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Friday, December 12, 2014

Global Warming and the Name of the Rose

I heard a BBC report on NPR this morning about the international global warming summit being held in Peru.  As the BBC reporters discussed arguments by the representatives of various countries over which countries were allowed to “produce” certain amounts of carbon, partially based on the “historical advantage" Western countries have had in the use of fossil fuels, I was struck by how medieval it all sounded. And I was reminded of a movie I once saw.

The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery set in the 14th Century, at a remote monastery.  In the movie, various heavy-weight Church leaders and theologians all travel to this remote location for the purpose of settling an important theological question: does scripture support the belief that Christ owned his own clothes.


The global warming arguments about carbon credits are kind of like that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Women In Combat, Sexism, and the NFL

A Facebook Friend called me “sexist” because I oppose putting women in combat.

Here’s an illustration of my reasoning.  No matter how technologically advanced a military is, or how much air and artillery support we can usually bring to bear during a fight, or what kind of electronics and optics our forces are using, it is an absolute certainty that sometimes things are going to go old school.  Some American combatant is going to find himself face to face with an enemy that is trying to kill him, up close and personal.  An American perimeter is going to be overrun, or one of the listening posts forward will be.  A Marine clearing a building is going to find himself bumping into a bad guy without enough room to shoot, or with his weapon misfiring.  Some jihadi is going to jump on a Ranger while he’s reloading.  It happens in Iraq.  It happens in Afghanistan.  It will happen wherever we send out forces.  If things go right, it will not happen often, but it will happen.

I oppose women in combat because when those things happen, when that jihadi jumps, I want that jihadi to find himself going hand-to-hand with Ray Rice. Not Ray Rice’s wife.  This does not make me a sexist.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Sackett Who Would Be King - Review of The Naulahka

Just published a very brief review at Amazon.  The book is:

The Naulahka: A Story of West and East.

Here's the link to the review at Amazon.

The novel is a collaboration between Rudyard Kipling and Wolcott Balestier. It is essentially an American western story set in India. Think of a cross between Louis L'Amour and Rudyard Kipling: The Sackett Who Would Be King. It is the 1880's. Nicholas Tarvin is a resourceful, young mover & shaker in Topaz, Colorado. Possessed of a rather flexible moral disposition, he is already becoming a successful man. All that's missing from his life is marriage to the girl he loves, and a way to ensure the Three C's railroad runs through Topaz so the value of his town real estate holdings will skyrocket and make him rich. Kate Sheriff however has vowed to dedicate her life to bringing medical aid to suffering women in India, and is leaving for the princely state of Rhatore, known for little other than dust, a capricious and dissolute maharajah, and a mythical necklace of priceless value that may not exist. And as to the railroad, Nick learns it is likely to route through a different, competing, nearby town - a fact he learns during a chance meeting with the president of the railroad and the president's young wife. The young wife happens to be a lover of fine jewelry.

Did I mention Nick is a resourceful young man? If you've ever enjoyed a paperback western, or the writing of, say, Mark Twain, you should check this book out. I have read it now for the third time. I actually have a used, hard-cover copy but am placing the review here because the Kindle edition is only 99 cents and I want others to enjoy it as much as I did.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

War Is Hard

There is a lot of re-litigating going on over the original decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  Personally, I still support our decision to do it.  Saddam was perceived as a major threat. He had used chemical weapons.  There is strong evidence he was taking steps to reconstitute his nuclear program.  He did his best to convince the world he still had WMD's.  He was – to his later regret I imagine – successful in this deception.  He was a sponsor of terrorism.  The sanctions regime in place to control him was falling apart and was, in the event, being bypassed by massive and systemic corruption.  Saddam was a declared enemy of the United States, and we had just begun a war in his neighborhood.  Our options were to leave him in place as a constant danger, or to take him out.  After having 3000 Americans burned alive in the middle of New York City, we were right not to leave him in place.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Boko Haram: Rudyard Kipling Called. He Wants His Poem Back.

Bridget Johnson at PJ Media writes about spontaneous US Government excitement over the kidnapping of 234 girls in Nigeria by the jihadi outfit known as Boko Haram.  The jihadis are announcing - very publicly - they intend to sell the girls into slavery.  These Boko fellows have been operating for a few years in the usual manner of barbaric jihadis - slaughtering infidels, blowing things up, stealing what isn’t nailed down, etc.  The US government in the past has condemned these acts, also in the usual manner, but now, suddenly, there are calls for actual action.  The kind of action that may involve hard men, aircraft, and generous use of the sorts of equipment we Second Amendment nuts can only dream about getting to play with.  Apparently you can get away with mass murder if you’re a jihadi, but slave selling - at least overly public slave selling - is beyond the pale.

Fair enough.  Slavery is indeed beyond the pale.  Nonetheless questions arise.  First and foremost, where precisely is the pale?  How is it possible for Boko Haram to credibly threaten to sell its kidnap victims into slavery?  Let’s stipulate they can evade government capture, and they can move their victims around Nigeria and other parts of Africa as they choose.  Still, one cannot sell what no one else buys.  If we believe Boko Haram may sell their kidnap victims into slavery, it is logically necessary we also believe there are people who can and will buy them.  We must believe there is a market for slaves that operates in or near Nigeria.  Not necessarily perhaps an actual, physical marketplace with an address, but at least some network of people and organizations through which such sales could take place.  You can’t sell a teenage Nigerian Christian slave girl on eBay.  How do you sell one, exactly?  How does she get delivered?  More to the point:  what sort of environment exists that the victim cannot simply walk out the door and go home after she has been delivered to the person who bought her? 

The obvious answer of course is that slavery still exists in Africa in some areas.  In Nigeria it may be beyond the pale to sell slaves but "the pale", evidently, is still pretty damn close by to the place.  As a current  institution, a going concern, at least tolerated and likely enforced by the surrounding society.  Appalling.  Shocking.  For some reason, though, not really surprising.  As someone has already no doubt long since tweeted: "Forget it Jake, it's Africa."

I suppose we should go get those girls.  It's the civilized, Christian thing to do.  But let's not kid ourselves:   Slavery will continue to be a problem in the world, and generally speaking we will not consider it our problem to do much about.  My guess is modern slavery is almost exclusively tied to sharia and/or sex "work" and, other than occasionally getting exercised about uppity jihadis being too public about what they are about, Western politicians and "leaders" have little stomach for controlling the growth of either.  Only on the rare occasions when they cannot decently pretend not to notice something like this incident will Western "leaders" work themselves up into doing anything.  Maybe.  And then maybe it will be an isolated rescue attempt.  At best.  Ultimately they may not even do that much.  People in Washington, and American elites, after all talk much more than they do.  There is no hope we will bother to hunt down Boko Haram and kill as many of them as we can find, hanging their corpses in public pour encourager les autres.  Chinese Gordon is long gone and we’re not likely to see more men like him.  And we surely wouldn't promote them to the rank of Major General anymore.  The sun set on the British Empire.  We're not interested in replacing it.  There will always be brutal parts of the world, where people live brutally.  Maybe prudence dictates that, for the most part, we take Peachey Carnahan's advice about them:

“They’re savages here, one and all. Leave them all to go back to slaughtering babies and playing stick’n'ball with one another’s heads, and pissing on their neighbours”.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

This is charming.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

My Big, Fat Global Warming Argument on Facebook

I contrived to get into an argument about global warming on Facebook.  

I know.  An argument about global warming on the Internet?   Who knew something like that might happen, right?  My problem is I found myself on the opposite side of the argument from Josiah and Sean, a couple of smart fellows who can be trifled with only at great risk of ending up feeling like a fool.  Josiah is a lawyer and energy policy analyst, and Sean may be a government scientist of some sort, while I have spent years auto-didacting myself firmly into the what I think is the not-too-stupid-layman category.  Since anthropogenic global warming can be (it is not always, mind) a technical argument, it’s dangerous ground for Mrs. Zabeli’s young son to find himself on.

It was a good time. I think Sean, Josiah, and I have been arguing on-line for over 15 years, back to the days of the old Great Books of Western Civilization Café.  The Cafe isn't around anymore.  Josiah was, I think, a fairly precocious middle-school student at the time, and Sean and I both had more hair (except in the ears; I definitely remember having less hair in my ears).  I miss the old Café.  It was earlier in the Internet days.  People seemed to be more willing to have discussions with those with whom they disagreed - that's my memory of it anyway - whereas today it is so easy to find places where everybody agrees with you, and most especially agrees with you that anyone who disagrees with you must be some kind of asshole.  I miss the old place.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Space Cowboys and Global Warming

Over at PowerLine Steven Hayward links to a report by the 25 retired NASA scientists and engineers who have released a report that, shall we say, disputes some of the hysterical warnings about global warming climate change.

Worth the read for anyone who isn't already a fully baptized, true believer in the religion of AGW.

(Come to think of it, shouldn't we now be calling it AGW ACC?)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Exclusively Heterosexual Marriage and Rationality

Of all the arguments presented in favor of gay marriage, the most perplexing – in fact, bizarre – is that there is no rational reason to limit marriage to a relationship between a man and a woman.  Even more bizarre is that this argument seems to have had a great deal of success.  It should be obvious to the most casual observer that it is perfectly rational that societies confer an exclusive status on male/female pairs.

Humanity is a two-sex species.  To produce a child requires one of each sex, a male and a female, and ensuring that the child survives to adulthood and has a chance of thriving thereafter requires years of effort by its parents.  If heterosexual marriage didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it, and the clear proof of this is that there are few societies we know about in human history (in fact, are there any?) that have failed to invent marriage.  The family unit is without exaggeration the basic building block of all civil societies and the male/female pair is the core of the family unit.  Societies must recognize (and always have recognized) a special status for the male/female pair as a unit.  It’s not the same status as business partners, employers and employees, liege lords and vassals, close friends, prostitutes and customers, or any of any number of other sorts of relationships.

I would be okay with people claiming this is not a strong argument.  I happen to think it’s dispositive but that isn’t the point.  The point is there are people who claim with a straight face it is not even a rational argument.  If you think there is “no rational reason” to provide a special designation for the marriage of a husband and wife, you fail the Inigo Montoya test.

“Rational” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Turing Tests and the Opus Factor

A recent news report makes me think we should start giving Turing Tests to government workers. 

(If you don’t know what a Turing Test is, please see the bottom of this post for a very brief introduction.)

A fire alarm sounded at a high school and, as seems reasonable, faculty rounded up all the students, got them outside and, presumably, mustered them in predetermined locations and took a head-count to ensure everyone got out of the building.  Procedurally it would be sensible the teachers thereafter keep their assigned students together for safety and accountability, and to ensure some of the more energetic and less scholastically dedicated  students don’t use the excitement as an opportunity to sneak off.  So far, so good.  In this case a fourteen year old student was swimming in the school’s indoor pool when the alarm went off.  Apparently she was not given time to go to her locker for her clothes before being hustled outside to the muster point, nor was she allowed – once she had reported to her assigned muster point - to get into a car, or to go stand inside the elementary school located across the street.  This is remarkable because the incident occurred on February 26.  In St. Paul, Minnesota.  The temperature was -5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill factor took it to 25 below.  Reportedly the girl had frost bite in ten minutes.

I know what you’re thinking: This has nothing to do with Turing Tests and it quite clearly didn’t have much to do with intelligence, artificial or otherwise.  Quite the opposite, one might say.  This was simply some teachers and/or administrators in one of America’s public school systems doing what they do – displaying that special kind of stupid that only a union-protected government employee is ever allowed to get away with.  I take the point.  But still…

Are we really to believe the teachers involved in this shocking incident are simply droolingly stupid?  And such imbecility was never noticed during their own school years?  Or during the interview process they went through to get hired as teachers?  Do we really think bureaucracies can sap every last shred of basic morality and common sense from otherwise reasonable Americans so that they would stand next to a dripping wet, almost naked girl in a parking lot in Minnesota in the Winter, and refuse to let her seek the shelter that even a retarded child could see she needs to survive?  Can even abject depravity or sociopathy explain this incident?  Even assuming someone is so depraved or sociopathic as to not to give a damn whether this girl lives, dies, or loses her feet to amputation, wouldn’t simple fear of consequences cause the teachers not to want to be responsible for being the cause of an obvious, foreseeable, and preventable harm?  Something in this story just doesn’t compute.  

And that, I think, is the clue.

As far as the teachers were concerned, the situation didn’t compute.  It’s not as if any human living in Minnesota doesn’t understand – intellectually - the danger of being outside in the winter, wet and wearing nothing but a bathing suit.  The news in Minnesota every winter includes reports of people freezing to death.  The problem here was in the ‘programming’ of the teachers involved.  Or rather, the problem was that they followed their ‘programming’ –their training and protocols  -  and were unable to break out of the loop, even though it was screamingly obvious to any human the protocol they were following  did not cover the situation they were dealing with.  Their algorithms were inadequate and it overloaded their systems.  The hourglasses on their screens just kept spinning.  Humans would have noticed this immediately.  Despite any training, however strict, most humans would have - to borrow from Berke Breathed, - “departed the text” during that situation in St. Paul in February.  Most humans would have called an audible, improvised, shot from the hip.  American English is chock full of ways to refer to the critical human ability to make a new plan on the spot.  On the fly.  There is a good reason we have so many ways of referring to the ability to use our discretion.  That ability is exactly what separates human intelligence from that of other animals and, so far, from machine intelligence.

That ability – let’s call it the Opus Factor – is a key way one knows one is dealing with a human.  These teachers didn’t display that ability.  Even though one of their charges was standing outside in Minnesota in February, barefoot, wearing a bathing suit, dripping wet, and with car interiors and building lobbies within easy reach, they simply continued to follow a protocol they surely knew was gravely endangering a child.

Humans don’t act that way.  Inadequately coded AI programs act that way, and sometimes government workers act that way.  Ergo, some government workers are missing some aspect of humanness the rest of us possess.  QED.  We assumed everybody else possesses such humanness (hence the term)  but we were obviously wrong.  Some people don’t, and some of those people work for the government.  And since government workers sometimes are responsible for critical decisions concerning (other people’s) life and death, it seems clear we must give Turing Tests to government workers.  The tests must be given before we consider letting someone have a government job and my hunch is these tests need to be given periodically, just in case there is in fact something about government jobs that sucks the humanity out of people.

It’s the only way to keep the humans in charge.  Don’t let Skynet win.  Especially if it turns out Skynet is just a bunch of government workers who are that special kind of stupid.

The Turing Test:

According to Wikipedia a Turing Test is a test of the ability of a machine to exhibit behavior “indistinguishable” from that of a human.  Basically, you ask the machine questions and see if it answers the way a human would.  It used to be considered a fairly geeky, sci-fi concept.  The movie ‘Bladerunner’ used the test as a major plot driver and in the movie the test itself gets a fairly spectacular introduction.  I haven’t seen the more recent movie ‘Her’ but understand it is about a man who falls in love with the AI voice of his phone company or some such thing.  The AI machine in ‘Her’ must have passed the test as far as the main character was concerned.  (Maybe the voice of Scarlett Johansson can smooth over some of the flaws a lonely fellow might otherwise notice in his relationship with a computer program.  Probably depends on the fellow.  And what we mean by ‘lonely’.)

I wrote the Turing Test “used to be” considered sci-fi.  Anyone who has recently dealt with the helpdesk chat capability of, say, his credit card company can sometimes see that  the ‘person’ he is ‘chatting’ with seems to be kind of off.  He doesn’t seem to get any humor.  He sometimes ignores information unless it’s presented a certain way.  The slightest irregularity in your problem seems to cause your supposed customer service rep to bounce you to his supervisor.  Welcome to the real Turing Test.  You may have been chatting with a machine.  Maybe it didn’t know what to do with your comments about the traffic; it didn’t understand your use of slang; perhaps the innocuous reference you made about the weather in your city just overloaded its ability to respond to you.  Following whatever algorithm it’s programmed to follow, it then passed you on to a real human.