Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well… arguably, yes – but I won’t go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is –

To Be Continued…

The Science Fiction of War

I (mis)spent a large portion of my teenage years devouring science fiction and fantasy novels. One of my favorite authors was and still is Robert A. Heinlein.

The WSJ (may she rest in peace) has a opinion piece up by Taylor Dinerman (thanks for the tip Jadxia!) discussing not the science in Heinlein’s work, but the politics.

Even though Heinlein’s political views drifted toward the Libertarian in later life, I’d have to admit that none of his works had more political meaning for me as a teenager than Starship Troopers.

For those who only saw the film and never read the book, believe me they have little in common. The book deals far more with the moral responsibilities citizens bring to a society. (BTW, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, I’d recommend the synopsis here). He does a much better job of doing it than I ever could.)

Perhaps a quick excerpt will help show how extreme the book really was politically. In the course of the story, the main character Juan Rico remembers a required class on political thinking the had taken. The teacher, Mr. Dubois, explains the origin of duties and rights.

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Amazingly, I both agree and disagree with this passage which ended up being a major part of my moral and political compass. I disagree with the first paragraph, as I have said before, I think morality is evolutionarily hard wired; having moral feelings towards family groups allows species do better than ones that don’t have this characteristic. Morality is the basis for duty not the other way around.

On the other hand, I completely agree with the passage about ‘unalienable rights.’ I’ve never been able to buy into the idea that there are rights to anything. There are contracts. There are things that are moral. I can’t believe they are really rights and they certainly aren’t unalienable. (My God! Have I just outed myself as a libertarian fascist?!)

I disagree with the right to vote and think it should be a duty, it’s a moral obligation not a right. It is a moral obligation required by democratic societies; it is not optional.

It is like the ‘right’ to life. This unalienable right would seem to preclude the right to death, the right to take one’s own life; a choice I think is both important and ‘unalienable’. (But please, of course I wouldn’t argue that anyone can take someone else’s life. Personal choices are not societies choices; what works for the one does not scale to the many. Only pregnant women can eat for two for example.)

I always saw that Starship Troopers as the reaction of someone who had seen the patriotic struggle of the Second World War morph into the political morass that was Korea and would become Vietnam. I thought, and still do think, that much was right. And more was totally wrong.

And that’s why, Starship Troopers is always connected in my mind to a second novel, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Where Starship Troopers is the product of patriotism, The Forever War is the product of patriotism distorted and misused. Where the point of Starship Troopers is a just war, a never ending fight for freedom, honor and duty – The Forever War simply highlights the ultimate uselessness of conflict. Haldeman’s classic is perhaps the second pillar in my politial makeup. Together I think the two novels show both the highs and lows of societies.

Maybe if more politicians today would read Haldeman and not Heinlein, we might not be where we are – a world of ‘science fiction‘ not even Heinlein could have imagined.

F**k Yourself Isn’t Just For The Senate Floor

Remember Dick Cheney’s perfect personality mirror but minor verbal misstep when he told Patrick Leahy to “go f**k yourself” on the floor of the U.S. Senate? It seems the White House is going to make it an official policy.

All the other news outlets are pointing out that yesterday the House Judiciary Committee ruled that excecutive privilege cannot be used to protect documents in the district attorney firings. Many feel this would be a first step towards filing contempt charges against current Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten for refusing to give congress the information it requested. (That would be in addition to former White House Council Harriet “no-show” Miers for those not keeping score.)

The Washington Post has headlined with the story (from an unnamed source) that the Department of Justice will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges base on executive privilege. Ever.

Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.

The position presents serious legal and political obstacles for congressional Democrats, who have begun laying the groundwork for contempt proceedings against current and former White House officials in order to pry loose information about the dismissals. Under federal law, a statutory contempt citation by the House or Senate must be submitted to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, “whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action.”

But administration officials argued yesterday that Congress has no power to force a U.S. attorney to pursue contempt charges in cases, such as the prosecutor firings, in which the president has declared that testimony or documents are protected from release by executive privilege. Officials pointed to a Justice Department legal opinion during the Reagan administration, which made the same argument in a case that was never resolved by the courts.

This is the political version of taunting “bring it on” to a professional wrestler.

I suspect this will leave people like William Kristol jump for joy and constitutional and political scholars sputter. I have no doubt that Gonzales won’t mind. It means even less for him to do or have to deny.

As news outlets have been pointing out since the Senate chose to being pursuing Miers, there are two different paths which congress can follow. Since 1934, congress has usually used the civil contempt option requiring the Senate to defer to the Justice department for prosecution of the case. Criminal contempt proceedings, popular in the 1800’s have fallen out of style but remain solely in the legislative realm. The Senate’s Sergeant at Arms has long had the legal power to arrest people, like journalists or presidents, but hasn’t needed chosen to use that power much lately.

There are the logistical difficulties. Even though the office of the Sergeant at Arms is the largest in both size and budget, the Senate has neither the personal nor space to confine anyone. I suspect that is the loophole the White House is betting on. Further, whether the Democrats can muster enough support to actually arrest either Meirs or Bolten is doubtful. Does anyone know what the rules are there?

No matter whether you are on the side of the President,

David B. Rifkin, who worked in the Justice Department and White House counsel’s office under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, praised the position and said it is consistent with the idea of a “unitary executive.” In practical terms, he said, “U.S. attorneys are emanations of a president’s will.” And in constitutional terms, he said, “the president has decided, by virtue of invoking executive privilege, that is the correct policy for the entire executive branch.”

Or you side with more “traditional” legal scholars

But Stanley Brand, who was the Democratic House counsel during the Burford case, said the administration’s legal view “turns the constitutional enforcement process on its head. They are saying they will always place a claim of presidential privilege without any judicial determination above a congressional demand for evidence — without any basis in law.” Brand said the position is essentially telling Congress: “Because we control the enforcement process, we are going to thumb our nose at you.”

Rozell, the George Mason professor and authority on executive privilege, said the administration’s stance “is almost Nixonian in its scope and breadth of interpreting its power. Congress has no recourse at all, in the president’s view. . . . It’s allowing the executive to define the scope and limits of its own powers.”

his issue will now define the Bush presidency almost as much as the Iraq war. Setting up these kinds of sideshows also saps the political strength of the Democratic opposition. No matter how weak the attack, even the strongest elephant donkey can be overcome by billions of rat attacks.

This is will be an official “go fuck yourself” to the House and Senate. Will they put up with it?

Rape as a Weapon

Diane E. King has a very unsettling piece in today’s International Herald Tribute.

As a cultural anthropologist, she comments on the view of rape in patrilineal cultures – cultures like the Shiite and Sunni in Iraq.

Rape is always humiliating, always a violation, always awful. But under patrilineal cultures, it can also be a tool of sectarian discord and even genocide. This is the case in Iraq, where rape is frequently used as a weapon of sectarian conflict. When a Shiite militiaman rapes a Sunni woman, for example, he is seen as potentially implanting a Shiite individual into her womb. He is causing her to suffer dual humiliations: She is sexually violated, with all of the personal implications that that would carry in any culture. But the rape further serves like a Trojan Horse: Thereafter, an offspring bearing the rapist’s identity may well be hidden inside her body, an enemy who will emerge in nine months.

So cross-sectarian rape as a weapon of political conflict hypothetically can force a woman to nurture her own enemy. But in actual practice, this rarely happens. Rather, the tragedy of rape is compounded when a member of that woman’s group eliminates her and any enemy offspring through an “honor killing.” Honor killings are usually carried out by the father or brother of the victim, although they may be committed by others from the group. Alternatively, the woman herself may commit an “honor suicide.”

Honor killings have been on the rise in Iraq. The connection these killings have to a corresponding rise in rapes has not been documented, but there seems to be every reason to assume a connection.

This is the real cost of the American invasion and occupation. The American losses are trivial in this light, no?

Known Unknowns

firearms-and-violence1.jpgOne of the problems with discussing gun control in America is actually having a handle on what is going on. Not only are statistics often misquoted, there are few statistics that are really meaningful.

I am in the process of preparing a couple of posts discussing the change in gun control laws in England and Australia (although Snopes already beat me to it). These two countries are often used by gun control opponents as examples where outlawing guns lead to rampant increases in crime.

But while researching those articles, I ran across a wonderful online book. Entitled simply Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review and published by the National Research Council. It discusses what information is available and what it can tell us. The results are scary.

In about 300 pages, the book points out just how little is really known about the relationship between firearms and violence; or firearms and safety for that matter. Even though millions of dollars are spent each year on collecting data and researching effects, hidden and obvious, this book points out that there is surprisingly little that can be absolutely determined, including, for example, the number of guns in private ownership in America.

This book is not trying to support any given policy, either for or against gun control, but rather it tries to determine whether there is enough information available to define exactly where the problems lie and to be able to define benchmarks to determine whether a given policy works.

Published in 2004, the book covers a wide range of topics starting with measuring firearm related violence, ownership and ways to prevent illegal ownership. It continues by looking at the statistics on Defensive Gun Use (DGU) and the controversial effects of Right-to-Carry RTC laws. These two issues are extremely important being two major planks in the NRA’s lobbying techniques supporting gun ownership. Finally, the book looks at the relationship between firearms and suicide; programs designed to prevent accidental injuries caused by firearms and legal methods for reducing firearm related violence.

Interestingly there was one open academic spat in the book. The book concludes that there is little support for the theory that Right-To-Carry (RTC) laws impact crime. James Q. “Broken Windows” Wilson dissented on a portion of that claim. Wilson commented that there is evidence to support the claim that RTC laws lower murder rates. In its response, the rest of the scientific committee answered with,

In particular, the committee, including Wilson, found that “it is impossible to draw strong conclusions from the existing literature on the causal impact” of right-to-carry laws on violent and property crime in general and rape, aggravated assault, auto theft, burglary, and larceny in particular.

The only substantive issue on which the committee differed is whether the existing research supports the conclusion that right-to-carry laws substantially reduce murder. The report suggests that the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Wilson disagreed, arguing that virtually every estimate shows a substantial and statistically significant negative effect of right-to-carry laws on murder.

Now to the gossip part. It is interesting to note that one of the members of the advisory committee, Steven J Levitt was sued by John Lott Jr. for libel. Levitt commented in his book, Freakonomics that Lott’s theories hadn’t been “replicated” by other researchers. Lott took offense and when on the – um – offensive. He sued and … LOST. Oops. Lott and Levitt will be back in court in October on another issue; it will be interesting to see how that works out.

Back to gun control though; while dry, the book makes important reading for anyone willing to make serious comments about whether gun control is a good or bad thing. It helps give background on where the source for the statistics quoted in newspapers and blogs and how they are generated and what credibility they have.The book can be read online one annoying page at a time or one could actually pop to the $50 required to buy it. I chose the online variant (combined with a little programming to make my reading pleasure a bit more, um, pleasurable) .

The nice thing about the book is that it gives an excellent feel for the known unknowns. That let’s you justify or question the “knowns” you think you “know.”

Bad Behavior

For any regular readers, (do I have regular readers?), I chose to spend my morning responding in to this post at This wasn’t in the Plan.

Vance responded to my posting of the ‘Evil’ Epicurean quote and we’ve been at it ever since.

You might drop by there and look read around. I often disagree with Vance but I respect his opinions. My post will probably show up later today. Vance filters his comments, largely because at some point he seems to have gotten inundated by attack commenters. If I recall correctly, it was the last time we had a spat and I was to blame (sorry).

Had I written something less (anti?-) ethical for his blog, my political posting would have tied together cellulite, George W. Bush’s freedom delusions in his Prague response to Putin and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Now. My regular readers should easily be able to make those connections. But, if not, just post a comment asking me to complete the train (wreck) of thought there and I’ll see what I can do.

The Path Leading to a Laneway

Anya Peters is both a very strong person and a someone who has a very long journey both behind and ahead of her.

She first came to my attention through her blog, WanderingScribe about her life, living alone, in her car on at the end of a lane somewhere in England. It was well written, moving and extremely powerful. I have written about her before.

abandoned-anya-peters1.jpgHer book, Abandoned, the Story about a Little Girl Who Didn’t Belong, finally came out at the beginning of the month and I was literally unable to put it down. What I expected was a little background about how she had ended up at the end of her rope and more about what her writing had given her. What I got was an amazingly powerfully written book about how she came to believe that there was no help; there was no one to turn to; no one she could trust. Worse she felt she didn’t deserve any help. It is a story of child abuse, mental, physical and sexual, of abandonment, and eventually betrayal. It is the story of one child’s torturous journey to adulthood.

There were times when the book was amazingly difficult to read, Peters does not hide what goes on behind a smokescreen of innuendo. She clearly and bluntly tells the reader what it is like to be sexually abused before she even understands what is happening. When the abuse is finally exposed, her worst nightmares come to pass, she is separated from the woman she feels is her mother. It is heartbreaking – you will cry.

The tale of abuse explains how she ends up living in her car and to how she came to write a blog. In contrast to the first part of the book, this part is told almost breathlessly, as if it were only half remembered. The tale of her childhood is etched upon her very being. But the struggle to exist once she became homeless – the stress, the cold, the worry, the shame – all conspired to force her to live day to day and to concentrate not on self-reflection, but on survival.

For those interested in the day to day story of how she survived, those tales can be found not in the book but in the blog. It is a tale everyone should also read.

On a personal note, reading this book reminded me of something I have heard Richard Dawkins say repeatedly; that religious education is a form of child abuse. It would be nice if someone would send this book to him. I understand his rhetoric, he wants to shock. But in doing so he merely harms his own cause by belittling the real damage, the absolute hate, that occurs during child abuse. It is one of the reasons I find Dawkins so objectionable. Anyone who reads this book will realise the rage I feel when I hear Richard Dawkins relate religion with child abuse – it is not.

I urge everyone to order this book. Peters has a long journey ahead of her. She must readjust not only to day to day living, the commonplace ecstasy felt simply when standing barefoot on a carpeted floor holding a warm cup of tea, not only the struggle to find a job and healthy companionship. She must learn to trust herself; not to look into her own soul to try to determine what she did wrong, but to accept that others have harmed her.

To get a taste of her writing, you should read her reaction to seeing her book for the first time in a shop. It is very indicative of how she writes,

It was the weirdest thing. I think my heart stopped at least two beats.

I’ve had a copy of that cover pinned to the noticeboard in my room for months now, and it’s here on the blog as well, so the image on the front of the book is very familiar to me by now. But in the shop today, seeing it there for the first time — and a day too soon! — for a moment I was completely disorientated and just stared up at it frowning, thinking ‘what’s that doing there?’ I recognised it as my book, but, for a split second that’s all I did, just recognised it as mine — a possession, something belonging to me. It was almost as if I had left my own copy — which just happened to be in my bag at the time — there on the shelf by mistake. ‘How did that get there?’ my head was trying to say, as my hand almost got ready to grab it off the shelf and put it back into my bag. As soon as my head caught up and I realised why it was there I turned and left the shop without even taking it down to look at it. Very, very odd reaction.

But it’s there, my life in a book on a bookshelf somewhere, and it’s bizarre seeing it, but I was right: it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’s somebody else’s book now. My life is just a story now, out there with all the other stories. And hopefully now, at long, long last, I can finally be free of it and move on.

I hope she can move on and I wish her the very best of luck.

She is an excellent author and sounds like a wonderful person.

Call For Conservatism

Hi All Some – um – my meager readership,

Since I spend way too much time reading right now, I am trying to get my online information consumption marginally under control.

While looking at the things I read, I noticed something missing in my daily scan of the Intertubes. I really don’t have a good general Conservative site where I can do one stop shopping for right leaning views.

What I am looking for is a conservative equivalent to HuffingtonPost or The Moderate Voice. I have a couple of places in mind, but I’d like to hear suggestions first. Note: I’m not looking for the really hard core, apocalyptic stuff but more a mutliperson right leaning blog.

Thanks. Suggestions in the comments. And hey – smoke if you’ve got em and delurk if you’ve got a good idea. 😉

Science = A Free Exchange of Ideas?

I spend far too much time reading blogs and articles written by scientists for scientists. But I also enjoy reading the behind the scenes view of science journalists like Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how science can be effectively communicated in a form both understandable and interesting to most lay people.

That is why the news of a paper on framing science by social scientist Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney published in the latest Science sounded so interesting. At least until I realized that the article is only for scientists – or journalists – or those so interested in science to spend somewhere between $100 and $300 for a subscription to a journal that will rarely produce enough information for a ‘layman.’

But then again the article about framing science was directed at scientists and not laymen. And it isn’t that science publications through the American Association of Publishers (AAP) aren’t using framing to present to congress a case against free public access to science papers.  (To be fair, Nature and Science aren’t part of the AAP – John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are.) And thus scientists will discuss the problem and discuss the ideas and forget that the public are the ones who need to have more input.

But back to framing as such.

Many scientists and journalists seem to think there is a fundamental problem with science education. Carl Zimmer seems to think so.

As a science writer who doesn’t deal much in political reporting, I’m with them–but only up to a point, as far as I can tell. Frankly, I find framing science a bit murky. Nisbet and Mooney tell us that scientists must frame, but for what? They don’t actually say what the goal of framing is, and their implications are hard to turn into a clear picture.
Certainly scientists should think about why the rest of the world ought to care about their research. Certainly they should think about how it will get sucked into the political blender (and how they might want to jump in after it). But framing doesn’t seem like quite the right response to the fact that over two-thirds of people in this country don’t know enough about science to understand a newspaper story on a scientific subject. It seems more like surrender to me. Fixing high school science education seems a better plan. Don’t let kids come out of high school without knowing that a laser emits light, not sound; without knowing about standard deviations; without knowing what a stem cell is. Fixing high school science would be a lot harder than staying on message, but it would be a lot more important.

But the problem isn’t simply education. The problem isn’t simply knowledge. I often see knowledge as an ever growing pyramid.

Children today are being saddled with ever more information on a broader front than ever before. There is little time to filter what knowledge can be accumulated. To think that training hormone-challenged teenagers will solve the issue of scientific thought is a fantasy, to be relegated next to the myths of a historically well trained public (did the Second World War start in 1939 with the invasion of Poland or eight years earlier with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria? Nice western bias – huh? Should we concentrate on science or geography or current events or spelling and basic math?)

Would we prefer people to understand science or be able to balance their check book? Do we want people to understand science or know where Iraq is? Do we want our children to understand the mechanics of evolution or that homelessness isn’t caused by laziness? There is only so much time to teach. A selection must be made. Thus the focus shouldn’t be on the teenagers but their parents and the media. A realistic CSI would be nice, but wouldn’t get ratings. Shows like Mythbusters and Bullshit! are a step in the right direction (Even they get some things wrong – the secondary smoke episode anyone?).

Since I am unable to read the article, I am unable to look at the specific recommendations being made by Nesbit and Mooney.

But I would make a few concrete suggestions.

It has become common knowledge that the Republican National Committee distributes a memo containing talking points. How to frame certain issues using specific language. Scientists need the same thing. Scientists, like politicians need to be able answer bluntly false ideas, not with facts – facts are often unimportant to the general public – but with concrete talking points refuting the idea. And the talking points need to be widely spread – passed from prof to prof, grad student to grad student, sci-blogger to sci-blogger. Perhaps generated at a side conference for distribution before AAS meetings.

From what I understand, the article lists three main areas where scientists should frame responses: climate change, evolution and stem cells. I’d like to touch on each.

It is ironic that one of the biggest supporters for trying to get climate change information into the world, Matt Nisbet, would mange to get his article published on the same Friday the second part of the IPCC on Climate Change report gets finished. Thus Nisbet’s article gets discussed and the IPCC report gets even less attention by the general science blogging public. Nesbit has already railed against the idea of publishing the report on a Friday; the idea of publishing the Report on a Friday going into Easter Weekend is even less intelligent framed and shows how important this issue is.

Since it is the uncertainty that most climate change opponents attack, it is the uncertainty that must be explained, not the climate change. Opponents highlight the uncertainties and question the ability of scientists to make accurate predictions. This can be combated at two levels.

First, is the question of how certain scientist needs to be. Most climate change documents now use very specific language to define how ‘certain’ information is. Many of the conclusions reached are ‘very likely’ meaning better than 90%. (Always to be followed with the comment that this could be 94% certain, it just didn’t make the next level of extremely likely – 95%.*) If you hear the weatherman predict a 90% chance of rain, do you take an umbrella? Does making it 95% likely change your mind? If there are 9 chances out of 10 that it will snow, do you buy a snow blower? How certain is certain?You don’t attack the climate argument, you attack the certainty argument using everyday examples about what we think certain to be.

But take the idea even farther. The opponents of climate change point to the fact that you can’t predict the weather next week how can you predict the weather in 100 years. The answer, you can’t. But you can make some very good estimates. I know the weather will get warmer in the next few months. I know that next summer will be warm but I can’t tell you how many hurricanes there will be. Some things look really random but aren’t. Take casinos. No one can say exactly which number will come up next. But by understanding and studying the odds, the casinos know that certain numbers will come up often enough for them to win money in the long run. Climatology isn’t about knowing exactly which number will come up next; climatology is about calculating the profit (or loss) for mankind.

Moving to evolution, look at the “it’s just a theory” criticism.

Here the talking point might be not to speak of evolution but of theories and to use a clearly loaded image – the apple. Evolution is a theory in the same sense gravity is a theory. Take an apple. If you hold it out and let go, it is clear the apple will fall. No one would dispute that. Now take a cannon ball. Galileo argued that both the apple and the cannon ball would fall at the same rate. Newton, born the year of Galileo’s death would finally put numbers on the time needed for an apple to fall from a tree, a cannon ball from the tower of Pisa or even the time needed for the moon to fall around the Earth, something we now call an orbit.

Most people think of this as the theory of gravity. But it does not explain the origin of gravity, it describes the process. (Indeed the search for the ‘origin of gravity’ may have suffered a major setback in March when an important part failed during a preliminary test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The part failed partly because engineers didn’t balance the forces correctly – another Newtonian concept.)

But evolution is like gravity. Scientists study and argue about the exact process of evolution. While many of the equations necessary for describing evolution are as simple as Newton’s laws, the specific processes, the individual actions, the origins are still being described. They are still being debated. But the ‘fact’ of evolution is as accepted by scientists as the ‘fact’ that the apple will fall by the general public. And the general public will usually get the ‘theory’ of gravity wrong when they assume that a cannon ball will fall faster than an apple. Which is more important?

The apple is traditionally depicted as the forbidden fruit used by Satan to lead Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. If the knowledge presented by the apple is dangerous, is the knowledge of the theory of gravity any less dangerous than evolution?

Perhaps the most difficult issue approached by the article is on stem cells.

Here the line is difficult to draw because the issues effected are less scientific as ethical. Where do we draw the line? While I agree with most scientists that research on stem cells ‘harvested’ (need to frame a better term there) from unused in-vitro embryos is scientifically ok, I still have different problems with the idea. In a climate of increasing commercialisation and sale of scientific results, who owns the cells and the patents generated from the embryos? Is it ethical to ask parents for permission to use ‘their’ material? Isn’t it likely that one stem cell line will eventually be used simply because it was in the right place at the right time? Isn’t it equally likely that that line will be worth billions? Who gets the profit?

Doesn’t this debate need to solve the “if yes – how” question before returning to the question of whether IV stem cells should be used. Should the pharma company that patents the first stem cell therapy be required to fund future in-vitro fertilisations – at least for the uninsured and underinsured?

I am wary of stem cell research on many ethical levels few of which have anything to do with the science as such. I disagree with the standpoint of the religious right but nevertheless I think the “let us just do the research” standpoint is simply naïve. I don’t have any talking points here. I would love to see the debate shifted to a more centrist position but I don’t see a good way of doing it.

Those scientists who feel threatened because framing science hides the facts are missing the point. Those framing dissent are hiding the facts. They exploit gaps and cracks in theories and knowledge to generate distorted pieces of a larger picture. 

Framing science isn’t hiding the facts, because the general public not only lacks the ability to put the misused pieces of the puzzle into place, but the general public doesn’t even know what the picture should be. Scientists need to spend more time painting the picture and less time trying to fill in the cracks exploited by the enemies of science.

But scientists also need to learn to get on message – on one message and unfortunately it usually has little to do with science qua science. In order to fight those who would use any means to destroy science, perhaps it is time for scientists to learn to fight fire with fire; talking point with talking point. And perhaps that is the role missing today. The creator and disseminator of science talking points – and not science.

Those scientists who think teaching more science will solve the problem need to spend more time watching Monster Garage and American Idol. That is the level of intelligence and knowledge^at which any debate needs to be focused. Not on a future knowledge utiopia – on the here and now – the idol worshiping America world.

That is what I hope Mooney and Nesbit are fighting for. Even if I can’t access the article because it isn’t free, fortunately this exchange of ideas is free.

Note: Matt Nesbit responded to a number of criticisms and comments on the article and linked to a broad number of comments on his blog. It is well worth the read to get an overview of the responses.. 

* From the IPCC Report, most climate change documents have evolved a similar language.

In this Summary for Policymakers, the following terms have been used to indicate: the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence, Extremely likely > 95%, Very likely > 90%, Likely > 66%, More likely than not > 50%, Very unlikely < 10%, Extremely unlikely < 5%.

The following terms have been used to express confidence in a statement: Very high confidence At least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct, High confidence About an 8 out of 10 chance, Medium confidence About a 5 out of 10 chance, Low confidence About a 2 out of 10 chance, Very low confidence Less than a 1 out of 10 chance.

A Defense of Faith

I finally got around to reading [Sam] Harris’s End of Faith.

On the one hand, it is an astounding document, a frontal assault on religion and faith. On the other, it is clear that Harris is writing from the heart. (I am sure he would resent my using the phrase ‘with heart and soul’ but it would reflect my opinion.) He seems most concerned that the irrationality of religious beliefs is not only dangerous but the most fearful threat facing mankind today.

He spends half the book with broadside after broadside directed at religion; Christianity and Islam being the primary targets. Judaism is attacked primarily as a precursor to these two and Hinduism is only mentioned in passing. Buddhism as a belief structure is left largely unscathed and Apollo, Zeus and Athena merely dismissed as myths. Wiccans are left unmentioned.

I found this part of the book to be the least balanced. Perhaps I will devote another post to the problems I see in that part of the book, problems which are far too numerous to be listed here. His main attacks seem based on a literal reading of the various holy works. He therefore makes the connection, since the scriptures are not consistent, not only are beliefs based on them irrational, but any idea taken from them dangerous. He seems fascinated by the more graphic portions both of the Bible and the Koran and dedicates page after page to debunking any belief that could use these works as a basis. Fine.

In the second half of the text, Harris looks at the connection between ethics and religion and asks the important question of whether research will be able to find a science of good and evil; a clear delineation between what is right and wrong without discourse to holy books (or constitutions). Further he looks at the connection between spiritually and consciousness arguing that spiritually and mysticism are possible without the fetters of religion. These chapters are designed to show a path out of the horrors of dogma and into a more structured and intellectual understanding of the world.

This part of the book was more balanced and less polemic; he wants to reconstruct the social order torn down by the removal of religion. I found Harris treading well understood ground here, he studies neuroscience. In the acknowledgements, he mentions two chapters on the brain that were cut from the final version of the book. While I think this would have explained both Harris’s impatience with religion and his hope for the future, they were probably too complicated and erudite for the audience Harris reached otherwise.

As a bridge between the attack and the reconstruction, Harris shows two of examples of how dangerous religions can become – the Inquisition and the Christian origins of anti-Semitism as a precursor to the Holocaust. I think both of these examples show Harris’s distortion of truth and use of polemic to make marginal or invalid points.

He describes the Inquisition as an example of the tortures used to extract confessions from innocent, religious prisoners while leaving out the fact that similar methods were used to extract information from secular prisoners as well. The idea that pain and suffering might induce people to give incorrect or misleading information wasn’t religious doctrine but common knowledge at the time. Trial by fire was not merely a platitude in the middle ages. The only thing particularly spectacular about the Inquisition was its targeting of a relatively peaceful and prosperous segment of the population. And note, the emphasis is on prosperous. Most pogroms were carried out for financial and not purely religious reasons.

Harris’s explanation that Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in Christian faith is as true as it is trivial. The Nazi’s were chasing a mythical racial purity that had nothing to do with faith as such. Indeed one of the principal goals of the Nazi’s was to replace existing religions with a new (or as they pretended – old) religion. This wasn’t out of any dogmatic belief but because the Nazis knew the power of using that from of emotion. The racial discrimination that has been and is being carried out in the United States is arguably not of religious nature. The concentration camps set up in Colorado during the Second World War had little to do with Christianity but a lot to do with race. While the group selected by the Nazis was based on age old religious predudices, the problem wasn’t the religion but the predjudice.

Harris might be described as a neocon to religion looking for dogmatic WMDs wherever they might be found and disregarding any evidence to the contrary.

The neocons were certain Sadaam and Iraq presented a threat and played up every possible hint of danger while passing over any evidence that it might not be so. While getting Sadaam out of power might have been a good idea, the neocon ‘strategy’ was focused on the destruction of a dangerous regime and on the democracy that would bloom in its place. The fuzzy part was the path from dictatorship to democracy and it is that fuzziness that is what is ending life after life in the Fertile Crescent today.

Harris makes a similar mistake. While he points to a proud new world, a world of science of ethics and an understanding of how and where feelings of spirituality can be nurtured and supported, he makes no concession to reality. Not only does he not tell us how to achieve these goals; it is unclear whether there is a ‘there’ there. In a sense Harris sees religion as a kind of social WMD. Extremists driven by frenzy of religion will seek not metaphorical WMD’s but real ones and the world will be destroyed. I would argue that lacking religion, any of the other traditional excuses – race, nationality, etc. – will be used to foment hate and dissent.

The book makes a startling and excellent case for the danger the world is in today. Wherever peoples with differing religions come into conflict, the religion will be used to magnify and define the suffering. But if the only option is to condemn all religious thought, to ‘outlaw’ beliefs and myths, then we are doomed and no book can save us; not Harris’s, not the Bible, not the Vedas, not the writings of Confucius – none. We are doomed.

We live in a world where we are permanently bombarded with the message that, we should be satisfied with our lives (but are not) and that dissatisfaction is a condition to be combated, something to be exercised – preferably through conspicuous consumption and greed. The feeling that dissatisfaction is ‘curable’ leaves the human mind open for anything that offers relief. There are those few blessed with the ability to fill that void with intellectual pursuits: Eugenie Scott, PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins to name a few. There are others less fortunate who use alcohol and other substances to deaden the ache. But nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, and religion and belief are used by many to fill the gap.

If Harris does not offer a substitute for belief, his attempts at dismantling organised faith, if successful, would leave a chaos making Baghdad look like a children’s party.

There is no doubt that spirituality and belief are experiencing a renaissance in the world today. Not only are religions growing, but belief in New Age silliness like Integral thought and Therapeutic Touch are increasingly trusted despite the rational arguments of scientists.

I would argue the true danger to the world is not religion per say but the use of extremism in any form. To portray religion as the driving factor in all the world’s woes and conflicts, either implicitly or explicitly, is mendacious. Dogma did not drive Napoleon to Waterloo; the American Civil War was not a conflict driven by faith; neither WWI nor WWII were set in motion by theological discourse; the Soviet purges and the McCarthy show trials were not done for God.

For me, someone who is firmly in the strong agnostic camp (not only do we not know whether God exists, I feel the question is unanswerable as such), I would have to say I found Harris’s book reprehensible

I found his descriptions of religion to be cartoonish and his use of exaggeration, polemic, and a combination of truth and well spun opinions presented as truth distasteful. Harris discounts all theological activities performed in the last 300 years. He carefully mixes generalisations about the beliefs held by splinter groups with the larger group of moderates.

His rhetoric is often flawless, attacked on any specific point he can truthfully explain that no, go back and read that passage exactly – any resemblance to what you understood and what he wrote is solely the responsibility of the reader. I felt I was reading denialist literature of the highest calibre.

But I did have a personal revelation while reading Harris’s book – don’t take a break and watch cable news. During a report about the latest Iranian/UN tug of war, the CNN announcer pointed out that Iran claims that all its nuclear efforts are peaceful. Then, in a tone dripping in irony, he pointed out that Iran also “claims that CNN is simply a propaganda arm of the American government.” I found myself yelling at the screen “But you are an American propaganda tool!” Harris’s book and tolerance do not mix.

I believe the CNN announcer would have as little use for my comment as Harris will for the rest of my comments. But both are only beliefs. And I will hold faithfully to them.

Finding Words

I had promised to fire another broadside in the on-going, online discussion about evolution in schools

Dr. Esler pointed me to the following summary of the history of the struggle to teach evolution as published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I would point him to the far more complete discussion of the issue in Eugenie Scott’s book Evolution vs. Creationism. Of course her book isn’t available for free or online. Fortunately, since it doesn’t contain the word scrotum, it is probably still available at a local library.

If I had more energy, I would point out the fact that all the secular attacks outlined in the article seem to have been responses to people attempting to regulate scientific learning in classrooms. (In the case of the Scopes trial, they were successful for almost 50 years…) I would argue that is the problem. What are often perseved to be secular attacks on religion are simply an attempt to describe the world without recourse to God; to use naturalistic explanations and not supernatural apologetics to define how the universe works.

There was nothing new in the article, but it is a nice summary of the three main battles fought in the American war on science. (A war only really being fought in truly religious countries – countries like America and Turkey.)

Interestingly, I found the summary rather disjointed from the rest of the article. After showing reaction after reaction to efforts by religious groups to remove or derail the teaching of evolution in public schools the author sums up this way.

Of course, the theory of evolution cannot answer all questions about how life emerged or how the human brain developed, nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from. There is plenty of room for diverse opinions and beliefs on these subjects. Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, who, simultaneously with Darwin, proposed the theory of natural selection as the engine of evolution, believed that the development of the human brain could be explained only by divine intervention. Nobel laureate John C. Eccles, in his treatise on the evolution of the human brain, was unable to account for the unique individual self and concluded: “I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural creation . . . which is implanted into the fetus at some time between conception and birth.” And Stephen Hawking speaks for himself and probably for most physicists when he concludes that if and when scientists are able to construct a unified theory of the universe, humans will still be confronted with the nonscience questions of why we and the universe exist, and “about the nature of God.”

The quest to banish religion from politics and government is ultimately, as the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan notes, “hopelessly unrealistic, because religions are by their nature intended to create cultures, even civilizations.” Religion and government are not inherently incompatible, and they necessarily have formal and informal relationships with each other. Nor are science and religion inherently incompatible. Nevertheless, religion is not science and should not be taught in science class. In the United States, the higher power that prevents this is the First Amendment.

I guess I just have to pass.

If the point is to say government and politics are ridden with religious feeling, more today then say 230 years ago, I would have to agree. Secular beliefs are being pushed farther and farther into the gutter. They are being demonised.

But to point at, say, Iraq and decry the horrible sectarian fighting while proudly proclaiming America to be a ‘Christian Nation’ is, for me, deeply troubling. Wouldn’t an amendment to the constitution be simpler or at least honest? Revoke the first amendment and simply proclaim America Christian. Sixty percent of the American population would probably support the idea. Even the some members of the Jewish population would probably support the issue. I’m pretty sure Debbie Schussel would go along with it.

I really don’t think science answers all the questions. If it did, we wouldn’t need continuing research. I find it interesting that the author of the article seems to a priori define the limits of future research on evolution. I find it interesting that the author manages to mix decent with modification with the concept of the origin of the universe and the big bang. (Did Darwin go there? I think not.)

If the point is to say that science hasn’t answered all questions yet. My response is – well yeah. If the point is to go quote mining, for possible philosophical comments by scientists, there are whole books for that kind of thing. If the point is to say science will never answer the question, I would ask how you can be sure. Did Newton envision rockets to the moon? Would he have said you can’t get there because – well – you just can’t?

But even to point me to the article, is to misunderstand my point. It is to misunderstand what I am fighting for, or perhaps what I am fighting against.

My argument is simply that science is the process for understanding how things work and that is what needs to be taught.

I agree, science does effect both philosophy and religion. We no longer simply postulate that matter is made up of basic elements, we measure them, we refine them, we manipulate them. Most of us no longer follow the idea that the world is flat, or that the sun orbits the earth; both religious beliefs that were changed by science. But religion didn’t change the science, the science forced a re-interpretation of the religious doctrine.

I guess, I can’t stop people from feeling threatened, by feeling that their very beliefs are threatened by science. I would say that, for some – like the flat-earthers, those beliefs are threatened. I question the idea that the solution is to stop science, to stop teaching science, to make strawman arguments (“…nor is evolution even relevant to the question of where the original matter of the universe came from” – I mean, WTF?).

But on the other hand, I do get upset when people, using religious apologetics, nevertheless claim to support science. People who use science and genetics daily but claim it just doesn’t work. I seem to get so upset that I can’t even find the words to properly express my outrage, to express my position.

Since I seem to be having trouble getting my feelings across, I guess I’ll just wait a couple of weeks and let those people most effected speak out. Not the doctors, not patients, the the high school students themselves (Hat Tip: Bug_girl/Skepchick)

2007 National High School Essay Contest

Why would I want my doctor to have studied evolution? If you are a high school student in the United States, we want to hear your answer to that question. Send us an essay of not more than 1,000 words by March 31st. There are prizes for students and rewards for participating teachers.

If I’m having trouble finding the correct words, I sure hope these kids won’t.

New Years Resolutions and Armed Pandas

Ok, I’ll admit it; I do have a rather indifferent approach to punctuation.

Its not as if the invisible punctuation angel with the corresponding devil don’t pop in occasionally with one viciously whispering that I need a comma right there and the other responding with a mental ruler slap and a triumphant hiss “No commas!

I do have a bit of an out. I never actually speak English anymore. Living in Germany allows me to blithely spend my days in what, for some, would be a cacophony of Teutonic grunts and throat clearings. I could also claim a kind of typographic dyslexia, I read what I had planned on writing and not what I actually put to keyboard and monitor. But all-in-all, that isn’t enough.

Thus dear reader I did indeed make a New Years resolution to try to improve. (I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that the resolution wasn’t taken this year and there were neither sevens nor twos nor zeros in the year in question. *Sigh*) But due to the increase in output and the absolute horror with which I read my old posts, I think the time has come (and probably gone) to attempt to rectify this malfeasant situation.

As you might think, I couldn’t turn to a simple grammar book of which I have several. They are dry and boring, the literary equivalent of the archetypical librarian. Sometime last year my search for an appropriate tome, well pamphlet really, was successful; I found what I had been searching for, perfect in tone and size. I am the proud owner of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Ms Truss, when not scribbling grammatical revolutionary pamphlets and commenting on Radio 4, spends her time producing text for yellow journalistic rags like the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Her approach to grammar is indeed revolutionary. But unlike her more mundane predecessors, she looks to civil disobedience and the disfigurement of poorly punctuated print than dandruffy dissertations. Her book includes a set of stickers, allowing the reader to correct, not just mentally but physically, those poorly written signs and posters. It seems she is not alone; her book has sold over 3 million copies.

It is less the literary jihad and more the writing style that attracted me to this book. Mixing rules; regulations and suggestions with history and humor, the book takes us through a romp of the most important little symbols in written language. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Ms Truss’s struggles with what she calls her ‘Inner Stickler’; that part of her that leaves her gasping on the train platform like a fish out of water staring at the newest poorly punctuated poster for a film; we see her cry for justice, and with an oddly Marxist color choice, her grasping for a large red marker.

American readers will probably have to adapt to the use of ‘Full Stop’ instead of the more Yankee ‘period’. Many of her sports references will fall flat and almost none of her discussions of popular culture will be truly understood. It is of no matter. I will support any author willing to offer themselves to historic typesetting figures. Here she waxes poetic on the wondrous history of the semicolon.

That imaginative chap Charlemagne (forward-looking [but likely illiterate] Holy Roman Emperor) stirred things up in the 9th century when Alcuin of York came up with a system of positurae at the ends of sentences (including one of the earliest question marks), but to be honest western systems of punctuation were damned unsatisfactory for the next five hundred years until one man – one fabulous Venetian printer – finally wrestled with the issue and pinned it to the mat. That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450 – 1515) and I will happily admit I hadn’t heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies.

The heroic status of Aldus Manutius the Elder amoung historians of the printed word cannot be overstated. Who invented the italic typeface? Aldus Manutius! Who printed the first semicolon? Aldus Manutius! The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required, and Aldus Manutius was the man to do it. In Pause and Effect (1992), Malcolum Parkes’s magisterial account of the history of punctuation in the West, facsimile examples of Aldus’s groundbreaking work include a page from Pietros Bembo’s De Aetna (1494) which features not only a very elegant roman typeface but the actual first semicolon (and believe me, this is exciting). Of course we did not get our modern system overnight.

The entire book is a humorous collection of do’s and do-not’s interspersed with personal rage at incorrect punctuation and the cry for vigilante grammatical justice – apostrophic lynchings if you will.

And the title? It comes from one of those obscure grammar jokes. A panda goes into a café, orders a sandwich and calmly eats. After finishing he simply stands up, walks towards the door. Suddenly he pulls a gun and fires two shots into the ceiling before exiting the establishment. The waiter rushes after the panda demanding to know what he was thinking. The panda simply shrugs and tosses a poorly punctuated wildlife book to the waiter. “I’m a panda; ” he says, “look it up.” Puzzled the waiter looks and finds the offending passage. “Panda:” he reads, “Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So dear readers, please if I severely offend the gods of punctuation in the coming year, please don’t shoot, but do correct me. But use the comments; I wouldn’t want your monitor full of stickers.

The Ghost of Authors Present

Since he is no longer up for re-election, George W. Bush has been able to actually admit that he can read. Not only do we have his widely commented excursion in existentialist/absurdist literature this summer with Albert Camus (among other readings) but for Christmas we found out from the Washington Post that he just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost “- an account of the plundering of the Congo in the late 19th century. ”

For those of you who, like myself, were more interested in the blossoming sexuality of your high school classroom neighbor than the detailed lecture on the causes, execution and consequences of nineteen century European African colonialism (a lecture that often lasts a respectable thirty seconds) I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of the Congo Free State. To preface, I haven’t read King Leopold’s Ghost and have gotten most of my information from the most excellent one volume history The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham. (For a single volume history of post-colonial Africa I would also strongly recommend Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.)

In 1865. Leopold II succeeded his eponymous father to the throne of Belgium. He had long felt that Belgium needed an outlet for it’s energies; something to mobilize the people, something to mobilize the country, something to make him money. In short Belgium needed colonies. Unfortunately several factors stood in the way of this noble dream. First there really wasn’t much territory left – South America had long since been divvied up between Portugal and Spain, the Pacific and Southeast Asia were under the control of the French and British and Victoria would be crowned first Empress of India in just over a decade. The second stumbling block was closer to home; neither the politicians nor the public were enamored with the idea of carrying the Belgium flag out to paint the world – um – green.

None of this deterred King Leopold. He spent the next ten years seeking an outlet for his dreams. First he looked at buying a colony. Britain turned down the idea of a Belgian colony among the palm trees and cannibals in New Guinea; Spain declined ‘leasing’ the Philippines for the paltry sum of 10 million francs. Leopold had to look elsewhere. His attention was drawn to Africa, in the 1860’s and 1870’s still largely unexplored. He was especially interested the adventures of Lieutenant Verney Lovett Cameron in central Africa and Cameron’s descriptions in January 1876 of a land of ‘unspeakable richness’ waiting for an ‘enterprising capitalist’.

Since the Belgian public wasn’t interested in supporting a colony in Africa, Leopold would just have to do it himself – privately. He arranged a conference with leading explorers, including the American Henry Stanley, made famous from his accounts of his African adventures during the search for the Scottish missionary David Livingstone. One thing led to another and Leopold had manoeuvred the major European countries to a conference in Berlin about the subject of dividing up Africa. Leopold carved out the center – the area around the river Congo – for himself. Publicly his motives were of the highest calibre. Philanthropically he would bring European ‘civilization’ to the deepest, darkest corners of the African continent; the calibre of his motives were almost has high as those of the rifles used by the mercenaries he would send.

Now building a colony isn’t cheap. The costs of empire are what caused the colonial American tax bruhahas leading to revolution and it was the cost that tarnished the feelings of Belgian politicians towards what was then called Leopold’s folly. After ten years and an investment of over two-thirds of Leopold’s net worth, the Congo ‘Free State’ still wasn’t showing a profit. Ivory was the biggest export but it wasn’t enough. Things might have collapsed if it wasn’t for the work of two men – neither Belgian.

The first person died even before Leopold was crowned. He was the American Charles Goodyear, whose patent number 3,633 from 1844 for the vulcanization of rubber revolutionized the industry, making the sap of an otherwise useless tree one of the most important industrial products of the age. The second critical figure was John Boyd Dunlap, who’s patent for an inflatable tire changed the way the world rides just as the use of bicycles and automobiles soared. The demand for rubber exploded and Leopold was sitting on the dynamite – the wild rubber trees in the Congo.

It is here that the story loses any innocence. By 1902 Leopold was making around 40 million Francs per year from Congo exports. Enjoying the luxuries of his newly built palace and the pleasures of his eighteen year old mistress (Leopold was 65 by now – eat your heart out Mike Foley), Leopold had managed to keep any hints of misdoing in the Congo more or less quiet. It took the British shipping clerk/journalist Edmond Morel to do the calculations and the photographer/missionary Alice Harris (do all these people do two things?) to provide the evidence of the atrocities being committed in the name of commerce. It turns out that instead of the normal colonial model, exporting raw goods from the colonies and importing finished products into the colonies, Leopold had come up with a less moral but far more profitable method – export raw goods and use the local population as slave labor. (*forehead slap* It’s just so simple – why didn’t the British think of that? Oh – honor.) In one of the more disgraceful practices, native mercenaries were required to ‘prove’ they had used their ammunition correctly – one bullet – one hand. Of course if the previous owner wasn’t dead yet, that was of no bother.

By 1908 the public outcry against Leopold had become unbearable. He was forced to turn the Congo ‘Free State’ over to the Belgian government and retired to his estates until his death in 1909. His funeral procession was booed.

But what does all this have to do with our current noble leader, George W. Bush?

Quite a bit – at least according to Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost. In a verbal broadside an open letter printed in the LA Times on December 22, Hochschild finds lots of similarities. He poses President Bush a number of questions.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What’s more, the king justified his grab for Congo’s natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you’re right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I’m sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.

The piece is both well written and damning. Well worth the read.

But, as opposed to Mr (Dr? Prof?) Hochschild, I wouldn’t try to ask questions President Weasel wouldn’t answer – I’d simply make a single suggestion. Next time when you’re choosing Christmas reading Mr President, try to make sure the author is no longer among the breathing, editorial-writing living. In this sense Camus was an excellent choice.

That way, shortly before Christmas, like Scrooge, you might be able to avoid the Ghost of Authors Present while reading about the Ghosts of Kings Past.

Just an idea.

Death knell for the death sentence

The LA Times has been covering the legal back and forth on the use of lethal injections as a way of to administering the death penalty in California. The outlook of this case seems increasingly bleak for those supporting the government’s right to kill.

Operational Procedure No. 770,” the state’s name for execution by lethal injection, is performed in a dark, cramped room by men and women who know little, if anything, about the deadly drugs they inject under extreme stress.

Thousands of pages of depositions and four days of testimony last week in a federal courtroom here provided the most intimate portrait yet of a state’s lethal injection methods.

Witnesses depicted executions by lethal injection — long considered a more humane alternative to the gas chamber or the electric chair — as almost haphazard events, and medical experts on both sides could not rule out the possibility that one or more inmates had been conscious and experienced an excruciating sensation of drowning or strangulation before death.

I’ll wait for another entry to talk about my complete feelings about the death penalty but the issue, as presented to the judge in this case, is becoming increasingly clear. By compartmentalizing the execution procedure in order to limit the responsibilities of each individual participant, the state of California (and probably most other states using a similar form of execution) has managed to produce an inhumane and bungled mess. It was this inhumanity that lethal injection was meant to rectify.

My tie-in to this case is on a slightly different level. The current Californian brouhaha was started when a judge ordered two anesthesiologists present during executions. The doctors refused at last minute due to ethical concerns. I’m currently reading The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton. He traces the medicalization of euthanasia in the Third Reich from the beginnings on deformed and handicapped children to the horrors of Auschwitz. I didn’t start reading the book to understand the death penalty, but rather to understand how medics and doctors can continue to support the torture policies being railroaded by the Bush administration. Bending ethical issues is a long and slippery slope and I wonder if the American government and the American medical community haven’t started sliding. The case in California seems to be proving that hypothesis wrong.

Just as an aside, for those who claim executions are only practiced in ‘Twenty-First Century’ countries, please remember that the Japanese Supreme Court recently cleared the way for the execution of an Aum Shinrikyo cult member convicted for the 1994 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The US is not alone in executing people, but the US does stand alone in claiming to be on the highest moral ground in the world. Perhaps a new look at this standpoint would be in order.

Somehow I doubt that controversies surrounding the standpoint on the death penalty will die down anytime soon.

Spiegel-Online international

Did you know there was an English language version of Spiegel-Online.

Now you do.