Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

November 22, 2015

Ray Bradbury remembered

Filed under: Culture,Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:25 am

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.

November 16, 2015


Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:39 pm

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.

November 11, 2015


Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:32 am

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.

November 6, 2015

Why Israel must survive

Filed under: Culture,Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:39 am

“I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish, the Holocaust will be upon us.”
Eric Hoffer

I get into a lot of arguments about Israel lately, and I’m sick of it.

I’m seeing a rising tide of anti-Semitism that worries me, a lot. And no I don’t believe, “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-Zionist.”

There was a time that might have been true but no more.

I am well aware of the moral ambiguities involved with supporting a state which contains a sizable minority of people who hate it. People who must be kept in check with measures that leave a bad taste in the mouths of free men.

I know there were people already living there when the survivors of European Jewry descended upon what had hitherto been at best a sleepy backwater of various empires that ruled the region over the past two millennia.

I realize that Israel is not much of an advantage as an ally in the region, immensely complicates our relations with the Arab states, and absorbs entirely too much foreign aid.

No, I don’t believe that having distant ancestors from the place automatically gives anyone a right to colonize it. By that logic I and my fellow-Celts could claim a great deal of Western Europe and tell these Germanic Johnny-come-latelies to get the hell off our land.

And I will point out I had reasoned criticisms of Israel waaay back when it was seriously unpopular to express them.

Nonetheless I say Israel must live.

Here’s what I think. The Islamic jihadists have made it plain they desire the death of all Jews. Not Israelis, Jews. Everywhere.

Furthermore a fair number of the elites of the western world have concluded this is an acceptable price to pay for peace. More in Europe, but it’s catching on here too.

I never wanted to be part of this struggle and seriously resent having to take sides.

But I did have to. Because the Islamic jihadists have made it plain I had to.

And so I had to side with the nation whose law mandated the release of accused war criminal John Demjanjuk because the evidence he was one specific concentration camp guard did not rise to the bar of proof demanded by civilized law, versus the culture which demands if your sister or daughter is raped, seen with a man not a close relative, or just gets uppity that it is your duty to murder HER.

You have probably seen this claim: If the Arabs laid down their arms, there would be peace. If the Israelis laid down their arms there would be six million fewer Jews in the world.

Does anyone seriously doubt this?

I have another question aimed purely at your self-interest. Who is more likely to a. discover a cure for cancer, b. develop a clean, renewable energy source, c. find some kind of accommodation for that nation or any other nation in those horrible circumstances – six million Israelis or 600 million Arab Muslims?

Israel must survive. Because Israel is an outpost of Western Civilization, which to date offers the best hope of eventually insuring the liberty and dignity of every man and woman.

And because it is in Israel where one of the twin roots of our civilization lies.

If you are a child of the West, no matter what your ancestry is, you are part Hebrew and part Greek.

The Greeks taught us how to think. The Hebrews taught us about justice and the rule of law.

Western Civilization might have been born when the prophet Nathan said to King David, “Thou art the man!”

If it is wrong for a subject, it is wrong for a king. Equality under the law. Does anyone realize how revolutionary that ideal was at the time, and how rare even today?

Not only Israel is under attack, but all of Western Civilization, from without and within. If we let Israel fall it will send a clear message that we will sell our kin to survive, thus insuring our own inevitable downfall.

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