Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Keeping Warm

Dubya's latest bright idea is to use technology to cure energy woes.

Heh. It would have been nice if someone had stuck to that 25 years ago, but we all know how much the oil industry helped that idea along, don't we?

The wording of the headline makes me imagine a group of my fellow tech boom orphans huddled around a trash can, burning our stock options to stay warm.

Any Headline Saying "Drink Beer" is OK by Me

I had about overdosed on war, disaster, Tom Delay and Ahnold when up pops this:

LISBON (AFP) - Portuguese gym-goers are being urged to drink beer as part of a healthy diet in a campaign launched by the nation's main association of producers of the alcoholic beverage....

The fliers, which feature a smiling young woman jumping rope beside an image of a large glass of beer, point out that a 200 milliter (six fluid ounce) glass of beer has less calories than a quarter litre (quarter pint) cup of sugarless orange juice or a similar sized cup of a good source of magnesium and fibre and helps prevent diabetes, dementia, cholesterol and osteoporosi

Some of us have arrived at similar conclusions ourselves through assiduous research and experimentation. I admit I didn't know about the magnesium, but I sure feel less demented after a couple of quality beers. However, the quality of Portuguese beer is as much a mystery to me as it seems to be to many Portuguese.

Next, I want to see the smiling young woman jump rope and drink beer at the same time.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Doomsday: today, or maybe next week, or...

I became aware of this life after the oil crash site through Ryvr's blog: much obliged.

Oddly, one of the numerous omissions in a very lengthy presentation is much specific about life after the oil crash. The authors apparently so exhausted themselves that they didn't quite get around to that part. This site illustrates a couple of other things I’ve learnt in a long life:
  • Just as politicians should not do science, so scientists should not do politics.
  • Any science presented in the context of a socio-political agenda is not science.
Interesting that I found the Strategic Values Project site within a day or so of finding that life will cease with the demise of oil

First problem is the utter failure of doom and gloom scenarios to achieve anything useful. Anyone who starts a paper with “Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon” loses me and indeed most people.

The second group of problems are the innumerable flaws in the after the crash argument. To accept this argument, you must accept the premise that no gain in knowledge can be sustained independent of the use of petroleum. You must also accept an a priori pessimism that the species cannot adapt to drastic change.

Third, the political context the authors have so thoughtfully provided suggests a bias in favour of the hypothesis: the sort of bias that hands ammunition to the Right. Capitalism is evil, collectivism is good.
This bias is no improvement on conservative bias.

(Example: some years back I ran across Farley Mowat’s Sibir, a view of Siberia coloured, I suggest, by the collectivism is good mentality. Published in 1970, it describes development practises we now know to have been environmental nightmares, in glowing and positive terms.) I’m rather amazed that this embarrassing bit of propaganda is still in print.

The oil era began in 1859, and became a significant economic factor during the 1870s. The Industrial Revolution began a century earlier. The knowledge revolution began more than 400 years before that. Let’s consider a very few of the underpinnings of the modern world that existed before oil.

In communications: invention of moveable type, the spread of literacy, the existence and principle of electricity, applied to the telegraph, photography, universities, libraries and the resultant storage and transmission of extra-somatic information.

Hydropower, external combustion engines, advanced architecture, a wide range of metallurgy

In transport: canals, bridge building, railroads, measurement of longitude and successive breakthroughs in global navigation.

In medicine: anaesthesia, germ theory, and the start of the diagnostic and treatment revolution that continues to the present.

Another argument is that the combined discovery of cheap oil and internal combustion stopped development of other energy sources and technologies in their tracks. We cannot say where the following might now be if these two factors hadn’t blunted their development:

  • Wind powered mechanics. Even today’s windmills are held back by their reliance on a generator technology created with oil in mind. Large sailing vessels vastly more efficient than the square-riggers of old already exist, with no technological barrier to their general use.
  • Muscle powered mechanics. For example, when I was in grade school, we were taught that human-powered heavier-than-air flight was an impossible joke. It happened when I was 30. Had we not dropped human-powered development in favour of internal combustion, where might this technology be today?
  • External combustion has not improved substantially in more than a century, having been displaced by internal combustion.
  • Use of coal. The reputation of coal as a hazardous energy source is based less on its inherent qualities than on its inefficient use. This possibility seems lost on the West, but not on the Chinese. Not only has oil displaced coal technology development, it has closed most progressive minds to alternative possibilities.
Speculations and hypotheses, however high they be piled, are not the same as evidence verified by repeated (sometimes hostile) experiment. This latest Doomsday scenario is speculative. More, it relies upon a near-total ignorance of the history of science and technology, as well as an innate pessimism that gives even me pause.

Oil will cease to be the centrepiece of our economy over the next one to two centuries. If we are as incapable of adapting as these authors suggest, if the loss of an energy source obliges us to forget everything we learned in all the centuries before its discovery, then we do not deserve to survive.

The one worry this site gives me is that someone might take this drivel seriously.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Something under half a loaf

Yahoo tells us:

"Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed into law a bill that will afford same-sex couples in Connecticut many of the rights and privileges of married couples (emphasis added)...."

'"I have said all along that I believe in no discrimination of any kind and I think that this bill accomplishes that, while at the same time preserving the traditional language that a marriage is between a man and a woman," Rell said.'

You've come a long way, baby! In 2005, homophobia is an gender-neutral disorder, and political doublespeak fits as well (or ill) into the mouth of a female as a male governor. I can just image what she might have said a century ago whilst enacting Jim Crow laws.

Jane Pain Again

Let me offer heartfelt thanks to this Michael A. Smith, who did the spitting in the latest Jane Fonda incident. Thanks a lot, brother. For over thirty years, we've had to deal with the stereotyped image of the "crazy Vietnam veteran." I'm so happy that your arrested development and acting out has helped keep that stereotype alive for another few years.

Fonda seems to understand the main reason the hatred is so intense: Barbarella, a leading pin-up sex object of the war, betrayed the troops. She doesn't appear to label this sexism, though that seems very accurate to me. Unfortunately, few of the men still spewing venom in their 50s and 60s have the same level of insight. Nobody ever blames Nixon, who delayed the cease-fire for four months so he could bomb the crap out of Hanoi and look like a winner. I've never heard a word against Wilfred Burchett, the Australian correspondent who spent months with the Viet Cong.

Neither Nixon nor Burchett had great legs.

The conventional wisdom about Vietnam servicemen is that they were disproportionately from minority groups. That has been justly criticised as generalisation.What does separate that war from WWII is that the combat troops were typically younger and more frequently disadvantaged than in WWII. I think there was more political homogeneity, and that may be more important than the race card in understanding a 33 year grudge. The Second World War's draft made few exceptions. It swept up liberal, conservative, Socialist, Communist. It took gay and straight, boys of 19 and men of 35.
By contrast, the Vietnam era draft tended to absorb younger, less-educated men from socially conservative backgrounds. A substantial number of those left of centre stayed out. Too bad: there was an opportunity lost.

This unbalanced draft failed to provide the political and social leavening that WWII had. Young, conservative-minded men, led by usually conservative career soldiers, were easily frozen in place politically. Many of them had no real adult experience behind them, and no idea what they would do with their lives after the war. The WWII services were well populated with men who had made their own way in a rather harder world, and who had a civilian identity to return to.

Most of my peers remain 19 to 21 in a large part of their minds, and some of them still don't know what they're going to do when they grow up. Few of the haters care to recall that when Fonda went to Vietnam, Nixon's "Vietnamization" was already well under way, as were peace talks. Most of us were already home. She was taking part in a gesture made futile and absurd by the advance of events, not worthy of a lifetime of rage. It was Nixon, not Fonda, who prolonged the suffering of American POWs. He had it in his power to accept peace terms in October, 1972, that were identical to those he signed in January, 1973, but he had to have his grandstand bombing first. Apparently, it was also the Nixon administration that instantly appreciated the value of Jane Fonda as a diversionary figure, and applied the "Hanoi Jane" label. The wonderful conjunction of politically naive grunts and politically naive protestors has given us this lasting, polarising legacy.

Such immature vindictiveness, carefully nurtured by conservative interests, looks rather un-American when compared to our earlier history. By 1898, 33 years after Appomattox, a substantial number of surviving Confederate officers held public office in the restored U.S. national government. One, Joe Wheeler, served as a general in the Spanish-American War that year. In 1977, 32 years after VJ-Day, the U.S. government pardoned Iva Tuguri, known to the Pacific Theatre as "Tokyo Rose." Time was the nation was big enough not to hold a grudge, even when the stakes were far higher. We have diminished since.

Forgiveness and letting go of the dead past aren't things you do for the person you forgive. It's mainly something you do for yourself. Let it go, guys. Give yourself a little peace.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Benedict and his shady past

As a boy, I was fascinated by my father's most visible piece of WWII loot: a Hitler Youth knife. It was a Solingen blade in a self-sharpening sheath, wickedly sharp. He only used it to gut fish or game. I never asked about that singleness of purpose.

He did respond once to my question, "Who were the Hitler Youth? " Dad explained that at the end of the war, the Hitler Youth were sent out to infiltrate Allied lines, armed with these knives, that they were anywhere from 10 to 14 (that seemed old to me at the time) and that it was "kill or be killed" for GIs attacked by these fanatical boys.

Apparently, that wasn't the whole story.

Fast forward to the mid 1990s and a previous interval of education. One of my tech writing classmates was, among other things, a competent militaria collector. Since I was an antiques reporter at the time, we had common interests. In the spring of 1995, when the media were trumpeting the 50th anniversary of the freeing of the death camps, I was discussing with Bob what I knew of my Dad's role in Holocaust liberation. I mentioned in passing that he had a Hitler Youth knife, and Bob came to a full stop, looked at me strangely and said, "Do you know how those guys got those knives?"

I did not.

"They usually got them by having to kill the boy who was trying to kill them," he said. He explained that it was something of a recognised badge of survival. No soldier likes killing children...or so we hope. No soldier likes being killed, either.

Benedict XVI, nee Ratzinger, may remain God's Rottweiler, or theoretically he could be another John XXIII, achieving great things in a short time. I'll wait and see. In the meantime, let's be clear on one dimension of his past:

The Hitler Youth were not the fucking Cub Scouts.

The Mitchell Trio said a lot about Pope Benedict XVI:

Each and every German dances to the strain
Of the I-Was-Not-A-Nazi Polka.
All without exception, join in the refrain
Of the I-Was-Not-A-Nazi Polka.

Help! Does anyone have the complete lyrics ?

Enough Already!!

Once again, I have confirmation of two central tenets of my life beliefs:

1) The rest of the world's radicals are right to think organised American radicalism idiotic.
2) The dumbest act of organised American radicalism was to demonise, rather than enlist, the rank and file serving in the Vietnam war.

We continue to pay for this act of arrant imbecility.

The latest piece of over-compensation for the public's scorn of Vietnam service personnel is the "Fallen Heroes" Act. The act's objective is to increase the death benefit for those killed on active duty from the insulting to the barely adequate. Fine, I'm for that. I'd be even more enthusiastic if compensation for past slights extended to providing an adequate level of health benefits for veterans over 55, many of whom have no other resource. Alas, on that score I'm probably delusional.

While we're about it, can we please get over this compulsion to pin the label "hero" on nearly any animate object?

Shortly after the September 11 attack, The New York Times carried a story that described New York City firefighters in the WTC, who found a "foreign-looking" man in the fire escape, handcuffed him there, left him to die, and boasted about it to the reporter.

Were they heroes?

Was Pat Tillman, shot by friendly fire whilst apparently doing nothing in particular, a hero? Would anyone but a former NFL player be a hero under those circumstances? Would he still be a hero if he'd listened to his agent, pulled strings and jumped ship after doing his time?

John Kerry rightly pointed out that no one in uniform gets to choose the circumstances of their death, and that the sponsors of the act were attempting to draw unrealistic distinctions. Even in a war zone, circumstances vary. If your Hummer is blasted into fragments as you return from running commissary goods to your local black market contact, you're just as dead as if you were killed trying to pull wounded comrades out of danger in a firefight. According to today's overheated rhetoric, the dead in both cases are "fallen heroes," even though there's a difference in effort and emphasis that pundits, or even Senators, should appreciate.

Some of us have a higher standard.

35 years ago this month, I watched a Navy corpsman struggle back from the edge of death in a Philadelphia recovery room, minus half his intestines. It was an all-night battle, far from the war zone in distance, if not in time (he'd been wounded scarcely three days before). I nominate the duty intern, nurses and corpsmen who kept him going as heroes. I watched this same corpsman crawl out of his rack on a crowded, cruelly understaffed naval hospital ward, unable to stand upright, to add what he could to the healing, not three days later. I'm naive enough to think maybe that was heroic.

When I was young, the USSR used to make every factory worker who exceeded a quarterly quota a "Hero of the Soviet Union." We ridiculed that at the time, and we still should.

It's a good word, hero. It means something when we apply it to acts of exceptional courage and self-sacrifice. Suppose we stop throwing it around so carelessly? Senator Lieberman, the Senate's answer to Janus, seems to think that if we turn "hero" into an acronym, everything is fine.

Everything is not fine, Senator, as long as you contribute to the erosion of a something really valuable.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Hennery the Eighth I Ain't

My dysfunctional spiritual background includes a large dose of Anglicanism. Although the theological parts didn't take, the socio-political ones sure did.

I was bemused to read that our Evangelical Methodist Dubya had attended an Episcopal church in Washington to pray for the pope, and presumably other things. Why not a Catholic church, one wonders? And what about the home corral?

I was shocked to my foundations to read that the Episcopal rector had offered a prayer for "His Holiness, Pope John Paul II."


When I was young, and dutifully trotting through Episcopacy, The prayer would have been for "John Paul, Bishop of Rome." In Anglican doctrine, that is all the pope is.

Next, we learn that the Prime Minister of the U.K. will be the first of his office in history to attend a papal funeral. In past years, neither the British government nor monarchy has sent so much as a sympathy card to the Vatican on such occasions.

Holy F. Shit!

Then, as if the seismometer at Henry VIII's crypt wasn't active enough, we're told the Archbishop of Canterbury would also attend the funeral, and that the ill-starred prince Charles has postponed his wedding to Camilla by a day to avoid conflict with the obsequies.

Jesus H. Christ! What happened to the Reformation?

The Guardian comes to the rescue. OK, so it's a bit odd to find the Guardian as startled by this as I am. Editorially, they're microscopically to the right of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, regard Tony Blair as an apostate and seldom miss a chance to bash him.
The paper is encouraging amateur paparazzi to follow the PM around during the coming election for a contest amusingly called "The Blair Watch Project."

I digress. The Guardian suggestion is that this is one more symptom of a government that has lost its way. Guardian columnist Martin Kettle also points out a factor just as telling. For Blair, for Atkinson, for Dubya, this pope wasn't a religious figure so much as he was a celebrity. The significance, then, is the absolute insignificance of attending this funeral for any other reason than to be seen.

The Catholic Church has a very full plate in the coming years. Another schism--this one perhaps terminal-- is a real possibility. All this comes after 26 years of papal celebrity, during which the incumbent has defined the papal gimmick as conservative moral certitude. The Catholic Church has naively thrown in its lot with evangelical Protestants who may not wish Rome as well as Rome thinks. Still, these overtures have, in a perverse way, given the Church more primacy in matters of faith than it's had in 500 years. It follows that a schismatic Catholic church bodes ill for all Christianity. A little of that collegiality John Paul rejected would be useful to Christians just now.

Thoughtful cardinals sound as if they recognise the gravity of the church's situation. What they don't get is that the successor will inherit the celebrity and the schtick, and may be unable to do anything except be the world's moralist-in-chief: the media culture won't allow it.

PS: Just found a piece in that may strike a note with anyone who has either a mixed or purebred Catholic background. I don't know if it will look the same outside of that cultural context. I'm the mongrel type, and it sure got my attention.

PPS: Loved watching Bush pere et fils plus Bill Clinton kneeling at the papal bier. George Senior, the rock-ribbed Espiscopalian, knew to bow his head. Bill Clinton, master of the right gesture, bowed as well. Then there was Dubya, gazing absently at a spot somewhere south of the late pope's feet with his copyrighted "deer in the headlights" stare, perhaps trying to remember who this was and why he was there. It is a wonder they let this man out alone.