Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Pessimism scale

One test of whether you're an optimist or a pessimist just occurred to me; in skimming the headline
do you insert a space ? I did.


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Self-hating Nerd s

Tom Clancy, covering all bases, has a series called Netforce, about government antiterrorist hackers; about which the only remotely interesting thing is how one can write many books about hacking without the slightest interest in any aspect of computing, IT, or hacking. The hackers locate the villain (by such high-tech strategems as reading the carpark signout sheet) and from then on it's all shootout. The authors can drool for pages over the "medusa... three-inch, match-grade, one-in-nine twist barrel, 8620 steel, heat-treated to 28 Rockwell....." (it's a gun) but they really can't face the thought of a keyboard; any hacking that really has to be done is translated into VR so that that, too, can be conducted in Navy Seal mode -
"The back door was made of unpainted wooden planks, crude, but solid. He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a skeleton key. In reality, the key was a password provided by Dr. Morrison... The spring lock clicked open. Michaels quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind him."

It's like reading porn written by Cardinal Newman.


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

War crimes in the second degree.

The New York Times reporting on Fallujah surely constitutes war crimes in the second degree. When the paper says

"Military commanders point to several accomplishments in Falluja. A bastion of resistance has been eliminated, with lower than expected American military and Iraqi civilian casualties. Senior military officials say up to 1,600 insurgents have been killed and hundreds more captured, altogether more than half the number they estimated were in the city when the campaign began.

The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties."

- how can any reporter not ask "OK, how many civilian casualities were there?" and "How many did you expect?" and "How do/did you know?"

It's not as if it's information liable to aid the enemy. except insofar as it constitutes 'a propaganda weapon for the militants'. Which is why they don't give it; which does at least make clear that it's not wrong or misleading reports of civilian casualties that justifies closing the hospital, it's any reports at all.

It's a war crime to fire on a hospital. It's a war crime to close a hospital. and it should be a war crime to justify soldiers taking these actions. Which are, in effect, that anything with a red crescent on it is an enemy propaganda unit.

And when the paper says

"Our experience is that, after battles in which they lose many fighters, the insurgents require some days to gather, treat their wounded and try to figure out what to do next," Brig. Gen. Carter Ham ... said Sunday in an e-mail message. "Our job is to work to not let them rest and to not allow them time to reset."

"It seemed clear that any further resistance would have to come from smaller bands of rebels rather than from a coherent fighting force."

- any decent reporter would have asked "What evidence did you have that they ever were a coherent fighting force? What evidence is there that the insurgents in Mosul are the same insurgents as those in Fallujah?" The Americans still expect to fight something with a command structure, rather than something much more like that old American film (loosely based on Xenophon) - The Wanderers? Something with 'the' in it - where a hundred street gangs came together. Look at them on Al-Jazeerah - they're kids who've learned their tactics from Shwartzenegger movies where the hero leaps out with a machine gun and mows down better-armed and better-armoured enemies without any difficulty, which is why they're so easy to kill.

And then, do the math.

"The searches have turned up large caches of weaponry like artillery shells and mortar rounds along with electronics for bombs and mujahedeen literature. Fearing booby traps, the troops generally entered the houses only after tanks rammed through walls or specialists put explosive charges on doors."

250,000 people in Fj, say 5,000 households and 1,000 businesses, 15,000 doors - and how many of them have been blown in? 500? a thousand? How can they search the place without demolishing every house? Or is that the plan? "We had to destroy...."

Similarly, the military say they've killed 1600 of the 3000 resistance fighters. Does this mean they'll end up with 1400 in custody? How many have they captured to date?

The stories are factually impossible, internally inconsistent, and amoral, and by reporting them cold the Times is complicit.

Friday, October 29, 2004

The start of a long war

I'm shocked and astonished at how little the world seems to fear the blowup in southern Thailand. As someone who can remember how the Sri Lankan war began, this seems to presage a fierce war, and one that will drag in Malaysia, and increase its national touchiness, and lead to worse relations with Singapore, and send ASEAN down in flames, and start another arc of instability between the moslem world and the Chinese hegemony. Shinawath seems to be as clueless as bush, and there really is no good news.


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Commonplace Book

O MEMORY! that which I gave thee
To guard in thy garner yestreen –
Little deeming thou e’er could’st behave thee
Thus basely – hath gone from thee clean!
Gone, fled, as ere autumn is ended
The yellow leaves flee from the oak –
I have lost it for ever, my splendid
Original joke.

What was it? I know I was brushing
My hair when the notion occurred:
I know that I felt myself blushing
As I thought, “How supremely absurd!
How they’ll hammer on floor and on table
As its drollery dawns on them – how
They will quote it ”– I wish I were able
To quote it just now.

I had thought to lead up conversation
To the subject – it ’s easily done –
Then let off, as an airy creation
Of the moment, that masterly pun.
Let it off, with a flash like a rocket’s;
In the midst of a dazzled conclave,
Where I sat, with my hands in my pockets,
The only one grave.

I had fancied young Titterton’s chuckles,
And old Bottleby’s hearty guffaws
As he drove at my ribs with his knuckles,
His mode of expressing applause;
While Jean Bottleby – queenly Miss Janet –
Drew her handkerchief hastily out,
In fits at my slyness – what can it
Have all been about?

I know ’twas the happiest, quaintest
Combination of pathos and fun:
But I’ve got no idea – not the faintest –
Of what was the actual pun.
I think it was somehow connected
With something I’d recently read –
Or heard – or perhaps recollected
On going to bed.

What had I been reading? The Standard:
“Double Bigamy;” “Speech of the Mayor.”
And later – eh? yes! I meandered
Through some chapters of Vanity Fair.
How it fuses the grave with the festive!
Yet e’en there, there is nothing so fine –
So playfully, subtly suggestive –
As that joke of mine.

Did it hinge upon “parting asunder?”
No, I don’t part my hair with my brush.
Was the point of it “hair ”? Now I wonder!
Stop a bit – I shall think of it – hush!
There 's hare, a wild animal – Stuff!
It was something a deal more recondite:
Of that I am certain enough;
And of nothing beyond it.

Hair – locks! There are probably many
Good things to be said about those.
Give me time – that’s the best guess of any –
“Lock” has several meanings, one knows.
Iron locks – iron-gray locks – a “ deadlock ”–
That would set up an everyday wit:
Then of course there’s the obvious “wedlock;”
But that wasn’t it.

No! mine was a joke for the ages;
Full of intricate meaning and pith;
A feast for your scholars and sages –
How it would have rejoiced Sidney Smith!
‘Tis such thoughts that ennoble a mortal;
And, singling him out from the herd,
Fling wide immortality’s portal –
But what was the word?

Ah me! ’tis a bootless endeavour.
As the flight of a bird of the air
Is the flight of a joke – you will never
Find the same one again, you may swear.
‘Twas my firstborn, and O how I prized it!
My darling, my treasure, my own!
My brain and none other devised it –
And now it has flown.
C.S. Calverley


Friday, September 24, 2004

Laughter; the best medicine

My grandfather had lost an arm in the war, and later ran for state parliament for the Country party.

During the campaign he was taking a train trip with my uncle Bill, who was then about fifteen. Settled in their carrage for the journey, grandfather got his pipe out of his pocket, then the plug of tobacco, than the knife to shave tobacco off the plug, and then the matches, and put them on the seat next to him.

He picked up the tobacco, and then put it down and picked up the knife, and then put down the knife helplessly and picked up the pipe, at which point a man sitting opposite leapt up and said "Here, let me help you." and quickly cut off a few strands, packed the pipe, passed it back to my grandfather, and lit it for him.

"Why, thank you," said grandfather gratefully, and the conversation moved off on to the state of the crops.

As soon as they got off the train Uncle Bill asked"What was all that about, Dad? You don't need help with your pipe. I've seen you do all that one-handed on horseback in a thunderstorm."

"My boy," grandfather said, tucking his pipe back into his pocket, "Once let a man do you a favour, and he is yours for life."

He won the election.


Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Mind you, there are some things to be said in favour of George Bush. Given that he's an imperialist religious maniac, just think of the state the world would be in if he was all that and efficient with it. It's not inconceivable that a slightly smarter president might have succeeded in the Iraq adventure and given America confidence that it could do whatever the hell it wanted to, which would really have been cause for general panic. If you're in a small pub with a mean drunk, you want it to be someone who falls over a lot.

And on the Statute of Limitations thing, I was in Ireland a couple of years ago for a conference and we were given a reception just out of Dublin at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, a marvellous seventeenth-century pile. Taking a flute of champagne from the waiter, I remarked to him "Nice place you've got here."

He replied "It's not ours. They built it."

He could, I suppose, have meant it the way Lenin did in London when he was pointing out to a friend "This is their British Museum" and "This is their houses of parliament," meaning by 'them' not the English but the capitalists, but I tend to doubt it.



A piece from the American Air Force Times comes up in my google alerts;

"Charity: Consider a good cause
By Regina GalvinSpecial to the Times
If your idea of charity starting at home means diverting all your contributions to the “Me, Myself and I” fund, you might want to skip ahead to the next entry. If you are a bit more charitable than that, read on.....
Last but far from least, consider creating a charitable fund. Was a member of your unit permanently disabled or killed in action? Imagine if 100 members of your unit gave 1 percent of the $25,000 toward a fund established to help a fallen or disabled buddy. Your $250 could go toward a scholarship for his children, financial assistance for the surviving spouse or a wheelchair-accessible renovation for the home.
The military has always been known for taking care of its own; when you give from the heart, you will be richer for it. "

Alternatively, you might consider moving to a country like Australia where everything on that list is provided by the government without question as of right for all who need it.

*Though I don't remember any member of the air force getting killed in Iraq anyway.


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

English names

Yes, there it is again, that absolute tin ear Americans have for English names. In a crap Christian thriller called "A man called blessed" about a search for the Ark of the Covenant (I say crap - it's better written than the Da Vinci Code, but then so is the label on my Thai packet of Peculiar Flavour Broad Beans) and one of the McGuffins is a letter from a crusading templar who found the ark had moved to Ethiopia at some vaguely given date approximately 800 years ago. It begins "I, Sir Wallace Thronburge III...."

'Sir' goes only with a given name.

'Wallace' is a surname, and people then didn't use surnames as first names.

'Thronburge' is one of the very few collections of letters that doesn't appear on Google and has never been used as a name by anybody (actually, that could be unfair; it's probably a misreading of misprint for Thornburge, which does exist).

And that 'III'... Mencken notes: "The use of 2nd, 3rd, etc., is marked as an Americanism by the DAE and traced to 1804. At the start 2nd seemed to have been only a substitute for Jr., but now it often indicates, not the son, but the grandson or nephew of the first bearer of the name. The use of the Roman numerals II, III, etc., came much later. It is frowned upon in England as an invasion of Royal prerogative..." Not that the royals numbered themselves till a good deal later than 800 years ago.

Even some good writers, though, have the same tin ear; "Lord John Marbury" in West Wing still rankles. CJ says he's the 'hereditary Earl Of Shelbourne' , making him Lord Shelbourne and not Lord Marbury.

What is it about Americans and English names?


Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Silent treatment

You have to admire the delicate wit whereby US News and World Report has accompanied its story on Bush evading his National Guard obligations with a picture of a girl captioned
Silent treatment, n. (1) adolescent act of defiance. (2) denial of drug and alcohol problems.

And, flipping back to the page, I see it's been replaced by another anti-drug ad -
What if I can't handle the truth?
What if it's worse than I thought?

Pure gold.


Monday, September 13, 2004

Not angry, just very, very sad

Disillusionment! For just about the first time Google has let me down. Watching a program last night dramatising Stephen Hawking's early life, I was of course shouting "Nonsense!" and "Horsefeathers!" whenever Penzias and Wilson came on to say that they'd discovered the background microwave radiation proving the Big Bang, knowing, as do all we skeptics, that it was discovered by their research assistant. I called up Google to verify the fact to a sceptical Rose, and it didn't say anything about it! I'm truly shocked.

Oh well, let's look in the book at Amazon.


Friday, September 03, 2004


Apparently gave a good speech at the RNC on how America is the land of opportunity where anyone can rise to the heights as he did.

Mind you, one of my favourite quotes has always been that one from pumping iron where Arn is reflecting on tactics; (from memory) "The great thing about being champion is that the up-and-coming triers look up to me, and they come to me for advice about how to compete. And I give them bad advices...."

He's rich, he's powerful, and he doesn't want company.


Lincoln, not even

Bugger, I was misled by William Saletan. Steele mentioned Lincoln, and quoted from the fake text, but didn't actually attribute the one to the other. Steele didn't actually cite the Rev. William J. H. Boetcker, but that's a pecadillo.


Lincoln, not.

Americans are tone deaf. At the Republican National Congress the (black) lt-governor of Maryland gave a speech in which he quoted Lincoln -
"You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift," Steele said, quoting Abraham Lincoln. "You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. ... You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and incentive. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they should do for themselves." The delegates responded with a furious ovation.

I haven't seen any of the blogs, let alone the press, mention that this isn't Lincoln at all, and I can't see why anyone would have thought it was. Lincoln was one of the finest prose stylists in the history of America. This sounds like Calvin Coolidge.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Leave in type

You spend a great deal of ink about the character of the present prime minister. Grant you all that you write--I say, I fear he will ruin Ireland, and pursue a line of policy destructive to the true interest of his country: and then you tell me, he is faithful to Mrs. Perceval, and kind to the Master Percevals! These are, undoubtedly, the first qualifications to be looked to in a time of the most serious public danger; but somehow or another (if public and private virtues must always be incompatible), I should prefer that he destroyed the domestic happiness of Wood or Cockell, owed for the veal of the preceding year, whipped his boys, and saved his country.

Sydney Smith


Dates and times

Howard (and Henderson) say that before the war, everybody thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The trouble with this formulation is that it covers many years and many different periods. There was a time when everyone thought Saddam Hussein had WMD, and he did: that period ended when he was disarmed after the First Gulf War. There was a time when it was reasonable to think that Saddam Hussein might have WMD, even though he didn’t: that period ended when the UN inspectors were readmitted in November 2002. And then there’s the date that really counts; March 18, 2003, when the government's decision to commit the Australian Defence Force to Coalition operations in Iraq was announced; and at that time the UN inspectors had shown that Saddam didn’t have WMD and that any person who still said he did was lying. “Before the war” is a red herring. Let’s focus on March 18.


Monday, August 16, 2004

Commonplace book

Faint heart never fucked the pig

Philip Larkin
(from The Letters of )

Eleven years ago

Out With The Old, and Let’s Not Be In Any Hurry To Admit the New (just for the record)

Christmas, birthday, new year; anniversaries whose only value to the bitter and twisted
Is to enable the year’s disappointments to be listed
As an aid to prospective parents deciding this is no world to bring a child in to
However ineffective this propaganda has in the past been (and yes, Toz, Kath, Janet, and Prudence, we’re looking at you).

Rose has finished her book on facilitated communication training to be published in January by Columbia University (Teacher’s College Press)
Which she sees as inadequate compensation for DEAL being defunded by Kennett and having its approaches to Howe for alternatives meeting with no success;
Anne has been hounded into conformity with the pretentious and enervated shibboleths of academic self-congratulation
To the point of finishing her degree and facing graduation;
Chris kept on with occasional research and report work for VicHealth
Leading him to VicWisdom but unfortunately not VicWealth;
The cat was rushed trembling in a carrybag to the vet to be treated for a damaged paw,
And the house itself suffered severely from prolapse of the bathroom floor.

Still, I couldn’t say it was all bad (with my memory, there may have been wonderful things happen that I can’t remember)
And I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead year, and it is already December,
And so we hope you all finish 1993 in a manner appropriate alike to the optimistic and the bitter and twisted
By getting thoroughly pissted.

Chris BorthwickDecember 8, 1993

Friday, August 13, 2004

Commonplace Book


Ballymackleduff, Derryfubble, Benburb – Address of subscriber in Northern Ireland Telephone Directory

Oh, the world was full of grievin’, an’ when I’d had enough
I packed me bag and set me face towards Ballymackleduff;
White houses nestle there, all far from toil an’ trouble
(0 the lough an’ the sea birds, an’ sweet Derryfubble!).
I thought me heart would melt for joy, an’ nothin’ might disturb
The peace that I’d be findin’ in beautiful Benburb.

O, the friends of me youth was there to make me comin’ merry,
First I drank with Mick the Tanner just a mile from Fubblederry
An’ Roaring Pat was waitin’ in the bar at Mackleben.
‘Begod,’ says he, ‘have one with me’; three jolly Irish men
With all the pints o’ porter, the gossip an’ the cackle.
’Twas dancin’ in the road we was that goes to Berrymackle.

Then up spake Mick the Tanner that was born in Fubblemack:
‘The boys at Ballyfubble will be glad to see ye back –
Let’s be goin’ to O’Reilly’s, where the Fiddler of Benbally
An’ the Fubblederry Fluter is in his Dancin’ Palais
An' the girls from Ferrymackle an’ from Bubblefurbyduff
Is doin’ all the jiggin’ an’ the rock-an’-rollin’ stuff.’

Ah, hadn’t we the time at all at Glubbymacklederry
With all the folk from Grabble an’ from Ballygubble ferry
An’ Mackledubblegurgle, an’ Blubberderryglen
An’ the lasses from Dubmackle, an’ the rantin’ Burble men,

The Squintin’ Men from Brackle, an’ Mrs Tom Macnally

An’ the seven black-haired sisters that live over in Duffbally.

An’ wilder came the music from the Fubblederry Flute
An’ Mick was drinking Guinness from the Widow Leary’s boot

An’ Roarin’ Pat was fightin’ with a man from Derryburble

That laid him out and wrote a sign that said DO NOT DISTURBLE.

Oh, shut was all the factories, and open all the bars,
There was laughter in the lamplight and kissin’ by the stars,

Delight in Derryfubble; and Benburb was full of song;
Ah, Ballymackleduff! Why did I stay away so long?

Paul Jennings


Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Management; see Power, above

Another underestimated factor in management theory is the asymmetrical relationship between the stuffup and the fuckup.  In politics - and that includes the politics of the company as well as the politics of government - a stuffup is my problem, a total fuckup is everybody's problem.  This means that if one realises that one has been responsible for a stuffup (a gross and unconcealable blunder with expensive consequences) and one is due for a severe reprimand then the correct strategy is to double up in the hope of creating a fuckup (a hideously embarrassing disaster with extensive ramifications) that will present your bosses with the choice of (a) publicly admitting a systemic failure or (b) defending you and denying that anything went wrong at all. Which is no choice at all and gets you off the hook neatly.  I've never had the courage myself, but I've known lots of bosses who did.


Friday, July 23, 2004

Australia's Funniest Home Videos -Runaway winner

The death of a baby girl killed by her teenage mother's dog moments after birth was a tragedy without blame, a coroner has found.

Coroner Phil Byrne found the 14-year-old mother did not know she was pregnant before giving birth in the backyard of her Ballarat home early on May 11 last year.

The girl told police she felt the dog, Rex, grab something from between her legs as she lay on the ground suffering severe stomach pain, the Victorian Coroner's Court heard.
She said she later picked up an unidentified "wet item" and left it in a disused fridge.


Thursday, July 08, 2004

Commonplace book link

Some more of Housman's light verse at Dr. Weevil.


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

And another thing

Possibly the most irritating thing (a tough call, certainly) about the Da Vinci Code is its assumption that you can change one thing and have everything else be as it was.

Jesus was said to have died on the cross and risen from the dead(from quite early on, well before Constantine: "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain - 1 Cor. 15") and a religion was founded on it, and while it's flagging a little now it's had quite a good run. Brown has the idea that you can have an alternative religion waiting in the wings that's founded on a tradition of Jesus not dying on the cross or rising from anything and not in fact claiming to be god. Which is surely a non-event, either as a ripping yarn or as a theology.

If Jesus was no more than a shithot teacher, why would his descendants been revered? Why would anybody give a fuck about whether Sophie is a descendant of Jesus or not? The sons of famous rabbis and famous ayatollahs get respect only if they take up the family stall in the same business; if they go into government service they can't also claim the allegiance of the synagogue or mosque, depending. And we have lots of descendants of Mohammed and Confucius,and while it's certainly a feather in one's turban or a coral button on one's little cap it's not really something that has people adopting them as rulers without other factors intervening (such as, in the case of prominent blood-of-Mohammed and blood-of-David and blood-of-the Merovingians descendant Elizabeth II & I, being the niece of the oldest son of her grandfather).

Why would we be interested in the opinions of a pretender to the throne of Jerusalem? or even to a pretender to the conjoint crowns of Jerusalem and France, seeing that both jurisdictions have decided to go republican? Would Robespierre and Danton have come to a different decision if they'd believed that Louis was the descendant of Christ, or if there was a Merovingian candidate? Come to that, would Charles Martel have come to a different decision about kicking the Merovingians off the throne if he'd thought they were of Christ's blood (diluted, to be sure, by one hundred and eighty trillion over the course of seventy generations)? Hardly.

Taking everything that Brown says as gospel, the notable thing about the secret doctrine and the secret line is that it lost every fight at every point. Constantine ditched it, the Merovingians lost their throne to the hired help, the Templars were wiped out - from a social Darwinian point of view the secret doctrine seems a peculiarly ill-adapted meme.


The fuck word

Christopher Hitchen's piece on 'Fuck off' as a product of the British Empire moves me to add my own favourite - "rearrange these letters into a well-known word or phrase: OFF FUCK"
And for the record I suppose I should enter on the internet the subtle distinction made in the song title of Australian band TISM "I may be a cunt, but I'm not a fucking cunt."


Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Disney version

Another hairball in my throat throughout The Da Vinci Code was the secret doctrine thing. I know that this is one of the tropes in the Lost Treasures genre (Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, etc)- the cult that tends the lost temple through untold aeons and murders anybody who defiles it (and I've always had a bit of a problem working out what was in it for them, too) but there at least the secret McGuffin is supposed to be hidden.

In DVC you have the situation where there are the four people who know the big secret [Cocteau could keep a secret? Excuse me! That man never had an unexpressed thought] as to where the bodies are buried and where the last will and testament of Jesus is, yes, but there are also other people who are part of the movement, people like Shakespeare and Walt Disney, but not one of the four.

Skipping over for the moment the lack of fit between the work Shakespeare and Disney produced and the worship of the eternal feminine, the question that arises is where did they get it from? Was, in other words, a text of some kind involved, or was all this handed down orally since 75 AD? Or was there a crib of some sort? Even masons can't remember their funny walks without cribs.

Did the eternal femininists have heresies? Hierarchies? Hieresiarchs? No, that's the detested male way. Then how did they manage to agree what to tell Shakespeare? To put it another way, was the repressive Catholic church suppressing greenery-yallery ideas generally or an organised (in some way) movement? As it has ritual sex ceremonies, it's presumably a movement;what does the movement believe, and how does it remember the details of its rituals? How does it choose, for example, its Priors? How have they got through two millennia without so much as a songbook in writing? And if it's in writing, or even if it isn't written but is recited like Homer or Farenheit 415, shouldn't it be the secret? If you were a christian and had the choice of saving the last existing copy of the new testament or a box of holy relics, wouldn't you choose the text?

If you were of the inner circle, no problem; you're summoned to a deathbed and told "Mary Mag is buried under the Louvre and the Merovingians are descendants of Christ, keep it a secret until you're near death and then pass it on with the same condition" - simple enough to remember. But having enough of a doctrine to be able to sell Walt on it, without telling him the big secret - that's another matter (though I suppose they might just have told him it was anti-communist).


Friday, July 02, 2004

The freedom shtick

In his greatest speech Martin Luther King said “Let freedom ring”. With his pitch-perfect instinct for the stuffup, George Bush greeted the news of the handover in Iraq with the words “Let freedom reign”. Freedom can ring, but it can’t reign. Reigning is what monarchs like King Saud do; what democracies do is govern. The mistake may have been due to Bush’s congenital inability to remember three consecutive words correctly, but given his leanings to autocracy it might also have been a Freudian slip.


Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Sir Leigh

It's a tough choice, but the low point of the Da Vinci Code just has to be the portrayal of Sir Leigh Teabing. At the outset Brown manages the quite difficult feat of finding a surname that has not only never existed in a thousand years of English surnames but appears unprecedented, even impossible, in any language. He then goes on, with the American tin ear for English status, to describe Teabing's home - "an exquisitely [well, that's just poor writing] adorned [ditto] drawing room, softly lit by tassel-draped Victorian lamps. The air inside smelt antediluvian [which Brown vaguely thinks means 'old' - Victorian, even], regal somehow, with traces of pipe tobacco, tea leaves, cooking sherry, and the earthen aroma of stone architecture. Against the far wall, flanked between two glistening suits of chain mail armour [incidentally, the preferred usage is 'chain mail'; mail armour' is redundant], was a rough-hewn fireplace large enough to roast an ox."

The crowning touch, though, has to be that 'cooking sherry'. Sir Leigh is a millionare, has pretensions to being an aristocrat, and he drinks COOKING SHERRY? There was once actually a kind of sherry that was labelled cooking sherry - it had salt in it, and the idea was to stop the servants glugging it down on the sly - but the term's now used to describe cheap sherry that's undrinkable except when masked by gravy. Not, on the whole, the preferred tipple of the upper crust.
It's all of a piece; Brown works on the basis of degraded memories of past stereotypes, conjuring a vague fog of associations that give a comforting background hum and the illusion of scenepainting.


Friday, June 25, 2004

Don Marquis

I said some while ago, somewhat repetitiously,
"Saw this in an anthology yearss ago and have since tried without success to find Marquis's other non-archy verse, but without success."
I hadn't tried very hard; it I had I would have found
For which much thanks.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Da Vinci Coding Error

I know that airport thrillers aren't held to a very high standard, but the Da Vinci Code is surely crappily written even for that. The first sentence - no, the first two words - no, the first word marks it as a clunker.
"Renowned curator...'
'Renowned' is a purely public word, used in obituaries and public speeches but never in interpersonal interaction. Its noun, 'renown'is now confined absolutely to historical romances. The word itself is used when the user wants to say 'famous' but dimly realises that this would be an obviously laughable exaggeration, and so picks a word that has less content but the same aura.
And "Renowned curator" is a particular example of a persistent weirdness about the book; the people involved are academic wet dreams, people who are celebrities for their work in obscure learned journals. Indiana Jones has a lot to answer for.


No, my memory failed me. Eisenstein was squashed when II was finished but before it was released and before shooting for III started - and died soon after, so couldn't have finished III anyway. But then, surely Stalin must have seen the II script before shooting? How did it get as far as it did if he didn't like it? Different faces for different times, I suppose; what was appropriate for a wartime leader wasn't right for a peacetime tyrant.

Stalinist Art

Looking at Eisenstein's script for Ivan the Terrible III. Great opera, certainly. But, like I and II, defending, hymning, the indefensible. "He shines transcendentally through all the blood he spills... He soars like God above a sea of blood; out of this blood he is founding a new cause;he is creating the Russian state."
As Ivan accuses his crony the oprichnik Basmanov of corruption, and then orders Basmanov's son to kill him, and on the son reentering the hall sees in his eye that Basmanov has corrupted him and orders him killed too...
Eisenstein must have thought, particularly after he'd got away with II, that this was the sort of thing Stalin wanted to hear; but no, he didn't want to be told that his atrocious cruelty was justified, he wanted to be told that he was a kindly old uncle and that all of these stories about seas of blood were libels. So we never got III, which is a tragedy.
Still, if anyone is worrying about antisemitism in Wagner's Ring, there's a much worse moral crux involved in liking and admiring Ivan. It's as if Wagner had made an oratorio out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Which, incidentally, badly needs a revamp; the existing prints/videos/DVD's are really crappy.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Anime Mary

Jasus, Joseph, Mary and Fook, as the Irish say.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Commonplace Book

On the Imprint of the First English Edition of The Works of Max Beerbohm

'London; John Lane, the Bodley Head
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons'
This plain announcement, nicely read,
Iambically runs.


At the recent Communities in Control conference at least one interesting suggestion was launched; that the rise in cynicism about and alientation from politics is linked to the rise in self-esteem among the general population. If I am terrific, and I am still not achieving my aims, then it must follow that merit is not important in modern life, and that illegitimate elements are polluting the division of rewards; and that means that the system stinks. Interesting, because there seems no real stopping-point to the process short of Somalia.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Commonplace Book

I sometimes think that I will
Quit going to dinner parties...
Why, oh why, did I get the notion last evening
That Mrs. Simpson's face was a slot machine
And that the macaroons were pennies?
Why, oh why, did I take her by the ears and shake her head
Back and forth when no chewing-gum
Dropped out of her double chin? Damn you, Mrs. Simpson, I said to her,
Shoving in another macaroon,
I'll see if you have any postage stamps, then!
I must, I really must,
Quit doing that sort of thing --
I could see that people were beginning
To wonder if I drink, or anything....
And then Mr. Simpson told me that if it wasn't
For embarrassing my wife still further
He would kick me into the street....
Oh, well, I said, don't you worry about my wife,
You go and get your own wife fixed
So she doesn't look like a slot machine
And we won't have any words....
I can always get the better of people in repartee
Like that, but somehow I am getting
Fewer and fewer invitations to dinner parties....
People think I drink, or something.

Don Marquis

Saw this in an anthology yearss ago and have since tried without success to find Marquis's other non-archy verse, but without success.


Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Commonplace book

“Every man for himself and God for us all”
as the elephant said when it danced among the chickens.

Commonplace book

I have laboured to make a covenant with my self, that affection may not press upon judgment; for I suppose there is no man that hath any apprehension of gentry or nobleness, but his affection stands to the continuance of so noble a name and house, and would take hold of a twig or twine-thread to uphold it: and yet time hath his revolution, there must be a period and end of all temporal things, finis rerum, an end of names and dignities, and whatever is terrene, and why not of De Vere ?

For where is Bohun ? where's Mowbray ? where's Mortimer ? &c. Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet ? they are intombed in the urnes and sepulchres of mortality.

Crew CJ in Lord Willoughby of Eresby's Case (1625) W. Jones 96, 82 ER 50


Conference Today

In a minor change of plan, Monday’s event will open at 9.01 with Rhonda coming to the lectern and singing the following song, with the OC Chorus in the background:


To the tune of Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight”

Something pathetic, something frenetic
Something for everyone: a Conference today
Something that’s boring, someone who’s scoring,
Something for everyone: a Conference today

Nothing with football, nothing with putters
Bring on the heros, liars and nutters
Old situations, new complications
Everything portentous and so gray -
Burnout tomorrow, Conference today.

Something convulsive, something repulsive
Something for everyone: a Conference today
Something to ponder, something from Rhonda,
Something for everyone: a Conference today

The weather is bleak, the AV’s antique,
The coffee was brewed in the previous week.
Joe Caddy and Denis, grumbles and menace,
Everywhere confusion and delay --
Step to the lectern, Conference today.

Someone exhorting, someone who’s rorting,
Someone for everything: a Conference today
Someone’s ungrateful, someone who’s hateful,
Someone for everything: a Conference today

Nothing from Latham, nothing from Doyle;
The opposition has gone off the boil.
Nothing too heated, much is repeated,
Your funding depends on what you say -
Start the projector, Conference today.

Promises and prayers, folk in wheelchairs,
Movers and shakers, flimflam and fakers,
Hypocrisy, plutocracy, philanthropy, misanthropy,
Errors, terrors, horses, courses,
Fliers, liars, subdued fires -

No silver bullet, no magic wand;
Very small frogs in a pretty small pond;
Goodness and badness, manifest madness
It’ll all be all right on the day -
Newsletters tomorrow, Conference today!


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Don't Diss the Dean

Friedrich Hermann von Schönberg was born in Heidelberg in 1615. He fought on the Thirty Years War and after joining the Dutch army served in France until following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 he was forced to leave and became Generalissimo of the Prussian army. In 1686 he advised William of Orange to go to Ireland, promising his support. Having failed to persuade his family to erect a monument to the Duke, Jonathan Swift penned the following inscription:

Beneath this stone lies the body of Frederick Duke of Schomberg, who was killed at the Boyne AD1690. The Dean and Chapter earnestly and repeatedly requested the Duke's heirs to undertake the erection of a monument in memory of their father. Long and often they pressed the request by letter and through friends. It was of no avail. At long last they set up this stone that at least you may know, stranger, where the ashes of Schomberg lie buried.

The renown of his value had greater power among strangers than had the ties of blood among his kith and kin.


Monday, May 31, 2004

Commonplace Book

Some people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.
Logan Pearsall Smith


Friday, May 21, 2004

Walk like an Assyrian

Yes, Israel is different. For one thing, it’s the only nation there is that doesn’t have an attached nationality. Israelis carry an identity card with a space marked Nationality’. If you’re a naturalised ex-Egyptian, you write ‘Egyptian’, and so on. If you were born there you fill it in as ‘Jew’, ‘Arab’, ‘Druse’, ‘Samaritan’ and so on. I now read in Ha’aretz that when some citizens recently went to court to argue that they should be able to write ‘Israeli’, the Israeli Government argued that this “undermines the very principles under which the State of Israel was created”.
The state claims that
"the dictionary definition of a nationality is `a nation, a people; a large group of people of a joint origin, common destiny and history and usually a shared spoken language' and thus registering as ‘Israeli’ would not reflect the person’s "national and ethnic identity".

Professor Uzi Ornan, one of the petitioners, says. "The state is afraid that if it agrees to register an Israeli nationality, it will create a de facto separation between Jews abroad and Jews living in Israel as part of an Israeli nationality.”
Israel is not an ordinary state like other states, and this is at the heart of many of the problems of the region.


Friday, May 14, 2004

When the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest, the world will be free

When in Luang Prabang last we toured the Royal Palace, kept up and run for tourists by the government complete with immense paintings of the last Royal Family by the best Russian painters. As the regime had exterminated the Royal Family not all that many years ago I was curious as to how they squared this with their current royalism-without-the-king, and asked at the souvenir desk (selling small reliquaries and medals with icons of the King) "And where is the King now?"

The gentleman behind the desk said "They had to leave the palace. Bad feng shui."


Tuesday, May 11, 2004


I've enabled Comments, I think; which will be only marginally less humiliating than a hits counter, but it seems to be etiquette.


Abu Manus

The Abu Ghraib abuses seem to have been due in part to governmental demonization of the inmates, facilitated by denial of access to the media and the judiciary, and exacerbated by uncertainty as to which country’s law was applicable and by politicians playing pass-the-parcel with operational responsibility. Isn’t it a good thing that none of those problems apply to Australia's refugee holding camps in Bouganville and Nauru? We’ve got nothing to worry about.


Friday, April 23, 2004

So why don't I hear any freedom around here?

Q (Through interpreter.) Ibrahim Hassan (sp), from an organization of Family Kurds. A group of families have recommended me to give you a message that is in form of a question, so please be so honest in answering this question.
The helicopters who are flying a low profile in the areas where they are fully populated, in different times and different circumstances, so that also has just scared the children and the innocent people and the families, and also consequently so some of those members of the families have been inflicted and they just were scared, and there have been so many diseases -- psychological diseases, skin diseases also, due to these -- I mean, illegal flying low profile helicopters in those areas. So they are just seeking for a solution. If it is possible, please find a solution to save the lives of those people who are -- who were harmed and inflicted with harm because of these actions.

GEN. KIMMITT: Yeah, number one, the low-profile helicopter flights have a purpose. It allows our helicopters to fly low and fast. It allows them to conduct their operations to provide security to the people of Iraq.
Having spent most of my adult life either on or near military posts, married to a woman who teaches in the schools, you often hear the sounds of tank firing. You often hear the sounds of artillery rounds going off. And she seems to be quite capable of calming the children and letting them understand that those booms and those bangs that they hear are simply the sounds of freedom.


Not a Chain Letter

1. Grab the nearest book.

2. Open to page 23.

3. Find the fifth sentence.

4. Post the sentence on your blog along with these instructions.

(via Pharyngula)

They posessed no weapons, they had probably not mastered the use of fire, and if they had language of any sort it must have consisted of no more than a few cries.
Bertrand Russell, new hopes for a changing world, 1951


Thursday, April 22, 2004

Commonplace Book


Last night a wind from Lammermoor came roaring up the glen

With the tramp of trooping horses and the laugh of reckless men

And struck a mailed hand on the gate and cried in rebel glee:

"Come forth. Come forth, my Borderer, and ride the March with me!"

I said, "Oh! Wind of Lammermoor, the night's too dark to ride,

And all the men that fill the glen are ghosts of men that died!

The floods are down in Bowmont Burn, the moss is fetlock-deep;

Go back, wild Wind of Lammermoor, to Lauderdale -and sleep!"

Out spoke the Wind of Lammermoor, "We know the road right well,

The road that runs by Kale and Jed across the Carter Fell.

There is no man of all the men in this grey troop of mine

But blind might ride the Borderside from Teviothead to Tyne!

The horses fretted on their bits and pawed the flints to fire,

The riders swung them to the South full-faced to their desire;

"Come," said the Wind from Lammermoor, and spoke full scornfully,

"Have ye no pride to mount and ride your fathers' road with me?

A roan horse to the gate they led, foam-flecked and travelled far,

A snorting roan that tossed his head and flashed his forehead star;

Then came the sound of clashing steel and hoof-tramp up the glen.

And two by two we cantered through, a troop of ghostly men!

I know not if the farms we fired are burned to ashes yet!

I know not if the stirks grew tired before the stars were set!

I only know that late last night when Northern winds blew free,

A troop of men rode up the glen and brought a horse for me!

Will H Ogilvie


Commonplace book

I Wish I Were In Love Again

The sleepless nights
The daily fights
The quick toboggan when you reach the heights
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites
I wish I were in love again

The broken dates
The endless waits
The lovely loving and the hateful hates
The conversations with the flying plates
I wish I were in love again

No more pain
No no more strain
Now I'm sane
But I'd rather be punch drunk

The flying fur of cat and cur
The fine mismatching of a him and her
I've learned my lesson but
I wish I were in love again

The furtive sigh
The blackened eye
The words I love you 'til the day I die
The self-deception that believes that lie
I wish I were in love again

When love congeals
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals
The double-crossing of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again

No more care
No more despair
Now I'm all there
But I'd rather be punch drunk

Believe me sir, I much prefer
The classic battle of a him and her
I don't like quiet and I wish I were
In love again
In love again



Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Rats in the ship

Ray says (over on Pandagon) "it is quite possible to be an agnostic, believe that the existence of God cannot be disproven, and yet believe that it could, conceivably, be proven -- by example.

Sort of like the mathematical distinctions between things like np-complete, np-complex, and so forth: Knowing that you can't prove that a solution of type [x] exists doesn't mean that one won't come up; it just means that you can't know in advance, and that failure to find such a solution doesn't mean that one doesn't exist. Or, as Zen Master Rumsfeld would have it, there are your known unknowns, and your unknown unknowns...

I think that if you asked most agnostics, "Can you conceive of any set of circumstances which would convince you that God exists?" that they could, indeed, do so. Carl Sagan's "hidden messages in the digits of Pi" is a fun and subtle example; the sudden announcement, by a thundering and disembodied voice from the sky, that "I AM GOD, AND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD ALL PEOPLE NAMED 'DAVE' WILL HAVE BLUE EYES," followed by the discovery that such a thing had, in fact, transpired, would be a somewhat less subtle proof-by-example. I would submit that either anyone who could emerge from such a demonstration with their doubts intact would have to be considered an atheist, or that the term "God" would have to have lost all meaning."

I can't see that the second of these - the eyes thing - would have any proof value at all. It would prove that a being existed who called himself God who had power to change eyes, but it wouldn't prove that that entity had any resemblance at all to anything that had previously been known as 'god'; and as 'god' is a noun as well as a name that would mean that he might be 'God' but wouldn't have any better claim to be 'god'.

If the digits of pi did indeed spell out the text of the old and new testaments, correcting a few obvious typos, that would be more telling, but still not decisive. The point is, as Kiekergaard said, the kind of 'god' we've invented is over and above humanity to the extent that we don't really have any point of contact. If an infinitely wise and powerful being could speak, we couldn't understand him, because our 'minds' touch at no point. There is, correspondingly, no chance of proving his existence. K moves from this to existential faith, I go the other way, but I accept his argument that it's faith or nothing.


Monday, April 19, 2004


At least half the headlines in the morning's paper could be replaced with one of the following;


Land o'Goshen, Scrooge

novelist Charlie Haas writes the following poignant letter:

"Dear Sir: Can you help me? I read in the newspaper recently that a large number of ejaculations may offer protection from prostate cancer.

"So far today I have used 'Egad, sir!' ' 'Sblood!,' 'Crimminy!,' 'Oh my God!,' 'For Pete's sake!,' 'Man oh man!,' 'You go, girl!,' 'My stars and garters!,' 'Dadgum it!,' 'Amen!,' 'Land sakes!,' 'Get out!,' 'Ay, caramba!,' 'Jeepers!,' 'Jump back!,' 'I'll be a monkey's uncle!,' 'How dare you!,' 'Outta sight!,' 'Dang!,' 'Gosh!,' 'Lord have mercy!,' 'I swan!,' 'No way!,' 'Land o' Goshen!,' 'Tuff!,' 'Bitchin'!,' 'Cold for days!,' 'Wizard!,' 'Dig!,' 'Sheesh!, ' 'Hoo boy!,' 'Jumping Jehoshaphat!,' 'Great Caesar's ghost!,' 'Ay que vida!,' 'Did you ever?,' I never!,' 'Right on!,' 'Dog my cats!,' 'Sufferin' succotash!, ' 'Oy vey!,' 'I'll be damned!,' 'I'll be switched!,' 'Tell it!,' 'The nerve!,' 'Sure and begorra!,' 'Holy cow!,' 'Son of a gun!,' 'Word up!,' 'Far out!' and 'Hell's bells!'

"Do you know if I can use these again tomorrow, or do I have to think of new ones? It's not easy working all of them into normal conversation, but I guess it beats chemo."


Plan of Attack

The title of Woodward's new whitewash does bring up some echoes.

The General
‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
. . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)
Counter-Attack and Other Poems. 1918.

All he missed was the turkey.


Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Proposed new constitutional arrangements

It is now generally accepted that
• The majority of Australians want an Australian to be head of state:
• The majority of Australians are averse to any very large changes in our constitutional arrangements;
• The web of accumulated, derived, and developed constitutional roles and functions of the crown in Australia cannot be transferred from the royal family unless they can be defined, and any attempt at definition brings forth such disagreement as to split the parties into mutually repugnant and uncooperative camps.

This being the case, only the arrangements I propose can square the circle and allow Australians to have what they agree they want.

1. Australia shall be ruled by a titular monarch.
This permits all existing constitutional structures, understandings and conventions to be carried on unaltered, with the governor-general standing in for the monarch and his or her powers and duties to remain as they have been, whatever that might be, with all existing ambiguity and uncertainty retained unaltered.

2. The monarch shall be chosen by computer by random selection from all persons on the Australian electoral roll born on a randomly chosen day .
This ensures that
a) the monarch will be an Australian citizen and
b) the election or appointment of the monarch will not cause divisions among the populace.

3. The identity of the chosen monarch shall remain in the custody of the computer, neither the governor-general, the government, the public, or the person concerned being informed.

This means that
a) every Australian could not only aspire to being King or Queen, but every 365th Australian could believe that they might already be King or Queen – producing that pleasant tickle existing at the back of the mind in the time between buying a lottery ticket and the draw, only indefinitely prolonged for no expense
b) the person chosen would not be stressed by sudden fame or corrupted by unexpected power.

4. The only possible objection to this plan would be that as the law now stands the monarch cannot be tried in his or her own courts, and unless appropriate arrangements were made every 365th person brought into court could plead that as it could not be proved they were not king or queen the matter would have to be dismissed; this defect could be cured, however, by introducing a constitutional fiction – the only significant change in the constitutional fabric required by my scheme – to the effect that Australian citizenship involves the waiving of any rights under this head.

Any nation that can give a real Queen an imaginary birthday should have no problem giving a real birthday an imaginary Queen.

While it might be objected that this proposal is ludicrous, its great merit is that it is considerably less ludicrous either than the existing system of privileging the heirs of Guillaume le Conquerant or the alternative proposal of going through all the trouble and expense of electing a president empowered to do no more than open fĂȘtes. I look forward, in the first instance, to its immediate adoption by the Senate Committee.


It's funny because it's true

"The lesson of Vietnam is that once you make the initial mistake, little you do afterward is right."
linked from Atrios

This has been put even better in Higgin's crime novel "Digger's Game", where the hitman says of his victim (from memory)
"He made two mistakes. The first mistake was knocking over the craps game, and the second mistake was making the first mistake, the way it always is."


Quis custodiet?

The trouble with paying judges large sums is that there is no valid basis for setting performance criteria. In any given case, either the plaintiff or the defendant will think justice has been done - one of of two people. With judges of particular wisdom and authority, this ratio can rise as high as 50%; if the judges are venal and stupid, it can fall as low as one-half. Perhaps we could save some money by hiring people who look good in wigs and giving them an unbiased coin.


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

It's funny because it's true

"Of course it's natural for those who favored invading Iraq to see mostly good news from there, because bad news suggests that they might have been wrong. Contrariwise for opponents of invading Iraq.

There is no more destructive force in human affairs -- not greed, not hatred -- than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is of trivial value in comparison with non-attachment to opinions."

Posted by Mark Kleiman



Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A smaller splash

God was walking around the world, the old Mexican story goes, along the road to Saragossa. He met an old lady, and asked "Where are you going?"

"To Saragossa, God willing." she said.

"Go well!" God said. He met a priest, and asked "Where are you going?"

"To Saragossa, God willing." he said.

"Go well!" God said. He met an old man, and asked "Where are you going?"

"To Saragossa." the old man said.

God turned the old man into a frog and threw him into a nearby puddle and left him there for a day and a night to think about things. Then he turned him back into his former shape. The old man started walking again. "Where are you going?" God asked.

"To Saragossa." the old man said. "Or, back into that puddle."

Words to live by.


Friday, March 26, 2004

Bertrand Russell and the White Australia Policy

"The Chinese and Japanese are industrious and skilful workers, accustomed to a much lower standard of life than that of men of European origin. Given free rights of immigration and competition in the labour market, they would soon oust white wage-earners in any country in which they were tolerated. .... In the end, owing to political democracy, they were excluded from both Australia and the United States. When I speak of democracy in this connection I mean, of course, democracy among white men;world democracy in a world government would have had an opposite result. Those who hold - as I certainly do - that it would be regrettable if California and Australia ceased to be white men's countries, must seek some principle other than democracy to justify their opinion."
Betrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World, 1951, Allen & Unwin

Who would ha thunk it?


Thursday, March 25, 2004


Which would make the machines the Palestinian authority (or possibly the other way around) and Smith Hamas. There's a way in which it sort of works.


Sion & Zion

Having watched most of the last sad Matrix movie on an international flight I was once again irritated by the total ineptitude showed by both sides militarily in the human/computer war. The humans congregate into a one-centre bunker society presumably in order to develop an industrial production capacity that enables them to produce enormous quantities of unshielded exoskeleton gun platforms totally specialised for a single battle in a single location and impossible to use in any other context. They then back up this unnecessary walking capacity - the exoskeletons are only going to be operating in a space a couple of hundred yards across; why aren't they fixed gun platforms? - with ammunition suppliers who push small barrows with small wheels across free-fire zones that are covered with rubble. When this tactic fails they have no better idea than all to assemble in one room so that the machines needn't have to hunt for them down those thin passages that they seem to find so difficult and can kill them all in one operation. Haven't they ever heard of the term 'disperse'? Or 'decentralise'? Or 'guerilla'? or indeed 'Flee'?

And then in response the machines
(a) don't hold off their drills so that both can make simultaneous entries:
(b) don't immediately descend to ground level so that the Walkers would shoot each other:
(c) don't use gas, shrapnel, or any other way of taking out the unprotected Walker drivers other than by rather ineffectually scratching at them with long arms.
This both
(1) reminds us what a great movie Seven Samurai was, as if we needed reminding - the only movie battle to make military sense; and
(2) raises the question of whether Sion is in fact modelled on Israel.


Swift's Ostention

In Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen's "What does a Martian look like?" they say (p. 192 Ebury paperback) "it is much easier to say 'crocodile' than to bring one with you to point to".

While that has been true for human history to date, it isn't any more. Any laptop with a couple of terabytes can carry an effective picture/video dictionary, and a few Moores from now a hologram dictionary. And this isn't simply a quibble without consequences; I've just given a conference presentation in which I argued that in the case of Persistent Vegetative State, where the nature of the condition is debated and the diagnostic criteria variable, an ostensive definition made up of a number of video clips would be more satisfactory than the current definition based only in (weasel) words.

Swift's philosophers, who floated
"...a Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great Advantage in Point of Health as well as Brevity. For it is plain, that every Word we speak is in some Degree a Diminution of our Lungs by Corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortning of our Lives. An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on. And this Invention would certainly have taken Place, to the great Ease as well as Health of the Subject, if the Women in conjunction with the Vulgar and Illiterate had not threatned to raise a Rebellion, unless they might be allowed the Liberty to speak with their Tongues, after the manner of their Ancestors; such constant irreconcilable Enemies to Science are the common People. However, many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the New Scheme of expressing themselves by Things, which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their Leave.

But for short Conversations a Man may carry Implements in his Pockets and under his Arms, enough to supply him, and in his House he cannot be at a loss: Therefore the Room where Company meet who practise this Art, is full of all Things ready at Hand, requisite to furnish Matter for this kind of artificial Converse.

Another great Advantage proposed by this Invention, was that it would serve as a Universal Language to be understood in all civilized Nations, whose Goods and Utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their Uses might easily be comprehended. And thus Embassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign Princes or Ministers of State to whose Tongues they were utter Strangers."

- would have loved it. More to Stewart and Cohen's point, treating "with foreign Princes or Ministers of State to whose Tongues they were utter Strangers" is a reasonable beginning to interalien communication problems.

When the point was made to Stewart & Cohen, they replied "An excellent point, well made. Many thanks for your interest. If we ever do a sequel or a new edition, we'll bear this in mind." -- which I suspect to be an automatic reply along the lines of "John Smith is out of the office", but I add it for the sake of completeness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


About 50% of every news media could be covered under the following two headlines;


Friday, March 12, 2004

Raw Fish

Until now, I thought the Spam sushi I saw in Hawaii was about as far as one could go in that particular line; up the road at lunchtime, however, I was able to trump that with Deep-Fried Sushi, at the local chippery. A satori moment.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004


One aspect of the way the world works seems to me to have been very much underplayed in political science and management theory.

Let us imagine you are in a position of power. A proposal comes to your desk. One of the options is obviously sensible, is supported by the data, and comes with the recommendation of your experts. One is less satisfactory. One is plainly an almost total wipeout. What do you do?

If you do the sensible thing, you are doing what anyone could do. You don't need power for that. If you want to demonstrate to others that you have power, you have to take a decision that nobody in their right mind would take and push it through against unanimous opposition.

This is in some ways in line with the present trend in evolutionary biology, which explains survival handicaps such as the peacock's tail by hypothesizing that it is a way of demonstrating to potential mates or rivals that you have such potency that you can cope successfully with enormous self-imposed handicaps.

At some point this comes up against the imperatives of simple survival, but if you are Stalin or a top manager in a large corporation you have a very wide range of action before you reach this boundary.

If accepted, this theory explains quite a lot -- perhaps too much, in fact; as in evolutionary biology, it means that any decision, good or bad, can be accounted for under one arm of the theory, making it virtually irrefutable and in Popperian terms trivial.


Bizarro World

We called a taxi to the house on Saturday. I hopped in and said "We want to go to Williamstown."

"From here?"


Friday, March 05, 2004

Really Rotten Ideas, II

While we're on the topic of really rotten ideas, am I the only person who thinks that the foundation of the state of Israel is one of them? Speaking largely from the Jewish point of view. Undoing the omlette now is of course not so clear-cut.


Thursday, March 04, 2004

The one ring and the age of mechanical reproduction

Now that the One Ring is available for $US16.95 we can turn our minds to the necessary disclaimers - "WARNING: this ring will not turn the user invisible" or "WARNING: This ring will not find the other rings of power, bring them, in the darkness bind them, or rule them."

Actually, the ring could have done with some warnings from the beginning. Has anyone pointed out what a spectacularly bad idea it was to make it at all? At the end of TROTK Sauron was on the verge of total victory despite not having had the use of the ring, and only the ring being thrown into the fires of doom stopped him. If he'd simply hung around till the heroic age was over and everybody else in the top rank of the beings had gone home he could have conquered Middle-Earth quite satisfactorily without anything other than an orc extruder and a talent for organisation. All he did was create a needless vulnerability. Though I suppose you could say the same about America and the A-bomb.


Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Here, Spot

Dr. Glenn Young, head of the physics division at Oak Ridge, said "Neutrons are slippery little rascals."


When Complete Meant Complete

A brief mention on Crooked Timber of Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, which I was rereading the other day.

RJ really deserves one of those whopping victorian complete works that actually were complete works (I have a two-volume swift in 6-point type in two columns that includes works, letters from and to, attributed works, and marginal annotations. Even an orwell-type complete published writings would be better than nothing) rather than the current situation where I have to keep buying selections in editions that overlap by about 80%. Lines like "Xxx hints - and when Xxx hints, pigs come running from miles around - that...." are right up there with Housman's invective.
And that's the only time anybody in this century will read the name of any of these forgettable poetasters like Xxx ...immortality of a sort, I can remember the insult even if not the object.
Incidentally, can anyone out there confirm or deny that ?Harriet? the villainess is based on Mary McCarthy?
And when I say 'insult' and 'invective' I do recognise that RJ tried his very best to be fair and positive, and to avoid the personal; so the effect was, as in Pogo, "His 'howdy' is anyone else's 'drop dead', so when he says 'Mmmm....' that means he really, really doesn't like you."


Tuesday, March 02, 2004

H & E

In a posting about sex education Matthew Yglesias refers to, inter alia,
"heroin addiction, where even 'safe' IV drug use is neither especially safe (you've got your overdoses and so forth) nor something worth doing (even if there was no such thing as AIDS or overdoses it would be better not to be a heroin addict)".

Doesn't that require some further explanation? If (and I have to undeline there that this is a thought experiment, so don't come back with well-reasoned cases about the actual evils of heroin) there were no physical disadvantages (and, me being a weenie, no injections)(and, to be sure, if there were no legal sanctions - but then, why would there be?) why would getting high on H be undesirable per se? It might be too expensive, or too time-consuming, or too distracting, but I seem to remember the same being true of sex. Aren't we accepting too readily the concept that enjoyment is inherently suspect? And the thought experiment does seem to be almost realised in the case of Ecstacy (the drug, not the orgasm), where the physical toll seems to be about level with that from the consumption of bacon.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Fire in the stacks

On Crooked Timber,
"a bit from Margaret Levi’s Consent, Dissent and Patriotism, where she discusses the politics of military archives.

More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World Wars I and II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material, and they uphold those rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian War Memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and then disappeared."

Actually, the War Memorial story seems unlikely, in that it posits an uncharacteristic Australian willingness to defy great and powerful friends. When my father retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs he was occasionally called back to do declassifiaction tasks, and one of the things he found was that the Americans generally objected to the Australians releasing under FOI any information involving America even when it would have been accessible under American FOI - indeed, even when the Americans had already released it in America. The problem was not the information; the problem was who was to be master. And the Department invariably buckled under.

Admittedly, the Americans do have more clout in Canberra than the British, but even so.
Though it has to be said that the thought of James Bond doing his ocker librarian shtick does appeal strangely.


Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Fog

Fog-like Sensations
According to some sympathisers, the reason why drivers on the motorways failed to slow down in thick fog recently, and so crashed into each other in multiple collisions of up to thirty vehicles, was simply because the authorities had failed to provide illuminated signs explaining that the fog was fog. This is a situation on which Wittgenstein made one or two helpful remarks in a previously unpublished section of ''Philosophical Investigations".

694. Someone says, with every sign of bewilderment (wrinkled forehead, widened eyes, an anxious set to the mouth): "I do not know there is fog on the road unless it is ,accompanied by an illuminated sign saying 'fog'."
When we hear this, we feel dizzy. We experience the sort of sensations that go with meeting an old friend one believed was dead. I want to say: "But this is the man philosophers are always telling us about! This is the man who does not understand—the man who goes on asking for explanations after everything has been explained!"
(A sort of Socratic Oliver Twist. Compare the feelings one would have on meeting Oliver Twist in the flesh. "And now I want you to meet Oliver Twist."—"But …!")
695. Now I feel a different sort of excitement. I see in a flash a thought forming as it were before my mind's eye— “This is at last the sort of situation which philosophers have always waited for—the sort of situation in which one as a philosopher can offer practical help!"
696. Imagine that the motorist said: "The trouble is, I can't see the fog for the fog." . We might understand this as a request for practical information, and try to answer it by showing him the definition of "fog" in the dictionary. To this he might reply: "I can't see ‘fog' for the fog." We respond by putting the dictionary an inch in front of his eyes. Now he says: "I can't see the fog for ‘fog'."
697. At this point a philosopher might want to say: "He sees the fog but he does not perceive its fogginess." Ask yourself what could possibly be the object of saying this.
698. Now the man says: "I can see the fog perfectly well, but I don't know that it's fog." I feel an urge to say: "Yet you know it's fog that you don't know to be fog!" (The deceptively normal air of paradoxes.) One can imagine his replying: "Naturally—it looks like fog." Or, if he is familiar with philosophical language: "Of course—I know that I am having fog-like sensations." And if one asked him what he meant by that, perhaps he would say: "It looks like what I see in places where I should know what I was seeing if it were labelled ‘fog'."
699. Now the feeling of dizziness vanishes. We feel we want to say: "Now it seems more like a dull throbbing behind the eyes."
700. Of course, one is familiar with the experience of seeing something ambiguous. "Now it is the Taj Mahal — now it is fog." And one can imagine having a procedural rule that anything ambiguous should be treated as the Taj Mahal unless we see that it is labelled "fog."
701. The motorist replies: "What sort of rule is this? Surely the best guarantee I can have that the fog is fog is if I fail to see the sign saying ‘fog' because of the fog."—One can imagine uses for the rule. For example, to lure people to their deaths.
702. Still the man seems uneasy. "To be sure that the fog is fog because it is labelled ‘fog', I must first be sure that ‘fog' is ‘fog'. Now, supposing, without its being perceptible to the naked eye, the top of the ‘o’ were slightly open. How am I to be certain that it could not be accepted as a ‘u’, so that the word was not ‘fog' at all but ‘fug' ? Or how can I be certain that the first letter is really ‘f’ and not a grossly deformed but still meaningful ‘b’?
So now we have to have a label for “fog"! And another label for the label of "fog"!
703. But we are not yet out of the wood! (Or, as one might say, out of the fog.) The motorist might object: "I still cannot understand. I see that the fog is labelled ‘fog', and that ‘fog' is labelled ‘”fog”’, and so forth. But how am I to know that ‘fog' means fog, or that ‘”fog”’ means ‘fog'?
So we must qualify still further. We must expand "fog" to read “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog."
704. Now imagine the motorist's face. Imagine that the doubtful expression remains. Imagine that he says: "But how do I know that the expression “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog" means “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog"?
705 What sort of game are we playing here ? What sort of language are we using ? I am tempted to ask, what sort of man am I being used by? I have a certain feeling that goes with grating teeth, a frown, flushed cheeks. I want to say: "My offer of help is being abused."
706. One might try to provide the man with a mental picture, a working model of his position—as it were a map to enable him to get his bearings. I might say: "You are in a complete mental fog about the whole business." He seizes on this eagerly. He goes through the motions of assenting—nodding his head, pursing the lips, saying: "Yes, yes, that's it exactly. I am in a complete mental fog."
Now one asks: "But how do you know it's a mental fog you're in?"
707. At once he cries: "NOW I see! I see that I don't know I'm in a mental fog at all! I need an illuminated mental sign saying 'mental fog'."
708. If a lion could speak, it would not understand itself.

Happiness & the Propelling Pencil

Following on the observations about happiness, I happened on what Michael Frayn had said about it in the sixties -
New Man Coming
One's personality is a remarkably stable structure; and the most stable element in it is one's steadfast conviction that it is just on the point of being entirely transformed.
Transformed, needless to say, not by any efforts of one's own, but by magic objects and events outside oneself. One's dissatisfactions and limitations will be suddenly and wonderfully sloughed off, one comes to believe, when one has acquired a striped suit, or a red car; when one has got married; when one has written a book, or found God, or learnt Italian; when one has reached the age of 10; when one has moved house; when summer comes.
It is strange that so much of one's action is motivated by such patent witchcraft. But in a society where unhappiness is regarded rather like fleas, as an unappealing state people ought to be ashamed of getting into, I suppose it is congenial to see oneself as a naturally happy soul hindered from achieving perfect contentment only by external causes. All these extraordinary superstitions are ways of concealing from oneself the painful fact that most of one's discontents are the inevitable by-products of one's own nature.
I rely a bit on almost all these superstitions, but most particularly on those that involve straightforward covetousness. If I had a certain material object, I have repeatedly felt, my whole life would be entirely changed. From its small corner the totem would radiate such a powerful field of rightness and delight that everything else would come to glow in sympathy.
The first thing I can remember coveting as a child was a propelling pencil that wrote in five colours, after I had seen the teacher correcting exercise books with one. Other little boys might have conceived a passion for the teacher, but I fell in love with the propelling pencil. It was beautiful, and I desired it. The provocative glimpses of the coloured leads through the slots in the side inflamed my senses. I longed to touch the exquisite texture of the nickel-plating.
My parents were driven to say they would buy me one— but, torment of hopes raised only to be the more savagely hurled down, there was none in the shops! I raged about the house like a tiny junkie deprived of his fix, while they ransacked London, and after days of great misery for all of us, ran one to earth in far-off Peckham Rye. But so supremely unimportant did it become as soon as I possessed it that I cannot even remember what happened to it.
It sometimes seems to me that the whole story of my life could be adequately told in the catalogue of my love affairs. There was the affair with the ten-and-sixpenny plastic crystal set (purchased—never worked); the affair with the miniature starting-pistol (owned by a friend—fiercely desired through long centuries of time—swapped for about half my possessions —instantly devalued, and allowed to fall to pieces before it could fire the five blank cartridges which my friend's father was keeping locked up to celebrate the end of the war with); the affair with the second-hand sports car (£180—"Take you anywhere, that car," said the salesman, "Take you to Land's End and back,") snatched away at the last moment by a providential failure to raise the money.
One learns, of course. I don't think I shall ever fall in love with another propelling pencil, or another plastic crystal set. But the inoculation is against the particular ju-jus I've tried, not against ju-jus in general. It doesn't in any way deter me from my present mania, for example, which is coveting a swivel chair. If I had a swivel chair, upholstered in worn leather, I know I should be a new man.
I can see myself very clearly with the swivel chair. I am a calm man, a responsible man, a happy man, a man who can work for eight hours at a stretch without being interrupted by fatigue, boredom, bad temper or incompetence, a man who can take well-earned relaxation with his smiling wife and laughing child in some gay but uplifting leisure pursuit. 1 am a man who keeps an exquisitely selected early June day permanently outside his window. I am a man who does not get telephone calls from people who think they are phoning the South Eastern Gas Board.
1 am a man who is swinging gently from side to side in his worn leather swivel chair as he decides whether to spend the sunlit working day ahead on finishing his play about the ultimate essence of man, or starting the essay in which the ultimate nature of the universe is set forth in 500 exact and simple words.
Manufacturers of swivel chairs, join me in happy contemplation of the picture! Sooner or later I shall have the swivel chair, and you will have the money for it. How would you ever sell me a swivel chair I do not need if I did not believe 1 was buying a complete new personality ? How would any five-colour propelling pencils ever be sold if other people did not share my disorder? How would the evangelists and the travel agents survive ?
And just as surely as I know the man in the swivel chair will be a new and perfect man, so I know he will be the same inadequate one, not only depressed by the weather, interrupted by the telephone, unable to find a pen that works, and confused about exactly what he is supposed to be doing, but also driven to final exasperation because the swivel on the blasted chair is broken.
I know it only too well. Perhaps it's just as well for all concerned that I don't actually believe it.

Reasonably well expressed, but interesting particularly because as far as I can see that swivel chair actually worked for Frayn.
A pity those pieces are out of print. Surely the one on Wittgenstein and fog must be posted somewhere?
Apparently not. I shall do it myself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Fox Nader

I’m just reading Charles James Fox’s History of the Early Years of the Reign of James II, and the dissensions that wrecked the Duke of Argyle’s uprising against James II seemed eerily similar to today's events;

“Add to Argyle’s problems that where spirit was not wanting among his supporters, it was accompanied with a degree and species of perversity wholly inexplicable, and which can hardly gain belief from any one whose experience has not made him acquainted with the extreme difficulty of persuading men who pride themselves upon an extravagant love of liberty, rather to compromise upon some points with those who have in the main the same views with themselves, than to give power (a power which will infallibly be used for their own destruction) to an adversary of principles diametrically opposite; in other words, rather to concede something to a friend, than everything to an enemy.”

It's funny because it's true.



Posts in Mat. Yg about happiness, and the fallacy of expecting happiness to increase with more possessions;

True enough, but the issue is not at this level "Why do we keep getting possessions when they don't make us happier" but "Why do we want to be happy?" It isn't exactly a tautology. I once wrote a short story about a group of scientists trying to persuade a computer not to commit suicide, and the issue was that happiness isn't transferable into mind as opposed to glands. Which means that there is no rational (non-tautological) reason to wish to seek happiness, and we ought to recognise it as a Darwinian survival strategy bred into us by many generations of extinct unbreeding pessimists. And when Mr. Yg says
"Getting the new phone will make me happy for, maybe, a week or two, but soon enough it's just going to be part of the landscape. That fact is totally clear to me, and yet I still want the new phone."

that is of course looking at the object as if it were a goal rather than the goal being the process; what he wants is to want and to satisfy wants, and the particular wants are determined by the particular role he is playing in his particular internal movie - who he wants to see himself as.
As Outside Counsel says,
"We live our lives as the stars of our own movies, and if the lighting and the storyline favor us, well, it is our movie after all. We account for ourselves in the way that makes us look like the people we believe ourselves to be...."


Monday, February 23, 2004


David Hicks is in Guantanamo because he was caught in Afghanistan. He has been there for two years without any measurable progress being made to any form of trial. His australian supporters are seeking to have him returned to Australia for trial. The Americans refuse to send anybody back to any country that won't undertake to kill or, at the very least, prosecute and convict them. However, at the time Hicks did whatever he did Australia seems to have had no laws that would make whatever it was illegal. Correspondingly, the only way to have the Americans refer him for trial in Australia would be for our new terrorism legislation to be made retrospective, and this has now been proposed. The Prime Minister, John Howard, is against this because he feels that retrospective laws imposing criminal sanctions are unfair. Well, yes; but as that's so, shouldn't Hicks be let go? He didn't do anything that Australia prohibits, he couldn't be said to be doing anything against Afghan laws by fighting for the recognised government, and the Americans haven't identified any American law that would hold him.

This is surely a time for Habeas Corpus and the Case of the Hottentot Venus.


Friday, February 20, 2004


I haven't checked out the conspiracy theories about what Bush did to miss that physical, but it seems mathematically certain there was something pretty discreditable; if there wasn't he wouldn't have bothered to stonewall for a week in which his approval rating plunged.


Thursday, February 19, 2004

Rummy, that

I have so far been unable to convince any of my Australian friends that the talking Donald Rumsfeld doll I ordered from America is not in fact a biting satire but rather a sincere tribute by like-minded conservatives. There is obviously a remarkable difference between the two cultures in the semiotic significance of the action figure.


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