Sunday, February 27, 2005
I have always admired Virginia Postrel's columns. As one of the creators of ReasonOnline and of libertarian bent, she usually has something interesting and reasonable (pun intended) to say about many issues. This article makes some practical suggestons for increasing the number of women in tenure-track positions.
Saturday, February 26, 2005
The really astonishing thing about the Gannon/Guckert flap is not that 1. he was a Republican shill tossing softballs to Bush who apparently can't handle hardballs, or 2. that he advertised his services as a gay prostitute on a website after publicly bashing gays, or 3. that he couldn't get his facts straight, but that in a time of heightened security, here was someone running around the White House with a press pass under an assumed name.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
“IF FOOTNOTES WERE A RATIONAL FORM OF COMMUNICATION, DARWINIAN SELECTION WOULD HAVE RESULTED IN THE EYES BEING SET VERTICALLY RATHER THAN ON THE INEFFICIENT HORIZONTAL PLANE.”
ENCOUNTERING A FOOTNOTE IS “LIKE GOING DOWNSTAIRS TO ANSWER THE DOORBELL WHILE MAKING LOVE.”
Sunday, February 20, 2005
What is it about conservative Republican homophobes. First Anita Bryant, then Phyllis Schlafly, Dick Cheney and now Alan Keyes to name but a few. Do you suppose it's something they do?
Dan Savage column
Aside from the obvious truth that humans can't keep any kind of secret, conspiracy theories make for entertaining "what-if" stories. It's important, however to maintain a rational base and several books have been written debunking claims made in The Da Vinci Code. The right-wing Christians, typically paranoid, were the first to get all upset and emails began circulating all over the web decrying his book. The author, Dan Brown, fed the flames by asserting the historicity of the art and details in the introduction. That just makes it more fun, of course, except for the illiterate idiots who went nuts.
Much of Brown's "historical" information seems to be drawn from an eyebrow raiser of several years ago, Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Baigent -- I can already hear you moaning, "not another Holy Grail book" -- that purports to "document" the existence of the Priory of Scion and the marriage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
For a good historical review, I recommend, Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is the author of Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, as well as Lost Christianities and the Battles over Authentication and Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. (The Teaching Company offers several of Ehrman's lectures on CD, check your local library, or click here) His books and lectures provide very accessible accounts of the early Christian struggle to define dogma and doctrine. Another very interesting book is When Jesus Became God that discusses the battle between the Arians and the Athanasians, two groups with a very different view of Jesus's divinity and the role Constantine played in shaping the outcome. (For a Christian philisopher's view of the negative impact of the alliance of the state and Christian orthodoxy see The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul. The effect of that orthodoxy and the development of heresy and blasphemy, Leonard Levy's Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie should not be missed. An excellent book.
Additional reading recommendations: Elaine Pagels' books including The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas.
If nothing else, perhaps Brown will have encouraged people to read more about how the Gospels were defined and doctrines codified. It's a fascinating story. The truth can often be more unsettling than fiction. As Ehrman says in the epilogue to Truth and Fiction:
"And for some of us the historical record really does matter, possibly because in some ways, history is like any other good story. It is a narrative that we tell and retell, filled with characters that we can relate to, with plots and subplots that we somehow feel apart of. The past is a story that we ourselves can live in, one that can inform our lives in the present. It is a true story, one that contributes to our sense of ourselves and our place in the world."
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
He came close to being caught moments after his landing. It was at night and snowing. He was wearing a trench coat and carrying a suitcase with money and a radio and charged with the task of learning just how far the Americans had come to developing an atom bomb. Walking along a road, he was seen by a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout. He noted the suitcase, the lack of hat and inappropriate dress. By this time of the war everyone was blase about spies in the U.S. -- except for children. The observant young man, followed the footprints in the snow to the beach and he realized that the man he saw must have been delivered by a boat or submarine. His report to the police caused amusement so he went to the FBI who complimented him on his reporting, and in inimitable patriarchal FBI style that apparently has not changed since, sent him on his way. Gimbel was picked up by a off-duty taxi driver who swallowed his story about a car accident and drove him to Bangor. A riveting story.
Monday, February 14, 2005
He's most likely hiding in Pakistan, a country that has often been at odds with United States policy, but now finds itself in the enviable position of having a superpower groveling at its feet begging for support. The U.S. will never find Bin Laden without the active support of the Pakistanis, yet Pakistan is not ignorant of past U.S. practice. Usually, after we get what we want, we go home and then proceed to support India in the war over Kashmir or whatever else they are fighting about.
One of the few reasons for subscribing to cable is to receive C-Span and especially C-Span2 because of BookTV on weekends. I rig my computer to record the shows I want to listen to and convert them to MP3 files for listening at my convenience. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 was one of the interviews this past weekend, and Coll had a great deal to say about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
Obviously, Pakistan would benefit from the capture of Bin Laden, but at the same time, runs the risk of then losing whatever influence -- not to mention huge quantities of military aid -- it now has over the United States should he be caught. Seems to me this might be a marvelous opportunity to cement some long-term relationships in that part of the world that always seems ready to blow apart.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
This little gem was posted to the web shortly after the successful Iraqi elections. According to The New Yorker, which researched the validity of the article, it's directly taken from the New York Times of September 3, 1967. Let's hope history does not repeat itself.
The NPR program To the Best of Our Knowledge recently ran a show describing Canadian life. One of the books mentioned was Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values by Michael Adams a sociometrician who has discovered some interesting differences between Canadians and Americans (at least red ones.) He suggests much of it has to do with our relationship to authority. People in the US are becoming much more deferential despite our professed admiration for the individual who goes it alone.
"I believe the tussle over "family values" rhetoric gestures toward the core values that underlie the debate around same-sex marriage. One crucial cluster of values lies beneath Canadians and Americans divergent approaches to both same-sex marriage and religion: the values that constitute our orientations to authority. Whereas Professor Bibby positions religion as the force which drives homophobia, I believe orientation to authority is the "X factor" which drives both phenomena religion and attitudes toward homosexuality. One of the most surprising research findings in Canada and the United States is that Americans, with their traditions of individualism, distrust of government, and personal freedom, are now actually more deferential to authority than Canadians, with our traditions of group rights, institutional accommodation, and larger, more socialist government. Research indicates that Americans particularly Republicans are more likely to favour hierarchical organization of businesses, traditional father-led families, and the belief that younger people should automatically defer to older people."
See the web site for additional pithy comments.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Gregg Easterbrook, writing in The Wall Street Journal, suggests that in the current debate over whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed on government buildings, we look to the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus was asked how one could enter heaven, he replied "Keep the commandments," which he then listed, but neglected to mention four of them, those that "emphasize formal observation of religion," such as keep the Sabbath holy and not honoring other gods. The ones he did mention all relate to morality, a code that all of us can agree upon. So let's permit the display of the Six Commandments.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Another related book worth reading is Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow. Perrow had studied several major accidents and concluded that some forms of technology are more open to chains of failure and that adding more safety systems can actually lead to an increased likelihood of an accident because of the increase in complexity. The systems become so "tightly coupled" that a failure in any part of the system almost inevitably leads to a chain of unmanageable and uncontrollable events.
Chiles goes Perrow one further and makes recommendations as to how training and people can prevent the accidents by breaking one of the links in the chain. It requires that individuals throughout the organization be empowered to call decisions into question or to halt actions they believe to be of concern. He observed several industries as air traffic control centers, and aircraft carriers, (not to mention helicopter repair of high-tension lines!) which have impressive safety records despite a high level of coupling and danger.
It's a fascinating book that examines why disasters happened and what lessons can be gleaned from those tragedies. For example, the explosion of the steamboat Sultana killed hundreds at a time (1865) when Americans were seemingly inured to disasters of all kinds ("between 1816 and 1848, 233 explosions on American steamboats had killed more than two thousand people"). Steamboats were constantly being destroyed by boiler explosions, and, despite industry objections, the federal government had issued all sorts of controls and inspections. In the case of the Sultana, the captain was in a hurry, he wanted to pack as many prisoners (released from Andersonville prison) on board as possible (being paid [$] per soldier and [$] per officer). The ship was way overloaded, which contributed to the boiler explosion because when the ship turned, its topheaviness caused the water level in the boiler to shift beyond safe levels. In addition, rather than have a crack in one boiler properly fixed, the captain had insisted on a patch that normally would have been fine, except that it was slightly thinner than the boilerplate on the rest of the boiler. That would have been OK, except that no one thought to change the setting on the emergency blowout valve to reflect the thinner metal of the repair, so a sequence of decisions that individually would have been unimportant resulted in a sequence that killed far more, on a percentage basis, than the 9/11 attacks.
It is possible to conduct accident-free operations, but Chiles says that it means changing normal operational culture and mindset. For example, challenging authority becomes crucial in preventing aircraft crashes and other jobs where people have to work as a team. The airlines have recognized this and no longer is there a pilot in command; the term now is pilot flying the plane with each pilot required to question the judgment of the other pilot if he/she thinks the pilot flying has made an unsafe move or decision.
I learned about the extraordinary safety record of companies that use helicopters to make repairs on high-tension electrical lines while the current is still on. That would certainly loosen my sphincter. The pilot hovers the craft within feet of the conductive lines while the electrician leans out on a platform, hooks a device to the line that makes the craft and everyone on it conduct up to 200,000 volts (they have to even wear conductive clothing), and makes repairs to the line. They have never had an accident in twenty-five years of doing this. Safety is paramount, they anticipate the unexpected, and everyone is an equal partner in the team and expected to point out conditions that might be unsafe. "A good system, and operators with good `crew resource management' skills, can tolerate mistakes and malfunctions amazingly well. Some call it luck, but it's really a matter a resilience and redundancy." Failing to have this resiliency can have tragic consequences. On December 29, 1972 an L-1011 crashed on approach to Miami because a light bulb indicating whether the landing gear was down had burned out and the entire four-man crew became involved in changing the bulb. They did not notice that someone had bumped the throttle lever releasing the autopilot that was supposed to keep them at two thousand feet, and the air traffic controller who noticed the deviation in altitude did not yell at them to pull up, not wanting to annoy the crew, but simply asked if everything was coming along. The plane crashed killing everyone on board.
Another key element is that people must be clear in speaking and writing, "even if doing so necessitates asking people to repeat what you told them. . . We know that people will try to avoid making trouble, particularly any trouble visible to outsiders, even though they are convinced that catastrophe is near." Chiles sites numerous instances where committed individuals went outside normal channels to get additional perspectives or assistance and prevented catastrophe. Those individuals always knew the leadership would back up their independent decisions even if they were wrong.
I have just scratched the surface. This book should be recommended reading for everyone.
Sam Harris, in his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, makes similar points, but much more articulately. He argues that current world conflicts relate to incompatible religious doctrines; that even thought the Israeli-Palestinian debate is framed in terms of land, the theological claims on the real estate are incompatible. Moderates remain blind to the impact of religious dogma on behavior. Harris argues in his book that we need to take religious dogmatists at their word; if they say that blowing themselves up in the service of their belief will gain them a place in heaven, we should believe them.
Is there an alternative to religious faith? Either God exists or he doesn't. What's the alternative to believing in Santa Claus. No one wants to be the last kid in class to believe in Santa. There doesn't have to be an alternative to faith. We can relinquish our religious beliefs. There are no consequences. Only 10% of Swedes are believers unlike 80% of Americans. Change the word God to Zeus. How many people would insist that we hang on to Zeus. When the tsunami killed thousands, wouldn't it have made more sense to suggest we pray to Poseidon, just to cover all the bases?
Harris argues that whatever is true ultimately transcends cultures. We don't talk about Christian physics or Moslem algebra. An experiment in physics done in Baghdad will be just as legitimate in Los Angeles. The challenge for us is to find ways for us to find terms that don't require belief in anything that has insufficient evidence. "A fundamental willingness to be open to evidence is essential for the conversation."
"Blasphemy is a victimless crime."
Sunday, February 06, 2005
He actually believed Jefferson's "All Men are Created Equal." To him "all men" meant "all men," not just all white men. He began battling for abolition, emancipation and equal rights. He was the chief author of the fourteenth amendment and the foundation for the fifteenth amendment. Unlike Lincoln, he had little faith in moderation and compromise and he wanted strong laws to control behavior in the south after the Civil War. He was a leader of the Radical Republicans and was hated by Andrew Johnson. He was very ill during the impeachment trial and had to be carried into the Senate. He died shortly after Johnson's acquittal.
I recommend Fawn Brodie's Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South. David Herbert Donald's biography of Charles Sumner for more details.
Lee Vyborny was one of the original crew members on the tiny NR-1, a sub that contained a midget nuclear reactor, which developed a mere 130 horsepower, of which only 60 could be used for propulsion. The crew quarters were tiny, and there was no stateroom for the commander, who would usually sleep on the floor next to the control panel. The reactor was designed so it could be operated by one man because the crew never exceeded eight people, usually only four on duty at any given time.
In an uncharacteristic mistake, Rickover tried to keep the cost of development and building down and required that as many of the ship's components as possible be purchased off-the-shelf. He was under the mistaken impression that the commercial deep sea industry was well developed and the parts standardized. At the same time, he insisted on testing these parts under the most extreme conditions. They had never been designed for the role he intended, and the result was costly failures and time spent to develop alternatives. The early computer they used was a midget and capable of only fourteen simultaneous operations, in contrast to the original PC, which could do many thousands at once.
Rickover's presence was ubiquitous. Everyone was suitably cowed, but he knew the bureaucracy well and how to manipulate them. The story of the two dead mice is illustrative. A habitability team was due for an inspection. Their job was to verify that a new ship was liveable. The NR-1 had so many discomforts for the crew, Rickover knew he might be in trouble, so he sent out an aide to find two dead mice and to hide them in the boat. The habitability team was delighted to find a dead mouse, thinking they would be able to reprimand the famous admiral. Instead, they were the ones on the receiving end. He told them they had done a terrible job and didn't belong in the Navy. "I know there were two dead mice on that boat," he shouted, "I bought them! You only found one! Get out of here!"
When lambasted by the General Accounting Office for the NR-1's cost overruns and asked to explain the excess, Rickover replied with a sarcastic letter, reprinted in full in the book, suggesting their analysis was similar to a review of Lady Chatterly's Lover by Field and Stream magazine. The letter concluded, "A cursory review of the subject report leads me to conclude that its authors, likewise, lack comprehension in the manner of accomplishing research and development. Therefore, I believe no useful purpose would be served by detailed comments on my part."
In order to withstand the enormous pressures at depths to which the little sub was expected to go, the hull had to be perfectly round. The twelve-and-a-half-foot diameter hull could be out of round by no more than 1/16th of an inch. That required special manufacturing processes. The crew had to undergo special psychological tests to see whether they could stand being cooped up in tiny spaces for long periods. Submariners who had been successful at resisting the stresses of a regular submarine wound up in fistfights after just a few days when tested under the conditions expected on the NR-1.
The boat was expected to remain under water indefinitely, but practical considerations limited the length of the voyages: food and waste. The ship had no galley, so the crew subsisted on TV dinners purchased in large quantities and kept frozen until they were needed, and when the waste tank was full, they had to surface.
Ironically, the NR-1 has outlasted larger and more famous mega-submarines. According to the author, it continues to conduct classified missions in addition to being a valuable resource for many universities and research institutes for tamer exploratory searches of the ocean's depths.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Grisham really does know how to tell a tale. I've been listening to the Last Juror among other things. (I usually have several different choices to pick from depending on my mood.) Michael Beck is a very talented reader and perfect for Grisham whose books often take place in the south. He has just the right accent and manner that captures the humor and irony that I enjoy in Grisham. There is a wonderful scene where the protagonist, Willie Traynor, young owner of the local newspaper, is being treated to a goat roast by a local ambulance-chasing lawyer who has given Traynor a gun. Traynor has taken on a powerful, well-connected, local family that doesn't mind using violence and intimidation to maintain its control. The scene where Willie is trying to learn how to use the gun and is treated to the local peach brandy moonshine is priceless. Grisham writes about the south as if he were creating a tapestry or telling a story on a porch. Lots of rich detail that make it fascinating.
That provides the background for Vidal's excellent historical novel (historical in the best sense in that Vidal tried to use as many actual events and recorded conversations as possible). Vidal is, of course, rather flagrant in rejecting Christianity himself, so it is easy to see why Julian's gradual rejection of what he viewed as a faith filled with contradictions both in belief and behavior would be appealing to Vidal.
The book is told from Julian's point of view as a form of autobiography with little side social commentaries of two of his friends. The debate between the supporters of Athanasius (who finally won out) and the Arians is well explained. In the fourth century (see also When Jesus Became God, the debate over the divinity of Jesus was of huge consequence. The Arians (basing their case on John 14:25) believed in the doctrine of homoiousios: Jesus was a similar substance to God the father but created by him. The followers of Athanasius adopted that "pernicious doctrine" later codified in the Nicene Creed of homoousius (meaning that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same).
It was essential for Julian to pretend to be one of the Galileans, as Christians were called then, because it was the declared religion of Rome after Constantine. As a potential successor to the throne, he was subject to all sorts of plots and political machinations, and these dangers form much of the tension of the book, as Julian tries to remain alive posing as a student of philosophy with no interest in politics. Julian's childhood was that of a prince with all that entails, including constant supervision, little access to people besides his siblings, and strict regulation of behavior. Julian's cousin, the reigning emperor Constantius, fearing for his throne, systematically murdered those who might be a threat -- especially his relatives -- so Julian had to tread very carefully. Fortunately, Julian was needed to be the titular head of Gaul, so he was removed from Athens, married to Constantius's sister, Helena, and sent to barbarian Europe. Julian, whom the emperor suspected had no military prowess, surprised everyone with his skill in battle as well as administratively, even though his hands were often tied by Constantius's Florentius, who had a great deal of administrative control. Constantius's attempts to subdue the Persians was to prove his undoing, and when he demanded that virtually all of Julian's troops be sent to him - despite Julian's promise to the troops from Gaul that they would not have to serve outside the province - those troops rebelled and demanded that Julian be appointed Julian Augustus, i.e., Emperor of the West. Helena, by this time, even though she was sister to Constantius, sided with Julian, because she knew that her brother had murdered her two children because he feared them as threats to his throne. Before a civil could result Constantius died.
Julian's (Vidal's?) comments on power and the corrupting role of imperialism are as pertinent today as they might have been two centuries ago: " Wherever there is a throne, one may observe in rich detail every folly and wickedness of which man is capable, enameled with manners and gilded with hypocrisy." "I have often felt when studying history that not enough is made of those intermediaries who so often do the actual governing. . . As a result, factions within the court could form and reform, irrelevant to the nominal power. . . .On the throne of the world, any delusion can become fact." The corruption and greed become palpable in Vidal's words.
Vidal uses a triple narrative technique that intersperses Julian's "autobiography" with comments by two contemporaries, a philosopher and a rhetorician, whose views do not always coincide with Julian's, permitting Vidal to offer disparate views of events. Julian is ultimately portrayed as a pagan philosopher-leader struggling against the hypocrisy of the new Galilean religion and trying to recapture the glory of the lost Hellenistic past.
Julian used his military and imperial rights to revive paganism and subdue the upstart Christian cult, but was killed - Vidal suggests by one of his own men, perhaps at the direction of the bishops - during the war against the Persians.
Vidal has vividly captured the intense political maneuvering and danger of being in line to succeed to the throne. This is historical fiction at its nail-biting best.