Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

July 29, 2011

The Space Age is not over

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:25 am

Note: Cross-posted at The Marshall Independent.

Well the space shuttle has landed for the last time, and the atmosphere among space buffs is like a funeral.

Not so fast. The Space Age is not over, not by a long shot.

Yes, the phase out was badly planned. There is no successor to the shuttle and our astronauts will have to hitch rides with the Russians for a while if they want to go to the International Space Station. But the point is, they can hitch a ride. Other nations are in the game.

The end of the shuttle era is cause for nostalgia, but not for mourning. The shuttle was always a compromise design and carried an awful lot of archaic technology that couldn’t be upgraded without scrapping the whole thing and starting over. There is already a next-generation shuttle, the unmanned X-37, and it’s operational. You just don’t hear about it much because it’s being used for some… discrete purposes.

Now men like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson are taking the first steps in privately-funded space exploration. It’s a rich man’s toy for now, but then so were the airplane and the automobile.

We aren’t about to abandon space, because too much of the world economy depends on satellites in near-earth orbit for communications, navigation, weather forecasting, resource monitoring, and yes military purposes. Mentioning that last may be distasteful to some, but satellite observation has a huge role in keeping the peace in the nuclear age by insuring nobody can launch a surprise attack.

It’s also true there haven’t been any manned expeditions to the moon in decades. Nor are expeditions beyond the moon in anything beyond the brainstorming stage at present. That’s OK, the moon and the planets are still there, and we’ve got lots of robots roaming the solar system.

I grew up reading science fiction stories set in 2011 – oh who am I kidding? I grew up reading science fiction stories set in 1970! Weren’t we supposed to be way beyond where we are by now?

There’s a couple of reasons for that. One is the economic lead time. We had a good idea when this would all become possible from a technological and engineering standpoint, we just hadn’t considered how much it was going to cost.

For another, back before the first manned space flights, science fiction authors and early space advocates always assumed we’d build space stations in orbit first, then go to the moon from an orbital base.

In retrospect, I think the SF authors were right. President Kennedy’s bold challenge, “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” was an audacious response to the political embarrassments of early Soviet achievements in space, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

And what a bold move it was! The goal was achieved, within the decade limit Kennedy set, but nonetheless too late for him to see the triumph he’d envisaged.

But the fact is, to date all the economic return from our presence in space is from earth orbit. That’s where the return on the investment is so far, and that’s where the next wave of exploration will set off from.

Yes government investment got us there, prompted by concrete military reasons and abstract motives of national prestige. But now space is generating huge returns on the original investment and I’m betting a new age of space exploration is dawning, the age of the merchant adventurer.

July 15, 2011

The time I’ve wasted not reading

Filed under: Culture,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:50 am

Note: Cross-posted at the Marshal Independent.

You know what makes me feel old sometimes?

No, it’s not aches and pains. I’ve spent enough of my life doing manual labor outdoors to know that’s just life.

It’s not being unfamiliar with the latest pop cultural icons, music, fashion, etc. (And just who the heck is Justin Bieber and why do people hate him?)

It’s the feeling that time is running out to get all my reading done.

It hit me again today when I saw a passing reference to French philosopher Jacques Ellul. I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never read anything by him. Turns out he had some interesting things to say about… well actually about a lot of things. But I’ll probably never get around to it.

I should have read a lot more of the canon of western civilization: Aristotle’s “Politics,” more of Plato’s dialogs, Boethius’ “The Consolations of Philosophy,” Thomas Aquinas, etc.

Then there’s the stuff I have read, and ought to re-read because it’s deep and once is not enough: Aristotle’s “Rhetoric,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (oh, and get around to “The Discourses” while you’re at it,) “The Federalist,” the list goes on.

How about fiction? I’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War, perhaps only half-jokingly. There’s still a lot of Mark Twain I’ve never read. And maybe I ought to give Charles Dickens and Jane Austin another try. I could never get into either of them but people whose taste I respect speak well of them.

And there’s the stuff I think is probably faddish nonsense, such as the Deconstructionists, that I ought to read anyway 1) just to be sure it’s really that bad, and 2) to be able to explain why it is.

And that’s only English. I wish I were comfortable enough in the couple of languages I can get around in to read their literature more fluently. I’ve just got tantalizing bits beautiful Polish poetry from their national poet Adam Mickiewicz (“Litwo, oczyzna moja, ty jestest jak zdrovia…”) and fragments of Spanish (“Al rey, la hacienda y la vida se ha de dar. Pero el honor es el patrimonio del alma – y el alma solo es de Dios.”)*

Once it was expected for high school graduates to have at least a reading knowledge of Latin or Greek. Did you know that Harry Truman, the last president who didn’t have a college degree, used to read Homer in the original – just for fun?

Have all of us who love to read had that fantasy – the one where you are unjustly sentenced to lengthy imprisonment in solitary confinement, but with all the books you want? Away from kids, work, and just being too tired at the end of the day?

Nowadays I’d want to update that fantasy to include a DVD player, cable TV absolutely not allowed, and a collection of classic movies.

I’m not old, at least I don’t feel old, but I’m past the half-way mark. There’s less time ahead than there was behind. And what’s really starting to bother me is not fear of death, but the fear I won’t get my reading done.

* Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) From the Invocation to the epic poem “Pan Tadeusz. “Lithuania, my Fatherland, you are like health. Only he who has lost you knows how much you must be valued.”

Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) El alcalde de Zalamea. “Estates and life are the gift of the king. But honor is the patrimony of the soul, and the soul belongs only to God.”

July 8, 2011

Do we need a Scotch verdict?

Filed under: Law,News commentary — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:15 pm

Note: Cross-posted at “Steve’s Place” at the Marshall Independent.

“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Moses Maimonides (1135-1204,) Sefer Hamitzvot [Book of the Commandments]

Well the trial of Casey Anthony is over, and almost nobody is happy about it. Apparently nobody really believes she is innocent of murdering her little girl, not even her parents to judge by their actions.

This is not the same thing as the story of Casey Anthony being over of course. The news hounds will be following her around for quite some time now you may be sure. There are already rumbles of civil cases being filed, attempts to keep her from profiting from the inevitable tabloid and movie deals, etc.

From the statements of two of the jurors, it seems they didn’t really want to return a verdict of “not guilty” but didn’t feel they had the right to convict based on the evidence presented. Some contend they were just too chicken to rule on a death penalty case with only circumstantial evidence of guilt, however compelling. But then again, they weren’t in that jury box.

Others speculate about the hypothetical “CSI effect,” the notion that crime shows like CSI and its spin-offs have created unrealistic expectations about the power of forensic science to establish guilt beyond not just reasonable doubt, but all doubt.

I will just note it’s entirely possible to believe whole-heartedly that a person is guilty, and still not be able to vote guilty in good conscience. One of the more bizarre and uncomfortable experiences in my life was overhearing a man tell another how he murdered a friend at age 16, while they were out hunting together. I realized with horror that of course, with no witnesses to dispute this psychopath’s claim it was a hunting accident there was no way the jury could rightfully convict under our legal system’s rules of evidence. Hunting accidents do happen, and there was no arguable motive other than “he’s nuts.”

An acquitted criminal may admit their crime later – but there’s that double jeopardy thing in our Constitution.

I’m as uncomfortable as anyone else about the Anthony verdict – but I’m also glad our system takes Rabbi Moseh ben Maimon’s above-quoted commentary on the commandments seriously.

What I’m wondering now is, what if we had that legal option from Scottish law, the so-called “Scotch verdict”?

Scottish law has significant differences from English law in some cases. Under the laws of Scotland there are not two, but three possible verdicts in criminal cases. A legal precedent going back to at least 1728 provides for one verdict for conviction, and two for acquittal: not guilty, and not proven.

“Not proven” basically means the jury thinks the prosecution has not met the burden of proof, but they have strong doubts about the innocence of the accused. I don’t believe the option is used often and there is no difference in the outcome of the trial, the accused goes free.

As a practical matter, a number of not guilty verdicts are essentially informal Scotch verdicts, as in the Anthony case. I just wonder, what would happen if a jury were given the choice of making it official?

July 4, 2011

Casey Anthony and her ilk

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:58 am

“The wicked ones, who are constantly being born amongst us, are often distinguished by appearing as angels of light and wit and intelligence, charming and fascinating beyond usual mortal endowments, apparently loving and always exciting love even among those who are of a usually cynical nature. In truth, they appear most lovable and amiable, for it is their diabolical genius to be all things to all men, grave among the grave, gay among the gay, sympathetic in the company of those of sensibility, never openly hostile or belligerent; flexible of temperament, of an open countenance and invariably possessed of great magnetism. –More of these wicked ones are born in each generation than we know of, but those who are unfortunately of their blood know that they entertain a demon, and not unawares. May God preserve you and me from encountering one such in marriage or among our children!”

~ Marcel Proust

For some odd reason I woke up with a mild urge to comment on the Casey Anthony murder trial. I thought well, if I’m going to I ought to do it now because a verdict should be in after the holiday.

Though as affected as any other decent human being by this, I don’t share the obsessive interest much of the public seems to have in this sad spectacle. It is no surprise to me that evil exists in the world. Nor do I share the career-minded journalists’ delight in covering such a juicy story. I’ve covered a child murder story, and it about killed me.

But for what it’s worth here’s my opinion. From everything I’ve seen of the story on the news, all evidence points in one direction.

Casey Anthony is guilty. She killed her adorable little girl because she found her inconvenient. She could have given her up for adoption, or just dumped her with her grandparents. Instead she smothered her and buried her body in the woods, after leaving her in the trunk of her car long enough for advanced decomposition to set in, just like the prosecutor said.

The defense is offering a series of wildly improbably scenarios, including not one, but two variations of the notorious “Plan B”: Blame somebody else, and blame childhood sex abuse (the Menendez defense.) One can hardly blame them, they’ve got bupkiss to work with – though I sometimes wish there were sanctions for defaming the innocent to defend the guilty. (I believe there are in military trials, at least when defaming an officer.)

Testimony has shown beyond dispute that Anthony is a serial liar and fantasist. Not just in this case, but as part of a long history of lying. Moreover, she lies in a particular way. An example from news reports: she told her parents she had a cool job at Universal Studios, and actually took them there, talked her way past security and only copped to the lie in the corridor of a building at the last possible moment the lie could be maintained. And that’s only one example, not related to the web of lies concerning the case itself.

I know this pattern.

Yes, her parents have been caught in lies and contradictions. The difference is, there is a straightforward comprehensible motive in their case. They know their daughter is guilty, but they don’t want to see her die.

Casey Anthony is something I’ve seen before. To be precise, in the brother of an old girlfriend, the wife of a close relative, and in a martial arts colleague I had only passing acquaintance with. I’ve also had the opportunity to discuss the type with a cop who’d studied the type at the FBI school, and a social worker who had an interest in such.

I used to call the type a “sociopath.” I’ve had arguments with people who say the correct term is “psychopath.” Now I find the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says both are wrong and the correct term is “Anti-social Personality Disorder.

I rather like the old British legal term “morally insane.”

The DSM has this to say about it (thanks Wikipedia):

A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
3. impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead;
4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

New evidence points to the fact that children often develop Antisocial Personality Disorder as a cause of their environment, as well as their genetic line. The individual must be at least 18 years of age to be diagnosed with this disorder (Criterion B), but those commonly diagnosed with ASPD as adults were diagnosed with Conduct Disorder as children. The prevalence of this disorder is 3% in males and 1% from females, as stated from the DSM IV-TR.

One important disagreement, I flat don’t believe that 3% males and 1% females figure. In my entire life I’ve met precisely three individuals I was sure of, with perhaps a few borderline cases. There are lots of other ways to be screwed up than this, some of which have some of the same characteristics, but even 3% plus 1% would stand out far more.

Some personal observations:

* These people appear to be born this way, and by “this way” I mean born without what we call a conscience. In all cases known to me, their families have seen this since the earliest age.

* They can be very charming. Having no sense of embarrassment can evidently enable one to be a master manipulator.

* By seeing what effects the lack of a conscience has, it appears that conscience is somehow related to the ability to imagine the future as real, i.e. to understand the idea of consequences.

It’s been years since I’ve read it, but in a book called “Powers of Mind” (1982) by a financial writer who used the pen name “Adam Smith” there was a description of an experiment allegedly performed on both normal people and ASPD’s serving hard time in prison.

Note, I can’t confirm this at present, and I believe this experiment could not be replicated under current protocols for experiments on human subject. Then again, neither could the Milgram Experiments.

What the author claimed was, an experimental subject would be strapped into a chair with his/her hand on an electrode, then given a painful shock. They were then told they’d get an even more painful shock in X seconds (I believe it was from 30-60 seconds but don’t remember) – or they could push a button and get it over with now.

The alleged result was, most people nerve themselves up for a few seconds and push the button. The ASPD/sociopath always, as in always, waits and gets it when the time’s up.

As I said, I can’t find this, but it jibes with my experience.

What would you say about a person with above-average intelligence who tells a lie that is certain to be discovered within a short period of time, to gain a relatively trivial advantage? Who takes an airplane across the country to cover a hot check with another hot check? (When asked for something more substantial than his word and a check, the individual drew himself up in high dudgeon and said, “What kind of man do you think I am?” The receiver of the check found out, within 24 hours.)

I believe it was also Smith who said in prison interviews with this type, the prison shrinks are sometimes discomfited when probing for early life experiences when they hear offhand remarks like, “That was the time I smothered my bratty little brother with a pillow. Parents thought it was crib death.”

* No remorse, for sure. The then-wife of a close relative at a family gathering once swiped a diamond ring belonging to a guest at the house they were staying in. She was found out when her husband picked up her jeans and it fell out of a pocket. Confronted she just shrugged, “Big deal.”

* Acting on impulse, ditto. This can make them very good at stealing. If you or I for some reason decided we had to snatch something, how good do you think you’d be at it? Likely blow it I’d guess. You’d try to nerve yourself up, get over your hesitation and choke when it came down to it. You’d have to practice hard to be a good thief. The way it works for these people is: see it, want it, take it.

My Gung Fu brothers and I called this the “Wu-wei of stealing.”

* If you’re not careful they can always be a step ahead of you in their thinking. I was visiting with one of my relatives when she got a phone call from a telephone operator, saying a friend was stuck somewhere and asking permission to charge a long-distance call to her. (Remember when you could do this? Can you still, or has this gone the way of party lines?)

We resumed our conversation for a few minutes when it struck us, “Hey, wait a minute! Why didn’t she call her parents?” Phoned the alleged caller. Nope, she wasn’t stuck anywhere. It was the ex-in-law of course, just a few minutes ahead of us.

* There is no therapy that has any effect on the true sociopath. My relative used to say of her in-law, “Her family isn’t getting her the help she needs!”

I told her, “There is no help, and they know this.”

I once asked my old gf’s grandmother about her grandson, “I don’t mean to intrude, but have you considered taking him to a psychologist.”

“We did,” she said, “they said there’s nothing wrong with him.”

A friend who’d been a research psychologist said shrinks don’t have a lot of experience with the type, because they don’t generally see them in their practice – they see their victims. On the rare occasions they do, such as in prison settings, the reaction they get is, “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s all the no-good $#!+s around me.”

* What my cop acquaintance told me was that it’s been observed sociopaths (that’s the term he favored) may tend to grow a conscience around middle age. Unfortunately by that time they’re usually doing hard time in the slammer. It is thus an open question of whether they’ve actually developed a conscience or just learned to fool the shrink.

* An interesting thing the social worker told me was, there is such a thing as a “well-adjusted sociopath.” (He also preferred that term.) They have enough smarts to stay out of prison and find a niche where their… talents, can actually benefit them in a more-or-less legitimate way. In particular, he said they tend to gravitate into two professions.

One is lawyer. But you guessed that already, didn’t you? Care to guess the other?

High-pressure salesman. The kind who can pour on the charm to sell you something you don’t need at a price you can’t afford.

I have to say I think these are heading into the only marginally legal cons these days. Most businesses have discovered that high pressure sales is counterproductive in that the customers may buy, but tend not to return.

* One of my Wu-wei Gung Fu brothers came up with the most perceptive diagnostic tool for the laymen wanting to identify ASPD.

He said, “Look out for someone who has no old friends.”

This was incredibly perceptive I thought. If you or I have lived in a certain place for 20 years, we’re going to have some friends we’ve known about that long.

Sociopaths usually have lots of friends and admirers, it’s that charm thing. But they have to constantly replenish their supply, because people do catch on and drift, or run, away.

“May God preserve you and me from encountering one such in marriage or among our children!”

Note: There are two classic literary treatments of the ASPD child that probably gave birth to the “evil children” genre of horror fiction. One is “The Bad Seed,” (1953) by William March, subsequently made into a play with a screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, and a movie in 1956.

The other is a lesser-known book by Taylor Caldwell, “Wicked Angel” (1965) which begins with the quote from Proust above. “The Bad Seed” is about a little girl, “Wicked Angel” about a little boy.

July 2, 2011

With sword in hand

Filed under: Martial arts — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:33 am

I just received my baskethilt broadsword from Purpleheart Armory yesterday, and I’m having a lot of fun and making quite a nuisance of myself to my family with it.

Purpleheart owner Christian D’Arcy makes a wooden waster for broadsword practice but I ordered this nylon model on the advice of Chris Thompson, founder of the Cateran Society. Chris moved to the Twin Cities area recently and I’m trying to get up there on a fairly regular basis to train with him.

The Cateran Society practices the fighting arts of Scotland, and in particular the Highland Broadsword, as preserved in British Army military manuals of the time. On my first training visit I learned the basic Royal Navy cutlass exercise designed by Henry Angelo Jr., scion of the Angelo dynasty of fencing masters, in 1812.

I am a ranked instructor in Filipino Kali and Wu We Gung Fu. The focus of my martial arts training is modern, in the sense that I train for the exigencies of the present day, not the Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc.

But I like swords! I like the feel of a blade in my hand, how it handles, how it moves.

I have a couple of cheap but decent katanas for cutting practice, boken (wooden samurai sword,) suburito (wooden samurai sword heavier and longer than usual for exercise,) a steel rapier foil, and wooden models of Chinese willow leaf saber and straight sword. I don’t have more than basic training in any of these arts, but the foundation moves are available on video and if you have a grounding in kali they’re not going to be totally unfamiliar to you. Kali is all about principles of movement and if you’ve ever seen one of those souvenir wall hanger shields from the Philippines, the ones labeled “Weapons of Moroland,” you know the islands are home to blades made in a bewildering and nasty-looking variety of shapes.

I have practiced modern three-weapon fencing, and found it valuable training, but I really don’t enjoy the way it’s practiced today. It has just drifted too far from the method of fighting with sharp steel in hand. (There is a classical fencing revival movement though.)

Practice with swords, and long weapons such as staff, teaches a lot about the discipline of movement, and lines of attack and defense. Though it’s not likely you’ll ever have to defend yourself with one, practice with various sword designs shows you how the characteristics of the weapon determine how to fight with it.

A friend and student of mine once had a scimitar-like blade, from Indonesia or Southeast Asia as far as we could tell. It was shorter than my outstretched arm (standard length for a kali stick in my style) and sharply curved in an asymmetric S-shape, i.e. the hilt curved forward, the blade curved back.

My bud said it was the most clumsy thing that passed for a sword he’d ever handled.

I said, “No it’s not. Look,” and showed how to move it in sweeping figure-8 curves and redondos (called moulinet in classical Western fencing,) using the point with hooking forehand and backhand thrusts.

“If you know kali principles, the weapon will tell you how to fight with it,” I said.

The Highland Broadsword handles far more subtly than you’d imagine for a blade that looks as big as this. (But that’s almost always the case with unfamiliar swords. People have been making them for a long time after all.) It’s longish for a single-hand sword, and because of the basket hilt any assist by the off-hand has to go to the wrist/forearm. I’m six feet tall and resting the point on the ground puts the pommel right at my navel.

It has great cleaving power and good point capability as well. The basket hilt makes a handy knuckleduster at close range, and there’s that pommel for reverse blows as well. Aside from the sheer fun and romance of practicing the fighting art of my Celtic warrior ancestors (“Caterans”) the techniques translate well to the use of a moderately heavy walking cane (see “cudgeling” on the society website.)

The only drawback of this model is – practice with it and the desire to own the real thing becomes well-nigh overwhelming.

And why would you want to do that? (I hear you say.)

Well, aside from the sheer joy of handling it, and indulging the fantasy of confronting a home invasion with steel in hand (unlikely to say the least – but in fact it has happened, to a man who became a legend in the Society for Creative Anachronism on that account*) there is very intriguing suggestion for sword sport.

Japanese kenjutsu has cutting drills, called tameshigiri, where live blades are used to cut straw mats. I’ve tried my hand at it, as you can see here. (Quoting from Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” “As you can see, I am a swordsman of the Wood-chop School.”)

The suggestion was to adapt the Japanese training practice to Western swords. Face target, draw and come to guard. Likely guard of prime, or the hanging guard, the first position a western sword comes to out of the scabbard, now almost never used in modern sport fencing. Cut target or targets and return to on guard. Judging would be based on form and successful cutting.

And what use would that be?

It would be fun, the best justification for most anything. And, I think a revival of manly martial sports would be good for this wimpified society of ours. There was a time when “gentleman” meant “swordsman.” That time is long past, and probably a good thing too, but we’ve lost something also.

*The story I heard about 20-odd years ago, more than once but second-hand at best, was a prominent SCAdier was moving into a new apartment in a run-down neighborhood in Texas somewhere. One night the story goes, he was awakened by four Mexican gentlemen with axes and knives attempting to break in via the front and back doors. Taking a katana off the wall he confronted two at the front door, one of whom swung at him with an axe. He countered with a cut that severed the guys arm at least partly, and the story has it that the rest of it was lost in surgery. He then stabbed another in the butt as he turned to run, and again the story has it that a leg was lost as a consequence.

The two at the other door ran like jackrabbits on being confronted by a naked hairy man drenched with blood holding a sword.

Now first of all, I have heard the story several times from people who knew the guy, but never had first-hand confirmation. But the details were remarkably consistent each time I heard it.

And, one person who knew the guy did caution that he spent time in therapy dealing with the aftermath.

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