30 September 2006

Derbyshire deconstructs Commie Futurist!

Or, at least, something like that.

In the National Review Onlines blog 'The Corner', Derbyshire recounts a speech reported to be by old-line Communist Chi Haotian in which he foresees the need for China to take over North America because "only countries like the United States, Canada and Australia have the vast land to serve our need for mass colonization." He doesn't specifically say what would happen to the people living there now, but implies that they would simply be eradicated.

Now this is good red-meat stuff, on a par with Dan Simmons forecast of the future, and I expected Derbyshire to start frothing, but instead he simply deconstructs the vision, somewhat the way I have tried to do with Simmon's Century War. Here the key conclusion:
Whether China will actually have the will and ability to depopulate North America by biological warfare in the near future is pretty doubtful, though. For one thing, the demographic issue Chi makes much of is a passing phase: all the signs are that the demographic cratering we already see in Japan and S. Korea is in China's near future, too. For another, Chinese society is at present too chaotic and uncontrolled (yes, really) for any unified effort of the kind Chi is fantasizing about. If you still harbor any residual Mao-era notions of a nation of drilled blue ants acting in regimented harmony, go stand at a traffic circle in Beijing for a few minutes. China has to work through some major systemic problems before embarking on any great national project like the de-population and colonization of North America.

Personally I would have doubted the validity of the speech itself since it is reported from a suspect source, but the Derby says he believes it because, well, that's the way old Party warhorses talk - including his father-in-law!

29 September 2006

India, English, and the Computer

A mere 10 percent of Indian language pages [on the Internet] use Unicode characters, and only those pages are searchable via conventional search engines such as Google. Although Enlglish is widely used in government and business, it is only understood as a second language by 5 percent of the Indian population. The Indian Constitution recognizes 22 official languages, and native speakers of these languages total more than a billion. WebKhoj [and Indian-laguage-focused search engine] will be available in at least 10 languages, including Hindi, Tamil, and Punjabi.*

Let's see, 5 percent of 1,000,000 is.... ?

Taken from the Autumn 2006 issue of The American Scholar.

Gibbon, Crusaders and Muslims

I am a bit behind in finishing up my Century War critique. And its a gorgeous afternoon here in Crockett, looking out my office window, so I will not be near a computer much longer. I just happened to read this in Gibbon's chap LVIII, note 83. He is talking about how the French speaking crusaders referred to all Muslims as 'miscrants'.
Mecreant, a word invented by the French Crusaders, and confined in that language to it primitive sense. It should seem, that the zeal of our ancestors boiled higher and that they branded every unbeliever as a rascal. A similiar prejudice still lurks in the minds of many who think themselves Christian.

Well, he's a dead white European male, so we don't have to pay any further attention to him.

26 September 2006

The other side of the Islam debate

Right at the moment I am still busy with my Century War essay. So far three parts out of four - unless I have more to say (don't you sometimes feel like Pope Julius II?).

In the interest of fairness, not to say provocation, here is a column by Charles Krauthammer on the sins of modern Islam. Say whatever you will about Krauthammer, he is generally reputed to be an intelligent commentator. See what you think.

The Century War III: Geo-political assumptions

Simmons makes several assumptions that I think sound very convincing and more than a bit scary to a lot of readers at first glance.

- Israel will be "incinerated" along with 8 million Jews within the next 15 years. By who? No Muslim power, even united, has been able to take on Israel - or does he think that Israel lacks the sufficient "ruthlessness" when its existence is at stake? Apparently he is talking about a massive nuclear attack, not simply sneaking into Israel with one or two bombs. It would have to be a full scale nuclear attack from Iran. Israel has been very clear that it would launch preemptive attacks. It has also made it clear that it would launch nuclear retaliation. It's a bit more doubtful, but only a bit, that America would immediately launch a retaliatory attack. How many governments of a nation state will be willing to take these risks?

– Underlying assumption to the whole story is that Muslims are some type of nearly invincible force in the world. They are not. 1.3 billion people, more or less. Against five billion, because that is effectively what Simmons is talking about. Whatever his belief that "the better part" of these Muslims are our enemies, 150 million of them are firmly ensconced in nearly one billion fellow citizens in India - and can be counted on to be either quiescent, or "preoccupied", shall we say, with staying alive in anti-Muslim backlash. The Indonesians, who, after all, are the largest mass of Muslims in the world at a bit under 200,000, are not likely to get involved in this. If they did, they have 15% of their population which is non-Muslim, along with their neighbors like Australia, to worry about.

This leaves, of course, the Arabs. It is a little realized fact that there are more American citizens on the planet than there are Arabs. They make up only 15% of the Muslim world, or roughly 200 million people. Other than petroleum and potential martyrs, they have no resources. And the petroleum advantage would go away as soon as the West, China, and India got serious about alternate fuels. The situation Simmons describes would certainly give them the incentive to do just that. No petro-dollars, and how much of a threat would Islamism be to the world? BTW, you should remember that the next time you fill your gas tank or crank up your air conditioner or heater.

The biggest mass of Arabs, the 75 million in Egypt, are hideously vulnerable to attack. Strung out in a 6\500 mile line about 25 miles wide, blowing up the Aswan dam would just about do it, a fact that both Israel and Egypt are well aware of. At least 5 million, and possibly twice that or more, are Christian. Makes for an interesting mix. Egypt was well on its way to modernizing itself in the 19th century and does not share the same type of resentment that much of the rest of the Arabic world does. How this would play out is open to question, but seeing the entire Mulsim world as an undifferentiated threat, as Simmons does, seems to be a poor bet.

24 September 2006

The Century War II. General Assumptions

What are some of the basic assumptions of this story about the Century War between Islam and the West?

- Major underlaying assumption is that time travel is possible and someone would do it just to talk to an American writer, claiming he has no interest in what the writer actually does after the meeting. Okay, let’s just accept this as a necessary, though lame, plot device to get us into the story.

- An assumption I agree with! "America’s vacation from history ends very soon now." Couldn’t have put it better - in fact, it is almost exactly what I added to all my syllabi since 9-11. It’s true. I simply think Simmons has misconstrued his lessons from history.

- "Twenty-five years from now, every man or woman in America who wishes to vote will be required to read Thucydides on this matter. And others as well. And there are tests. If you don’t know some history, you don’t vote . . . much less run for office." A pleasing thought for someone as devoted to history as I am. Alas, it is pure fantasy. I can’t think of a single society in all of recorded history that required an understanding of history from its citizens when under attack, or at any other time. Bravery, determination, an ability to follow orders and a refusal to be defeated seem to be what they usually look for. Although I am absolutely charmed that someone thinks they would start looking for people trained in history - and ancient Greek history at that.

If you know of any examples, please let me know. This is one of the many unconvincing assumptions here. On this score, I feel I am something of an expert, especially since my school seems to be ready to ditch its history requirement.

- The Century War against Islam starts 5 June 1968. Why pick this date? It's the day Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F Kennedy. Putting aside the detail that Sirhan was a lone gunman, and even that he was raised a Maronite Christian, and at various times flirted with Islam, the Baptists, and even Rosicrucianism, his reasons for the assassination had to do with frustrated Palestinian nationalism rather than any religious faith. He simply doesn't fit into Islamism, Jihadism, or bin Ladinism.

Now 21 November 1979 seems to me to make a much better date.

- Biggest general assumption of all? That a 21rst Century war, involving nuclear weapons would last for a century. You can make up your own mind on this one. There seem to be a number of geo-political assumptions here, but we will deal with them next post.

Simmons, a little short story or, The Century War I

At the instigation of Claw of the Conciliator I checked out a little short story by Dan Simmons. I found it neo-con propaganda promoting the idea that all Muslims are our enemy and we are mamby pamby twits for not being tough enough on them. I thought, though, that I should give this a little more thought and a little more space on the blog to explain my thoughts. So...

The basic story: a time traveler pops up in the author’s study with no explanation of how he got there, convinces the author that he really is from the future, and precedes to scare the crap out of him with a story about The Century War between the Muslim world of terrorists and jihadists and, apparently, everyone else on the planet. All PC obligatory thoughts of love and peace among all God’s creature to one side, the story must be critiqued on how convincing it is as a forecast of the future. There are also a number of assumptions about the world as it is now underpinning the whole thing. In fact, for an American, as both Simmons and Clemens are, it can read as a satiric criticism of the American and European reaction to the great Islamic Threat.

Let’s examine some of these assumptions.

21 September 2006

Muslims, the West and a little short story by Dan Simmons

Here is a link to Dan Simmon's short story about a possible future invovling a 'Century War' between Muslims and the West. Aside from the unfortunate fact that when humans have atomic weapons no war is going to last for one hundred years, I have a few problems with it. As an attempt to visualize a 'future history' - something that is a worthy project - I simply find it lame. I won't to write a longer explanation but for now, here is the link so that anyone who wishes can read it.

19 September 2006

A Homeschooler and Beowulf

This is an interesting interpretation of the saga of Beowulf from Ruth Beechick* on a page for Christian homeschooling. My old history professors actually had the whole stroy wrong! But beyond saying that, I will let the story speak for itself.

Thanks to Dr Robin Fleming of the Haskins Society for bringing this to my attention.

*judging from the explanation of Beowulf's name given in the first paragraph, her name must mean 'Chick who hunts bees' ' in Old English.

18 September 2006

Clemen's Comedy Break!

Well, the news is pretty depressing right now, what with the pape giving esotreric academic lectures in German and reaching back to a 13th century Byzantine emperor to make a point - very easy to misunderstand. So I think I'll do something else this evening.

Lately Carmen has been listening to an audio book written and read by Robert Rankin with the greatest title I've ever heard: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. It seems to be about Jack's adventures in Toy City, formerly Toy Town, where old nursery rhyme characters live in comfy retirement paid for by their residuals. Only a battered old teddy bear named Eddie Bear can help Jack get to the bottom of a series of murders among the toys.

The main snippet I overheard was a discussion over beers of the religious beliefs of the toys of Toy City. It seems that Jack was tending toward 'Jack-in-the-box' revisionism' where they seem to believe everyone was brought to life by 'Big Box Fellow', but theology is not my strong point.

Anyway, here are some more bunnies, performing 'Star Wars' in 30 secs.
Thanks to the Denver Public Library.

And here are some pirate bunnies, brought to my attention by Cochon the Pig.

And just because they still crack me up, and I want to continue the medieval theme the Pope started, here they are, back by absolutely NO popular demand - Viking Kitties!

I think that I will post the Scandinavian felines once every six months or so. Mosby and Ben are so jealous.

Clemen's Comedy Break!

Well, the news is pretty depressing right now, what with the pape giving esotreric academic lectures in German and reaching back to a 13th century Byzantine emperor to make a point - very easy to misunderstand. So I think I'll do something else this evening.

Lately Carmen has been listening to an audio book written and read by Robert Rankin with the greatest title I've ever heard: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. It seems to be about Jack's adventures in Toy City, formerly Toy Town, where old nursery rhyme characters live in comfy retirement paid for by their residuals. Only a battered old teddy bear named Eddie Bear can help Jack get to the bottom of a series of murders among the toys.

The main snippet I overheard was a discussion over beers of the religious beliefs of the toys of Toy City. It seems that Jack was tending toward 'Jack-in-the-box' revisionism' where they seem to believe everyone was brought to life by 'Big Box Fellow', but theology is not my strong point.

Anyway, here are some more bunnies, performing 'Star Wars' in 30 secs.
Thanks to the Denver Public Library.

And here are some pirate bunnies, brought to my attention by Cochon the Pig.

And just because they still crack me up, and I want to continue the medieval theme the Pope started, here they are, back by absolutely NO popular demand - Viking Kitties!

I think that I will post the Scandinavian felines once every six months or so. Mosby and Ben are so jealous.

17 September 2006

Why did it have to be Dan Simmons?

Yesterday Carmen and I went to see our Irish friends who live high up on the ridge overlooking the entire county of Lykes. Had a great time, especially playing and talking with Mearéad. As I was leaving the dad, who loves science fiction and fantasy, as does the mom, says casually to me, "Oh, have you read Ilium?" I nearly choked and said, weakly, "Uh, the one written by Dan Simmons?" Yup, that’s the one.

So now I have a huge novel by Simmons to read just before I try to deconstruct (read "trash") his little short story on the "Century War."

Actually, Ilium sounds like it might be a good read - oh, never mind.

Summer Reading IV - August


The first two weeks of August was my official vacation, traveling to see our families in that humid hell-hole to the south. Consequently I put aside everything connected with my job and felt no guilt at all reading and reading.

12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A Recorded Book. The all time great American classic. Much to my surprise, I discovered it deserves this reputation. It simply is an amazing book. Melville threw everything into it, intending to write something ‘important.’ He sure did. The ruminations on whales, life, the soul, race, and about a dozen other topics, any one of which usually suffices for a novelist, are wonderfully alive and pertinent after all these years. The final chase of the great white whale is one of the most exciting adventures I have read. Most readers decry its length, but I can honestly say that when it was over I wished for another chapter or two. The striking thing to me was that after nearly 160 years it is still a remarkably ‘American’ story. This closed a gap in my education: despite having two different comic book versions of Moby Dick as a child, and having seen the Gregory Peck movie when it first came out, I had never actually read the novel itself. [btw, anybody out there seen the Patrick Stewart version? is it any good?]

13. American Gods, by Neil Gaimon. I listened to parts of this on audio book, but read most of it from a book Mearéad’s dad loaned me (now he’s gone and loaned me Ilium by Dan Simmons - all 725 pages of it - do they pay these guys by the word?). Gaimon is a good writer (he is also a great fan of Gene Wolfe, q.v.). One odd thing though. For a novel about old world gods come to life, this novel has nothing to say about religious belief of any sort as far as I can see. And he is very careful to avoid Christianity, other than when an Egyptian god makes a casual remark over beer about Jesus who "does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride.’
But how can you dislike a novel with lines like this in response to the hero’s attempts to amuse a little girl with magic tricks:

"The black dog licked its long snout. Then it said, in a deep, dry voice, "I saw
Harry Houdini once, and believe me, man, you are no Harry Houdini."
14. The Old Wine Shades by Graham. An audio book Carmen and I listened to on our way to an undisclosed location in the south. Alas, a waste of time, even though the narrator was wonderful, the wit droll, the characters interesting. In fact, the only thing left out was a coherent and believable plot. Even fans of this series hated it. Trevor the wine snob is the second most memorable character (Mongo the Dog is the first - Graham was evidently in the mood to write an animal story).

15. Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe. Turned out to be as good as Elliot said it would. I have too much to say about it to encapsulate it here. And now I am going to have to get the last books of the series.

16. Barbarian Tides by Walter Goffart. Goffart is one of the best early medievalists in the world. Years ago he came up with a theory about the barbarian invasions that finished off the Roman Empire that argued that they were simply a real estate deal with the Romans, ‘an imaginative experiment that got slightly out of hand." (That’s my favorite quote of all time dealing with an historical event). Now he writes an equally brilliant book reconsidering his theory in the light of several decades of impassioned criticism. He says now that he didn’t go far enough! He was right the first time, and now he will reformulate his thesis and shore up the few weak points in it. Whether you agree with him or not, you cannot read this book and not be informed about the later Roman Empire and the coming of the Barbarian Kingdoms in ways you never imagined.

It is, I should point out, serious scholarship intended for scholars who have read all the sources and are prepared to listen to arguments entailing detailed examination of the Latin texts. Thus not for everyone. And when I say 'brilliant' I don't necessarilly mean he is right. But damn it is a good book.

17. American Theocracy by Kevin Philips (audio). I am not in a mood to write much about this right now. It’s a good book examining three major trends in American political life that Philips thinks are terminal for the Republic: dependence on foreign oil, the rise of a religious party (the Republicans) for the first time in American politics, and the rise of high finance as America’s principle industry. Over drawn and overly pessimistic, but an important read if you are a politically aware citizen. And I would recommend reading at least some good reviews about it for my non-American readers so they may understand why a man of faith in America in this year of our lord’s incarnation 2006, the sixth year of the reign of George II, the fifth year of the War on Islam*, might have a decidedly different perspective on the role of religion in the public sphere than other sincere Christians of the Anglosphere. (Does any of this make sense?)

*oops. Of course I meant the War on Terrorism. Sorry.

18. Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe. I will content myself for the moment with simply saying Gene Wolfe is brilliant, and stands head and shoulders above most of the fantasy writers out there. He does something nearly unique with his vocabulary that is difficult, in fact, impossible for lesser writers. I will talk about this later.

Aside: Carmen thinks the cover is really cheesy.

And at that point, as I finished reading Gene Wolfe and listening to Kevin Philips, my summer came to a close. Back to school. It’s getting to be a like a real job. Now, this week, before Thursday, I have to read Hannible, Enemy of Rome, and The Year 1000. No matter how crazy my colleagues are and how anti-intellectual my administration, where else could I find a job that would pay me to read?!

16 September 2006

And now for some comic relief: Rep Bob Ney

A three step plan for dealing with accusations of corruption, courtesy of Rep. Bob Ney (R-Hypocritia).

Step One: Scornfully deny the charges, blaiming the charges on political opponants, the Liberal press, and an overzealous prosecutor. Vow manfully to fight the charges and stand for re-election.

Step Two: Plead GUILTY as part of a desperate attempt not to spend more than two or three years in a Federal pen.

Step Three: Tearfully apologize in public for disgracing your family, your friends, the Republican party, the family dog. Blame it all on being a drunk.

May I suggest a Step Four: retire into well deserved obscurity and spend the rest of your life trying to do good works - in private.

Summer Reading III - July


8. The Stars in their Courses by Shelby Foote (audio book). A wonderful telling of the story of the battle of Gettysburg by a master novelist. As you might expect, sharp, incisive portraits of character are the best aspect of this work, though the old fashioned research is impeccable. Mine is the recorded version read by the author. I highly recommend it simply on the strength of Foote’s wonderful speaking voice and way with a story. For non-American readers of the Anglosphere who want to get a feel for the varieties of ‘Southern’ American accents beyond what they have heard in bad movies or from bad politicians, this is perfect. Great research, exceptional writing, superb narration.

9. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I’m glad I listened to the recorded version of this but am not quite sure why it is considered the classic that it clearly is (just check out the readers’ comments on Amazon). I found every single character in it unbelievable. They simply did not strike me as human beings, at least none I have known. One 25 year old writing on Amazon said that as a soi-disant ‘gifted person’ he could relate to Ender. I could not. Not gifted enough I suspect. Another called it a generation Y and to some extent a generation X book. Perhaps that is why I failed to be moved by it, though the repellent society, undeveloped characters, and redundant and invariable victories for Ender may have something to do with it. One reader thought it had ‘a very important message.’ Like what? Don’t wipe out alien species that have given you every reason to think they want to destroy the human race? Empathize with your enemies? Don’t abuse eight year olds until they turn into Genghis Khan? At any rate, I did not really like this story, even though part of it takes place not far from where I write this evening.
Extra note: one reader on Amazon called it the Starship Troopers for the Information Age. I might agree, but the Information Age suffers by the comparison.

10. The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather. If I were to pick my favorite book from the summer this would be it. Heather is a scholar of the barbarian peoples, particularly the Goths, who were traditionally implicated in the ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire. In the last thirty years or so the impact of the barbarians has been downplayed while internal weaknesses of Roman society have been played up. Others have so stressed the continuity of the new ‘barbarian’ kingdoms with the Roman Empire that it seems that the Romans simply left the empire to the barbarians as caretakers while they moved on to other business, like communing with God. Heather believes otherwise and marshals all the written and archaeological evidence to lay out a new, though retro, narrative of the collapse of Roman power. He believes that around AD 400 the Roman Empire, though having suffered some rough blows, was essentially sound until the 406 invasion across the frozen Rhine by a mixed horde of Vandals and Alans cut all the way through to Spain. From that point on it was a life or death struggle that was over by 470. It’s a great story and Heather tells it well, despite some lapses into modern British argot. Against all expectations, it is also sometimes funny.

11. Les origines Franques by Stephane Le Bec. A good introduction to the Frankish settlement into northern Gaul and the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties by one of France’s leading medievalists. I spent all summer on this mainly because, though her French is much clearer than that of many Francophone scholars these days, I wrote out a word for word translation. I don’t often do this with French work, but as a good synthesis of recent French scholarship on the subject, I thought it was important. Besides, it’s a good way to practice my French.

Preliminary links on Islam II

On the same Sullivan 'E-Mail of the Day' was this commentary on a certain opinion about Muslims (or Arabs - they are unusually conflated in the American mind) that I am certain is quite common.

I hear the most dreadful things from Americans I'd thought had decency. These are women, mind you, middle aged women who've never known anything but comfort and privilege. They're women who have raised children and done a good job of it, women who do charity work and who go all out to help dogs and cats and any other animal in need. But they don't see this issue as you and I see it. They talk about the people tortured as if they're not human beings. They see every Muslim, every Arab, as another species. Their usual term is "scum" but "murdering bastards" is also a favorite. Yes, all of them are guilty, all terrorists. These are women who've traveled extensively, some who were even born in other countries. Thus it's not all foreigners who come under this sub-species heading, only the people they've labeled terrorists without knowing what they're talking about. It's racism at its worst and that, sadly, is what Bush and his cronies are playing to.

None of the people I know who think torture appropriate would admit to being racists, of course. High IQs, high incomes, no brains at all -- or is it no hearts? Perhaps no empathy is the key. To one of them, I said, "This sort of thing can escalate and next they'll be coming for us." She replied, "Oh, for God's sake!" with disgust, the implication being that such methods would never, ever be used for us fair white middle class people.

This is, in a nutshell, the attitude I picked up from Simmons' short story that this is all leading up to. Expressed as a personal opinion over the kitchen table it is just that, a personal opinion. Written by a skilled and published author, though, and posted on the internet, it takes on the appearance of neo-con propaganda. Which may not be what was intended.

Preliminary links about Islam I

Before I get to my main points about Islam, here are a few comments in posts around Blogland that I found today revealing some basic assumptions held in America. Please keep in mind that anything I say about 'Islam', of which I have no specialized knowledge, is really about our perception and attitudes towards Islam.

First, to give an example of an opinion on the topic that we can safely ignore because its mindless belligerence backed up by invincible ignorance is not amenable to argument, let's read this post from andrewsullivan.com's 'E-Mail of the Day'. It was written by a reader in response to a combat vet of the Iraq invasion describing his experience with captured Iraqis.

It's imbecilic to think that they [the Iraqi POWs] surrendered because they knew our kindness. They surrendered because of the hellatious ass-whomping they would receive. Prostrate yourself and be treated kindly.

Fight us and die. Those we detain and torture are those that chose the second path. This makes them a good lesson for those contemplating the first.

Note the macho truculence and verbal chest thumping. The first sentence of the comment BTW reads "I'm sorry your soldier is a moron." This is typical of a certain type of blog commentary - simply call your opponent names. It may provide a useful vent to toxic emotions, but it is not an argument. And I hear the whine of trolls.

You will also notice that the writer casually assumes that we all accept that our troops have been torturing any who resist us. Apparently he missed el Prez' categorical denial of the US using torture.

14 September 2006

Islam on Sententiae

I just realized that it is almost exactly a year since I started blogging on Sententiae. It is the perfect time to review what I have had to say about Islam and Muslims so far, since I intend to do a number of posts very soon on those topics, especially in relation to a short story by Dan Simmons.

So what have I said so far? Well, early on a note about Muhammad with a follow-up, that was the first message Elliot responded to. A few autobiographical entries about the Washington mosque here and here; a pretentious attempt to analyse whatever was going on in Gaza using Thomas Edison; a more general post on Muslims in medieval India (and a promise to write a history of the Spanish convivencia - look where that went); several posts about Arab blogs I like here and here and over here; a post about Ben Franklin and Muslims; the first of my Derbyshire moments over Islam and the second; Muslims invent Easter Eggs AND the theory of evolution; a Muslim view on al-Qaeda.

I know, terribly self-referential and a bit boring, but I wanted to put them all in one place. Now I will start posting about the Simmons story and the Spanish convivencia. Well, sometime within the next year or two.

10 September 2006

Summer Reading II - June

Reading for June: The pace began to pick up although I was still doing office work and working on various research projects.

4. The Excellent Empire by Jarislav Pelikan. The first of my ‘fall of Rome’ summer and the first book I’ve read by Pelikan who has a reputation as a scholar of the early history of Christianity. I’ve already written about it here.

5. The Human Diasporas by the Luigi and Francesco Cavalli-Sforsas. Luigi Cavalli-Sforsa pere virtually founded the technique of tracing the history of populations genetically. In this work Luigi and his son give an explanation of how they do this and a narrative account of how humans spread out of Africa. The genetic tracings indicate that the humans who left Africa seem to have crossed the Red Sea at the southernmost tip of Arabia and from there, probably using seagoing craft of some sort, traveled along the coast to India and beyond. When some came to the end of Asia, they simply took to their seagoing craft and sailed to Australia. Others may have done the same to reach America. A remarkable story.

6. The Dark Tower: VII by Stephen King. This one probably deserves a long review. I listened to the Recorded Book version read by George Guidall (who replaced Frank Mueller who was doing the series until suffering severe brain damage in a motorcycle accident). King is a great story teller who can set a scene and populate it with finely cut, complex characters, but this falls just short of being the great work he wanted. But that is for another review.

7. The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West by Aldo Schiavone. A wonderfully conceived and written book. Takes a close look at the economic underpinnings and the labor regime of ancient Roman society to explain why, with all its wealth, power and diversity, the Roman world never made it into modernity. Makes a great companion volume to read along with Pelikan’s Excellent Empire. Schiavone’s erudition is impressive. Some of his points are so good I want to return to them soon.

This week in 'The Week'

We just got our latest copy of The Week. Here are some interesting tidbits from it.

The Cost of Education:

College students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks.

Quote of the week:

"The world is full of willing people, some willing to work, the rest willing to let them."
Robert Frost.

I post this in tribute to my father, who had a little hand lettered card that said "I love work. I could watch it all day."

News Flash!

Madonna and her husband now schedule weekly appointments to "keep the spark alive in their marriage."

Oh ye of little faith:

An evangelicial preacher in West Africa told his congregation that if he had enough faith, he could walk on water like Jesus. As a witness put it, "He walked into the water, which soon passed over his head, and he never came back."

I'd be happier if preachers, and all of us, would restrict ourselves to imitating Jesus when he said "love one another. "

And forgive one another:

Mel Gibson sent a $500 bouquet of flowers to the Sheriff's deputy he addressed as 'sugar tits' when she helped arrest him for drunk driving. "She was quite touched" said a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department.

Barbie's a role model:

Little girls can now help Barbie take care of her new pet dog, Tanner, by feeding him little brown plastic "biscuits". They can then use her new, magnetic pooper-scooper to clean up after him when he defecates them.

No, no. This is true. There is a photo of Tanner doing his business and everything (Tanner looks a bit like my friend Oscar's dog, the Little Lummox).

No duh!

Congress is "broken" and needs to be fixed, said David Broder in The Washington Post. The war in Iraq may be the dominant issue in the elections, but the public hasn't forgotten about the lobbying scandals, the "runaway spending," and Congress' "near abandonment of effective oversight of executive agencies."

Bin Ladin on Traditional Marriage

Bin Laden is a religious man, and consequently had four wives, as is allowed among Muslims. Ever clever with words, here is how he put it:
One is okay, like walking. Two is like riding a bicycle: It's fast
but a little unstable. Three is a tricycle, stable but slow. And,
when we come to four, ah! This is the ideal. Now you can pass
Not sure, but I'm pretty certain he is opposed to same-sex marriages too, of any number.

I'm From the Federal Government and I'm Here to Help You

Or maybe not.

A week after the 9/11 attacks, then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman declared "I am glad to reassure the people of New York ... that their air is safe to breath." But according to former EPA officials interviewed in this documentary ['Dust to Dust: The Health Effects of 9/11', the Sundance Channel), the air at ground zero was actually a "devastating toxic soup" filled with asbestos, benzene, mercury, PCBs, and thousands of other contaminants generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center. [from The Week]

Well, that explains the death of a young man way down here in Lykesboro of unexplained resperatory illness. His folks say he was in New York at the site of the WTC to help with the rescue and cleanup.

09 September 2006

Charles Krauthammer and the future of the Iraq war

Will someone out there please take a look at this column by Krauthammer called 'Iraq, a civil war we can still win' and tell me if they are as appalled by it as I am?

This is, after all, his feel good rallying cry to the American public that, by God, we can still win this one. And how? By waiting and hoping for this to happen:

'Yesterday Maliki took over operational control of the Iraqi armed forces, the one national security institution that works*. He needs to demonstrate the will to use it. The American people will support a cause that is noble and necessary, but not one that is unwinnable. And without a central Iraqi government willing to act in its own self-defense, this war will be unwinnable.'

Or did I miss something? A call for a changed strategy, for more troops, for new leadership? Something, anything, other than sticking with the plan and hoping that Maliki has what it takes? Or am I being overly pessimistic and critical?


Dionne on Bush post 911

Everyone is offering their retrospectives on the fifth anniversary of 911. E. J. Dionne, jr has one I like. After noting how American of all political persuasions were drawn together and the whole world was with us (even the Syrians, if you can remember back that far), he goes on,

Five years later, you look at the rancid state of our politics, the decline in America's standing in the world and the behavior of our national leadership, and you want to shed tears for your nation. This year, so much of what's being said about the events of Sept. 11 is about the political survival of the Bush administration.

Since we are waxing nostalgic, do you remember Osama bin Laden? He was the man responsible for the terrorist attacks. Saddam and the Iraqis had nothing to do with it. Bush stopped talking about him for awhile, and now suddenly he is talking about him all the time.

That is fair enough, as a political ploy. But what became of this man whom Bush swore to get, dead or alive?

He's still living, somewhere, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But don't worry. America is much safer after five years of the various Bush efforts.

I heard it on TV.

BP, Spilt Oil, and one more reason to bike to work

Steven Mufson reported today in the Washington Post that in a special House sub-committee investigating the Alaska pipeline failings,
The top executives of BP's North American and Alaskan operations faced grilling under oath about why they had failed to prevent a leak, found in March, that spilled 210,000 gallons of crude oil on the northern Alaska tundra.
The subcommittee called Richard C. Woollam, the former manager for corrosion, inspection and chemicals for BP Exploration Alaska, to testify, but Woollam said, "Based upon the advice of counsel, I respectfully will not answer questions." Although it wasn't clear why Woollam invoked the Fifth Amendment, one possible reason is that a federal criminal investigation is underway about BP's oil spill and that he was involved in the design of the company's anti-corrosion program.
In other words, he is afraid he will be hauled up on charges and if he answered the question honestly he could convict himself. BP immediately tried to distance themselves, but only made it worse.
BP Alaska's president, Steve Marshall, said that Woollam had been transferred out of Alaska after a 2004 investigation by an outside law firm cited Woollam for intimidating workers who had raised safety issues. Marshall said the law firm ... "found evidence of intimidating behavior that had made some corrosion workers reluctant to raise health and safety concerns." Woollam, now based in BP's Houston office, no longer has a supervisory role, and Marshall said yesterday that Woollam was on paid leave. [my emphasis]

In other words, they do pay people for this.

Well, actually you and I pay people to do this, every time we fill up our tank.

My Summer Reading I

Now that I am back in school (along with Elliot!) I think I will report on what I read this summer. This will not include stuff I read or worked on as part of my research on the Templars or on chariot warfare. This is the stuff I read just because I wanted to. First installment, the monght of:


The first month of the summer was taken up with quite a bit of work at the office. Consequently not so many books, though I read journal articles, some as part of my research program, and much material on the Internet. Here are the books I managed to get through.

1. Cobra II by Gordon and Trainor. A revealing account of how we went to war in Iraq and took Baghdad. Makes clear that the war was essentially won by the troops on the ground, while being poorly planned back at the Pentagon. Neither Rumsfield nor Gen Franks come out looking good which seems about right. Neither of them, for example, would listen to their commanders in the field when they reported virtually no resistance from the much vaunted Republican Guard, but fanatical, even suicidal, resistance by irregular Fedayeen troops. In fact Franks nearly fired an officer for saying this to reporters in Iraq. Guess who went on to cause us most of the trouble since el Prez declared ‘Mission Accomplished?' By far the best account yet, though you may want to take a look at John Keagan's The Iraq War for a somewhat narrower view of the militaray effort.

2. Baudolino by Umberto Eco. Listened to this one tape. Excellent historical fiction, if you like magical realism for the ‘fiction' part - the ‘historical' part is actually more fascinating thnt the magical realism, which works by assuming that all the bizarre tales told in the Middle Ages by travelers purporting to describe their adventures were absolutely true! Eco can not fail to be an interesting writer and here he outdoes himself. The historical part is essentially the story of the Emperor Frederick, called Barbarossa, his murder during the Third Crusade and the sack of Constantinople by the Christian crusaders in the Fourth Crusade. Since I had just finished teaching a course where we read an eyewitness account of the siege I was primed to enjoy Baudolino, and I did.

3. Rubicon by Steven Saylor. A simple little murder mystery set in ancient Rome as the armies of Pompey and Caesar are racing to southern Italy. A nice, light read that can teach you a bit about ancient history. Saylor is a good storyteller who can magically create a mood of the first century that is utterly convincing. And the murderer is the last person you ever suspect in a murder mystery.

04 September 2006

Bush and the War on Terrorism ... and his own generals

Here's a little war story for your entertainment.

Clinton and the War on Terrorism

I have a friend, who we will call Budweiser, who is very smart, very well read, and very supportive of Bush. With not much good on that score to report lately he has taken to saying things like "Well, can you really imagine Al Gore fighting the war on terrorism?" or "Clinton and the Democrats never did anything effective against terrorism!" Aside from the fact that when you have to go back to unprovable hypotheticals from 6 to 14 years ago, there is this reported by Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal:
Published accounts by Pollack and others tell of a 1997 intelligence operation (details remain classified) with which the United States hit back after Iran sponsored a terrorist attack on American forces in Saudi Arabia. Stung, Iran backed off. "I think we ought to make a much bigger effort to do this," says Pollack, adding, however, that we also "ought to be realistic about what we can accomplish."

Note carefully - this was an effective reposte that obtained results. And who was responsible for it? The much maligned Bill Clinton. The article goes on to say that much more of this needs to be done by the current administration.
The administration is unlikely to talk about covert and proxy operations against Iran, but one would be "surprised and disappointed," as Ashton Carter, a former assistant secretary of Defense, told The Atlantic Monthly, if there weren't any
Lately surprise and disappointment seem the order of the day.

Thanks to andrewsullivan.com for the link.

02 September 2006

History and its Ills

I was cleaning out old files in WordPerfect and came across this one. It had struck me as worthwhile a few years ago so I will simply copy it here. Elton was one of the great historians of the 20th Century. It reflects what I believe about the honest practice of history as a scholarly craft.

In a review by Blair Worden of Sir Geoffrey Elton's Return to Essentials in The New York Review of Books:

Yet beneath the imprudent surface of Elton's book there lives a conviction of fundamental importance. There also lies an anger....No one is better equipped than he to perceives the threat to reason, and to the essential purposes of a university, from those who tell themselves that the past is of our own making and that we are therefore free to make it up as we like, or at least to colonize if for present-day ideological purposes.

Without scholarship there is no history, merely fashion. A quarter of a century ago Elton questioned how long universities would continue to exist as places where fundamental rules of evidence and argument were respected.

I Knew they were currupt but...

I didn't know they were proud of it! On Thursday FBI agents investigating political curruption in Alaska raided the offices of six state lawmakers, including that of Ben Stevens. Details are sketchy, but some of the items they were looking for were clothing, like hats and T-Shirts, bearing the logo 'Currupt Bastards Club.' I guess it really does take one to know one.

Ben Stevens, by the way, is the son of US Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) who secretly put a hold (they can do that in our wonderful Congress) on a bipartisan bill to create a public data base of all federal grants and contracts. The only purpose of this bill is to make it easier to end Federal curruption. The acorn did not fall far from the oak.

To be fair, a Democratic senator also put a hold on the same bill, so even the obstructionism is bipartisan. But the Democrat came clean and removed his. It was Senator Byrd of West Virginia.

And we* pay people for this.

Excluding Canadians, Australians, and one Spaniard living in London who read this blog.

01 September 2006

Katrina and the American Political Class

The Washington Post has some good articles on the media and its handling of the anniversary of Hurrican Katrina. Howard Kurtz of the Post says:
What we have, and what the anniversary pieces are forcing the country to confront, is a major American city that has lost half its population, and the refugees aren't coming back any time soon, if at all. So many schools and businesses remain closed, so many areas lack power, so much rebuilding money is stuck in the overnment/insurance pipeline, that most of those who want to return are unable to do so. What's particularly infuriating is that the feds have appropriated more than $100 billion in aid, and yet as every story notes, much of it remains unspent due to bureaucratic hurdles.
It goes on to quote Jonathan Alter of Newsweek:
"Well, it turned out that the critics were largely right. Not only has the president done much less than he promised on the financing and logistics of Gulf Coast recovery, he has dropped the ball entirely on using the storm and its aftermath as an opportunity to fight poverty. Worker recovery accounts and urban homesteading never got off the ground, and the new enterprise zone is mostly an opportunity for Southern companies owned by GOP campaign contributors to make some money in New Orleans. The mood in Washington continues to be one of not-so-benign neglect of the problems of the poor."
There is, of course, enough blame to go around. The bottom line is that while an American city of unique culture and charm was destroyed by a blow that was seen coming for at least a full week, our leadership did nothing.* A year later they have still done little.

And we pay these people?

*Let us note one exception: the US Cost Guard which rescued countless people during the emergency. Incompetance does not need to be the hallmark of American government.