Archive for category General

Hieroglyphics

A couple of nights ago, I was at a meeting, and a friend told me the most depressing story.  I was chatting with one friend, and it turns out his father owned an aviation business here in Colorado, and helped start Centennial Airport.

My other friend, Bob, and his wife, are originally from Canada.  Bob overheard the discussion, and offered up that Cheryl’s father was a flyer for the RAF during WWII, and they have his flight logs.  They had sent them to his daughter, thinking she would find them interesting.

Turns out, she complained, she couldn’t read them.  They were written in cursive, which is no longer taught.

Many of us fret about losing cursive as a writing skill, but it hadn’t occurred to me that by doing so, we’re also losing it as a reading skill.

Not teaching cursive, apparently, puts whole centuries of archival material outside the access of the current generation.  Entire swaths of our history await scanning, where they will be ripped free from the moorings of their context, or they become the province of specialists.  So much will become unintelligible, and personal histories like diaries or those flight logs will just end up in the trash.

That seems to me a great loss.

 

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My Very Own Chinese Hacker Story

As told on Grassroots Radio Colorado last night:

Play

This was the picture they hacked:

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Cable Unbundling

I’m not the first one to make the connection.

That’s not surprising.  What is perhaps surprising is that we’re not the first generation to have the debate over what free speech means.  In fact, the very first generation of free Americans had this debate.  This same exact debate.

I read Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification in 2011, but this stayed with me.  On p.71 – 75, she has a section on “Freedom of the Press.”  Surprisingly, the context is very much the same now as it was 226 years ago.

Threats…encouraged writers to continue the standard practice of publishing essays under pseudonyms.  In Boston, however, Benjamin Russell, published of the Massachusetts Centinel, announced in early October that he would print no essays that raised objections to the Constitution unless their authors left their names “to be made public if desired.”  That would clearly discourage critics of the Constitution from speaking out.  The local tradesmen and artisans (known as “mechanics”) who strongly supported ratification, “had been worked up to such a degree of rage,” one Massachusetts official noted, “that it was unsafe to be known to oppose [the Constitution] in Boston.” … Other commenters, however, charged Russell with violating freedom of the press since his policy would curtail the range of arguments available to the public.  In Philadelphia, a writer who took the pen name “Fair Play” answered the threats leveled against those who criticized the Constitution by insisting “that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS — the great bulwark of all the liberties of the people — ought never to be restrained” (although, he added, “the Honorable Convention did not think fit to make the least declaration in its favor”).

The freedom such writers defended went back to an earlier time, when colonial printers had to appeal to a broad range of readers to stay in business; they took a neutral stand and justified necessity by defining a “free press” as one that was “open to all parties.”  That way of operating came under pressure as the market for newspapers grew and the Revolution raised doubts about giving “all parties,” including Loyalists, ready access to the reading public.  State partisan divisions during the 1780s also made it difficult, and sometimes unprofitable, for printers to remain impartial.  On the other hand, the establishment of a republic, in which all power came from the people, gave the argument for a press open to all parties a new ideological foundation: To exercise their responsibilities intelligently, the citizens of a republic had to be fully informed of different views on public issues.

That concept of a free press was, in any case, different from the standard Anglo-American understanding of “freedom of the press,” which referred to the freedom of printers to publish whatever they wanted without “prior restraint” by the government….The emphasis was on the freedom of the press to monitor and criticize persons in power and the policies they adopted.

In the end, proponents of the Constitution found an effective alternative to threats of tar and feathers and other forms of physical punishment: They could influence editorial policy by cancelling or threatening to cancel their subscriptions to “offending” newspapers.  Advocates for freedom of the press could insist that the American people needed access to the full range of opinions on the Constitution. But were individual subscribers…obliged to pay for newspapers that published essays they considered profoundly subversive of their own and the country’s best interests?

Men like Oswald were rare.  Only twelve of over ninety American newspapers and magazines published substantial numbers of essays critical of the Constitution during the ratification controversy…. If printers were “easily terrified into a rejection of free and decent discussions upon public topics,” [New-York Journal Thomas Greenleaf] wrote in early October 1787, the “inevitable consequence” would be “servile fetters for FREE PRESSES of this country.”  Greenleaf promised to give “every performance, that may be written with decency, free access to his Journal.”  For their persistence, Oswald and Greenleaf suffered verbal attacks, cancelled subscriptions, and threats of mob violence.  Their insistence on maintaining what they understood as a “free press,” that is, one that presented the people with criticism as well as hallelujahs for the Constitution, helped start a widespread public debate on the Constitution, which they they kept going. (Emphasis added – ed.)

Just because the government’s not involved doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue.

Arguing over whether this is a legal or a strictly First Amendment issue is the reddest of red herrings.  I suppose there’s some possibility that some judge will decide that if a baker and a photographer can be forced to provide services for gay weddings, then A&E can be forced to employ religious Christians, but absent that, it’s unlikely this will be decided through the courts.  And certainly nobody on the right is calling for a return to the bad old days of the “fairness doctrine,” which wouldn’t apply here in any event.

For most libertarians and conservatives, that’s ok.  But we can’t let it end with that.  We can’t short-circuit them by dismissing them because there are no legal implications.  As Mark Steyn points out, if we want civil society to be where these discussions take place, then we have to ensure that civil society is a place where we can actually have these discussions.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell A&E, and only A&E, that you’re unhappy with their editorial decisions, because if you want to buy A&E, you’re also forced to buy a whole package of other cable channels, not all of which are even owned by the same companies.  The most effective way to enable us to hold A&E accountable is to unbundle these offerings, and allow me to choose, a la carte, what channels I want to receive.   There’s a bill pending in Congress to do just that, and Canada has already taken that step.

In the end, even though there’s an excellent chance that unbundling will mean higher, rather than lower cable bills, it may be the best means of sending the market signals that prevent an enforced conformity.  Right now, more channels just look like a dizzying array of sameness, with those channels of communication that “appeal to a broad range” of viewers, readers, or listeners, being dictated to by bullies who cannot stand to hear that someone disagrees.

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Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving.  And not just because it’s a Jewish Holiday.  (Yes, I find it astonishing that the Pilgrims knew about Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. That alone should be enough to show that what was going on here was something different.

I love it because it’s kind of an American Sukkot.  I love the Macy’s Parade and the balloons.  I love the National Dog Show, even though the anti-Lab bigotry runs deep.  I love the Peanuts specials and the interlude before winter and the turkey and the football.

I love that the stores are closed.

One year, when I first moved out here, I went camping over the 4-day Thanksgiving weekend.  I blew a tire on I-70 and coasted into Silverthorne, and was stuck riding the doughnut until Friday when I could get a new tire in Grand Junction.  And that was OK, because it was Thanksgiving, and people get the day off on Thanksgiving.

Now, stores are opening Thanksgiving night, after the stuffing and the pumpkin pie, because apparently, there’s a huge sales boost to be had opening one day early.  I doubt this is true – almost all those purchases would happen anyway -, but even if it were, I’d be against it.  The fact that you have to go to work that night, even after the meal, can’t help but impinge on the meal itself.

I have seen all sorts of rationalizations of this creeping materialism on Facebook and elsewhere, and others who use it to bitterly denounce WalMart or capitalism in general.  I don’t find any of them persuasive.

Making money, in the true sense of making it, producing wealth, is a good thing.  Having a free market when people can become themselves by starting and owning their own businesses is something to be thankful for. But capitalism is, by it nature subversive.  It undermines existing social structures, forcing people to adapt to new wealth, and to the competition for wealth.  There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, in general.

But it’s something that too many libertarians ignore or resist or excuse.

While making money is good, both in the personal and general sense, we sanctify it by pulling back from it, from time to time, not only to appreciate it, but to appreciate what we have around us.  That’s a large part of what taking Thanksgiving off means.

So yes, while there can’t really be any laws forbidding those post-dinner Thanksgiving sales, I really do hope people stay home.

The stuff will still be there tomorrow.

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The Theodosian Walls Return

Greece, tired of being Muslim Asia’s illegal gateway to Europe, has decided to build a border fence with Turkey.  It’s not a long border, but it will significantly raise the cost of sneaking into Greece from Asia.  Greece already has trouble dealing with the 300,000 illegals there, and has asked the new European border patrol to help supplement their own attempts to control the border.

Greece claims that the fence will be modeled on the US fence with Mexico.  Skeptics will wonder if that means that it will be budgeted for, but not built.  More likely, it will resemble the fence in another way – forcing those sneaking across to be more creative.  Take a look at the Aegean Sea, and you’ll see lots of islands.  Islands that Turkey, for the most part, owns.  Even today, this has to be a smuggler’s paradise.  I haven’t seen any reaction from Bulgaria, but unless they’re willing to follow suit, I suspect that many Asians will start turning north, rather than west, when they cross the Straits.

Some will argue that this makes the whole exercise fruitless, but these are largely people who look at the world as a football game that, like Donovan McNabb, they believe can’t end in a tie.  When you’re faced with opposition, one of the most important things you can do is to complicate their planning and raise the cost of their operations.  It reduces their chances of success, forces them to take risks that might betray them, and in general, makes enforcement elsewhere easier.

I’m sure there are some that will say that this will just drive a wedge between Turkey and Europe, forcing Turkey to turn east.  But the current Turkish government seems to have already made that decision, and with their prosecution of some 200 military officers, also seems to be consolidating its grip on the country, showing that they are no longer afraid of the military’s intervention in civilian affairs.  The proposed fence and increased border controls are more of a response to this situation than a catalyst.

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Ghosts of Constitutional Debates Past

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the Library of America’s Debate on the Constitution, a two-volume set.  While the Federalist is a  – the – American political philosophy, it represents the thoughts of only three authors, and can’t possibly answer all of the concerns that people had about the Constitution at the time.  The entire debate is a much more complete document, all the more valuable because it preserves the dissenting opinions.  We do that in judicial cases because the reasoning itself may be important to future decisors.  It puts the defenses in context, perhaps anticipates future arguments.

One of the first arguments against the Constitution comes in a letter from “Centinel” (they had plenty of variant spellings back then), one Samuel Bryan, in a letter to the Independent Gazetteer, dated October 5, 1787, less than a month after the Convention adjourned.  While we consider the Constitution to be brilliant applied political philosophy designed to protect our God-given natural rights, the opponents were often concerned that it would prove to be a path to despotism, that is, that the Constitution itself contained the means to undermine liberty.  Since the Independent Gazetteer didn’t survive long enough to sign a deal with Righthaven, I’ll quote at length.

He is skeptical of John Adams’s claim that a balance of powers at the federal level is even achievable:

This hypothesis supposes human wisdom competent to the task of instituting three co-equal orders in government, and a corresponding weight in the community to enable them respectively to exercise their several parts, and whose views and interests should be so distinct as to prevent a coalition of any two of them for the destruction of the third.

One could reasonably argue that the executive, with the collaboration of the Court and the capitulation of the Congress, has been progressively acquiring legislative powers.

Bryan anticipates the misreading of the Progressives of Article I Section 8:

“the Congress are to have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense, and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises, shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  Now what can be more comprehensive than these words; … to grant… the absolute controul over the commerce of the United States….The Congress may construe every purpose for which the state legislatures now lay taxes, to be for the general welfare, and thereby seize upon every object of revenue.

He’s focusing on taxes, but the abuse of the general welfare clause is indisputable, and he anticipates the erasure of the proper reading of the Commerce Clause.

Bryan also predicts the hegemony of the courts, in particular, the hegemony of the federal courts over state courts, and of the erosion of state power at the hands of the federal government in general.

…it is more probable that the state judicatories would be wholly superceded; for in contests about jurisdiction, the federal court, as the most powerful, would every prevail.

To put the omnipotency of Congress over the state government and the judicatories out of all doubt, the 6th article ordains that, “this Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land…”

By these section, the all-prevailing power of taxation, and such extensive legislative and judicial powers are vested in the general government, as must in their operation, necessarily absorb the state legislatures and judicatories, and that such was in the contemplation of the framers of it…

Now to be fair, in order to reach these conclusions, he has to ignore other sections of the Constitution, distort the Framers’ clear intent, and claim that later rebuttals are in bad faith.  Congress is explicitly limited in the types of taxes it may levy.  The Commerce Clause is not as expansive as he reads it.  The General Welfare Clause is not blanket permission to enact any sort of law Congress wants to.   Some of them would later be explicitly rectified by the Bill of Rights.   Others would indeed be exploited by judges looking to change the system.  But for him, these failings he claims to have discovered are a bug; for the Progressives, they’re a feature.

While we consider Madison, Hamilton, and Jay to be the heroes of the piece,  that Centinel predicted so many of the distortions later introduced by the Progressives lends his arguments relevance.

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“I’ve Never Gone to Work…I’ve Only Gone to Fly”

The last words of Denny Fitch, subject of the best of Errol Morris’s First Person interviews.  If you’ve never heard of Denny Fitch, watch this interview, and you’ll never forget him.

Believe it not, this was a success.

In 1989, Fitch was a check pilot. dead-heading home to Chicago from Denver, where he had been testing the emergency-readiness of other flight crews, when the hydraulics on the DC-10 went out. Well, “went out” wasn’t quite right: they were severed, all three systems, at the single point of failure, when the tail engine more or less exploded.

When Fitch went up front to help the crew, he joined its battle to do what no other airplane crew had ever done – survive a total failure of their plane’s hydraulic systems. As Fitch points out, there are no cables on a DC-10, because they wouldn’t do any good. The large control surfaces would simply overwhelm the strength of any one man. Essentially, the only control that the crew had over the plane was through the right and left engine power.

Fitch guides us through the crew’s battle to stabilize the plane’s flight, decide where to try to land it, and the eventual crash-landing through which 2/3 of the crew and passengers lived. He dead-pans his way through some of the decisions the crew had to make: “It is better to land in a corn field with the gear up or down? There’s not a lot of test data on that.” He comes across as a thoroughly serious, but likable guy, who can simplify even complex aeronautical problems.

Morris’s pacing is also superb, alternating between the tension of the cockpit and the stakes of success or failure, and the personal and technical background needed to tell to the story. I sent the link to the first segment to my Dad last night, and he ended up watching the whole thing, beginning to end. I suspect you will, too.

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Thanksgiving and Other Holidays

For a while now, Dennis Prager has been championing the idea of a 4th of July Seder, paralleling the Passover Seder, as a mean of using ritual to preserve the ideals of the day.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen him explicitly explain how Passover’s position within Judaism is similar to Independence Day’s role in our civil religion.  Just as Passover celebrates the emergence of Israel as a nation, so does the 4th of July.  Just as the Declaration of Independence declares principles without specifying the legal form of the new nation, so is the Exodus only half the story, incomplete without Sinai.  And just as on Passover we recount the story of the Exodus, so in the 4th of July, we remember – often by re-enacting – the events of the Revolution.

It’s also been noted that Passover is the most specifically Jewish of the holidays, stands in contrast to Rosh Hashanah, the most universal holiday on the Jewish calendar.  I would like to suggest that Thanksgiving occupies a similar spot on our secular calendar.

Now, Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, no doubt about it.  But the theme is of creation of the world, and God as universal monarch, which is different from the concept of gods that had existed before, usually as local gods, whose power didn’t extend beyond the territory of those who worshiped them.  There’s little more universal than that.  Likewise, there’s the mystical notion that the shofar is the sound of our soul, something that all humans share.

Similarly, while Thanksgiving has distinctive American overtones – our material prosperity is a function of both our resources and our resourcefulness (and the freedom to use the latter to make use of the former) – the notion that our blessings ultimately are a result of a partnerships between God and ourselves is something that could be celebrated by anyone fortunate to be free.  It was first celebrated before and exists independent of America as a political entity.

This isn’t to suggest identity between the two sets of holidays, much less between America and Judaism.  Rosh Hashanah is not Thanksgiving; Passover is not the 4th of July.  The ideas actually embodied by the holidays are very different.  And I’ve been highly critical of those (mostly Reform and secular) Jews who replaced religion with politics, trading eternal values for temporary politics.

But their places within their respective systems are very, very similar.

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Just a Dog

Like most dog adoptions, it began with an ad: “Lab puppies.  Akron.  $150.  Call 970-xxx-xxxx.”

So I brought him home, without a name, a black lab.  Not only without a name, I realized as I pulled into PetSmart.  Without a bed, a collar, a leash, food, bowl, or toys.  That first night, he slept in  cardboard box, padded by shredded newspaper, in the unfinished basement of the house I was renting.  He went to sleep crying, and woke up crying.  At 4:00.  This was a dog who had spent his first three months on a farm, never even coming indoors.  Suddenly, he wakes up in a room, in a strange house, no mom, no Man Who Milks the Cows, nothing familiar.  Alone.  Last time that happened, I can promise you.

Thus began an 11-year friendship, familiar to all dog owners.  Eleven years, dozens of trips, hundreds of days in the car.  Hiking, snowshoeing, carrying bags, swimming, camping.  Sage probably saw more of the western half of the country than most people who live here.  His last trip, a day trip over July 4th weekend, we took him swimming at Jefferson Lake.  He could barely make it around the block for the arthritis, but he could swim for 15-20 minutes straight.  God, how he loved to swim.  Took him a year from puppyhood to learn to stop wading, but once he did, there was no stopping him from chasing the thoroughly unconcerned ducks.

He wasn’t a big fan of the rides, never did like to hang his head out the side, and hated, hated off-road travel, although the destination was usually to his liking.  Once, on a shelf road down Comb Ridge in Utah, he almost got us both killed trying to climb into the front seat with me.  I had to leash him to the Jeep’s frame in the back to keep him from trying it again.  In fact, he was sort of an all-around coward; for a gun dog, he couldn’t stand fireworks.  When he heard the vet’s voice, he scampered under the seats in his exam room.  That’s a trick for 110-lb dog.

Like all dogs, he was a bundle of paradoxes.  He could break a marrow bone in half, but carry a balloon across the floor without busting it.  He was a coward who took our mutual defense pact seriously, and jumped in-between my father and me when I asked Dad to fake a punch, to see what would happen.  (Wednesday morning, with only minutes to live, he rose unsteadily to challenge the intruder who was there to help.)  He loved to eat, but waited for permission.  He took a long time to get used to the car, but put his head in my lap as a puppy when we were diving late at night.  His was the model for the dog-squirrel relationship in Up, even though he only got in-between a squirrel and its tree once.

He got used to the fact that most of life was outside his control.  We went camping one time, and when a wind came up and I had to lean into the windward side of the tent for half an hour to keep it earthbound, he just crawled over to a safe part of the tent to daven in his doggie way for the weather to clear.  We took him to the Sand Dunes, and when wind kept blowing sand into his eyes on the way back, he just looked over to make sure I appreciated the sacrifice.  When he went snowshoeing for 5 hours – about 3 hours longer than intended – he carried the food, treats, and water, and never complained.  And when, on that last trip, I needed him to make it back to the Jeep, he did, even though he really wanted nothing more than to lie down in the cold, cold runoff for the rest of his life.

If you’re the unsentimental type, the type that would need a scientific, rational justification for the human-dog connection, let Temple Grandin provide it in Animals in Translation:

Basically, two different species with complementary skills teamed up together, something that had never happened before, and has never really happened since.

Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves, they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups, humans didn’t.  Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships, humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today.  Wolves were highly territorial, humans probably weren’t – again, judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.  A lot of the things we do that the other primates don’t are dog things.  The Australian group thinks it was the dogs who showed us how.

…Fossil records show that whenever a species becomes domesticated its brain gets smaller.  The horse’s brain shrank by 16%; the pig’s brain shrank by as much as 34%; and the dog’s brain shrank by 10 to 30%….Now archaeologists have discovered that 10,000 years ago, just at the point when humans began to give their dogs formal burials, the human brain began to shrink, too.  It shrank by 10%… And what’s interesting is what part of the human brain shrank.  In all of the domestic animals, the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank.  But in humans, it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, that got smaller.  Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks.

Sage’s and my teaming up came to an end last Wednesday.

Tuesday morning, he was fine, except for his arthritis.  Tuesday evening, he was sick.  Wednesday morning, we didn’t even need to put him down; I just asked him – gave him permission, really – to go to sleep, that when he woke up, we’d go for a walk, maybe even go to the park to go swimming.  I left the room to call Susie, and as soon as I did, he went to sleep.  I was told there was nothing to be done, but he saved me the doubt.

Good boy, Sage.  Sleep tight.

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Old Guy Moment

Dramatis Personae:
Me
A young co-worker

Me (approaching the coffee station): Oh, we’re out of high-test.

Young Co-worker: What’s high-test?

Me (pausing momentarily): You know, from when there was leaded gas.

Young Co-worker: Leaded gas?  I’ve heard of unleaded gas…

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