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Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
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Foundations of Bigotry?
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Journalism's Nuremberg?
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Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
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PHOTON COURIER
 
Thursday, November 27, 2003  
HAVE A TASTY THANKSGIVING

Edna St. Vincent Millay defends American cooking. (Courtesy of Sheila O'Malley, whose birthday is today.)

We read some of Millay's poems in high school, but nobody told us what a wild woman she was. I suspect that the poems would have been better appreciated had this been known....

9:50 AM

 
THANKSGIVING AND TEMPORAL BIGOTRY

Stuart Buck encountered a teacher who said "Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?" ("She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source", Stuart comments.)

She probably had read it in some supposedly-authoritative source, but it's an idiotic statement nevertheless. What, precisely, is this wonderful knowledge that high-school seniors have today and which the 40-year-olds of 1840 or 1900 were lacking?

The example of knowledge that people usually throw out is "computers." But the truth is, to be a casual user of computers (I'm not talking about programming and systems design), you don't need much knowledge. You need "keyboarding skills"--once called "typing." And you need to know some simple conventions as to how the operating system expects you to interact with it. That's about it. Not much informational or conceptual depth there.

Consider the knowledge possessed by by the Captain of a sailing merchant ship, circa 1840. He had to understand celestial navigation: this meant he had to understand trigonometry and logarithms. He had to possess the knowledge--mostly "tacit knowledge," rather than book-learning--of how to handle his ship in various winds and weathers. He might well be responsible for making deals concerning cargo in various ports, and hence had to have a reasonable understanding of business and of trade conditions. He had to have some knowledge of maritime law.

Outside of the strictly professional sphere, his knowedge probably depended on his family background. If he came from a family that was reasonably well-off, he probably knew several of Shakespeare's plays. He probably had a smattering of Latin and even Greek. Of how many high-school (or college) seniors can these statements be made today?

(In his post, Stuart compares knowledge levels using his grandfather--a farmer--as an example.)

Today's "progressives," particularly those in the educational field, seem to have a deep desire to put down previous generations, and to assume we have nothing to learn from them. It's a form of temporal bigotry, and is the direct opposite of the spirit of appreciation upon which we should be focusing particularly at Thanksgiving.

As C S Lewis said: If you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its neighboring units. If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from previous generations. (Approximate quote.)

How better to conduct such destruction than to tell people that previous generations were ignorant and that we have nothing to learn from them?

8:57 AM

Wednesday, November 26, 2003  
AN ESSAY ON LIBERALISM

Dean Esmay defends the spirit of liberalism, and the world "liberal" itself:

Look in any decent dictionary, and you will find the word "liberal," broadly defined, to mean that one is not limited to tradition, orthodoxy, or authoritarian attitudes, broad-minded, tolerant, generous, favoring of reform, and in favor of progress.

and

The important characteristic of the liberal is not his policy positions. It's how he arrived at those positions. It's about his open-mindedness. His willingness to do more than just argue for the sake of scoring points, winning for the sake of winning, or merely for the fun of having a good row. The liberal wants to find the truth, no matter where it leads him. If he encounters disagreement, the liberal wants to understand the other's position, with an open mind toward some exciting possibilities..

but

Many of our modern day so-called "liberals" are not liberals at all. They are actually quite conservative, quite reactionary in their views, working from the presumption that their worldview is axiomatically correct and that those who challenge it are, by nature, stupid, vile, evil, "party liners," etc.

A thoughtful piece, well worth reading.

8:07 AM

Tuesday, November 25, 2003  
ART, DISCOMFORT, AND DEHUMANIZATION

Brian Micklethwait writes:

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don't buy that. And I don't believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda.

Very astute point about the difference between making other people uncomfortable and making oneself uncomfortable. Those who make a religion of the first rarely seem to practice the second.

As to the broader question: is art supposed to make you feel uncomfortable?...I would say that great art may make you feel uncomfortable, but if the artist creates a work with the objective of making people uncomfortable, then he is unlikely to produce great (or even good) art.

Brian's post reminded me of an important essay "Against the Dehumanization of Art," by the novelist Mark Helprin (originally presented as a lecture in 1994.) Sample:

Art that imitates the rigor of science forgoes an infinite wealth of variables that pure nature, in its constancy and nobility, does not present, for if man is more limited in his capacities he is more interesting in his unpredictability. Art that accepts human limitations is empowered and enriched by the very discipline that the modernists ignore.

For example, the Hofburg and the Astrodome each are of immense volume, but the Hofburg is apportioned to human scale. Whereas the Astrodome makes its single point in a minute, you can wander for years in the Hofburg. This is because we are of a certain size. Certain proportions are right for us, while others are not. Modernism has forgotten this, forgotten that we cannot survive at certain temperatures, that we disintegrate at certain speeds, that we cannot fit in some spaces or fill others, that our understanding is tethered to our mortality, that part of what we call art is the tempering of ideas and notions by the facts of our existence and the existence of our limitations
.

and

Modernism is by necessity obsessed with form, much like a craftsman obsessed with his tools and materials. In my climbing days we used to call people like that “equipment weenies.” These days you can see it in fly-fishing, where not a few people go out once a year with $5,000-worth of equipment to catch (maybe) $5-worth of fish. What should have been the story of the man, the stream, and the fish becomes instead a romance between the man and his tools. In this century the same thing happened in art.

and finally

When I was in the army, many years ago, I was an infantryman, and in the course of what I saw, and did, and came to understand, I was broken. Sometime after I had returned to the United States and my life had resumed, I rounded a corner in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and saw a painting I had known all my life but which I had not until that moment been able to understand. This was Winslow Homer’s masterfully restrained portrait of a veteran returning to his fields. The generation touched by fire in the Civil War understood the great import of this painting, they knew why the veteran had his back turned to the painter, why he was alone, why he worked in utter quiet, why the light was so clear, the scene so tranquil. After years of war and destruction, they understood, and after having passed this painting for the first time as a man, so did I.

As if there had never been a Gettysburg, an Antietam, or a Chancellorsville, the light struck the soil and the wheat grew. The world was the same. The essential rules had not changed. Devastation had not triumphed. The veteran could return to his fields, and the answer to his tentativeness was that, as if by a miracle, they were now even richer than he had remembered them.


Read the whole thing.



5:30 PM

Monday, November 24, 2003  
CODE OF SILENCE

Everybody knows what happens to squealers. So, not surprisingly, the witnesses are reluctant to come forward. Those that do usually insist on remaining anonymous: no names, no pictures, disguised voices.

No, it's not an investigation into the mob. It's the New York City public schools.

As is generally known, life in the NYC schools is micromanaged by an elaborate set of contractual work rules. Eva Moskowitz, an NYC Councilwoman, has been holding hearings into this situation. In talking with teachers and principals, she has found that many will criticize the rules privately, but when asked to testify say things like: "I'm not that brave," "Are you kidding?" and "I might be blacklisted." (From today's Wall Street Journal)

There seems to be little chance of reforming this school system from within when this climate of intimidation exists--and when few within the system are willing to take the risks of speaking out.


9:04 PM

Saturday, November 22, 2003  
A CIVIL DIALOG

An Egyptian e-mails Meryl Yourish and politely challenges her support for Israel, asking several questions. She responds, courteously and forcefully. (here)

We need more of this kind of discussion, in which the effort is to convince rather than to denounce.

8:30 AM

Friday, November 21, 2003  
GIVE THIS MAN A MEDAL

Literally. I'm not speaking metaphorically here.

When people are injured and lose a lot of blood, their body temperature drops. This reduced temperature, in turn, reduces the effectiveness of blood clotting. It's a vicious circle, and can result in the patient's death. Blankets and warming lamps are used to raise the patient's temperature, and a special warming jacket, complete with small ducts for warm air distribution, is available. But the 28th Combat Support Hospital, in Iraq, had been waiting four months for these jackets to arrive. (Information from this article).

Enter Staff Sergeant Adam R. Irby. He put together the "Chief Cuddler," a device incorporating a cardboard box, plastic pipe, tape, and a hair dryer. He was assisted by Maj. Michael W. Greenly, the head nurse of the surgical facility. The Cuddler creates a micro-environment of about 105 degrees and will bring a patient from about 90 to 98.6 degrees in about three hours.

"It’s awesome and it works,” said Dr. (Capt.) Tracey Lyon. “It definitely has saved some lives.”

Tremendous credit is due to Sgt Irby for doing this on his own initiative, rather than just waiting for the "official solution" to arrive. “This guy is the epitome of any noncommissioned officer,” Greenly said. “His selfless service shows in his soldiers. It’s very obvious he is a soldier’s soldier.”

And the fact that Maj Greenly was happy to give Sgt Irby credit for this work..rather than grabbing the credit as many "leaders" would have attempted to do--says very good things about him, also.

We shouldn't lose sight, though, of the bad news--the fact that after four months, the hospital staff was still waiting for the warming jackets to arrive. Given America's financial strength and logistical capabilities, there just isn't any excuse for this kind of thing. We should be leveraging all of our capabilities to insure that the war on terrorism--in all of its aspects--has the material support which it needs. (Indeed, the material aspects should be the simplest aspects of this war.) But we've seen this kind of problem before; for example, in the delays in procuring baggage-scanning x-ray equipment (and even the training of baggage-sniffing dogs.)

President Bush should create the position of Director of Industrial Mobilization, with broad responsibility for identifying and eliminating bottlenecks. The individual selected to fill this position should be an experienced and widely-respected executive.

The political, psychological, and military aspects of the war on terrorism are very difficult. The material and logicstical challenges are also difficult, but we definitely know how to solve them. Let's get on with doing so.

(hat tip: Donald Sensing)






2:50 PM

 
CHECK IT OUT

Little Miss Attila has extraordinarily fine taste in weblog design.


9:01 AM

Thursday, November 20, 2003  
UNIVERSALISM AND PARTICULARISM

In a recent post on the social influence of telegraphy, I suggested that telecommunications technology, in general, tends to be an influence toward universalist ideas and away from particularist ones.

Here's a very interesting post by Judith Weiss on the tensions between universalism and particularism, with particular references to Judaism.

2:02 PM

Wednesday, November 19, 2003  
MASTER AND COMMANDER

Saw the movie the other day...reasonably good, in my opinion, though certainly not a great film. Worth seeing if you are interested in things nautical or historical.

The film did remind me of this quote:

For one thing this century will in after ages be considered to have done in a superb manner and one thing I think only. . . it will always be said of us, with unabated reverence, "They built ships of the line" . . . the ship of the line is [man’s] first work. Into that he has put as much of his human patience, common sense, forethought, experimental philosophy, self control, habits of order and obedience, thoroughly wrought handwork, defiance of brute elements, careless courage, careful patriotism, and calm expectation of the judgement of God, as can well be put into a space of 300 feet long by 80 broad. And I am thankful to have lived in an age when I could see this thing so done.

---John Ruskin, 1851

(Ships of the line were large sailing warships, considerably larger than the frigate which is the centerpiece of Master and Commander. Ruskin was a leading intellectual of his time: a prolific writer, artist, and art critic; a socialist and a founder of the movement to revive traditional crafts.)

In this quote, of course, Ruskin emphasizes the positive and does not mention some of the less-admirable social attributes that were also symbolized by a ship of the line. Still, it's a fine piece of writing.

5:15 PM

Tuesday, November 18, 2003  
MORE ABOUT MORSE

Like most people, my knowledge of Samuel Morse the man was limited to the fact that he was once a starving artist, and that he selected the words "What hath God wrought?" for the first telegraph message. A recent biography (see post below) shows that he was the possessor of some rather un-admirable political reviews. He was anti-immigrant and strongly anti-Catholic. He was a strong supporter of slavery, and supported the Confederate cause even after the beginning of the Civil War.

There's a fine historical irony here--because the telegraph contributed mightily to the defeat of the Confederate cause. Yes, the Confederates used telegraphy too--but the Union was able to combine instant telegraphic communications with their greatly-superior railroad capacity in order to conduct rapid troop movements on a vast scale.

And above the level of the battlefield, the telegraph contributed in other ways to the destruction of the social order that Morse preferred. Arguably, the telegraph contributed mightily to the developing perception (in pre-civil-war days) that the United States was truly one country, and that a resident of Maine had a valid reason to be concerned about affairs in Alabama.

And, at an even higher level, the telegraph and its technological descendents have contributed--and continue to contribute--to the advancement of a universalist world view, as opposed to the particularist worldview (race-geography-religion) which was evidently favored by Morse. Even today, the network known as the Internet--a lineal descendent of telegraphy--continues to drive this process.

2:18 PM

 
DOTS AND DASHES

There's a new biography out about Samuel Morse, the telegraphy pioneer (Lightning Man, by Kenneth Silverman). I haven't read the book yet, but from the reviews (there's one in the Sunday NYT), it sounds interesting. I was particularly struck by this quote, from an unnamed 19th-century journalist writing about the telegraph:

"This extraordinary discovery leaves...no elsewhere...it is all here."

Sounds very similar to many journalistic comments made just a few years ago, as the Internet began to come into common use.

8:05 AM

Monday, November 17, 2003  
SCHOOLING, INDIAN AND AMERICAN-STYLE

Private schools are proliferating in India (NYT, registration required). Even impoverished parents are spending scarce funds in a desperate effort to keep their kids out of the government schools. And the responses of the government school administrators sound very similar to many of their counterparts in the U.S. public school system. One guy "attributed the rush to private schools to a "mad race" reflecting parents' desire for status. "Our schools might not be sophisticated, but they are very rooted with village culture," he said."

Vouchers, anyone?


4:43 PM

 
HATING JEWS AND AMERICANS

Natan Sharansky has a long and important article on anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and the relationship between the two.

7:21 AM

Saturday, November 15, 2003  
EDUCATING FOR IGNORANCE

A correspondent at John Ray's site tells of returning to the university after working in industry. Here is one of the "facts" he learned:

I was told it was the invention of the steam engine that made it possible for England to ship its convicts to Australia and for England and the other colonial powers to establish empires.

This is, of course, nonsense. The steam engine was originally used for pumping water out of mines and (after improvement by James Watt) for driving mill machinery. Its initial applications aboard ship were limited by the fiendish appetite for coal possessed by early engines, and it was not until efficiencies were greatly improved that it became useful for long voyages.

The great age of colonial expansion had as its vehicle the sailing ship. Likewise, sailing vessels were used for the transportation of prisoners from England to Australia. This may not fit the neat conceptual model that someone was evidently trying to propound, but facts are inconvenient things.

I think we learned the rudiments of this history in the 6th grade. Now, you can't count on college professors to get it right.

UPDATE: Here's a great picture of the East Indiaman Edwin Fox, built in 1853. These ships were created specifically to support Britain's trade with its then-colony, India. This particular vessel also ran convicts to Australia in 1858.

Not a smokestack in sight.

ALSO...speaking of the Australian prison ships...there's an Irish ballad, Fields of Athenry, which tells the story of an Irishman being transported to Australia because he stole corn to feed his starving family. The Dropkick Murphys have a hauntingly beautiful version of this song on their album Blackout. Definitely worth buying the CD for.

11:32 AM

Friday, November 14, 2003  
SURVIVING ACADEMIC OPPRESSION

In my last post, I linked to a truly scary letter posted at Erin O'Connor's site. Now comes another letter at Erin's site, this one from a prof telling about his strategy for career survival in today's academic climate. To minimize the danger of false accusations, he records everything he says in every class. (The recordings are also available for students who've missed a class, or for the prof to review and critique his own performance--but it sounds pretty clear that a main reason for their existence is to provide evidence if that should ever be needed.)

This is all so very sad. It's the intellectual equivalent of living in a neighborhood with so much crime that one must wear a bulletproof vest at all times. When this is the atmosphere at our colleges, we are light-years away from any atmosphere of open intellectual inquiry and exchange.

9:41 PM

Thursday, November 13, 2003  
MORE ACADEMIC OPPRESSION

From a correspondent at Erin O'Connor's site comes this tale, straight out of Kafka. Truly horrifying.

2:49 PM

Tuesday, November 11, 2003  
VETERANS' DAY, 2003

There's a good roundup of Veterans' Day posts at Winds of Change; also some good links at Sheila O'Malley.

And I'm afraid my Veterans' Day post from last year is still relevant.


9:06 AM

Monday, November 10, 2003  
FACTORY WITHOUT WALLS

I am the very model of a modern manufacturer
I know the ways of optimizing all production factor-rrs
I build and buy components out in countries all around the world
And source the raw materials wherever deals are most preferred
I change the product mixes in a manner quick and tactical
My factory is global, why it's practically galactical


(with apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan)

The Wall Street Journal recently carried an interesting article on Maytag's manufacturing strategy for dishwashers. The motors come from China; the wiring harnesses come from Mexico; and the final assembly is done in the U.S. (at Jackson, Tenn). Why?

The motors are standardized and stable in design; hence, it there are relatively few problems associated with distance from the supply point. The wiring harnesses tend to differ from model to model, so it is important to make them fairly close to the point of assembly--so that model mix changes can be accommodated. And by doing final assembly in the U.S., Maytag can avoid shipping large heavy boxes across the oceans.

Interestingly, the Chinese appliance manufacturer Haier has opened a plant in the U.S. (in South Carolina). It's not clear how much this is motivated by manufacturing process issues vs by marketing (improved brand recognition in the U.S.), but here's a fascinating article about the plant in People's Daily. Along with justified pride, there's a fair amount of chest-thumping..as in:

on the afternoon of the National Day [4th of July] last year, an American workshop chief took the initiative to go to the factory to examine equipment and raw materials, making preparations for next day's production. "This simply could not occur in other American enterprises".

True enough that many American top managers are too removed from the production process...but it's ridiculous to say that this level of committment and attention to detail doesn't occur elsewhere in American industry.

The other interesting thing about Haier's strategy is that they work closely with large American retailers and have shown a willingness to customize their product with features requested by an individual retailer..as opposed to "this is the product, take it or leave it." This flexible strategy, of course, has significant implications for the way in which manufacturing is conducted.

9:36 AM

Sunday, November 09, 2003  
INTERESTING HISTORY

A mighty empire launches an unprecedented military campaign. It will patrol the globe to end a heinous and uncivilised form of behaviour. Financing this pre-emptive project demands great sacrifices. Old allies refuse to participate. The empire's lonely unilateral exercise drags on for decades, costing thousands of lives. Observers from Cuba to Moscow assume that this folly will bring down the empire.

This is from the always-interesting Amity Shlaes, writing in the Financial Times. She is talking about the British campaign to suppress the slave trade, which continued from 1807 through 1867--sixty years. The burden of this campaign was carried by the Royal Navy; some 5,000 British seamen lost their lives. It was nasty work: small-ship actions against men who knew that they faced the hangman if caught (by law, slave-trading was classed as piracy). Cannon, musket, and cutlass all played a part. And it was expensive--according to Shlaes, the cost of the campaign amounted to about 2 percent of national income each year.

Shlaes argues persuasively that there is a close analogy between this campaign and today's war on terrorism...in moral purpose, in diplomatic aspects, and in the nature of the combat involved. If you are a FT subscriber or have access to a good library, the article is well worth reading (FT, November 3 issue).


4:22 PM

 
KRISTALLNACHT

Today is the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht (which means "night of broken glass"). In addition to the widespread destruction of Jewish-owned stores, and the violent assaults on individual Jews, many synagogues were damaged and destroyed.

Here is a web side which features virtual reconstructions of German synagogues.

(Hat tip: Jeff Jarvis)


3:51 PM

Monday, November 03, 2003  
WORTH NOTING

In September, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production--8.5 million barrels a day for Russia vs 8.45 million bpd for Saudi Arabia. (from Barrons)

Russia's exports are much lower than those of Saudi, however, and significant additional pipeline construction will be necessary in order to get a major step-up in exports.

Nevertheless, a significant milestone.


5:39 PM

Saturday, November 01, 2003  
RISING ANTI-SEMITISM

In an important and chilling article, Foreign Policy writer Mark Strauss discusses how the increasing anti-Semitism of the Left is merging with the old-line anti-Semitism of the extreme right. You should read it, if you haven't already.

Strauss believes that much of this anti-Semitism is due to insecurities created by globalization. Maybe, but I'm not convinced. Who are the people wearing "t-shirts with the Star of David twisted into the Nazi swastika?" For the most part, I don't think that they are laid-off factory workers.

I think maybe the upsurge in anti-Semitism has to do, in part, with a different factor. Over the last couple of decades, we have produced millions of half-educated (why cover it up: uneducated) college graduates--some of them with advanced degrees of various kinds. These are people who have been told that "educationr is your ticket to a good career," but they have learned no skills that would be valued by an employer. They have the impression that their degree makes them somehow wiser--and even, better human beings--than less-educated people, and that they have more of a right to determine national policy--but they know little or nothing about history, geography, economics, philosophy. Their education, which in many cases represents (in their own minds) their largest accomplishment in life, is not valued by others as they expected it to be.

Take people who have (a) a feeling of entitlement, (b) a feeling of superiority, (c) a feeling of resentment, all combined with (d) an invincible ignorance, and you have a volatile political class. Resentment and anti-Semitism have always been close cousins.

Call them the "educated uneducated." I'm not saying that the proliferation of such people is the sole explanation for the rise in anti-Semitism, but surely it is a factor.

7:37 PM

 
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