Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Feb/16

4

Doing the work of the world

Not long ago I was shooting the bull with a friend I don’t get to see very often, so to make up for lost time our bull session lasted about three days.

“Have you ever killed and eaten anything?” he asked at one point.

“Yes,” I said.

“Have you ever had to kill something to eat, or you didn’t eat?” he inquired further.

“Can’t say that I have,” I replied.

That gives you some idea of the tenor of the conversation. Both of us have read a lot of books. We refer to them, and we recommend them to each other, just like a lot of educated people in this country.

What’s different is, we’ve both done the gritty work. I have finished a shift covered in thickened sewage, he I suspect in other organic fluids. My youthful work experience involved disposing of the end products of consumption, garbage and sewage. His in telling people who routinely use violence to accomplish their goals, “No, not here and not now.”

Our work experience overlapped in areas like truck driving and operating heavy equipment.

Now as friends shooting the bull will do, we discussed the Problems of the World.

What the heck is wrong with people these days?

I could cite the candidates for the upcoming presidential race, but let’s go with a simplified version of the underlying issue.

We have two parties representing people who want a lot of different things, with some overlap. More things than we can possibly pay for with the current tax revenues.

The rational thing to do, the thing families do with their own incomes every day, would be to figure out how much we have to spend then argue about what to spend it on.

Instead what we do is give everybody pretty much what they want and put it on the credit card.

This does not make everybody happy, because human wants are endless. Once fulfilled, new wants arise. Which we intend to put on the credit card.

A smaller scale example.

A few years back I covered the story of a small town in the northern Midwest which faced a water problem. They were looking at three alternatives.

One was to put up with sulfide contamination of their drinking water from an upstream lake. Mostly harmless except that the naturally occurring sulfides give you diarrhea until you get used to it.

Needless to say visitors would get La Tourista. Not a ringing endorsement for tourism.

The remedy was to build a new water treatment plant at great expense to remove the contaminants. Which would mean special assessments on every homeowner, including retirees living on fixed incomes.

The third alternative was to do nothing, refuse to drain the lake into the river, and run the risk of a coulee break creating a wall of water that would sweep down the narrow river valley wiping away the houses and towns built on the banks.

I talked to any number of highly-educated people who said, “We shouldn’t have to make this choice!”

(In the end they found a way to get the fed to pay for the new treatment plant. See example one.)

So here’s what we wondered. As our civilization has become richer and more technologically advanced, fewer and fewer people are directly involved in the primary factors that create wealth. Which are basically growing stuff, making stuff, and moving stuff around.

The advantages are wonderful. Few people have to make a living at hard, dirty, and dangerous work anymore. More people are freed to create culture and the toys that delight us.

The downside is that Americans think food comes from a supermarket, clean water comes from a tap, and garbage and sewage go… away.

The problem we saw is if the large majority of people have no concept of how their civilization works, how can we expect them to make the hard decisions necessary to maintain it?

The best answer we could come up with is, we can’t.

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Jan/16

26

Review: Lucifer is devilishly entertaining

“Men never sell their souls, they give them away.”
Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

A devilishly handsome man driving a snazzy convertible gets pulled over by a motorcycle policeman.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop asks.

“Obviously you felt the need to exercise your limited powers and punish me for ignoring the speed limit,” the driver replies.

The driver is Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), who has grown bored with reigning in hell and is now the owner of a piano bar in the City of Angels. In the first few minutes we see his power to tempt. Specifically by getting the cop to accept a large wad of cash after sharing his deepest naughty desire. In his case he sometimes turns on the siren and races down the road at great speed for no other reason than it’s a lot of fun.

Within the first 10 minutes Lucifer tells a young recording star (AnnaLynne McCord) that her troubles are all on her. Nobody made her do the drink, the drugs, and the topless selfies but herself.

And contrary to all expectations, Lucifer makes her promise to pull herself together.

Then she’s murdered in front of him, and Lucifer demonstrates a second power. He briefly revives the corpse of the murderer and wrings some information out of him. He was hired, by somebody.

Finding that somebody is what the pilot episode of Lucifer is all about.

Lucifer is a character created by Neil Gaiman, and originally appeared in DC’s The Sandman comics in 1989.

Personality-wise he owes something to Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost.

Milton’s most famous line, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” has convinced generations of young rebels that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost, which would have distressed Milton greatly.

He also has a bit of the 19th century anti-religious sentiment expressed by Edward FitzGerald in his thoroughly unreliable bowdlerization of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Oh Thou who Man from mortal clay didst make,
And even in Eden didst provide the snake,
For all the sin with which Man’s face is blackened,
Man’s forgiveness give – and take.

Because Lucifer complains a bit about the role his Father has consigned him to. In particular he complains to the Angel Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), who shows up at the Lux piano bar to tell him his return to hell is requested.

“Let me check my calendar. The seventh of never to the fifteenth of ain’t gonna happen, how’s that work for you?”

One foresees conflict in their future.

In the immediate future Lucifer teams up with Los Angeles PD Detective Chloe Dancer, who seems immune to his charms – which he finds intriguing. Enough to join her in solving crimes. Which she’s going to have to put up with, because in spite of being irritated by him he gets results.

She’s a gal who made some mistakes once, then turned around and made something of herself, neither excusing nor wallowing in them.
Dancer has a seven-year-old daughter who’s intrigued by Lucifer, much to his discomfort.

“Like the Devil?” she asks awe-struck.

Supporting characters include Lucifer’s therapist (!!!) Linda (Rachel Harris) , who he’s going to have a more than professional relationship with, and Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt) a Lilin, descendant of Lilith, Adam’s first wife.

Mazikeen complains a bit herself.

“I didn’t leave hell to become a bar tender,” she gripes.

Already there have been complaints from the religious. Like they didn’t know that was going to happen.

I’m going to suggest they take another look. Behind the wisecracking banter and the “look how naughty we are” anti-clerical attitude (like so 19th century) there is some fairly serious personal responsibility stuff here.

Lucifer is downright irritated at the notion he “buys” souls. No he doesn’t. He doesn’t even offer you a choice. He makes it plain the choice is yours, the most he’ll do is tell you how much fun the wrong one is going to be – for a while.

As one character from the comic put it, “When the Devil wants you to do something, he doesn’t lie at all. He tells you the exact, literal truth. And he lets you find your own way to Hell.”

The fact is, the figure of Satan, the Devil, Lucifer (Latin, “light bearer”) Son of the Morning, owes far more to folklore than to scripture.

Satan means “enemy” or “adversary” in Hebrew, and in the earliest references in the Bible are often plural rather than a singular great enemy. It’s not even certain Satan is the same figure as that Hellel ben Shahar, “Daystar Son of the Morning” associated with the planet Venus as it appears in the morning.

There is a hint of an icky-sticky-gooey Bad Guy saved by the pure love of an innocent little girl storyline, which I hope they’ll do something with more original than seems likely. We’ll see.

Then again perhaps I’m a bit uncomfortable myself with the memory of how a certain drinking brawling hellraiser was turned into a staid stuffy hack writer by his love for two little children.

A legitimate complaint could be that Lucifer glamorizes evil. But isn’t that kind of the point?

“To the sinner, the sin appeareth beautiful.”

I’d say have a look. There are so many ways this could go wrong, but you could be in for a hell of a good time.

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Jan/16

21

Ted Cruz and my son have the same problem

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
– Constitution of the United States: Article 2, Section 1

My son and Ted Cruz have the same problem, nobody really knows if they can be president.

Well that and the fact that it’ll be another 21 years before my son fulfills the age requirement.

“Does that mean it’ll be 21 years before I can drink beer?” he asked anxiously.

Ted Cruz was born in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and a Cuban father. My son was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an American father (moi) and a Polish mother.

And suddenly all of the “Birther” stuff that was airily dismissed under the administration of Barack Obama is urgently relevant again.

Cruz had dual citizenship until 2014, when he officially renounced his Canadian citizenship.

My son still has dual citizenship and has had two passports since his birth.

When we took my son’s Polish birth certificate to the American Embassy in Warsaw the nice man at the passport division gave us the lecture explaining everything. There is a canned lecture because it happens more often than you might think.

“We don’t like dual citizenship,” he said. “We recognize that it happens. What it amounts to is he has to enter Poland on his Polish passport. He has to enter the United States on his American passport. Everywhere else he can chose the cheaper visa. When he comes of draft age, if the country he’s in has conscription – they’ve got him. And if he gets arrested in one of his countries of citizenship, the other can do nothing.”

Note there was not a word about whether he can be president someday.

This is what I argued about with Birthers who claimed Obama was really born in Kenya and nefarious plotters, thinking he might want to run for president arranged to have birth announcements placed in the Honolulu newspapers.

It’s doesn’t matter where he was born! The child of an American citizen is an American citizen.

The question about Barack Obama is, has he ever claimed dual citizenship or had it claimed on his behalf by his notoriously America-hating mother? Has he ever traveled on a foreign passport? And is that legally equivalent to renouncing American citizenship?

Well in the case of Ted Cruz (and my son) there is no doubt and now we cannot duck the issue.

A brief perusal of the Wikipedia entry “Multiple Citizenship” confirms what I suspected. The issue did not even arise at the time of the framing of the Constitution. America recognized that one can become a citizen by naturalization, and evidently almost nobody else. An issue which led to the War of 1812, when England refused to acknowledge that American seamen were no longer subjects of the Crown.

Dual citizenship may not have existed at the time, so this is a new issue the Founders did not anticipate.

Some say this should be settled in the Supreme Court. I think it’ll probably just be ignored. At least if and until Cruz wins the nomination.

In my son’s case I have to chuckle, because I think it was the example of Poland that caused the Founders to include the native born qualification for the presidency.

At the time of the framing of the Constitution, Poland had an elective monarchy and the electors had a preference for foreigners because the great magnates were so jealous of each other’s power they preferred to look elsewhere for their kings.

This was one of the things that led to Poland being partitioned among Prussia, Austria, and Russia and wiped off the map for 135 years.

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Jan/16

12

The Invasion of Europe

One day in 1998, while I was working at an Industrial Training Center in Saudi Arabia, I heard that sound which once heard is never forgotten. It was the sound of hundreds of voices screaming mindlessly, the sound of a mob.

What had happened was a delegation of American executives, including one woman, was touring the facility. Somehow the American woman became separated from the group and was wandering through the hallway when a break between classes occurred.

I heard the roar of the mob, grabbed a student and shouted, “What the hell is going on? Is there a fight?”

“It’s a woman, Teacher,” he said. “An American woman.”

Imagine if you will what this woman must have felt walking by hundreds of young men screaming things like, “Can I *** you?” at the top of their lungs.

Well more than a hundred German women in Cologne, and on a smaller scale in Hamburg and perhaps Sweden didn’t have to wonder. They experienced it and worse first hand over New Years.

Reports have it thousands of North African Muslim refugees mobbed young women, groped them, tore their clothes, and robbed them.

Police were overwhelmed – and perhaps reluctant to act.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker advised young women to “stay at arms length” from “unknown men” and dress modestly.

Worse, many German newspapers attempted to kill the story, as did Swedish newspapers in 2015 when something similar happened at a concert.

The Germans are caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, there are living men and women who recall the mass rape orgy of the Red Army at the fall of the Third Reich. On the other hand, they’ve long felt the need to be conspicuously humanitarian for two generations after Nazism. So when asked to take in refugees they’re like the gal who can’t say no.

So what explains the Swedes?

The East Europeans who endured two generations of unwanted guests under the Soviet occupation have no such qualms. Poland has seen mass demonstrations against taking in Muslim refugees and Hungary has re-built border fences dismantled after the fall of communism.

For more than a generation Western students have been taught the doctrine of cultural relativism, the notion that each culture should be judged by its own standards and no culture is in any objective sense better than any other.

When I was getting my masters in anthropology this was holy writ. Which is one reason I didn’t go further than an MA. I have a problem keeping my opinions to myself you see.

So here’s mine. Western civilization is suffering a crisis of confidence. On the one hand we hold to the values of equality, tolerance and inclusiveness. After much bloody history we have at last arrived at a place where we consider the in-group, those people we are obligated to act ethically towards, as all of humanity regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual preference.

And that has caught us on an awful contradiction when we welcome into our midst members of a culture that accepts chattel slavery, the brutal subjugation of women, the murder of apostates, honor killings, murdering homosexuals, and killing those who insult their religion as perfectly OK.

Try to put yourself into the mind of a man who would murder his own daughter for being raped, daring to choose her own husband, or just getting uppity in public.

In Jordan, one of the more progressive and Westernized Arab Muslim countries, in spite of the efforts of Queen Rania and Dowager Queen Noor, men convicted of honor killings typically get sentences less than you could expect for a DUI.

Honor killings have come to Europe with Muslim immigrants, and lately to America.

There are those who say our wars in the Middle East have created this refugee crisis. Perhaps so, but we did not create that culture.

If we should not be over there, perhaps they should not be over here. And if they wish to come, can we make it plain that in our countries we make the laws and customs?

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Jan/16

4

Who runs the world?

In the run up to the nominations I have noticed something about people’s views of the electoral process. There are those who believe that only their preferred candidate can fix things, and the other candidate will work diligently to destroy the republic once in office. Take your pick.

Then there are the people who believe it makes no difference who gets elected, that elites working in secret control the world, and allow us only the illusion of choice.

It used to be the first view was “normal” and the second the quasi-religious conviction of a few nutty conspiracy theorists.

Has anyone noticed the conspiratorial view seems to have become normalized?

Consider all the talk about “the one percent” and how similar it seems to the John Birch Society (remember them?) with their talk of The Conspiracy that runs the world from the Hotel de Bilderberg in the Netherlands and the Trilateral Commission, and gets together for fun and recreation at the Bohemian Grove.

That some people are richer, more powerful and influential than the rest of us is not news. The political reform organization RepresentUs cites a study that showed zero correlation between the likelihood of a bill passing congress and how popular it is among the general electorate, and a strong correlation between the likelihood of passing and how popular it is among the top ten percent of wage earners.

But that’s ten percent, not one percent.

According to IRS data for 2013-2014, the average per capita income in the U.S. is $48,000. To get into the top one percent you have to be making at least $380,354. Cutoff for the top 10 percent is $113,799.

This is of course a measure of income, not savings, real property, art collections, etc.

Point remains, those “one-percenters” are not shadowy individuals who live in penthouses in New York, London, and Paris when they are not relaxing on their private islands or country mansions. You quite likely have known someone who makes or has made in some year enough to qualify for that percentile. You might very well know people in the ten percent well enough to call by their first name and make small talk with.

There are for example, quite a few farmers who fall into those brackets in terms of cash flow. But ask a farmer if he feels rich as harvest approaches in a drought year.

Farmers by the way, are about one percent of the population these days. I can remember when one in 13 Americans was a farmer. And at farm meetings I’ve covered I’ve heard quite a lot about how this translates into their business getting regulated by people with no personal experience with wresting a living from the land.

But what about the banksters and big oil?

Influential for sure. And like representatives of all influential sectors of the economy, able to get legislation passed that makes it easier for them to make and keep money, harder to lose it in the market, and scandalously rescued by taxpayers from the consequences of their bad decisions.

But do they run the world?

Remember how the invasion of Iraq was all about oil? When Iraq was briefly reasonably peaceful the rights to exploit the country’s oil resources were auctioned off. Care to guess how much American-based companies got out of it?

None.

So is anybody in charge? We can see how powerful some are, but on the other hand the world seems remarkably chaotic – which is even scarier than the notion of all-powerful elites working in secret.

A friend who is an avid board gamer recently introduced me to a game called “Illuminatus” named for one of the secret societies which allegedly runs the world. It’s a simulation game in which players are invited to create conspiracies to take over everything on the board.

Something interesting happens however. The invariable result is that alliances are created, and just as readily broken as it becomes advantageous for players to betray their present alliances and make new ones. The lesson seems to be that secret conspiracies are unstable, just as cartel monopolies are in a free market.

The world it seems, resists being “run” by anybody. Whether that’s comforting or alarming is another question.

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Dec/15

14

San Bernadino

As I meditated on what I was going to write a thought occurred to me. Of course I was going to write about the massacre in San Bernadino, because of course a pundit has to write about a tragedy that dominates the news. But there may come a day when I do not feel obligated to write about every such tragedy, because they will have become routine.

For those who’ve recently returned from a retreat in the Himalayas, on December 2, Syed Rizwan Farook, an American citizen of Pakistani origin left an office party at the San Bernadino County Department of Health where he was employed. He picked up his wife Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani permanent legal resident of the U.S., dropped their six-month-old baby off with Farook’s mother, returned to the party and murdered 14 of Farook’s co-workers.

The happy couple were subsequently killed in a shootout with police and sent to paradise where Tashfeen can argue with Syed for all eternity about those 72 virgins.

Well, I guess the family that slays together, stays together.

Too soon?

No damn it I will not apologize for that grotesque joke! It is far less grotesque than the grand guignol preceding and following this sick, tragic farce.

Neighbors told investigators that they saw suspicious activity at Farook’s house. Suspicious as in Middle Eastern men coming and going at all hours. Suspicions subsequently confirmed when the house was searched and found to have a bomb factory inside.

The neighbors said they didn’t report them because they were afraid of being called “racists.”

Somehow that house remained unsecured so we were all able to watch reporters pouring through the house and pawing over bits of electronics, driver’s licenses and checks.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper announced the FBI had released the house and the landlord said it was OK for them to come in. The landlord later disputed this.

That should not be possible. There is no way crime scene investigators could complete their investigation in that short a period of time.

New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi angrily called one of the victims Nicolas Thallasinos a “hate-filled bigot” just like the happy couple because he was ardently religious and loud about
it. Not as loud as a pipe bomb though.

President Obama made a speech of course. And of course it was roundly condemned by conservatives.

I myself didn’t find it all that offensive, though perhaps I’m jaded. It was mostly feel good platitudes, but then what did you expect? It’s what we do after a tragedy we can do nothing about.

He did use it to make points about control of “assault weapons,” but we expected that too.

California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, none of which mattered in the least to our happy jihadist couple and their still at large confederates.

He forthrightly declared this an act of terrorism and good for him. Then he went back over the talking point that ISIL does not represent true Islam and only a tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists.

We’re eventually going to have to look harder at that cliché. The Koran does in fact enjoin Muslims to make war as a religious duty. Not all Muslims are jihadists, but it does seem awful easy to turn them into jihadists.

Obama said we shouldn’t have a religious test for accepting refugees. Except there seems to be one already – excluding Christians.

Then there were the clichéd comparisons of Islamic jihadists with Christian religious persecutions and the Inquisition.

One could argue the Inquisition was never as bad as the history of Islamic jihad, but even conceding the point would anybody want to welcome thousands of 17th century Christian refugees from the Thirty Years War?

Right now I’m waiting for passions to cool and for some painful, realistic, hard-headed discussion.

I’m also waiting for more attacks like this, but I expect to see them first.

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Dec/15

2

The windows of the soul

I’m on a road trip in New Mexico right now, enjoying the incredible scenery, the mountain air, and occasionally NPR.

That’s how I caught a program on neuro-opthamology, which is something I’m growing more and more familiar with but only now have a name for.

My nine-year-old daughter is being treated with neuro-opthamology for ambliopia, “lazy eye.” Twice a week she attends eye therapy where she does various exercises, and every day she’s not in therapy I do four different kinds of exercises with her for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Exercises include reading letters at increasing distances with one eye, reading small print through different lenses, and watching television through colored filters.

I’ve watched her ability to read rapidly improve, and it’s improving her school work greatly. In a year or thereabouts she should have highly improved depth perception as well.

The National Public Radio program The People’s Pharmacy was called “What to do About a Ghost in Your Brain,” and if you are interested in such things I highly recommend you look it up.

A highly successful artificial intelligence researcher suffered what seemed to be a mild concussion when his car was rear-ended. For the next nine years he suffered from his senses, perceptions and thoughts giving him weird and conflicting signals. He had problems with his balance and once easy tasks became almost impossibly difficult.

He recounted trying figure out what was behind a nagging feeling of something wrong by sheer force of will. After a few hours of hard thinking with sweat pouring down his face he realized he’d put his shoes on the wrong feet!

After finding a therapy program his is almost completely recovered. And the fascinating thing is, a lot of the therapy he described sounds like the kind of thing my daughter is doing.

The eyes are an extension of the brain and what goes in through them can alter the way the brain functions, help it to route around damage.

And by damage, they meant lesions so small they could not be detected by MRI or CAT scan.

There was much fascinating, and worrying, information about the effect of concussions from car accidents, falls, and sports injuries. For example a minor concussion one doesn’t think much about can leave the brain more vulnerable to a later concussion, even much later.

The good news is, the damage is treatable and we’re learning more about how to treat it all the time.

And though it’s better to start treatment soon after the damage occurs, it can still be treated years later.

One of the scientists on the program tried to give an idea of the complexity of that organ where the mind resides. She suggested an order of complexity equivalent to 100 million personal computers. The truly amazing thing is that we are starting to get a handle on that complexity.

We stand at the beginning of an age of exploration that may be as important as the exploration of space.

Best of all we have hope for those that have suffered the most feared loss of all, the loss of self.

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Nov/15

22

Ray Bradbury remembered

Note: This was an op-ed obituary published four years ago. I neglected to post it and am doing so now in light of recent controversies concerning free speech on campus.

Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5, 2012, which shouldn’t surprise anyone because he was after all, 91, but somehow it does. However, he died during the extremely rare transit of Venus which doesn’t surprise at all.

As Bradbury grew older his hair turned white, he collected the usual assortment of wrinkles and infirmities, but his eyes! He had the eyes of a child to the end.

Bradbury has been eulogized by artistic luminaries such as Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and on June 6, by President Obama.

“For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values,” the White House said in an official press release.

That’s generous considering what Bradbury said about Obama after he made cuts to the space program, “He should be announcing that we should go back to the moon!”

It turns out Bradbury was a libertarian conservative, having migrated from a liberal Democrat to a supporter of both Reagan and Bush, and harsh critic of Clinton.

Or perhaps it was the parties that migrated. The author of “Fahrenheit 451,” one of the most impassioned defenses of free expression and high culture ever penned in English, never wavered in his support for liberty. When the threat to free expression came from the right, he was a liberal. When it was from the left, a conservative.

When Michael Moore filmed “Fahrenheit 911,” Bradbury angrily demanded, “Give me back my title!”

Bradbury was hailed as the greatest living writer of speculative fiction, a catch-all term for everything that isn’t fiction set in known history or the here-and-now, but defies categorization. He wrote in the genres of more-or-less science fiction, but also fantasy, mystery, and historical reminiscence.

The fact is Bradbury somehow never forgot what children know, that the “ordinary” world is in reality strange and wonderful.

His tales of the fictional “Green Town” were directly modeled on his very prosaic home town of Waukegan, Illinois, but imbued with the magic that is all around us unseen.

Though it’s been decades, I still remember a story of an old maid walking to her isolated home after dark, knowing there is a strangler on the loose. Her growing unease as she begins to suspect someone is following her home. Her relief when she enters her home and hurriedly locks the door. And the Hitchcockian twist at the end when a man clears his throat behind her!

Then came the one-two punch after I caught my breath, turned the page, and found the very next story began with three boys grumbling that some of the excitement had gone out of life because the old maid has stabbed the strangler to death with a pair of sewing scissors!

Bradbury loved a happy ending. When Francois Truffaut made “Fahrenheit 451” into a movie with a more upbeat ending, Bradbury was delighted. When publishers bowdlerized the book to remove content they found objectionable, he was outraged. Bradbury knew what his priorities were.

A man of contradictions, he wrote “The Martian Chronicles” and “R is for Rocket,” but never learned to drive and used a typewriter to the end.

He wrote to the end of his life, his talent forever fresh. The ancient Greeks said, “If the gods love you, you die in childhood.”

The gods must have loved Ray Bradbury, for he died still a child at heart.

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Nov/15

16

Paris

Well, it’s happened again to everyone’s shock and horror, but to no one’s surprise.

Jihadists struck at several locations around Paris. The latest death toll stands at 129.

Some of the attackers are dead. More believed responsible for planning are being sought.

France reacted by bombing areas held by ISIS in the Middle East.

Satisfying for sure, but not likely to affect anything in the short run.

Other reactions include cries of “false flag!”

Some people love this one. It makes them feel wise and powerful to know they have the world figured out when all us peasants are still in the dark.

I have a couple of observations. One is that it violates the Principle of Parsimony expressed in William of Occam’s famous razor.

Paraphrased it means that of competing explanations, the simplest is most likely to be closest to the truth. In this case you have a bunch of murderous fanatics screaming they did it, they’re glad they did it, and they’ll do it again. Versus the CIA/Mossad managed to talk a bunch of peaceful Islamists into doing something they’d never have thought of on their own.

As the late Christopher Hitchens said, “What is asserted without proof may be dismissed without proof.”

Another predictable reaction is that they’re “not really Islamic.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, has a doctorate from the Islamic University in Baghdad in Islamic studies and history. His immediate family include professors of Arabic language and rhetoric.

Could you please tell me how he’s “not Islamic” with citations from the Koran and Hadith – in Arabic with notes on translation?

Then there’s the blowback hypothesis. We caused this by our meddling in the Middle East and all the people we’ve killed there.

This argument has some merit to it. We have meddled, and continue to do so and lately our meddling has caused two large Arab Muslim countries to collapse into chaos. Iraq because we didn’t have the stamina to stay and do the imperialist peacekeeping thing after we deposed a murderous tyrant. And Libya because we knocked off a murderous but relatively well-behaved tyrant and didn’t even bother to march in and fix things.

And by the way, the U.S. did those in spite of vociferous objections from France.

One can point out that lately Muslims have killed hundreds of times more Muslims than Westerners have.

Doesn’t matter. That’s what cops call a “domestic dispute” and they hate them precisely because attempts to break up a fight often end with both parties turning on the meddler.

We could talk all day about why they hate us and miss the essential point – that they hate us, and there is probably little we can do about it. They have their reasons, but they are theirs not ours.

The attacks on Paris were well planned and involved French citizens born in the country but who do not feel themselves to be French, coordinated with fellow-jihadists outside the country.

And they will do it again.

Why? What do they hope to gain by it?

Well, sometimes they do manage to affect state policy. After the Madrid bombings in 2004 that killed 191 people and wounded 2,050, the Spanish voted out their government and withdrew the miniscule force they had in Iraq.

Big deal.

What I think they’re doing is counting coup.

The Plains Indians gave the highest honors not to warriors who killed the most enemies, but to those bold enough to ride in amongst their enemies and slap one in the most insulting way possible.

The jihadists come from a proud hyper-macho culture that sees the wealth, freedom and accomplishments of the West as deeply humiliating. They cannot hope to overcome the West by military force, but they can humiliate us back.

And no matter how much we bomb them in return, one coup counted against the West is a greater victory in their eyes.

If I am correct, this is going to go on for some time.

I would give a lot to be wrong.

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Nov/15

11

Innumeracy

I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of illiterates I have met in my lifetime, but the number of innumerates I’ve met are innumerable.

OK now I’ve had my little joke let me explain.

Innumeracy is to numbers as illiteracy is to writing. An illiterate cannot read on a functional level, an innumerate can’t do simple math.

Way back in 1988, mathematician John Allen Paulos published a book called “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences.” I remember how something Paulos said in an interview struck me. That people who’d be ashamed to admit they had never seen a Shakespeare play would boast about how they were unable to balance their checkbook!

Among other things, it motivated me to go back and teach myself some more math than I’d left high school with. I learned for example, how to solve quadratic equations and messed around a little with matrix algebra.

I forgot it almost immediately, but the point is that I proved to myself that I could learn it, I could relearn it if necessary, and it wasn’t because I was incapable of math that I hadn’t learned it to begin with.

This meant that years later when I took advanced statistics in grad school I approached it with confidence.

That’s why I read with shock and a good deal of resentment a column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

In an article dated August 25, 2015, “Lessons from the Virginia Shooting,” Kristof made several claims involving numbers of which two leaped off the page at me.

“More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history,” he claimed.
And further, “More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.”

I am not going to argue the issue one way or the other. What I want to do is have a look at the numbers.

Gun deaths vary from year to year, there were 33,636 in 2013. Let’s round down to 30,000 per year to make the figures easier to grasp. Approximately 60 percent of all gun deaths are suicides and 3 percent accidental discharges. Suspects killed by police amount to a few hundred per year at most and can be omitted.

That’s 47 years since 1968, and 47 times 30,000 is 1.41 million.
Of which 37 percent (the percentage of gun murders) is 527,700 which is far short of the casualties on both sides of our single most devastating war, the Civil War (750,000 all causes, both sides).

In the second claim Kristof cleverly said, “gun homicides AND suicides every six months” so let’s divide the whole number by two, which nets 15,000.
Combined American casualties only in Iraq and Afghanistan amount to about 7,600. Throw in only the 3,000 killed on 9/11 and that’s 10,600.

OK, so that’s true – but how significant? Iraq and Afghanistan are noted among our wars for how few American casualties there were, given how long they’ve dragged on.

And if you counted only gun murders, that’s only 5,550, a little more than half the U.S. casualties from the war on terror.

As I said, I used a rounded number for ease of calculation and because the figures I got varied from source to source over a five-minute search. I am perfectly capable of doing the math by hand, but I used a calculator for convenience. I could have done rough estimates in my head.

The extraordinary thing about this is, it would seem that anyone familiar with basic statistics, heck basic arithmetic and a passing knowledge of American history would see the glaring errors in these claims. These claims are not just a little off, they’re wrong by orders of magnitude.

So what’s the matter, the guy can’t do basic math?

Kristof was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, and was a Rhodes Scholar.

I can think of two explanations, both of them worrying.

One is that a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar didn’t see at a glance there was something screwy about these figures (if he himself read the claims elsewhere).

The other is that he did see – and was counting on his readers not being able to see.

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