Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-2

Tuesday, July 28th. The air was already sticky with humid warmth as Walter hurried to the Cycleworks on Tuesday morning. Sunday, as they had been returning from their hiking trip, it had begun to rain, soaking them as they trudged back to the rural rail station. The rain had continued Monday, and Walter had wished angrily that the sun would return. Now it had, but the combination of wet and warmth was far more oppressive than the rain had been.

The newsboys were out in force in the streets, calling the day’s headline, “Serbia Offers Partial Capitulation!” With the mounting international crisis, and rumors of war now increasing daily, the news sheets were doing a brisk business: morning, afternoon and evening editions all had their readerships.

“Have you heard the latest?” were the first words Walter heard as he entered the workers room at the Cycleworks and hung his coat and cap on one of the forest of pegs.

“I saw the headline this morning was that Serbia agreed to Austria’s ultimatum.”

“Does that mean it’s all over? Danger past?”

“Not yet. They didn’t accept every demand. We have to see if the partial agreement is enough.”

“Austria ought to be satisfied with this. How much more do they expect?”

A week before there had been no talk of Austria and Serbia and world affairs. Now it was a source of commonality between friends and strangers alike. What’s the news? Have you heard? The crisis provided the first topic on all occasions, and like any other topic which draws all those in a large city together -- whether a sports championship or a natural disaster -- this shared experience provided a sort of closeness which was itself an attraction. Fear drove the interest, fear that war would break out. And yet, the excitement of the crisis was such that people did not quite want it to end.

The workers room hummed with news and speculation until at seven the starting bell sent everyone scurrying for their assigned places. Then the day became like any other, ruled by the rhythm of the assembly process.

Walter was at his station, welding the stays of a frame into place, when Kurt approached him.

“Meyer wants you. In his office.”

[Continue reading]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Darwin on the Radio: 1914 Christmas Truce

I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show tomorrow morning at 6:35AM EST talking about the Christmas Truce of 1914. There will also be a replay at 7:45AM Tuesday. There's a live streaming link at their website, so you can listen live on the web. If a recording becomes available afterwards, I'll post it here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Small Lives

When I was a banged and befreckled Brownie, 'round about third grade, I made a friend in my troop. She had glasses and curly hair and maybe pierced ears, and was bright and self-confident and talked about interesting things, and most wonderful, she didn't go to school.

"Everyone has to go to school," I said, surprised.

"I don't," she said. "I homeschool."

This was one more layer of fascination. Her house, too, was, as I remember it, in a woodsy neighborhood, older and rambling and spacious, very different from the trailer out in the country where I lived. The house was full of books, and little steps and up and down, and there was a fireplace in the den, in front of which her mother kept, and used, a spinning wheel. A spinning wheel! My family didn't have a television, but hers did, and we could watch Mathnet on Square One TV after Brownies. My friend had her own bedroom, which might have been painted purple, while I shared a bedroom with my brother and two sisters. But her name was the same as my sister's, although spelled unusually, and her two younger brothers had the same names as my two younger brothers (well, one of her brothers had my brother's middle name, but close enough), and beyond all these similarities, we liked the same things, and we didn't much care for the things other girls talked about, like fashionable stuff or cliques or boys. We had sleepovers at her house, and we would sit up talking for hours, and then trace the etymology of our conversation and try to follow threads all the way back to our original topic.

She told me one day that she was going to name her first daughter Glinda Galadriel, after the two most powerful, most beautiful, most good sorceresses. Glinda I knew -- everyone had seen The Wizard of Oz -- but I'd never heard of Galadriel. She was surprised. Hadn't I read Lord of the Rings? It was full of adventure, and I would love it, and she would lend it to me if her parents said it was okay.

I have since inherited my grandfather's collection of Tolkien books and appendices and maps and paintings, so I know that he was a buff, but neither of my parents had ever heard of Lord of the Rings. So I set out by myself at age eight with three paperbacks, reading them at night, sitting over the floor heating vent, wrapped in a blanket to trap all the warm air, skimming over the parts I didn't understand, browsing forward to try to find the thread of the plot, often confused and sometimes bored, but, like the hobbits, taking small steps in a strange land and understanding only the parts of it that touched me. My memories of that first reading are vague. I was as surprised as Merry and Pippin to discover that Strider was the returning King. I found the Battle of Pelennor Fields overwhelming and too full of incident. I liked Merry and Pippin best because I could always understand them. They were my viewpoint characters. When I was bewildered, they were bewildered. When I was scared, they were scared. Gandalf and Strider and all the Elves and even Frodo and Sam were doing grownup things I couldn't comprehend, but Merry and Pippin were comfortingly small and basic and just my speed, and they got home after all and did brave things and lived happy uncomplicated lives.

Children are not, in the end, able to maintain the obligations of friendship all alone, and our families didn't have all that much in common. They were more affluent than we, but our dissimilarities were probably mostly religious. Although my family began homeschooling, we joined the Protestant-affliated group of which her mother had spoken dismissively. We were Catholic and they were Unitarian of the stripe that believes that children should be able to make up their own minds about God (or perhaps that's all Unitarians; I don't know). I always had the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I ought to "witness" to my friend, and yet, not being a member of those Bible Belt denominations which presented their adherents with pre-packaged Come to Jesus scripts, I had no idea how to begin, and so never did. Eventually both of us dropped the Girl Scouts, and I lost touch with her before my family moved to Ohio when I was 12.

This came to mind last night as I read some of the reviews of Peter Jackson's last installment of The Hobbit. Many of them are the kind of delicious rout that reviewers deliver when the blinders have fallen off their eyes, but the Joe Morgenstern in the WSJ had a glowing tribute to the movie, and to all six of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored ventures, which had to be read through the lens of the first and last lines:
The best way I know to give “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” the heartfelt praise it deserves is to acknowledge that I’m anything but a scholar in this field. As a late arrival to the J.R.R. Tolkien canon, I tried my best to keep track of all the characters, intricacies, symbols, nuances, layers and interconnections in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, but it wasn’t easy. 
...One of the signal achievements of Mr. Jackson and his myriad colleagues in this film is maintaining not only a sense of momentousness but of individual purpose, crisis and tragedy. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, touching as ever, is an observer of Thorin’s madness, up to a point; when he finally intercedes, it’s with courage and thrilling clarity. Other stalwarts of the series are present and vividly accounted for: Ian McKellen’s Gandalf; Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel and, especially moving for devotees of genre films, Christopher Lee’s Saruman. The six films in Mr. Jackson’s two trilogies have come to constitute a genre unto itself—peerless fantasy, flawlessly rendered. 
He has not, in other words, read the books. Which of these last mentioned "stalwarts of the series" do not belong in The Hobbit? Which one is cut from whole cloth? Mr. Morgenstern doesn't know, and his review slips into a strange alternate world in which Peter Jackson's computer-generated padding, every moment built up into an epic confrontation completely unmoored from the raison d'etre of its source, becomes the standard of cinematic accomplishment:
The dragon is, of course, born of bits and bytes. The same goes for the contending armies of this climactic tale, in which the races of dwarves, elves and men must unite against a common enemy if Middle-earth is to have a future. Indeed, much of “The Battle of the Five Armies,” like the films that preceded it, could qualify as an animated feature, but that magnifies the awe, rather than diminishes it as in the case of so many middling attractions that depend on mediocre technology. The computer-generated effects here are executed so gorgeously—my favorite is a battle on the ice—and intertwined with such stirring live action, that the film as a whole is seamless, quite astonishing and deeply satisfying.
I have better things to do than watch Jackson's stapled and mutilated orc-goblins rampage across a three-story screen laying waste to the remnants of Tolkien's plot, but Darwin will go see it with the guys. Then he'll come back and tell me strange tales, just as he did last year with the second Hobbit movie, when I was nine months pregnant and bedridden, listening in wonder as my husband babbled the most arrant nonsense at me and claimed it was the plot. I had the strangest deja vu, a memory of a child trying to make sense of a book too big for her, trying desperately to hold to an unfamiliar path, only in this case the familiar path had been bulldozed into a smooth triumph of technology, gleaming and senseless.

About ten years ago I Googled and found my old friend, thanks to the unusual spelling of her first name, and found that she'd gone on to high school, and to a prestigious women's college, and was now a teacher at a private school. I sent her an email. I hoped I'd written to the right person, and did she remember me, her friend from Brownies in Blacksburg, Virginia, all those years ago? My family had started homeschooling as well, she might remember, and now I planned to homeschool my own children, and I would always be grateful to her for introducing me to Tolkien. She sent back a pleasant note and said that yes, she did remember me, and that I'd been one of the nicest girls she knew. That was about the end of it, and I was left pondering exactly where the scales had finally balanced on our friendship. You introduced me to Tolkien / You were one of the nicest girls I knew. I suppose being nice, and specifically being nice to someone, is a nice, if unexciting, legacy, and after all, if there's one thing we've learned from Peter Jackson, it's the hollowness of blowing up every moment to it's most epic incarnation. Better to play a small role in a vast drama you can't entirely comprehend than to constantly shine in pixelated moments of created, and forgettable, glory.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Crowdsourcing the Ten Commandments

What to my wondering inbox should appear but a press release about the winning entries in a contest to crowdsource a secular ten commandments, run by a collaboration of several different atheist groups. The numbers involved give a sense of the sheer scale of this undertaking: almost 3000 entries were received! More than 6000 votes were cast to select the ten finalists! The prize was a whopping $10,000, split ten ways!

Numbers aside, let's contemplate the results, along with the explanations provided by the winning contestants for their entries:

I. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence. Why?  It is essential in order for us to be able to collaboratively work together to find common solutions to pressing world problems. 
II. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true. Why? We're more likely to believe what we wish to be true over what we wish not to be true, regardless of veracity. If we’re interested in learning the truth, then we need to actively separate our beliefs from our desires. 
III. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world. Why? Every time humans have questions this method is used to solve them. If we don't know, we don't know but instead of making up the answer we use this method to reach a conclusion/answer. 
IV. Every person has the right to control over their body. Why? This includes a person"s right to not be murdered, raped, imprisoned without just cause (violating another person's rights), kidnapped, attacked, tortured, etc. This also protects a person's freedom of speech and freedom to dress and represent themselves as they so choose. 
V. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life. Why? When one does a good deed it isn't because God tells one to do a good deed, but because one simply wants to be good person. As Human beings we are capable of defining our own, different, meanings for our lives, with or without a god. 
VI. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them. Why? It may sound obvious, but negligence and refusal to take responsibility are an immense source of harm in the world, from interpersonal relations to Global issues. 
VII. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective. Why? If everyone did their best to carry this out as far as it can go, everyone would get along much better. 
VIII. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations. Why? As human beings, we have great power. As Voltaire noted "With great power comes great responsibility." To not consider others would be selfish and petty. We have demonstrated the ability to be magnanimous, are rapidly becoming more so, and will be even more so in the near future. 
IX. There is no one right way to live. Why? If you look, even a little, you find many cultures living in moral societies that are fundamentally different, with only a few very basic principles being adhered to between them. Just because one group is different, does not mean they are wrong. 
X. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Why? The Japanese concept of Kaizen teaches that small incremental improvements can have a profound effect over time. We should all strive to leave the world better than we found it be it through relieving the suffering of others, creating works of art, or passing along knowledge.

(This list is copied from the press-release email, and the explanations from the website. This is a service to make the list more intelligible, as on the site commandment I is repeated three times in place of others shown here.)

What amazes me is how many of these entries assume some kind of higher objective standard, something that can impose obligations and and allow for judgment and comparison between alternatives.

I. Be open-minded. Is that open-minded according to my own assessment, or is there some external standard of open-mindedness I should be conforming to?

II.What is truth?

III. How, exactly, does this assertion rise to the level of a commandment? And what is the standard of reliability?

IV. Every person, but who defines personhood? My children have a right to be treated with dignity, but they don't have a right to control over their own bodies, or diapers would never be changed and medicine would never be taken. My throat is sore -- is this my own body rebelling against my right to control it?

V. A good person? What is good? Can we agree on what is good, and if so, does that make the good an ideal outside of oneself to which we can conform? If all goods conform to this ideal of good, could it be that this highest good is what we call God?

VI. What obligation does being mindful of consequences and taking responsibility for them entail? Any psycho can know the consequences of his action and be willing to acknowledge them.

VII. A subjective standard like this doesn't give a lot of guidance when dealing with people with low self esteem.

VIII. Where does this responsibility come from? Who imposes it?

IX. It strikes me that IX negates the rest of the list, and indeed the whole undertaking, because if there is no right way to live, then what is the point of developing secular commandments in the first place? The gloss on IX is interesting: if all these "fundamentally different" moralities have "only a a few very basic principles being adhered to between them", are these commandments an attempt to highlight those basic principles? Are those basic principles the right way to live? Is the corollary of "no one right way to live", "no one wrong way to live"? Why is this not this first item on the list?

X. Better according to whose standards? Your own? What if your version of leaving the world a better place conflicts with someone else's version? Better than what?

Even Fight Club has a more consistent code than this.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Novel Scheduling

I think I'm finally mostly over it, but having been sick for the last week I got seriously behind on novel writing. As a result, there's not an installment of The Great War going up today. I'll have an installment up Monday.

Since the next two Thursdays are Christmas and New Years, I'm going to be skipping those days as well. So, expect posts on Monday. Dec. 22, Monday, Dec. 29 and then the regular schedule resuming in the first week of January with installment on both Jan. 5 and Jan 8.

This hasn't been a NaNoWriMo, so I haven't been posting numbers, but the novel as it stands thus far is at 41k words. My goal is to hit 50k before New Years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The People and the Police

Part I: Why People Are Inclined To Support The Police

There have been a number of stories in the news lately in which prosecutors have considered and then failed to deliver indictments against policemen in cases where they have killed people. There's been a fair amount of outrage about this, some of it justified, some of it not. One of the things that has generated so much outrage is that, through it all, most people have supported not indicting these officers. I think it's worth considering why.

Police are in a difficult position. We, as a polity, pay them to insert themselves into situations that we do not feel ourselves well able to deal with, whether that means domestic disputes, fights between gangs, the mentally unstable, or runaway cows. In return, they get the generic "gratitude towards those in uniform" which our society includes among its civic pieties, but not necessarily huge amounts of comprehension of what they deal with which day (which, of course, varies a huge amount from city to city. What a small town policeman deals with is going to be a lot different from what an LAPD officer in Watts deals with.)

A basic understanding of this is, I think, why in general people are willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt (and then some) most of the time. The police are out there dealing with stuff so that we don't have to, and there's an implicit understanding that it would be rather churlish to turn around and prosecute them criminally if they make a misjudgement in doing their job. It's one thing to go after the obvious "corrupt cop" cases which involve drug dealing, extortion, etc. People see this as a clear abuse of power. However, when the killing can be framed up in terms of "the officer thought he had to do this in order to protect himself/do his duty" people are unwilling to send him to jail.

I don't think this is entirely unreasonable. It doesn't hurt to recall that police do deal with genuinely bad situations, something which seems lost on those who've been going around proclaiming that police intervention makes every situation worse. One resource that I found interesting in this regard is a site which the Dallas Police Department put up in order to provide public transparency, which describes the circumstances and outcome of every officer involved shooting in Dallas in the last two years. Not only is this a noteworthy example of providing public accountability and transparency, it also allows us to get a view of what the whole range of officer involved shootings in a major city looks like, not just the few that manage to make the news cycle. You can access the whole list here. But here are some samples:

On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, at approximately 5:14 P.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles answered a Robbery call at a business located at 4807 Maple Avenue. As detectives and uniformed officers were searching the wooded area near the shopping center, the W/M/48 suspect was located. The suspect reached down, as if retrieving a weapon and one uniformed officer fired one round at the suspect missing him.

The suspect was not injured.

Suspect was armed with an airsoft handgun.

The suspect was charged with Robbery.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 1 round. Involved Officer: W/M 2 years, 6 months service.
On Sunday, March 10, 2013, at approximately 12:29 A.M., uniformed patrol officers in marked vehicles, responded to a Major Disturbance Emergency at 3303 Southern Oaks Boulevard. A witness gave a description a former roommate to the officer and stated that the B/M/35 suspect had kicked in the door to her apartment earlier in the day and then returned and refused to leave. The officer located the suspect at which time the suspect began physically assaulting the officer. The officer deployed his Taser on the suspect, but it did not stop the assault. The suspect began choking the officer, with his hands from behind and lifting him off the ground. The officer fired his weapon at the suspect striking him.

The suspect was pronounced deceased at Baylor Hospital.

Suspect used his hands to choke the officer.

The officer was injured.

One officer fired 9 rounds. Involved Officer: W/M 4 years, 8 months service.

On Sunday, August 10, 2014, at approximately 6:03 P.M., a uniformed officer working off-duty at an Extended Neighborhood Patrol assignment driving a marked vehicle responded to a call regarding a W/M/26 walking along 100 N. Windomere Avenue making lewd comments to women. The officer located the suspect and began following him waiting for additional officers to arrive. The suspect was walking in the street at 400 S. Rosemont Avenue when an approaching vehicle occupied with a family stopped. The suspect attempted to enter their vehicle at which time the officer exited his vehicle and pointed his firearm at the suspect while issuing verbal commands. The suspect then charged the officer who fired his weapon. The suspect was struck five times. The suspect was pronounced deceased at Methodist Hospital. Suspect was unarmed.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 5 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 7 years, 3 months service.

On Thursday, August 21, 2014, at approximately 6:40 P.M., an off-duty officer in plainclothes, was on his way to a family function when he observed an altercation at 4800 Veterans Drive. A female victim was shot in the face while stopped at the intersection by a B/M/20 suspect. The officer then acted to stop the continued aggravated assault on the victim. The officer fired his weapon striking the suspect one

The suspect was injured and transported to Methodist Central Hospital.

Suspect was armed with a .357 magnum revolver which was reported stolen out of Fort Worth Texas.

The suspect was charged with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. The victim survived her injuries.

No officer was injured.

One officer fired 3 rounds. Involved Officer: L/M 3 years, 1 month service.

Part II: The Problem With Supporting The Police

While there are good reasons to object when people assume in every case that police must have acted in the wrong, it is also problematic to assume that in every case police acted rightly. Police are, after all, people, and like other people police officers do things that are good, bad, or indifferent. Thus, it becomes problematic when people "support the police" in the generic sense of always assuming that when there is an altercation in which a police officer kills or injures someone, the police officer was in the right.

Too often, both those who reflexively defend the police and those who reflexively condemn them see "the police" as a monolithic group rather than as a group of individuals with their own experiences and moral choices. Neither one of these approaches is good.

What makes having a balanced view even more difficult is that those of us who aren't police lack some of the experiences that would doubtless help in reaching a reasonable conclusion on whether police in certain situations behaved reasonably or not. This barrier of experience, between police insiders and civilian outsiders, is one of the things that anthropologist Joan Barker talks about in her fascinating book Danger, Duty, and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers. (Though twenty years old at this point, the book is definitely worth a read and gives some really interesting insights into the experience of working in a big city police department.) Since there are strong cultural reasons for police officers to hang together when dealing with outsiders, this creates a situation in which civilians are not necessarily well equipped to judge policing situations, while police themselves are hesitant to speak up about each others behavior. Needless to say, this isn't a good situation for anyone. It is not good for police officers to be grouped monolithically in with those who abuse their power and position. And it is not good for the rest of society either to constantly suspect police officers, or to defend every action they take, regardless of the merits.

I don't think there's a quick and easy solution to all this. Probably one key element is having a healthy relationship between the city population, it's city government, and the police department. Given that, I suspect that a strong internal review process in which police leadership is successfully held accountable by city government for disciplining and if necessary taking off the streets cops who use excessive force is more likely to be successful than sporadic interventions of media attention and criminal prosecution. Such a situation would be constantly in danger of spinning off balance and failing to achieve it's objectives, but then, as I said, it's necessarily a difficult balance to maintain.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Drink for the Cure

It is always an inconvenient time to be sick, but this week is an especially unfelicitous time for us to be descending into the throes of the throat/cough/fever thing, so Darwin and I are dosing with hot toddies. Drink one yourself.

Hot Toddy

In a large cup, combine 1 spoonful honey, juice of ¼ lemon, 1 cinnamon stick, small dash tabasco (optional but recommended) and the tea bag of your choice. Stick 3 cloves into 1 small lemon wedge and add to the cup. Pour in a slug of bourbon, as much or as little as you like. Fill cup with boiling water, stir well and let steep 5 minutes. Savor slowly; repeat as necessary.

I have a sinking feeling that this has passed the toddy healing stage, maybe because my cough sounds like a bark and feels like sandpaper on my esophagus, but I keep taking the cure. "Medicinal," as Uncle Willy said in High Society.

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 5-1

Berlin. July 25th, 1914 The Cycleworks, like many more desirable employers, had a shorter work day on Saturdays, reducing the usual eleven hours to only eight. This had allowed Paul and Berta’s weekend excursion to catch the 6:10 local. The third class carriages were packed, forcing the group to disperse and find seats in ones and twos. Walter was squeezed onto one of the wooden benches next to two farm wives returning from a day of marketing. They eyed him suspiciously as he sat down next to them and settled his knapsack between his feet. When he showed no immediate signs of trying to snatch their purses, however, they returned to discussing the prices for eggs, poultry and feed, and exchanging anecdotes about the regular sellers and buyers at the market.

After a long wail from the train’s whistle, it began to chuff up to speed. Buildings slid by outside the windows. There were two more stations before the local cleared the city, and then stops slowed to every fifteen or twenty minutes. With each stop the benches thinned out. Trees and fields and steep-roofed farmhouses slid by outside with a speed that was fascinating to watch. With stops every block or two, the streetcars never much exceeded a running pace, but with four or more miles between stops Walter guessed that the local at times neared twenty miles an hour. He wished he could get forward into the engine and see the crew at work, managing machinery so much more powerful than anything he touched in the factory. The engine powering the locomotive was doubtless larger than the one which powered all the drive belts in the factory, and the power was all poured into moving the big steel wheels.

The shadows were lengthening when they pulled into yet another rural station, and Berta stood up and led the way out of the railroad carriage. The eleven of them, seven men and four women, assembled on the covered platform with their packs on their backs.

Continue reading

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Projecting The Group on the Person

An argument broke out on a mostly British World War One group that I follow in the wake of someone posting a picture of Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander through the latter part of the war. Haig had been a big booster of veterans groups and veterans welfare after the war, and hundreds of thousands of veterans turned out for his funeral.

But this isn't a World War One post. What I thought was interesting is the structure of the argument that broke out among members of the group, which went roughly like this:

A: Hundreds of thousands of veterans turned out for the funeral of the general they respected.
B: My grandfather and great uncle both fought in the war and they wouldn't even join the British Legion because they said it was Haig's group. They loathed Haig.
C: As B's point underlines, Haig was a butcher and soldiers hated him for wasting lives.

This went on for many rounds, but of course, none of these contradict one another. It's entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of veterans respected Haig, while others hated him because they perceived him as a butcher who wasted lives. However, people have a tendency to think of groups, particularly groups with some kind of unifying visible "otherness" as monolithic: Soldiers think that... Police think that... Jews think that... Women think that... Latinos think that...

There are some common experiences which nearly all members of a visible group will have in common. Basically all Blacks (and most people who look strongly Hispanic, in areas of the country where there's a large, poor Hispanic population) have had some kind of experience of being treated with suspicion by police and others in a way that those of us who "look respectable" seldom do. Police all have the experience of being called in to deal with the sort of situations that most of us virtually never see, and also the experience of being treated like police (and the different things that means to different segments of society.)

However, even given these basic commonalities within a group, it's a huge mistake to believe that everyone has the same experiences in total, the same reactions to them or the same beliefs. Assuming that people's beliefs are fully determined by their group membership is treating them as if they are not really people at all, but rather projections of the group. That doesn't mean that group membership means nothing. It does often serve as a marker for certain shared experiences which can be powerful shapers of beliefs. But people still respond to those experiences in their own different and individual ways.

Friday, December 12, 2014

La Guadalupana

As always, for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

It is touching to hear my children, who are 1/4 Mexican, warbling La Guadalupana around the house, and to know that although I myself have no Mexican, Hispanic, or even Latino heritage, La Guadalupana is my mother too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Great War: Vol, Chapter 4-4

This is the last section of Chapter 4. On Monday, I'll be posting the beginning of Chapter 5, which returns to one of the characters we've already met to begin the final run-up to the war.

Below, you can see some cartridge dueling pistols from the early 1900s, such as Friedrich wanted to use.

Jozef had been standing on the sidewalk just a few moments, blinking in the early morning sunlight, when he heard the growl of an approaching car and Friedrich’s grey Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich pulled up in front of him. Friedrich, with motoring goggles providing a stark contrast to his uniform coat and shako, sat in the the front seat next to his driver. The two seconds were sitting in the back and Jozef climbed in next to them. It was a snug fit. The Prinz Heinrich was narrower than other models, and the bullet-shaped back meant that the second row of seats had less legroom as well. However, the two seater version of the same car had set a race track record of ninety-two miles an hour, and Friedrich had immediately determined to have one, whatever inconveniences might come with it.

They attempted no such speeds as they rolled along the cobbled Vienna streets that early morning. They crossed the Danube Canal and drove southeast along tree-lined roads between the canal and the river. The car was forced to slow even further when the driver suddenly turned off the paved road and guided the car gingerly along a dirt track. Large trees loomed on either side of the track, making it a dim tunnel with walls and roof of foliage and shadow. Only small specks of sky were visible through the branches which met overhead. Later in the day, or on a different errand, this might have seemed a cool, woodland shelter from the summer sun, but now it looked a gloomy place from which night had not yet released its grip. As the car jounced slowly over roots and ruts in the track, Jozef had time to wonder in what kind of dark, Wagnerian place the duel would be held. Perhaps an abandoned graveyard. It looked like a proper place for death. Then light appeared at the end of the track and as quickly as darkness had descended they emerged into a clearing where the sun shone down brightly on dewy grass. It was an open space a hundred yards wide and several hundred long, screened in all directions by the surrounding trees.

Another car and a horse-drawn carriage already waited there. Friedrich’s driver pulled the Prinz Heinrich to a stop some distance away from the other two vehicles and turned off the engine.

Rittmeister Granar opened his door and stepped down. “Oberleutnant, let us go meet the other seconds.”

The two seconds walked off, leaving dark footprints in the shimmering dew. A moment later two officers in the distinctive brass helmets of the Dragoons stepped down from the carriage and approached to meet them in the middle of the clearing.

There was the scratch of a match and Jozef turned to see Friedrich lighting a cigar. “Do you want one?” he asked Jozef. “It will take them a while.”

Jozef shook his head. The aftereffects of the previous night had left his head sore and his stomach unsettled.

“You went to sleep. That was your mistake. Stay awake and the body remains in the will’s custody.”

“I’m glad you’re able to. When I woke up this morning, I was worried that you would feel the way that I do.”

Friedrich closed his eyes and blew out a long slow plume of smoke. An automobile could be heard approaching. “Ah, here she comes.” Friedrich opened his eyes and pointed.

Two cars pulled slowly into the clearing. One pulled up a dozen feet from Friedrich’s and stopped. A man in the back seat lifted his hat to them, but Friedrich’s attention was on the other car, which skirted the edge of the clearing and stopped some distance away. It was a dark Mercedes double phaeton with the roof up and the side curtains down, obscuring any view of whoever was sitting in the row behind the driver.

“Minna,” said Friedrich. “I told my father’s driver to come and wait in front of the flat where she could see the car. I thought she’d come.” He turned and gave Jozef a half smile, only the right side of his mouth quircking up under his mustache. “About half concern for my well being, I should think. And half hatred of the idea of someone else coming to tell her if something happened to me.”

[continue reading]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why Were The Trolls After Marie Curie in 1911?

In one of those little bits of history which catches the imagination, Astrobiologist and Sky & Telescope columnist David Grinspoon created something of a social media sensation when he tweeted out the following (translated) letter from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie with the description "Found this in newly released Einstein letters: advice to Marie Curie on ignoring the trolls."

[you can read this letter and others online at the Einstein Papers online]

We'd all like to think that we're being line famous scientists when we ignore the troll, and it's pretty cool to see a letter which is primarily written to say in a friendly way that you shouldn't let the haters get you down, and then drops in a PS: "I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck's radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure's motion follows the law of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality is very small, though."

So, yeah, we may all be able to ignore the haters like Einstein and Marie Curie, but we don't generally have that kind of news to pass on in a postscript.

But, being the curious fellow that I am, my first question was: Why exactly were the trolls after Marie Curie in 1911? I suspected I had a good idea, but I had to go research around a bit to be sure.

To go back a bit: Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska, youngest child of two teachers in Warsaw, which was in the Russian-ruled part of Poland. (From 1795 to 1918, Poland ceased to exist as an independent country, having been divided between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia.) Marie showed an early aptitude for math and science but due to family and financial problems (her father at one point lost his job for having Polish nationalist ties which the Russian authorities disapproved of) her serious studies were delayed until she left Poland for Paris, France in 1891. In Paris she dived into scientific pursuits and first met Pierre Curie when she was looking for more lab space and a friend introduced her to him as someone who might have room to spare for her work. They married in 1895.

Marie was doing work on what she eventually named radioactivity, and the work eventually interested her husband Pierre sufficiently that he dropped his own work and joined her in hers. Working together, they discovered two new elements (radium and polonium) and did a variety of work relating to radioactivity. In 1903 they received the Nobel Prize in physics for their work. Marie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

In 1906, Pierre was knocked down by a horse-drawn vehicle while crossing the road and killed. As the couple had become famous for their work, the University of Paris had created a chair of physics and given it to Pierre. On his death, the Physics Department decided to give the chair to Marie, thus making her the first female professor at the University of Paris. As such, she was a well known public figure. Using the lab which came with her new position (one which the University had agreed to build for Pierre but had not been finished before his death) she succeeded in isolating pure radium in 1910.

However, she was rocked by scandal in 1911 when newspapers broke reports that during the last year she had been conducting an affair with a former student of her late husband's, physicist Paul Langevin (who was himself married, though separated from his wife.) Not only was this seen as deliciously shocking behavior in a woman who had broken so many barriers, but it provided fodder for per-war France's periodic bouts of hysteria over foreigners. It was all very well to claim Curie as French when she was receiving major international awards such as the Novel Prize, but when she was being attacked in the press they suddenly remembered she was actually Polish.

However, that same year, the Nobel Committee awarded her a second Nobel Price, this one in Chemistry, for her work on isolating and studying the properties of radium.

This was the environment in which Einstein wrote to Marie from Prague in 1911 telling her to ignore the rabble with its lust for sensationalism.

Marie weathered the storm and went on to lead the Radium Institute, later the Curie Institute, to study radioactivity and related phenomena. When World War One broke out (you knew there had to be a WW1 angle, right?) she became active in the war effort and helped produce mobile radiology units for treating the wounded, as well as working on new medical uses for radioactivity.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 4-3

There will be one more installment of Chapter Four going up on Thursday, then it's on to Chapter 5, which is a return to one of the characters we've already met.

Before they parted for the night, Friedrich asked Jozef to call on him early the next morning. As a non-officer, Jozef could not serve as a second, but since he was a witness to the confrontation he must come and attest to the insult which made the duel necessary.

The flat was still when Jozef left his rooms the next morning. Lisette was never an early riser. The door which led to her bedroom and sitting room usually remained closed until ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, when she rang the bell for her breakfast and the morning’s letters to be brought in. Jozef’s own habits were not as late rising as his mother’s, but even so he felt tired and rumpled as he issued forth onto the street before eight o’clock, blinking in the summer morning sunlight at the crowds that seemed far too awake and busy for what seemed to him a very early hour.

Friedrich’s flat, when he arrived, was a contrast to his own: bright and bustling with activity. A soldier servant was serving out small cups of coffee. Friedrich and another officer sat together at the breakfast table, leaning over a document they were drawing up and consulting several others. The third officer stood behind, leaning against the wall. All three officers were polished and crisp in their uniforms, contrasting starkly with Jozef’s grey summer suit and straw boater. The outfit that would have looked athletic and casual at the student cafe here was weak, almost effeminate.

“So you’re the witness?” asked the officer lounging against the wall. Rittmeister Istvan Granar was an experienced duelist who frequently stood as second and advisor to officers in Friedrich’s regiment in their affairs of honor. His greying mustache and the heavy creases around his grey-blue eyes gave him a demeanor of intensity, and there was clearly no regard for this little civilian in his gaze.

Friedrich looked up from his work with the other, younger officer. “This is Jozef von Revay. He is a good friend, and he stood with me when I was insulted last night.”

[Continued reading]

Friday, December 05, 2014

I Remember MrsDarwin: Ten and End

It's that time for the last time: this is the tenth annual birthday installment of I Remember MrsDarwin, and ten years is a good enough run for any feature. So, your final set of instructions:

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME. 
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE. 
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you. 

Send me out proud! Old friends, new friends, commenters, lurkers, chums, enemies: warm the cockles of my heart with some false anecdotes before I pass into my dotage and forget what really went on with that guy with the thing at that place. And Happy Birthday to Me!

Read 'em and weep: the past nine years of my faux social life.

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 4-2

Sorry to be late in the evening. It was a really busy day at work.

The Cafe Sperl stands at the confluence of the Gumpendorferstrasse and the Lehargasse, a block away from the Theater an der Wien and two from the Hoffburg. The two streets come together at an acute angle, and nestled into that angle is a four story building of yellow stone with stone pediments above the upper storey windows and large red and white striped awnings over the cafe windows on the ground floor.

It was just after ten thirty when Jozef entered the cafe, following a walk through the mild June evening. The coffee house was a blaze of electric light, making the dark wood chairs and tables cast reflections on the polished wood floor. The theaters were not yet out, and so the tables were only half full. Leutnant Friedrich Haas von Goldfaden was easy to spot. He had taken one of the best tables, situated before a window, with a view both out into the street and back into the room, and he was magnificent in his Hussar’s uniform: pale blue tunic heavily ornamented with gold braid, red trousers, polished black boots. His shako sat on the table before him, and his sabre was pulled upright to lean against the chair, so that it would not block the walkway behind him. He sat with his legs crossed and leaning back in his chair as he gazed out the window.

Jozef felt a poor contrast in his black and white evening dress. He and Friedrich were within months of the same age, but Friedrich was taller and broader, and he sported a thick, black mustache in true cavalry style, which Jozef silently envied because he knew that he was not able to produce a similar growth.

The one sense in which Friedrich did not look a typical cavalry officer was that he was, to a city used to determining by eye the finer points of ethnicity, obviously a Jew. The good looking sort of Jew, such observers would have been quick to assure. He had thick black hair, a slight cleft in his strong chin, and brown eyes, but clearly a Jew, and thus not someone normally to be seen in the uniform on an Imperial Hussar. His father, Samuel Haas, had made a fortune in textiles whose full extent was the subject of much speculation. He had invested this fortune in a brilliant mansion just off the Ringstrasse, in good matches for his three daughters, in a cavalry commission for Friedrich, his second son, and in a title of nobility for the family.

There was a simple logic in the sale of nobility. The Imperial-Royal house was always in need of money, and there were many among the wealthy who were in need of some sense of legitimacy. A title of nobility cost nothing to produce, and yet provided great value to those who bought them. Samuel Haas had made the exchange with pride, and in selecting the title which would be appended to his name and that of his sons, chose one which reflected his pride in the means by which he had earned his wealth, von Goldfaden: golden thread. Those who had, by the turning of fortune’s wheel, been born with titles considered such an obviously invented one to be a source of amusement rather than dignity, but Samuel himself was unshaken in his pride and so his sons were left to negotiate the troubled waters of status in the way they thought best.

With one booted foot, Friedrich pushed out a chair for Jozef, who sat down.

“How were the opening acts?” Jozef asked.

[Keep reading]

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Peter Pan

Initial impressions: Allison Williams is a better actress than Carrie Underwood, but the rest of the cast is going to show her up.

I miss Mary Martin's and Cathy Rigby's energy in the role -- they had stage presence.

Gorgeous set. And Kelli O'Hara as Mrs. Darling and Christian Borle as Mr. Darling are simply treats to watch.

Allison Williams's singing: not exciting! Not Broadway!

Pym's England

When Darwin and I were students traipsing about Europe, we stayed in a lodging house in Bath, England. In the morning, the assembled lodgers sat in the dining room as the proprietress, Mrs. Guy, came in to take the breakfast egg orders. She stopped by my chair first.
"How would you like your egg, fried or scrambled?' she asked.
"Scrambled," I said.
"Scrambled please," she said.
"I beg your pardon," I said, flushing. "Please."
"I only mention it because you seem like a nice girl," she said, "but I'm not a servant, so it's important to say please. I know in America you're used to having servants, but here it's important to be polite."
A hundred answers to this flashed through my mind -- Americans don't have servants; I was raised in a trailer park -- but I was so flustered that all I could say was, "I'm very sorry."
"Oh, don't apologize!" she exclaimed. "Now I feel bad!"
You can be sure that the rest of the breakfasters were copious with their "pleases", and that there wasn't much conversation around the table.

I was reminded of this bit of ancient history as I was reading a novel by Barbara Pym. Her books, or the ones I've read, have been set in post-WWII England. Women work in offices but still spat over whose standing is low enough to have to make the tea for everyone. Rations are still hoarded. Clothes are serviceable shoes or dowdy tweed skirts or elegant cotton frocks. Hats are worn and holidays are taken. There are vicars and clubs and feuds amongst the parish worthies, and always, in the background, lurks the danger that someone might go to chapel or turn to Rome. And people know their places in the social order.

The blurb compares Pym to Austen, and perhaps that's apropos if all Austen means is "comedy of manners". But I don't find any deep moral center to Pym. The church is central, but it's a church of mere activity: jumble sales and teas and rivalries and deep grudges over who reads the Lesson. Things seem to happen, and they're often comic things that beguile an evening, but no one is striving to become a better person, to ask moral questions, or even connect with anyone else. Indeed, there's a strain of isolation running through the two books I read. Everyone seems essentially unknowable to anyone else. Even relationships and marriages don't seem to be built on a sense of anything shared. The point of view skips about from character to character, even on a line-to-line basis in one of the novels I read, Jane and Prudence, which only serves to emphasize how little people understand each other. I felt a little sad and remote while reading, even as I enjoyed myself.

Still, the novels are charming ("That great English blight"), and Pym has a great turn for cleverly phrased observation and for the ridiculous elements of British society.

Big Corporate Bad Guys

A friend somehow remembered and dug up this post from 2008, which had the freshness that I'd completely forgotten it and so got to read it as new. Silly movies with shadowy evil corporations haven't gone out of style, so I thought a repost might be enjoyable:

On a lark, I went out with some young friends last night to catch a late showing of Transporter 3, which was about as much of a goofy/fun action movie as one would expect. While various chases and fights were fun to watch, the plot itself was one of those confections which implodes on the least scrutiny. Particularly interesting to me, however, was the role of the Evil Corporation.

You would think that the rabbit like timidity of office park culture would not provide much grist for the action movie mill. Not so in Transporter 3. When the American-based Eagle Corp. is in danger of having their request to dump eight cargo ships a year worth of toxic waste in Ukraine, they kidnap the Ukrainian prime minister's daughter and threaten to kill her if he doesn't sign their contract. This leads to lots of tense staring at the contract with pen in hand, and plenty of black Audi and Mercedes sedans speeding around the continent -- as well as the occasional shoot out.

You can, of course, picture how this would go.

[Interior: Eagle Corp. conference room where waste management directors are in conference.]

Evil Corporate Man One: Report on the Ukrainian waste management plans?

Evil Corporate Woman: Unfortunately the Ukrainian Prime Minister has decided this is the time to boost his environmental cred in the EU. He's broken off negotiations and is planning to give a speech to the EU denouncing environmental destruction and explaining the need to preserve the planet for his daughter's generation.

Evil Corporate Man One: This kind of obstacle makes me feel like using non-board-room language. I'm open to creative suggestions.

Evil Corporate Man Two: The Prime Minister's daughter is a big player on the party scenes. Let's drug her, rig her with an explosive bracelet, and send her out across Europe in a fancy black car with an underworld delivery man while telling her father that he'll never see her again unless he signs a contract allowing us to dump even more waste than originally planned.

Evil Corporate Man One: That sounds like a reasonable suggestion. Any objections?

Evil Corporate Woman: I'd like to run your underworld driver choice by HR to make sure that they agree we're engaging in fair hiring practices. And of course you'll need to send the revised contract over to legal for review.

Evil Corporate Man One: I'll make a note of those action items. Evil Man Two, could you run our new scenario by the folks in PR to make sure they don't see any corporate image problems resulting from kidnapping and intimidation. Evil Woman, could you contact our negotiation team and ask if threatening the PM's daughter would result in difficulties in future negotiations?

Evil Corporate Man Two & Evil Corporate Woman: Got it.

Evil Corporate Man One: All right. Thanks for putting some good, outside-the-box thinking into this, team. I'm glad to see you're all living up to corporate value number three: dealing with ambiguity. That's all for today. I'm giving the last five minutes of our meeting back. Remember that year end reviews are coming up and you'll want to update the results in your performance plans. We can discuss that in our one-on-ones next week.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


Here's my pretty new niece Ivy Rose, born December 2 at 4:08 pm, 7 lbs 7 oz, 20.5 in. She comes with a full head of hair. Thank you all for your prayers!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Understanding in Fiction and Non-Fiction

I've been wanting to write about more policing and some of the discussions surrounding the troubles in Ferguson, but I've been busy with work and with fiction writing. This got me thinking a bit.

As I said in my piece the other day, arson and looting are activities that I have a visceral reaction against. As such, a lot of the posts I've read by commentators who are intent on explaining the motivations of those rioting in Ferguson have turned me off. It's not that I doubt that people doing things I dislike have motivations which make internal sense to them; I understand that very well. However, often when someone goes to the trouble to write a piece explaining why people are doing some particular action, they do so because they have a basic sympathy with that person. The result is a piece which doesn't just explain why people act and feel the way they do, it makes excuses for them.

This isn't absolutely universal. For instance, Megan McArdle had a really good piece last week about why so many voters in Washington DC supported long time mayor Marion Barry. One of the things that I really like about McArdle as a writer is that she consistently makes an effort to understand viewpoints that aren't hers. But most authors do not have this ability or make this effort. And to be honest, most readers don't seem to appreciate the kind of "on the one hand this, on the other hand that", highly qualified discussion that results from this kind of writing. People like to read pieces which clearly advocate one viewpoint or another, and that's mostly what publication venues serve up.

Now, I have an interest (personally and as a fiction writer) in understanding why people do what they do, but when someone appears to excuse something that I strongly disagree with, I find myself wanting to argue back. At a certain level, I file away information about how that person argued and what views they held, but my reaction to the piece itself is a fight response.

Fiction, however, I react to fairly differently. Reading fiction, I expect to be put inside the heads and hearts of people that I don't agree with. If an author is getting heavily didactic, I'm likely to dislike the piece (even if I agree with the point.) However, if the author is doing a good job simply of portraying how different people in different settings think and feel about the things they experience and do, I consider that an attraction, not a turn off.

You can write compelling fiction about someone doing something that you strongly disapprove of at a moral level without having to include all of the "but of course, I'm not saying" verbiage that would be necessary in an opinion or analysis piece. I think that this is because fiction is generally focused on description rather than advocacy. Through fiction (and good non-fiction, though it's rare) authors can express and readers can understand how other people think and feel. And because of the distance that fiction as a medium gives us from ourselves (instead of reading what we should think, we are reading what someone else thought) we're allowed to express and come to that understanding is a way that seems less morally fraught.