/food ration rule. Basically, if a work gang didn’t meet their timber quota, their food rations were cut. Since the rations were barely subsistence anyway, cutting them would render the workers even weaker, more sluggish, less able to work, than before, which would result in more lost quotas, more cuts, etc. spiraling downward into starvation and death. So the quotas had to be met at all costs.
The problem was that the quotas kept being increased, until finally, even fully healthy workers would have been unable to meet them. Again, this wasn’t done with the express purpose of killing anyone; it would just have had that effect.
However, Meyer was the straw boss, and he concocted a plan. The crew would work until noon, cutting as many trees as they could. During the brief lunch period, Meyer would count how many trees had been cut, and calculate how many more they needed after lunch to meet quota. Then, after lunch, the crew would go back over the previous day’s cut logs and saw off the very ends of the logs—where the inspectors had stamped the previous day’s logs with a mark to indicate that the logs had been counted. The log ends would go onto the camp fires, and the inspectors would go over the day’s cut and double count the trees whose marks had been removed.
Now obviously there were probably some inspectors who figured out what was happening, but no one said anything. It wasn’t their jobs to say anything; their jobs were to count the logs with no stamps and to stamp the logs. Nothing more. If they piped up, they risked having their superiors get angry, since all their superiors were interested in was making the quotas as well.
“The whole system was like that,” Meyer said. “If they tell you they have a million tanks, don’t believe them. They have one tank; they count it a million times.”
One major feature of my early existence was bible thumpers. There were and still are several in my mother’s family, mostly Methodists, which is actually a pretty progressive religion, having come out against slavery before the Civil War. My great-grandfather in fact was a Methodist minister until he was read out of the church for “gambling,” which is to say that he bought some shares of stock. Or at least so the family story goes. But I have kin who are creationists, and worse, with all the small-mindedness that comes along with it.
In “Inherit the Wind” the writer Hornbeck refers to the town (Hillsboro in the play, Dayton, TN in the actual Scopes trial), as “the buckle on the Bible Belt.” But the town of the Scopes trial is too small to actually be a buckle. If you want something big and brassy that holds chinches the belt to hold the pants up, that would probably be Nashville. When I was young, country music was actually the third largest industry in Nashville, the first being insurance and the second being religious publishing. I’ve been told that a majority of bibles printed in the U.S. are printed in Nashville, and it’s easy to believe.
In Nashville, Methodists were the “liberals.” Baptists were the moderates. Then you had the Church of Christ. A few miles from Donelson is a town called Mt. Juliet. There was an ongoing battle in Mt. Juliet High School each year as to whether or not to hold the Senior Prom. Dancing was considered sinful by the Church of Christ, so about every other year—no prom.
Once a year, when my mother was working for an otherwise sane and sensible photographer, said photographer would sit her down and try to convert her to Church of Christ. Doctrine for C of C was very specific: if you are not a member of the Church of Christ, you are going to Hell. It wasn’t enough to be good; it wasn’t even enough to be Christian; it was C of C or burn forever. So my mother’s boss thought it his duty to try to save my mother’s soul. From his point of view, what else could he do?
I mean, look, you can talk about Dover, PA and the Kansas school board all you want, but when (and where) I went to high school, the Scopes law was still in effect. It was illegal to teach evolution in my high school. School prayer wasn’t just legal; it was mandatory. We had Blue Laws that were still in effect, so no stores were open on Sunday. Some of my teachers were also ministers, and saw no particular conflict in using biblical arguments in class.
And yes, I hated it, and got out as fast as I could. Because there is a world of difference between a religious nut, and a religious nut with power. You may think that the religious right has too much power in government at the moment (and I do agree), but try living in a place where they are the government, and most of everything else.
On the other hand, stripped of power and majority status, many religious groups become less obnoxious. For example, I’ve heard that the Church of Christ, outside of it cradle area, is more benign.
A few years back, a Worldcon (in Philadelphia, I think), happened to occur at the same time as a United Church of Christ conference. At one point, Amy and I were watching a table for someone in one of the foot traffic areas, I’ve forgotten the what and why, but it doesn’t matter. Some of the passers-by were fans, and some of them C of C, with some of the latter obviously fascinated by this strange collection of people they were sharing some space with.
At one point a Sweet Young Thing of probably 16 or 17 came over and began asking us questions about the convention. Amy was in here Madame Ovary persona and doing a bit of her act, showing the SYT her tools, some of the soft sculpture puppets and running a line of patter. Eventually, SYT began doing a pretty good Margaret Hamilton Wicked Witch of the West impression, and I began to wonder when the girl was going to run off to join the circus.
More likely, of course, she’d wait until college, join the local theater group and what came after that would be a matter luck or destiny. Or maybe she’d find a corner of fandom to play around in. Fandom also can be mighty seductive.
In the early 80s, the Church of Scientology decided to burnish founder L. Ron Hubbard’s reputation as a science fiction writer. To that end they established a publishing house, Bridge Publications, and hired A. J. Budrys to manage their connections to science fiction fandom. A. J. cut a pretty good deal and enforced it with some determination: benefit writers and artists, don’t interfere, and if you ever try to proselytize, it’s over.
So in addition to the Battlefield Earth series, we got the Writers/Artists of the Future project, which I’ll argue is a pretty sweet deal. At least it has the money flowing toward the writers and artists, which is a good start. A. J. also told them how to have an appreciated presence at conventions (low key parties with plenty of good food). Initially, there were two key Bridge personnel at conventions, Simone and Fred. I’ve heard rumors that Simone was the model for the original cover of Fortune of Fear, one of the Mission Earth series, and I can’t argue against it. She was tall, blonde, very striking, and just the sort of fan boy bait to work a crowd.
Fred was another thing entirely, neither smooth nor particularly memorable. But he was giving it his best shot, and I liked his nerdy little persona in a way that probably bespoke nostalgia for my younger, nerdy little persona. In the early days of Bridge there were all sorts of reactions from the fans, mostly negative, because, well, it was Scientology, after all. Scientology has always been a bit of an embarrassment for fandom, as well it probably should be, since its early days of Dianetics had a number of fans (and writers) behaving quite foolishly. Besides, they were Up to No Good. Some rumors had them plotting to hijack the Hugos by having a lot of Scientologists join the Worldcon and block vote for Battlefield Earth, etc.
All of which I found amusing. I was actually sort of hoping they’d do the block voting thing. How much would it have cost, $50-100K maybe? If they’d wanted to do it, they could have, and I've even heard rumors about someone giving it a bit of a try, but given the result, it was at best half-hearted, and probably not officially sanctioned.
In any case, I was more interested in the reaction of fandom to the “interlopers,” and the mental gymnastics that were coming into play as a result. I also thought that A. J. was doing a fine job of managing the dance and told him so. I also decided to be nice to Fred, because he had a tough job and didn’t deserve to be excoriated just because he was trying to do it.
Besides, I was interested in watching the effect that fandom was having on the Bridge personnel.
Some years later, at a Worldcon in Boston, I was at one of the Bridge parties. Simone was no longer attending conventions; I heard a few rumors as to why, but none from sources I trusted and I never asked A. J. about it. But Fred was still there, hosting the party, flitting about, smiling, actually Having a Good Time. The initial reactions had settled down by this time, and plenty of fans now knew that the Bridge parties were where to go for dessert, if nothing else. That particular night, Edgar Winter (another Scientologist) was over in the corner, having just finished a gig. I was sitting on one of the couches, talking to A. J.
So I said to Fred, as he came around for the nth time, “You know, Fred, when you first started coming to conventions you were pretty stiff, almost robotic, meaning no insult. You’ve loosened up quite a bit. You’re a lot more relaxed these days. Easier to be around.”
Fred smiled and looked over at A. J. “Is that right?” he asked. “Have I gotten a lot looser?”
A. J. nodded and said, “Yes, pretty much.”
Fred’s smile got a lot wider and he continued on his way, making sure that the strawberries were out, and that the dipping chocolate was in the right place.
I leaned over to A. J. and whispered, “I’m not sure that he understands that I meant that as a warning.” A. J. just nodded.
That was the last time I saw Fred. I expect he’s okay. I hope so, because I’d grown quite fond of him.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
First, however, let me recommend "Drooling Wizards" by Laura J. Underwood. This story has no redeeming social value that I can detect, but who cares when you have an opening like this:
The chronicles of Drooling Proper state that in the history of Upper Drooling, the village had never been without an idiot. This, of course, was before Dumb Willy went off and got himself trampled to death by an irate ram of large proportions. (We shall refrain, dear reader, from listing the more sordid details as to why this occurred and assume that all imaginations will come up with their own). Naturally, the folk of Upper Drooling were aghast to find themselves void one idiot. It left open far too many assumptions about the rest of the good citizens of that fair haven. Besides, how could a proper village function without a proper idiot?
"To this end, the mayor of Upper Drooling, the most Honorable Joseph Dribbling (yes, indeed, he was related to the founders of Dribbling-By-The-Brook several leagues to the north, but there was a nasty falling out within the family, the culmination of which was that Joseph's ancestors left the rest of the Dribblings behind to find sanctuary in Upper Drooling) took it upon himself to declare a state of emergency, and most hastily wrote a letter to the Idiot's Guild in the city of Greater Drooling on the River Drowning.
Mistaken identity, magic gone awry, true love, what more does word candy need?
"Night of the Living POTUS" by Adam-Troy Castro is also slight, albeit with what I suspect is a real visceral horror at the American political landscape, a zombification of the past (personified by American Presidents), and possibly a comment on how the future betrays the past and vice versa. There may be some satire to it, but satire is fragile, and I'll let other readers make their own judgments on that one.
"Suicide Drive" by Charlie Anders and "Family Tree" by Vaughan Stanger may be considered to share a theme, old #1, in fact, Space Colonization. "Family Tree" takes place in an alternate universe where the Apollo Program went a little faster, had a later accident, and wound up putting a colony on the Moon. There is a substantial amount of symbolism and possibly even sub-text operating, with the protagonist, a teacher hitting mandatory retirement torn between immigrating to the Moon or tending to her (objectified via SF trope) memories of her dead husband. This is past vs future again, with the dice loaded for the future.
"Suicide Drive," on the other hand, paints a bigger canvas on the space colonization side (an extra-solar colonization attempt), with a much bigger price, and a smaller canvas for memory: a hidey hole for the son of the Leader who made the colonization attempt, and an unseen interviewer. The old Campbellian future suggested that the world would suffer nuclear war, but that was an acceptable price to pay for nuclear powered space travel and interstellar empire. "Suicide Drive" notes that the alternatives are seldom known in advance. What then?
The implied risks and rewards are more prosaic and personal in "Salvager's Gold," by Selina Rosen. This is a story that could have fit into an issue of Galaxy or F&SF in 1950s, though it wouldn't have made the Year's Best in either. Happy ending, though, and I like it when the trashman gets a happy ending.
"The Last Man's First Year on Earth," by David W. Goldman is far and away the most creepy story in this issue of Helix, and has a pretty good take on what "alien" means as well. It also has some good new drugs that aren't just another kind of speed (I've complained about SF's limited imagination in drugs in the past, and wrote "Tranquility" to try to make up for it), and, if I'm not mistaken, a new sexual perversion, which is something any author can be proud of.
"Seraphim" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is a hard story to characterize. One might compare is to "A Matter of Muskets" by Berry Kercheval in Helix #4, but the latter was slight, and not as difficult an effect to achieve. "Seraphim" might be an "ancient astronauts" story (although "ancient" here is only 1896), or a Mad Scientist story, or a Secret Society story, or any combination thereof. I will note that it gets the style and tone of a circa 1900 newspaper story almost exactly right, and that is mighty damn difficult and my hat is off to Ms Bohnhoff for that and more.
As always, I remind my readers that Helix is reader-supported, and your contributions give you advance peeks of new issues as well as that familiar warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that your money is not going to the Great Fascist Insect.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), was written by two Dominican monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, sometime between 1485 and 1487. Kramer and Sprenger had been named as witch hunters in a Papal decree in 1484 and they seem to have made a job of it. However, their work was not without controversy, and the Malleus itself was first condemned by the University of Cologne, then later put on the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the banned book index. Despite this (or possibly because of it), the Malleus became an early bestseller, and served as a bible for witch hunters in Europe for the next several centuries. It should be noted that, because of the Church’s condemnation of it, the book was used more by Protestant witch hunters than Catholics.
I doubt that there is any reading of “cultural relativism” that would concede that the Malleus can be taken at face value—as an objective portrayal of the habits and practices of witches. On the other hand, there are probably at least 20% of the inhabitants of the U.S. who would declare that the Malleus is true (and I shudder to think of the degree to which the 20% may be an underestimate).
However, I’m obviously not writing anything for that fraction of the populace, so we’ll begin with the observation that most of the text is just made up. So here we bring to bear the notions of projective psychology. Invented text (including fiction by me and thee) is projective in nature, and so displays a great deal about the interior landscape of those who are inventing it, by whatever means.
In the case of Kramer and Sprenger, the analysis is complicated by the manner in which they produced the text. Much of it was reportedly the result of their inquisition and the methods used. To put it bluntly, a good part of it was probably produced by persons under duress, torture in other words. So here you have an unusual collaborative process. Those who are tortured attempt to tell the torturers what they want to hear, but that in itself adds yet another projective layer into the process.
Jung seldom writes of the “collective unconscious” as the product of torture, but there it is. Indeed, the folk process in all its forms requires more psychic energy than is required to merely dream or view an inkblot. Communication must occur and the impetus for communication is often more violent than we’d like to think.
The book itself is ugly and humorless, a compendium of misogynistic sadomasochistic projection. It is also a record of tales of the witch inquisition itself, and, given our own beliefs that people cannot actually raise hailstorms by pissing into a trench or fly through the air on demonic power, the record of persons being burned at the stake for these activities does cause revulsion. In such cases, one tends to cling to the hope that the entire matter was entirely fictional.
Generally speaking, witches in the Malleus seem to spend an ungodly amount of time raising hailstorms, roasting and eating babies, and copulating with the devil or his incubi and succubae. Interestingly, there don’t seem to have been many homosexual witches; Lucifer apparently didn’t tumble to that bit of fun until modern times, or maybe the monks didn’t consider it to be as essentially sinful as women.
In any case, the Malleus virtually demands the classic Freudian interpretation of repressed sexuality getting all gnarly, then escaping in all sorts of projective behavior. Our recent dance with “repressed memory” and “Satanic Ritual abuse” contains practically all of the important parts of the fantasies contained in the Malleus, right on down to the baby eating. It’s worth noting that such fantasies play a big role in the psychopathology of anti-Semitism as well, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion makes an interesting companion piece to the Malleus Maleficarum. If I wanted to write a really sick and twisted horror novel, those two are where I’d start.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
CARB had been trying to set stringent NOx controls for years, believing NOx to be the real culprit behind smog. In fact, the relationship between NOx emissions and smog formation is _very_ complex, with fresh NOx emissions, which are mostly nitric oxide (NO) combining with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2), thereby reducing the level of the main smog constituent – temporarily. Also, NO2 is a radical scavenger, so it slows the smog oxidation process at elevated levels. On the other hand, without a minimal amount of NOx, the smog formation process basically stops, so if you eliminate all NOx emissions, you also stop smog formation. The question in NOx control is always whether or not you can reduce NOx to low enough levels to be effective.
In any case, the consulting firm I worked for was hired by Southern California Edison (SCE) to do an impact study on the proposed regulations, to see if they were properly “grounded in science.” I was selected to be the technical lead on the project.
The project manager wanted a quick result. We had plenty of simulations of various days in Los Angeles, where SCE had its power plant that would be affected, and he wanted a simple reduced-emissions scenario run for some of those days. I wanted to extend the simulations to multiple days.
Part of the reason I wanted this was because it had never been done before, and I wanted to extend the science. That was self-serving in the sense that it would certainly enhance my reputation (and the company’s), and also, I was curious about a number of things that simply couldn’t be examined with single day results, such as the importance of day-to-day carryover of pollutants. But it was also true that such a simulation would be in the best interest of the client, since providing an answer to those unanswered questions greatly reduces the amount of wiggle-room for policy makers.
Anyway, there were argument, loud ones, but eventually my position carried the day. With hindsight, I now suspect that the project manager in question developed a grudge against me, a grudge that explains some of his later behavior, but that’s another story.
In any case, having won the argument, it was then up to me to deliver, which I did. I had to write a different chemical kinetics module to do night time chemistry, one that used a lot of heuristic reasoning and various other tricks of the trade, but it did work, and I had smog chamber data to validate it against, so we were in the clear on that point. I also did some fairly significant work on what “clean air” looks like, that has been used (and misused) by a lot of other people since.
Our baseline simulation ran for over three days. What we found, essentially, was that the near-field ozone suppression effect of NOx emitted by the power plant was greater than the amount of ozone that was eventually attributable to that NOx in smog formation reactions. Moreover, the highest concentration difference in ozone attributable to the power plant was 1 part per billion, less than 1% of the smog standard, and on the baseline day, less than ½ of 1% of total peak ozone at the impacted area.
We presented our results at a CARB hearing, and the result was that they sent the proposed regulations back for reanalysis, pretty much the best possible result for our client. Eventually, more stringent NOx regulations did come into effect, but they were not technology forcing, and no doubt had other aspects that were less unpleasant to SCE, because that’s the way things work. That particular plant, incidentally, was retired a couple of years ago.
There are a lot of “anti-environmentalists” in the conservative movement, and in the fellow-traveling wing of the libertarians who decry all environmental regulations as being anti-business, or an infringement of their rights as individuals. There are also a lot of industry-funded think tanks tasked with muddying the scientific waters, denouncing things they don’t like as “junk science” and working against the proper use of science as a policy tool. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions where one of the other of these folks has sneered at me for being in favor of some “environmentalist” policy.
There are also some environmentalists who would condemn the preceding story as being another case of big business trampling the regulatory process, but I don’t buy it anymore than I buy the anti-environmentalist narrative. I believe our results, and our results said that this particular issue wasn’t worth the price. The amount of smog reduction, if there was any at all, was immeasurable. The actual population exposure to ozone quite possibly would have gone up. And in any case, the primary health effects from air pollution turn out to be from fine particulates, with ozone, even now, after another couple of decades of study, being still problematic from the standpoint of assigning it a specific level of toxicity at urban smog levels. The effects of ozone on plants is better established than its effects on human health.
And what would have been the price or the proposed regulations? Well, the CARB staff said that it would amount to a small amount of money per rate payer per month. Calculated out to the total number of rate payers, it came to $50 million per year. I don’t think that CARB staff had any incentive to overestimate the cost, incidentally. Typically it’s the other way around.
That was over 20 years ago. A cost of $50 million a year, ignoring all present value calculations, etc. comes to over a billion dollars. I always figured that we probably only bought SCE maybe 5 years, thought the later regulations were probably better thought out. I always guesstimate the savings to Southern California rate payers at more like $250 million.
Too bad I couldn’t have held out for a percentage.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
I sometimes find myself feeling a little sorry for Hugh Hefner. Not much, of course. He’s rich, famous, successful, powerful, and he has a situation that enables, hell, it positively encourages him to have sex with many young, attractive women. He’s old, of course, but we’re all going to be old if we’re lucky, and he’s lived a long and interesting life. So he surely doesn’t need any of my sympathy.
Still, there it is. He’s in a polygamous situation, with multiple women attending to his various needs and desires, and yet he chooses to surround himself with what are virtually clones, all blonde, all with similar body types (augmented if necessary), with similar backgrounds, education, etc. As a confirmed xenophile, my inner adolescent wants to say, “What’s the point?” Or possibly, “Where’s the red-headed Asian ballet dancer?”
It’s probably the case that Hef’s girls do individuate if you get to know them well, and a good many of his past girlfriends have demonstrated brains, talent, and personality to burn (I’m thinking of you, Shannon Tweed). Moreover, it’s a really, really, bad idea to base one’s opinion of anyone on what is seen on television, especially reality television, which is the part of the entertainment universe that “The Girls Next Door” inhabits.
I read an exchange a while back on how Paris Hilton had become the poster girl for those against the estate tax. One commenter basically stipulated that their assessment of Hilton was based on “The Simple Life,” believing that to be an accurate portrayal of Hilton. Frankly, I think that’s only one step away from cornering Hugh Laurie at a party and asking Gregory House to diagnose the pain in your side. The important word in “Reality Television” isn’t “Reality.”
Paris Hilton: “I’m not a dumb blonde; I just play one on television.”
In any case, Hugh Hefner has been a bete noir to many feminists at least since Gloria Steinem’s famous article about being an undercover Bunny. It’s hard to get an analytical, rational handle on the reasons for this (and analyzing emotional arguments is dangerous). I mean, Hefner has been busted at least a couple of times in his life, but never, to the best of my knowledge, for being an agent of the patriarchy. As nearly as I can tell, Playboy itself has always been pro-choice, in every possible meaning of the term, and has supported progressive politics throughout its history, including progressive issues that favor women.
Then there is the matter of equal job opportunities for women. Christie Hefner has been a major success story in the demanding world of magazine publishing, yet I’ve seen scant credit given to her for all of that. The fact that she’s Hugh’s daughter may have made it easier to get the job, but it didn’t make the job easier to do, except possibly in negating stories about her fucking her way to the top.
There may be a little bit of a halo effect in my admiration for Christie Hefner. I paid some attention to her when she was just getting her feet wet in the Playboy empire, specifically as a features writer for the adjunct magazine Oui. There she was, the boss’s daughter, so she could write her own ticket, or so I figured. And her first project was an interview with Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a good interview.
In any case, Hugh Hefner does seem to have a privileged private/public life, and he does appear to have some old-fashioned, double-standard views in his relationships with women. Yes, and Playboy publishes pictures of naked women that are sometimes used by adolescent boys (of all ages) to assist in masturbation. It also glorifies youth, a certain circumscribed ideal of beauty, and sex. Like practically every other element of modern popular culture.
But I imagine that the existence of Playboy does make some women feel bad, in some not-quite-expressible way, and the magazine does serve as a symbol of, well, something or other. Adolescent male fantasies? The objectification of women? The primacy of superficial appearance? A lot of projected anger, in other words.
Joanna Russ in her two critical books, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts and What Are We Fighting For? noted some of the authoritarian threads that wove through the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s. The Women’s Movement was one of the fracture planes of the “New Left” (there were so many), and progressive politics in the U.S. basically foundered on the sclerotic nature of the Old Left, and the fractious behavior of the New Left. A good many of the authoritarians in both camps jumped ship and formed the nucleus of what are now called “Neo-cons.” “Authoritarian” is a personality type before it is a political philosophy.
I had a friend in college who said that whenever he found himself agreeing with a John W. Campbell editorial, he knew it was time for some soul searching, because that meant that there was still some establishment pig left in him. Leaving aside the rhetoric of “establishment pig,” and the specifics of who he was using as his negation template, the principle remains. When you find yourself agreeing with James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, it might be time to engage in some self-analysis. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a photo of a naked woman is just a photo of a naked woman.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Earlier, however, in 391, Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria is said to have complied with this request. There were also anti-Persian riots in the city at that time, which may have produced the real destruction.
The first personage accused of the library's destruction, is Julius Caesar, more or less by accident, when he sacked and burned Alexandria harbor.
Iconoclasm (Eikonoklasmos, "Image-breaking") is the name of the heresy in the eighth and ninth centuries primarily affected the Eastern (Byzantine) Church. It was among the last of the breaches with Rome that prepared the way for the schism of Photius. There was a lesser outbreak of idol smashing/art vandalism in the Frankish kingdom in the Western (Roman) Church.
Later, during the Reformation, iconoclasm was one of the many new/old facets that Protestantism presented to the world. Iconoclastic riots took place in Zürich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), and Scotland (1559). And event called "Beeldenstorm" took place in what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Northern France. This outbreak of iconoclasm included such acts as the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte; and the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere.
Significant destruction of artworks and manuscripts also took place in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Some were anti-religious and anti-clerical; many were directed at more secular targets, especially tax and debt records.
Upon the death of Sir Richard Burton, his widow proceeded to burn most of his notes, diaries, and some unknown number of manuscripts, including a translation of "The Perfumed Garden." Some say it was for fear of his soul and as part of a campaign to portray him as a good Catholic. Others say it was on Burton's own instructions. Either way, we'll never read his translation of The Perfumed Garden.
There is an apocryphal tale, probably started by Mark Twain, that in the latter part of the 19th Century, steam engines in Egypt were fueled by burning mummies. Whether or not ancient (or modern, the desert is still used for mummification) mummies were every used for fuel or kindling, there was a painter's pigment of the time called "Mummy Brown," which was, in fact, made from powdered mummy. Also, mummies removed from the dry climate of Egypt tend to grow rot, and such was the fate of many that made their way to Europe during the Colonial Era.
Twain also described American tourists taking chips off of the Pyramids and other grand artifacts as "souvenirs." That one has the ring of truth to it.
In 1687, the Venetians, under Francesco Morosini attacked Athens, and the Ottomans fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On September 26, a Venetian mortar, fired from the Hill of Philopappus, blew the magazine up and the building was partly destroyed. Francesco Morosini then proceeded to attempt to loot sculptures from the now ruin. The internal structures were demolished, whatever was left of the roof collapsed, and some of the pillars, particularly on the southern side, were decapitated. The sculptures suffered heavily.
Historically, the greatest cause of damage to existing marble sculptures in Europe has been acid rain and fog during the middle to late 20th Century.
Most of the golden artifacts of the Aztecs and Inca peoples were melted down for their metal content.
Thomas Bowdler was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work that he considered to be more appropriate than the original for women and children. He similarly edited Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His name is now associated with prudish censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs.
Some estimates place the number of languages in Pre-Columbian America as high as a thousand. Only a handful remain.
In the early days of talking pictures, the older silent films were considered useless, and many of the highly combustible films were used as kindling for the bonfires and similar events.
In the early twentieth century, Zionist immigrants in Palestine tried to eradicate the use of Yiddish amongst their own population, and make its use socially unacceptable. State authorities in the young Israel of the 1950s went to the extent of using censorship laws inherited from British rule in order to prohibit or extremely limit Yiddish theater in Israel.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, situated 230 km (143 miles) northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2500 meters (8,202 feet). Built during the sixth century, the statues represented the classic blended style of Indo-Greek art. They were dynamited by the Taliban in Afghanistan in March 2001.
In 1969, when I was away at college, a combination of foundation work and an untimely storm flooded the family basement. My mother saved my comic book collection
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Zinc sulfide forms the basis of many scintillation detectors, dating from practically the beginning of the science of radioactivity. The old radium dial clocks mixed radium with the zinc sulfide, to provide that "glow in the dark" wonderfulness. Few modern scintillation detectors use zinc sulfide, however, because other crystalline compounds such as NaI are better suited to electronic detection.
When doped with various elements, the color emitted by zinc sulfide scintillation varies, with silver (blue emission), manganese (reddish orange), and copper (green) being most common.
Suppose you were to mix a zinc sulfide powder, properly doped, with nuclear waste material. It would, of course, glow in the dark. Actually, it would glow all the time, but it would be most noticeable in the dark.
One way to do this would be to do the mixing at an intermediate step in a process of nuclear waste vitrification. One typical way of doing this is to convert the liquid waste into a silica gel, which is then and dried, followed by heating to melt the gel into a glassy substance. If zinc sulfide were added to the mix at the dry gel stage, the resultant glassy substance should scintillate with the radiation of the waste.
Now let's imagine surrounding the glassy material with fused quartz, a clear, hard substance. I'm figuring on getting a block that's maybe two meters on a side, which would weight around 24 tons, but one could easily create larger or smaller blocks if there were practical reasons to do so.
It's said that nuclear waste needs to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years, but that's waiting for the long-lived actinides to decay. Without the actinides, several centuries would do. Either way, stone pyramids in the middle of a desert have been shown to last for thousands of years to date, which is a good start. And it's always a good idea to keep things where you can keep track of them.
Imagine glowing pyramids in the middle of the Nevada desert. Any breach in containment would be easy to detect; the radiation has its own glowing tracer that would follow it. The radiation penetration through the blocks could be engineered to be minimal; if the quartz isn't enough, put a few layers of leaded glass around the center. God knows, we have plenty of leaded glass around from old CRT screens.
I figure it would be a tourist attraction. Properly managed, you might be able to build a casino or two nearby, where the gamblers could sit at night and watch our nuclear legacy glower in the dark. Just a little reminder of some of the other ways there are to gamble.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
I’ve heard it said that one of the ways of classifying people into two groups is between the “educational” and “adversarial” view. In the educational view, someone is less concerned with whose side everybody is on, and more concerned with whether or not everyone understands what the issues are about, and what the facts of the matter are. For the adversarial view, facts and understanding are not so important. If someone is one your side, they don’t need to know the facts, and if they are against you, you don’t want them to know the facts.
That may sound like a loaded distinction, and it may be, given that my own orientation is decidedly educational, but I do admit that there are times when the adversarial view is useful, like during a war, or in a court action. A lawyer doesn’t do well if everyone understands what the case is about but he loses, and a soldier cares even less.
Nevertheless, I’m going to go for the educational view here; I think it’s important for you to understand what the real issues are, what the real facts are, and what I think is important. How you then deal with that information is up to you.
So I want to clear up some misconceptions, and let me also say at the outset that many of these misconceptions are common to both sides of the evolution debate, so I’m not saying “Nyah, nyah, nyah, you’re ignorant and we’re educated.” I am going to be saying that the real issues are not what you think they are, but by the same token, I don’t think that the real issues are what most people think they are.
Take the word “evolution” or the words “theory of evolution.” Most people use those words as shorthand for “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection,” but that’s both oversimplified, and it misses important historical facts, so let me review a few of those.
A couple of hundred years ago, as the science of geology was laying down its foundations, one of the things that kept hitting people who studied rocks and such was how old so many things seemed to be. To take a trivial example, stalactites that grow from the mineral calcite grow very slowly, yet there are caves that have very large such structures. If you look at the current rate for stalactite growth and compare it to those big growths, you wind up with an estimate that it took millions of years for them to grow. There are, incidentally, types of stalactites that grow more quickly; in fact, icicles are a kind of stalactite, and there are others that rapidly grow from gypsum, but no one has ever found or fast growing calcite stalactite, nor has anyone ever demonstrated a way to grow one quickly, because the process seems to be intrinsically slow.
There were a lot of these sorts of things that were found almost as soon as geology became a science, things like sedimentation rates, weathering by water and wind, and so forth. Later we found things like the rate at which the very ground beneath our feet slowly moves, which, over time, creates mountains, buries sediments, and moves the continents around. We also found things like radioisotope dating that corroborated some of the other geological age estimates, and often even extended them, taking our estimates of the ages of the oldest rocks into the billion years range.
Now it should be noted that most of the early geologists were religious, Christians even, but they weren’t what is called Biblical literalists. They didn’t believe each and every word in the Bible was true, and educated men hadn’t really done so since at least the days of St. Thomas Aquinas, who recognized both that the world is round, and that a literal interpretation of the Bible would pretty much require that it be flat. That had been argued by the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes based on the Biblical references to the Earth’s four corners, and the fact that there were evenings and mornings on each reported day of creation, when a round world always has a morning and evening somewhere, and “day” depends on where you are on the globe. So the early geologists were willing to say that the “days” of creation couldn’t be literal, and couldn’t be just 24 hours long.
In any case, the Earth looked to be substantially old to the geologists, and they had no particular problem with this, at least not on the grounds of religious doctrine. Furthermore there seemed to be a lot of strange bones in among the rocks.
Now some of those bones were just that, bones. They were found in places like the La Brea tar pits, or ancient peat bogs, or even in the Siberian tundra, where we’ve found completely frozen dead animals tens of thousands of years old. Some of the bones, though, were even older, so old that they’d turned into stone, by what looked to be like a similar process that produces those stalactites, where dripping water slowly replaced the original bone with rock.
But what really got everyone’s interest was that the bones they found didn’t look like the bones of known animals. Some of the critters in the tar pits looked like big cats with huge, I mean, really big, teeth, that came to be called “saber toothed.” Some looked like really small horses. And some of the bones that had turned into stone were so big that the animals could never have fit into Noah’s Ark.
That was one of the theories of the time, as you might expect, that the bones belonged to creatures that had died in the Flood. They had to abandon Biblical literalism for that, though, since the Bible says that God told Noah to get male and females of “every living thing of all flesh,” not “every living thing except the dinosaurs and trilobites.”
Then too, a lot of the fossils that they found were fish, fish that probably wouldn’t have minded the Flood too much. They also kept finding one set of creatures in one rock formation, but if you went deeper, you’d find a much different set of creatures. No one really believed that sedimentation from a single event, be it the Flood or something like it, would also do a big sort on everything so that all the little horses and sabertooths floated to the top, while the trilobites went to the bottom and T. Rex wound up in the middle.
No, the fossils came in groups that were separated by geology, and the geologists figured that that was because they were separated in time. The animals that formed the fossils lived and died at different times, and those that lived at the same time wound up in the same geological formation and those that lived at other times wound up in different formations. Any yes, every now and then two geological formations would get jumbled up, the same way that when you knock all the books off the shelves, they aren’t in alphabetical order any more. But for the most part, they were separated.
Now as I said, different kinds of animals seemed to be in different times, and somebody had to figure out what to make of that. Realize, also, that while all this was happening, Europeans were fanning out across the globe, and periodically they’d stop off on an island, replenish their supplies, accidentally lose a dog, pig, rat or two, and move on. Then, sometimes, they’d come back later to discover that the island had “gone to the dogs,” as it were, and oops, you didn’t have any Dodos anymore. In other words, they discovered that species of animals can go extinct. And it occurred to people that, if species were going extinct, eventually we’d run out of species, unless there was something that replenished them.
A while earlier, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but there were some biologists who’d overturned the idea of “spontaneous generation,” the idea that animals are regularly appearing spontaneously out of mud, or rotting meat, or whatever. Some biologists had looked carefully at the mud and saw the eggs that had been laid there, or they kept the rotting meat in a closed container, and saw that no fly larvae came out when you did that. So biology got this idea that “like creates like” or “like comes from like” and that put them in opposition to the facts that seemed to be coming out of geology, where different things kept appearing.
Thus came the “theory of evolution.” There was no mechanism, just the idea that, somehow, over time, like didn’t produce like, but rather, some organisms, some part of a species, could slowly evolve into something else.
Then came all sorts of “theories of evolution.” Darwin’s mechanism was only one of them. Some believed that evolution occurred by animals “striving” to become better, and that in the striving, some of the things that they acquired, like stretched necks in giraffes, would be passed on to their offspring. There is a theory called “Panspermia” that holds that all evolutionary changes are preprogrammed by a rain of genetic material from space. There were even what could be called “theories of devolution,” which holds that, for the case of human beings at least, the original species was much more advanced than we are, and we are a sort of degenerate version. This is more or less what Disraeli was saying when he said, “Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, am on the side of the angels.” Given that Disraeli couldn’t fly, or work other miracles, he seems to have been at the most something of a devolved angel, don’t you think?
What Darwin suggested was that a plant or an animal that was a bit better suited to its environment than its neighbor would probably have a few more offspring than its neighbor, and that, over time, whatever it was that made it better suited would become more and more prevalent. Then he further went on that, over time, entire species might change, or sub-populations of a species might drift off from the rest of the species and become a new species in its own right. Of course there has been about a hundred and fifty years of thinking, observation, research, and modifications to this, and it’s a big subject, so big that I’m not going to try to go into it here. I will say that the theory of natural selection, as it’s called, is the cornerstone not just of modern evolutionary biology, but also of microbiology, biochemistry, biogenetics, paleontology, and a host of other scientific disciplines. I said earlier that I don’t care that much what side you’re on, and I don’t, but I will say that if you want to have anything to do with any of the related scientific fields, if you don’t know how the theory of natural selection works, you’re out of luck. You might as well try to get a job in a library without knowing how to read.
But there is another thing that I want to say here, and that is about some things that Darwin never said. But it does have Darwin’s name attached, and that, in my view is a tragic misunderstanding. What I’m talking about is what is called “Social Darwinism.”
We’ve all heard the phrase “survival of the fittest” and it’s usually applied to Darwinian natural selection, but in fact, Darwin didn’t invent the phrase, and it was not originally applied to animals, it was applied to corporations in 19th Century Great Britain.
It’s not uncommon to try to apply lessons from on field of learning to another, but it’s often a mistake. When Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, he created an elegant theory that seemed able to predict the motion of the Moon, Earth, and planets for all time. And some people took this to mean that everything could be predictable, even the affairs of men. So we got what has sometimes been called the “Clockwork Universe,” the idea that everything is predictable. More recently, science has pretty well demolished that idea, both with quantum mechanics and with what is called “chaos theory,” but I imagine that most of you will join me in a little chuckle at the expense of anyone who ever looked at human affairs and failed to see the inherent chaos there.
In any case, the 19th Century had a lot of misunderstandings in it. There had been a theory of economics put forward by a fellow named Adam Smith in the same year as the American Revolution, and he referred to the “invisible hand” of the market. Some people in the 19th Century, and, sadly, even today, mistake this invisible hand of the market for the invisible hand of God, to very bad results. Some of these people were in charge of the policy that had Ireland continue to export grain during the Irish potato famine. That was in the 1840s, and a couple of million people starved to death. No doubt had it been some years later, after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, they would have cited Darwin as well as Adam Smith. But we all know the truth, don’t we? They just hated Irishmen, and the theories were just an excuse to let them starve.
What is called Social Darwinism actually began with the work of a man named Herbert Spencer, who believed that society was a struggle among individuals and that there was a “social evolution” that was equivalent to Darwin’s biological evolution. Actually, the ideas were even older, dating from a fellow by the name of Malthus, who did have some influence on Darwin as well, but the social stuff was all from the 19th century Victorians, who were looking for any excuse to justify their colonial empire. Plenty of people came to believe, because it was so comforting to their view of the world, that social evolution was the same thing as biological evolution, and that a person’s ranking in society reflected their rank in the grand evolutionary scheme of things, or as it was called, “the great chain of being,” another phrase that greatly predates Darwin. In this view, successful people, that is, the rich, the well-educated, the aristocratic were “more fit”, while people who were poor and uneducated were somehow “unfit.”
Well, when you make a mistake this big at the beginning, it just gets worse and worse. Darwinian natural selection talks about offspring, and it’s a general fact that poor and uneducated people have more offspring than do the rich and successful. In Darwinian terms, that would seem to make them “fitter.” Alternately, and this is my view, it says that social standing and wealth are irrelevant to evolution and vice versa.
You might think that this contradiction of the “fitter poor” would bring the idea of Social Darwinism into doubt, but the Social Darwinists weren’t having any of it. The fact that the poor were outbreeding the rich was taken as an indication that we just weren’t being harsh enough to the poor, or that we’d allowed the creation of civilization to get in the way of some biological imperative. The result of that thinking produced what came to be called the Eugenics Movement. In its saner moments, the Eugenics Movement merely advocated policies designed to get the well-educated to have more children. Unfortunately, the moments that weren’t so sane were more numerous, so we had advocates of brutal policies like laws against the “mixing of races”, the sterilization of “genetic inferiors,” various forms of discrimination and strange racial theories, and even outright genocide. We mostly managed to avoid the last one in this country, but the other policies were a matter of law for many decades at the beginning of the 20th Century.
And even now, one of the pitches that is made for the genetic engineering of human beings is that we could somehow “improve” people genetically, without anyone really knowing what that means.
And I mean that. Nobody knows what “genetically inferior” really means, because a person’s genetic makeup interacts with the environment, and what is “fit” for one set of circumstances may well be “unfit” for others. So it’s not something that you can establish from the outset. If aliens came down in spaceships and began to “intelligently design” a human being, the result would depend entirely upon what purpose the aliens had for humans and the environment that the humans were meant for. Frankly, I doubt that aliens would do a very good job of it, at least not from our perspective.
But people who have enjoyed worldly success want that success to be total and intrinsic. It’s often not enough for them to be rich and successful; they want to believe that it’s because of their basic virtue, that they are just plain better than other people. There are, in fact, some religious doctrines that hold worldly success to be the outward manifestation of inner virtue and godly grace. And if some people can enlist their ideas about God to justify themselves, it’s not very hard to imagine that some people, sometimes the same people, think that science will do that as well.
So let me say in conclusion, that, if some magic leprechaun were to give me a single powerful wish that it could be used to eradicate either Creationism or Social Darwinism, I’d get rid of Social Darwinism, because it has caused much greater harm than Creationism in this world. The idea that the day to day struggle for a decent life is part of some grand evolutionary struggle is pernicious at its core, and it does great harm. So if you see your fellow man in some distress, it’s okay to help them out. You don’t have to take every advantage at every step. Kindness is still a virtue; compassion does not harm the human race.
And Darwin is not your enemy, nor is evolution. We all know that we have an animal nature, but it need not define us. Disraeli may not have been an angel, nor are any of us, but it is not a bad thing to consider how you’d expect an angel to act, and maybe aspire to act like one every now and then.