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Thursday, April 28, 2005

John Brown's Terrorism

A new biography of John Brown gives him substantial credit for initiating the civil war. In a review of David Reynold's biography (John Brown, Abolitionist : The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights) in The New Yorker, there appears this interesting quote that I think pertains to our present situation: "Terrorism is an autoimmune disease; its purpose is to cause harm by provoking an overreaction. This is exactly what happened after Brown's failure [at Harper's Ferry.] A rational Southern observer would have seen that the raid was a sign of the fundamental weakness of abolitionism as an armed cause and, with a bit of wisdom, would have seized the chance to do something before it became a stronger one. Of course, just the opposite happened: panic about slave revolts and further abolitionist raids set in throughout the South. . . it was this atmosphere of panic and paranoia . . .that produced secession and , with it, the arming of the North and the war."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"The best way for doubters to control a new technology is to embrace it, lest it remain in the hands of enthusiasts"

This surprising quote comes from Stewart Brand who founded the Whole Earth Catalog. In a prescient article in MIT's magazine Technology Review, Brand predicts that environmentalists will reverse their position on four core issues: population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms and nuclear power.

Brand notes that two powerful forces drive the environmental movement: romanticism and science, which are often at loggerheads. "The romantics identify with natural systems; the scientists study natural systems. The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant authority. . . They hate to admit mistakes or change directions. The scientists are ethicalistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm and combative against each other. For them, admitting mistakes is what science is."

1. Worldwide birth rates are falling rapidly. About 1/3 of countries have birthrates below replacement level. In fact the growth rate peaked in 1968.

2. The advantage to moving people to large urban areas is that it permits trees and wildlife to return.

3. Biotechnology should be embraced. It has been rejected by environmentalists more because it came from the corporate community than because of inherent dangers. Floridization was rejected by the right but embraced by the left. Had the positions been reversed with genetically modified plants the opposition would have been diametrically the opposite.

4. Nuclear power is the only solution to global warming. Radical conservation, alternative forms of energy amount to only a minor portion of what's needed. Storage of nuclear waste is a surmountable problem.

Read the entire article. Fascinating reading.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Acela = Place under the first floor

I love trains. It's one of the few civilized ways to travel, so I'm naturally concerned whenever the administration suggests zero funding Amtrak's budget. The role of government is to build and sustain infrastructure. When was the last time roads were required to break even or make money? European countries recognized decades ago that moving people around inexpensively, quickly and efficiently benefited everyone and helped to push economic growth. I'm afraid that President Bush seems to want only to fund initiatives that benefit his friends and family. I suspect that if he had a financial stake in railroads, his position would be much different.

I'm also a fan of privatization, but it seems to me that some form of compromise similar to aviation and highways would be in order. The land under the rails was given to the railroads. I suggest the government take over maintenance of the rail system as it does with roads and lease it to whatever company provides the best service, even competing services be they passenger or freight.

There is a well-researched article in today's New York Times that details some of the mistakes and problems in the implementation and design of Amtrak's high speed line that runs between Boston and Washington and that was just taken out of service because of cracks in the brakes. It was a classic case of trying to do too much with too little and too much political interference. The federal mandates for crash worthiness required the builder to make the cars much heavier than European counterparts which may have cause the over-stressing of the suspensions and brakes.

There have been humorous missteps along the way. One Acela ad campaign showed a man with an overcoat around his head and the caption, "Depart from your inhibitions." Viewers thought it was a flasher.

Originally, the train was to be branded, "The American Flyer," which, of course, conjured up images of a little boy with a little red wagon in front of a white picket fence; not a particularly speedy vision. They settled on Acela, a combination of "accelerated" and "excellence." Regretfully, the president of American now begins speeches by asking, "What is Acela? "The floor place under the first floor."

Too bad. We'll just keep falling further and further behind.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Several companies have begun producing university level lecture courses on a series of topics. The Teaching Company, Recorded Books and Barnes and Noble all have superior products. B&N's Portable Professor has recently released Patriots taught by Joseph Ellis, author of Founding Fathers and American Sphinx. It's excellent.

Focusing on the years between 1760 and 1826, Ellis examines the reasons for the success of the new nation. It's the first war of a colony for its independence that was successful. Our revolution differed in many respects from others. Typically, the overthrow of the government was followed by a bloody purge of those who had been power and their supporters. This did not happen in the United States.

Many of the potentially divisive issues were settled by debate, not bloodshed -- although the one issue they were unable to resolve, slavery, was to cause massive loss of blood in less than a century later.

The population of Virginia at the time of the revolution was barely that of present day Wilkes-Barre, PA, yet we would be hard pressed to find as many people of the character as came out of Virginia. There might be several reasons for that. One is that we were isolated. Europeans could not have traveled as widely or consorted as easily. Class was not as dominant as in Europe. People could rise from the "bottom" on their merits more readily.

The Founders were aware of their place in history and took great efforts to preserve their thinking. John Adams asked Abigail to buy a binder to store all his letters, Thomas Jefferson invented a machine that would make perfect copies of what he wrote down, and Washington hired numerous people to record events. Most of them were agnostics who had little hope for immortality other than through a written record of their actions. Their place in history was important.

Some interesting trivia. The words American and democracy were considered pejorative. People identified with regions, e.g., one was a New Englander, and those who espoused democracy were seen as advocating mob rule.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Some interesting tidbits

Thomas Fleming's acerbic, but very readable and fascinating, history of Woodrow Wilson's part in World War I, is filled with delightful little pieces of trivia. For example:

1. The word "creeling" was synonymous with government lying, a situation that is not unknown today. George Creel was Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, i.e., the Wilson government's propaganda arm. He got caught in a big lie when he released all sorts of stories of how American troops sent over to fight against Germany had had to defend themselves against numerous U-boat attacks and other dangers. These were completely false, and soldiers who had been on the voyage laughed when asked about the trip by British journalists.

2. Progressives, perhaps the forerunners of today's liberals, were unstinting in their public morals campaigns, something associated today more with the right-wing. Wilson placed Raymond B. Fosdick in charge of military camp morals. Bars and brothels anywhere near a base were summarily closed down and some 15,000 prostitutes interned in detention centers, i.e. concentration camps, until 1920.

3. The British and French had a different approach, supplying the troops with approved brothels for their amusement. Clemenceau's gesture of solidarity was to offer to set up brothels for the newly arrived Americans. When Secretary of War Baker heard of this, he was overheard to gasp, "For God's sake. . . don't show this to the president or he'll stop the war."

Sunday, April 10, 2005

High Cost of Gasoline

As you fork over more money for gas at the pump, here are some numbers to ponder. They relate directly to why gas costs more. (All from the May 2005, Atlantic Monthly)

1. U.S. troops in Iraq are consuming more than 1.7 million gallons of fuel a day.

2. Each of the ground soldiers requires nine gallons per day to keep all the electrical devices and vehicles going.

3. All the fuel as to be convoyed in, making them especially rich targets for insurgents. Convoys are getting more armored, but that leads to a need for more fuel because an armored vehicle weighs much more and requires much more fuel, which requires more tankers, which offer more targets, which requires more armor and support, etc., etc.

4. Fuel is crucial for modern warfare: Patton's Third Army had 400,000 troops and used about 400,000 gallons per day in his charge across France in 1944. He ran out of fuel and had to stop. Today's army uses four times that amount per soldier. Rommel was stymied in North Africa because his tanks ran out of fuel.

5. The Pentagon has purchased weapons with little regard to fuel efficiency; thus, today 70% of supplies that have to be moved to the front consists of fuel. The number used to be 30%. The M1 tank gets less than 1/3 mile to the gallon; the Bradley fighting vehicle, less than 2 mpg.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

If you offend easily don't read this

I am astonished by the hordes of people that have descended on Rome to view the Pope's body and funeral. I got to thinking how much more sense it would make to take his body on tour around the world. They could charge admission, give everyone a chance to see the body and perhaps recoup enough to pay all the fines and judgments awarded in the pedophilia scandals. Better yet they could chop him up into little pieces and charge admission to view the relics. What a deal!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sacrifce and Iraq

Speaking of sacrifice. I ran across an interview with Pratap Chatterjee, author of Iraq, Inc: A Profitable Occupation, on BookTV (Brian Lamb remains one of my icons; BookTV devotes 48 hours every week to non-fiction books and authors on C-Span2. Now if they would just start podcasting!)

Chatterjee and his organization run a couple of websites that keep track of war profiteering. Clearly, many companies in the U.S. have sacrificed nothing; quite the contrary. See:


Just for laughs and giggles, I began reading a Father Koesler mystery, written by Father William X. Kienzle. Not knowing what to expect, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a decent mystery along with a sensible elucidation of some of the myriad issues facing the Roman Catholic Church today.

This title explores the distinctions between the Anglican and Roman versions of religion. Father George Wheatley, a popular Anglican priest with several children has decided he wants to become consecrated in the Roman church.

This decision causes consternation among his family and friends not to mention the Anglican and Roman communities. It also provides a motive for murder. To name but a few: Wheatley's son, an Anglican priest with designs on a bishopric; his daughter deeply involved in a lesbian relationship; and a parishioner opposed to Vatican II changes to the liturgy. Unfortunately, the bomb that was intended for Father Wheatley during his re-ordination kills a visiting priest. Father Koesler and his friend Lieutenant Tully and former investigatory mate Inspector Walter Koznicki.

Kienzle provides several red herrings for the reader. As an atheist who finds religious myths and rituals fascinating, I enjoyed this book immensely.

Euthanasia sources

For a variety of opinions and serious discussion of euthanasia I recommend
Much as I dislike Bush, the misinterpretation of the bills he signed in Texas regarding removal of life-support systems has been unfair.

For a European view see (link)

Life and Death

The recent death of the pope and the battle for control of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube provide a contrast in values and an opportunity to discuss just what it means to be alive. The activists arguing against removal of the feeding tube, it seems to me, have a very limited view of what life is. They managed to turn the debate into a "rancid" exchange of words by distorting reality. Makes one wonder of some of them weren't in fact in a vegetative state. My heart goes out to both sides of the family, although some reports indicate that money, again, may have been at the root of their original falling out. Speaking of suffering...

The pope, who had made a fetish of suffering, (link) seemed to be hanging on as long as he could (although the conspiracy wags might argue that he really had died when it was so announced by Italian television necessitating the fiction of his consciousness until the Vatican powers could make a bunch of appointments in an effort to consolidate their power.) Given his penchant for using suffering as a validation of his faith, one wonders what all those people were praying for, that he suffer more? Makes one wonder if he really wondered where he was off to next.

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
Bertrand Russell

"'Pray,' verb: To ask that the laws of the universe be temporarily annulled for a single petitioner confessedly unworthy."
Ambrose Bierce

Friday, April 01, 2005

Tragic Loss

MWP: Larry Brown (1951-2004)

This is a tragic loss. I have been following Brown's writing over the years and enjoyed it immensely. I was first attracted to his firefighting memoir, On Fire, a collection of essays based on his experiences as a firefighter in Oxford Mississippi. That he died of a heart attack at 53 is perhaps not surprising given his predilection for alcohol and cigarettes, but it's a loss nevertheless.

The essays have less to do with firefighting than the camaraderie and good-'ole boy daily routines of the firemen who spend a lot of time just screwing around in between prying accident victims out of car crashes.

Read him; you won't be disappointed.