Monday, May 31, 2004

Sigh. I have a little Lovecraftian-themed region on NationStates, too small for your average player to even notice. Some new nations showed up, and the reading on the Fun-O-Meter crept up from "Pet Rock" to "Crossword Puzzle" or "Local Book Review". I was mildly happy. Then one of the new players suddenly turned into a tedious god-fearing spam-proselytizer. Are there people out there who join roleplaying campaigns just to tell the players that they're all goin' to hell, or is this just an online phenomenon?
The Cruisin' Cafe, a Fifties-themed joint on Allegheny Street a block down from the courthouse, has gone out of business. They had passable sandwiches, and excellent peanut-oil-fried cheese fries. I don't think they quite made it to the one-year-mark as a business. They were a little expensive for Bellefonte, but the help was friendly. I was talking with the cook at another bistro further down Allegheny Street about the closing, and the whys and wherefores. She thought that they over-capitalized and over-hired. They had seven waiters and three cooks, she said with some derision. I don't know... the Bellefonte Wok across the street has more employees, but that's a pretty hopping, well-located place, well within view of the courthouse and its incidental business.
I was walking through Union Cemetary behind the Bellefonte courthouse on Saturday, and heard the roaring whine of a dozen weed-whackers, employed by a squad of gentlemen in teeshirts and shorts, overseen by another gentleman in the uniform of a Centre County Prison guard. The guard confirmed upon questioning that the work team was the result of a request from the borough for help in keeping the grass and weeds under control. I honestly couldn't tell if the work gang were volunteers from the prison office, or inmates dragooned for service to the state. Since the county prison is generally populated by drunk drivers, folks up on minor drug offenses, and domestic-disturbance types, the inmates would be generally indistinguishable from the employees, at least to my unpracticed eye. Whoever they were, they did a passable job.

Wish I knew whether it was civic virtue or slave-labor, though.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Chris Hawthorne of Slate has a photoessay about designing flags up. He seems to miss the first principle of design - any design, any subject: don't suck. Don't repulse the audience, don't confuse them, and don't offend them. Design is the exact mirror opposite of late-modern notions of "art". Design should not *challenge*, it should *engage*. He offers a "challenging" design for a new flag for the EU, in which the designer mashes together all the distinctive colors of the various component members of the Union in a series of eye-straining vertical stripes. It looks like a particularly harsh test pattern, and is totally lacking in any sort of visual cohesion. It might as well be static. The proposed Slovenian flag, on the other hand, is marvelous for reasons totally slighted by Hawthorne. It is composed solely of three colors - red, blue and white - in a a simple horizontal striped pattern, distorted and modulated by a series of blue and red peaks and white voids and a single balancing valley with its own white void. It is strikingly beautiful.
One good thing about living in a commonwealth with a declining population and high taxes is that the bureaucracy is efficient and responsive. I walked into the DMV over in Pleasant Gap with no paperwork whatsoever, and had a renewed vehicle registration and a new photo ID inside of a half-hour. Pennsylvania's new driver's licenses are truly ugly, though. Yellow, white and blue in a horizontal tricolor just doesn't quite match up to my sense of aesthetics; layer that with a nasty set of holograms, and the only reason it isn't in the running for "ugliest license" is that Colorado's design was apparently subcontracted out to underachieving trade-school slackers. That state's licenses look worse than your average high-school faked equivalent.
Meanwhile, le Dauphin, known to we mere mortals as John F. Kerry, Presidential Candidate, has apparently convinced his graphic designer that he's already president: check out his logo: "John Kerry. President".

Thanks to Perry on Politics, who noticed the missing "for" on Kerry's campaign airliner, and pointed out that it wasn't an error - it was part of the official logo. Via the Instapundit, who sees all, knows all, and damn near makes the rest of us unnecessary by his panoptic omniscience.
Stryker's reporting the possible deployment of African Clawed Frogs to the Iraqi theatre. Take that as you will...

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Hey, I'd vote for McCain-Hillary 2004. Or even Clinton/McCain. Even if I am a little pissed at the Hagel/McCain end of the party this week.

Via Instapundit.
There's some sort of controversy going on with a fired New Mexico teacher, a column he wrote after his firing, and a lawsuit over the whole thing. Said teacher was the sponsor of his school's poetry slam club. He was claiming censorship and tyranny and suppression of poetry, so I'm afraid I'm going to be hearing about this for years to come, poets being who they are, on average. Given that there's a pissed-off letter from the allegedly "censored" high school poet complaining that her work wasn't intended to be published, and that it's dissemination and modification by her self-appointed partisans is intellectual theft, I am inclined to be quite wroth if anybody starts in on mythologizing the sorry mess in my presence.

"Shy teen poets" my ass. I'm about as shy a poet as you'll ever find at a slam. They don't attract the timid.

Via Harley at Tacitus, who was honest enough to offer the Volokh rebuttal link after initially blowing his stack at the News-Journal article. Even if he didn't initially provide enough comment on the story to explain what it was he was on about.
Stryker's down on the little mountain town of Hyndman like a ton of bricks, describing their rally behind a convicted war criminal and shunning of the man who blew the whistle, both of them native sons to that corner of Bedford County. American Palestinians, to paraphrase Stryker's response. I got a little curious about this place, which I've never heard of before.

It's a little town on a rail line, the next valley over from the main north-south highway in those parts, south of Bedford proper. Judging from all the rail lines in that region, and its proximity to West Virginia, I'm guessing it's coal country.

This statistical abstract suggests that it's a German hilltown. Looks like its lost ten percent of it's population since the late Nineties. The economic abstract doesn't support the coal country theory - looks like a mill town, if a quarter of the population is working in manufacturing. Very small percentage of people with college degrees, only three foreign-born inhabitants. The average income is low, even for Appalachia, but the unemployment rate isn't bad at 5.6%. They're Methodists and Assembly of God folk.

I did some local spot-checking on my end of the state to check my assumptions, and Hyndman is isolated, uneducated, and insular even by Central Pennsylvania standards. There are poorer towns, and less educated towns, but Hyndman seems to represent a peculiarly unfortunate mix of both, with what looks like a nasty dash of religious uniformity to flavor the broth. Seems like the sort of place that makes towns like Bellefonte or Bedford look like civilization in comparison.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Dan Darling of Regnum Crucis, Rantburg, and Winds of Change has become an intern at the American Enterprise Institute, the beating heart of the Vast NeoCon Conspiracy. Darling is damn near the last word in the warblogging end of the Internet on the War on Terror. His volume of work is simply staggering. His analysis is also excellent, and I find myself agreeing with him more often than just about any other warblogger out there.

I had always assumed that he was a returning grad student, given the utterly unimpeachable quality of his work. Young students can and often are brilliant, but rarely for long periods of time. The operating concept here is "prodigy flameout". I have never seen Darling demonstrate even a twitch of that sort of late-adolescent instability which usually characterizes the breed. This is notable, because the blogsphere is full of men and women in their thirties, forties, and early fifties who have yet to grow out of that late-adolescent emotional instability. (Yes, I class myself with those late-adolescents. It's a failing I'm all too aware of, sad to say.) Like I said, I assumed that Dan was in his thirties, going back for his grad degree after some period of time in the world.

Dan is two years out of high school. He's finishing up his college sophomore year. I'm speechless. He is the embodied refutation of Barone's aphorism that America "seem[s] to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds". If this is Dan Darling at the age of twenty, I can't imagine who he might be in ten years.
Is your washroom breeding Bosheviks?

My boss at the job before this one had a posterized version of this ad mounted on his office wall. I thought it was the coolest thing ever...
I sort of sat in on a meeting of that non-profit thing I do last Saturday. Spent most of the "meeting" playing heads-up poker with Dave A., who came down with me to Baltimore to meet friends at the meeting. None of the people we were expecting showed up, which made it something of a bust for Dave. I talked with Jessica, and won about two bucks off of Dave at penny-ante, so it wasn't exactly a wasted trip. Jessica had a grand array of dragonfly photos from the lake out back of her place , (here's a few) and was far more interesting on the subject than the tedious details of the meeting proper. We got a couple of dirty looks thrown our way for being noisy during the reports, which went on forever. Jessica - are you going to write up those photos? I think it would make an interesting article for your website.

One guy was playing the ass in the back, near where I was seated. He was clowning around about how TPTB were warning people to keep an eye out for folks wearing heavy coats or jackets in warm weather with backpacks, and showing off his big jacket and backpack. My response was that never has a nominally innocent party more richly deserved the mistaken incarceration he was courting.

People, please do not mock and bait the gentlemen and ladies who protect us. Their job is hard enough without having to deal with the obstructionist wit of the truly witless.

Why Do You Keep Hitting Yourself With That Hammer?

This year's permutation on the "Continuous Corn" myth is the idea that soybeans grown in a field after three or more years of corn result in bumper soybean yields. I guess they gave up pretending that "Continuous Corn" actually results in better corn yields. Still, the new rationale seems to operate along the same masochistic logic as the response to the title of this post - "because it feels so good when I stop!"

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Hey, I'd play that game. Maybe I'm a bigger masochist than I'm willing to admit.
What does it say about my powers of observation that I hadn't realized that my company had a website until I overheard the secretary mention it to a job applicant just now? Here's an old photograph of yours truly, in full winter foliage. I'm trimmed down to my summer fur right now...
Central Park Media is releasing a re-edit of Odin Photon Sailor Space Starlight as Odin Starlight Mutiny, cut down from 235 minutes to 96 minutes.

Odin regularly makes the lists of worst anime ever made, along with an alarming number of titles from CPM/USMC's shovelware days in the early years of the anime direct market. While it is not technically any worse that the contemporary average, Odin was mind-wretchingly dull. It was Nishizaki's third or fourth attempt to re-capture the Space Cruiser Yamato lightening in a bottle which wasn't character-designed by that credit-hog son-of-a-bitch Matsumoto. Every time Nishizaki tried, he made it more and more obvious that Matsumoto deserved nearly as much credit as he'd been given. Later-day Nishizaki projects were unfocussed, tedious, and painfully overlong. No anime embodied those characteristics more thoroughly than the paint-peelingly dull Odin. It has to be the only movie I can think of where a "director's edition" would be *shorter* than the original.

I'm almost curious to see what cutting two-thirds of something as epicly awful as Odin might result it. Almost.
So, they made a game in the Fight Club franchise, and it's a... streetfighter? Why couldn't it have been something interesting, like an amusingly amoral strategy game, where you get to plan and implement Operation Mayhem? Or, even better - a adventure-game featuring psychotic quests assigned to you, Space Monkey #43, by Tyler Durden. Like Grand Theft Auto, except fewer guns, and more dynamiting of public corporate monuments.

Talk about totally missing the point of the story... who cares about brutal face-punching? Fight Club's charm, such as it is, lies in its hipster postmodern-guerilla satire and clown nihilism.

Via 101-280.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

I didn't particularly like it when Slate started in with their sniggering Bushisms microcolumns. It was condescending, smug, and alienating. Now they've started in on Kerry, with a parallel Kerryisms feature. I suppose they believe that they're covering their right on this, or operating on some sort of good for the goose, good for the gander equivalency.

Well, I'm here to tell them that it flat out doesn't work. the "Bushisms" posts, though they are smug, and they are snide, bear at least a family resemblance to a species of humor. The structure is humor-like, if the joke itself is tedious and thin. The "Kerryisms" posts don't even have that going for them, if I can judge from the first offering.

The writers have decided that Kerry's amusing trait is his involved and overdecorated sense of sentence structure. They offer us a hypertextual update to the old English-Teacher standby, the diagrammed sentence, with a typical Kerry sentence, stripped down to its "plain english" meaning, with all of his subordinate clauses and rhetorical throat-clearing excised and placed in numbered notes at the foot of the page.

Does your recollection of these sentence-diagramming sessions in grade school fill you with bemused nostalgia? No, me neither. This is humor for the terminally pedantic.

I can't imagine there are that many junior-high English teachers straining at the bit for a new online humor column about sentence structure. Maybe I'm wrong, perhaps this fills an unsuspected need, an empty niche.

But I rather doubt it.
Watch Tasha Robinson of SciFi Weekly do backflips and contortions in order to justify a review of the very, very non-sciencefictional Azumanga Daioh in a science fiction weekly magazine. Yeah, Tasha? Those aren't fantastic elements - they're dream sequences (such as Chiyo's detachable pigtails), or real events exaggerated for comic effect (Sakaki's masochistic fascination with that vicious little cat).
Ran across this site which contains the author's views as to the locations featured in Piper's novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. He's gone around, and gathered an impressive array of photographs of the sites which he thinks matches the locations described in the novel. Some of the photos are quite pretty. Overall, it's the sort of thing you'd expect of a Civil War buff researching an obscure campaign, not a fan of a forty-year-old science fiction novel. I am impressed by his fannish dedication to detail.
Interesting review of the first Hot Gimmick volume. She reads it more from the teenaged-girl point of view, which I suppose is more valid than my fanboy vantage-point. They're the actual audience, after all.

I've noticed a strange tendency on the part of reviewers to view the social milieu of the comic as somehow fantastical or imaginative. As far as I can tell, those company apartment complexes are very real. I like the way the author, Miki Aihara, shows how communal, hierarchical village life can recapitulate itself in the very urban setting of a company apartment complex, divorced totally from the rural village life one usually associates with this kind of dynamic.

I'm not familiar with how other countries handle urban dynamics, but in my neck of the woods, it's very easy to disappear into the crowd, to become totally detached from the social structure in an urban setting. I'm still trying to figure out if my neighbors in the front downstairs apartment have moved out, to be replaced by new people, or are very slowly moving out. If there's a new couple in there, they haven't introduced themselves yet.

I find myself fascinated and a little obsessed with urban-village stories like Hot Gimmick and the recent Rumiko Theatre short-subjects TV series, at least in part because I don't really have much of a sense of community. I'm a loner by nature, and social interaction never comes easily to me.
Sigh. Den Beste's watching anime again. Nothing drives me further up the wall than people mis-identifying fanboy shows like Sakura Wars as "shoujo".

Repeat after me:

Shoujo is written for girls. If it won't appeal to a teenaged girl, it isn't shoujo.

Girls don't actually have a great deal of interest in harems full of cute young buxomy girls. They also don't have much interest in harems full of girls organized by fetish catagory - glasses-girl, lolita-little-girl, miko-girl, big butch girl, elegant girl, etc. As these sorts of shows go, Sakura Wars isn't particularly egregious - I wouldn't classify it as "galfelch". But it by damn sure is not shoujo.

If you want the shoujo equivalent of a Sakura Wars, I direct your attention to Sayuki, or Weiss Kruez. See that? Lots of cute, ectomorphic guys. Same thing with Fruits Basket or Pretear. Pretear, especially.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Jessica mentioned this post during our tour of Millbrook Marsh on Saturday. Came across the blog on a random trawl. The author, Laura, wonders what us folks in the "Alabama" between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia do for a living, worrying that the information technology revolution has passed us by.

Well, from an informal poll, I'd guess that we're doing IT sorts of things. Jessica runs her own ISP, and those of my friends who haven't been hired here at the IT company I work for are either employed by the university in IT work, or actual students. Some folks work for survey calling centres.

But the young folk abandoning the hill country for the big lights of the big city is hardly an artifact of the 21st century, you know. The last great diaspora filled the rust belt with hill folk - in Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Folks didn't much notice, outside of Detroit, because the influx was lost in the statistical noise, or was less distinct than the Southern Black migration to those same cities at about the same time, for about the same reasons. After all, Appalachian whites - Germans and Scotch-Irish, mostly - look like America. What Archie Bunker, in that priceless line about a "balanced ticket", called "Regular Americans". But it was a migration, all the same.

Some of the current internal migration is flowing to the research cities - the university towns which act as cultural rallying stands for the aspirations of the mountains. Knoxville. State College. Blacksburg. North Carolina's Research Triangle. Other towns and colleges familiar to themselves, if no-one else.

But don't imagine this is a new problem. Whiskey, hogs, cattle, coal, video monitors, light plastics, calling centres, IT shops - it's all come, and it all will go. The only reliable export of mountain country has always been the people themselves.
Jessica and I went down to look at the Millbrook Marsh outside of State College. It's a rare calciferous fen - a bog formed on top of a limestone formation. These are terribly rare because limestone formations generally act like God's own sponge, and water can't stand very long on top of limestone without disappearing into the water table. Millbrook Marsh happens to sit at almost the lowest point of Nittany Valley, at the confluence of three streams and a number of springs, and you could say that it's the point at which the water table is higher than the ground level.

Millbrook Marsh isn't nearly as big as, say, the Black Moshannon bog, but it's somewhat startling to find a fen of its size so close to State College's urban area. I first became aware of its existence in 1999, when I lived in a group house on Clover Heights, a low rise between Millbrook Marsh and Spring Creek. At the time, the marsh wasn't particularly developed, and there were only a couple of trails which had been woodchipped by a conservancy group. At a couple of points, you could look over the Millbrook or over the confluence of Slab Cabin Run and the Millbrook to see the marsh proper. This is more-or-less what I expected when we went down there to poke around.

I was quite surprised to find that the conservancy group had bought the nearby microfarm, and had put in a vast network of planked walkways throughout the marsh. Someone had been doing a lot of funds-raising, although I'm willing to wager that it had a lot to do with the new hotel built on the edge of the marsh - probably a trade-off of wetlands construction for the hotel in exchange for the funding of the swanky new walkways. Regardless, what you could barely see by peering from a muddy creekside path, is now directly accessible by walkway. It's much larger than I had guessed. There's a lot of standing water, and all sorts of wetlands flora.

We ran into a woman who owns the private property on the west side of the marsh - she was overseeing some work on the spring which rises on her property - and she told us about a blue heron which lives in the marsh, and had eaten all of the fish she had stocked her spring with. Jessica got a lot more out of the flora than I did - I was always a terrible Boy Scout when it came to plant identification, I'm afraid.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Ugh. I am beat. Just a few days walking around University Park campus, and look at me - a wet noodle in an ugly hawaian shirt! This is the wages of employment in the IT industry.

I'm done with the History Day judging. Nothing too exciting to report, and I figure I oughtn't dish on the submissions lest one of the students - or worse, one of their parents - go googling & find me mocking their hard work.

I found myself sitting with museum employees, or history magazine editors, or teachers, or whatever. Then I had to admit that I'm just a customer support drone. One guy started referring sarcastically to me as the judging board's "historian". Or maybe it wasn't sarcasm, I don't know. I fake certitude pretty well.

The judge from last year's bedsore trial was one of the first-time contest judges this year. I did a doubletake when I spotted him at the orientation. He didn't remember the trial, for which I don't blame him. I sort of wish I could forget it.

University Park is a terrible welter of construction and cheap new buildings. It's as if the campus has gone metastatic. In ten years, there isn't going to be a free square foot of land which isn't claimed by the athletic department or as part of a dedicated garden. They finally finished the "Peace Garden" behind McAllister building - the one which was the 1996 class donation. It's hideous - sort of a deranged alien rendition of a rock garden, in which the rocks are symmetric stone blocks placed evenly and rigidly in a geometric grid, with dull little trees in between. Just looking at it killed another little chunk of my soul.

There's a new patio on the street between the HUB and Osmond Lab. It's built around a cool waterfountain - a wall of black granite, scored diagonally with lines along the vertical surface to interrupt and guide the water. That part is nice. The part where they placed three-foot-tall blocks of rough-cut limestone in the place of wooden or metal benches has me at something of a loss. They look like incredibly painful places to sit, cut so that the stone ridges will cut right into the back of your knees. Why do architects hate us so?

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

About that al Ani-Atta Prague thing from yesterday, here's Edward Jay Epstein's most recent summary of his case for the Iraq-9/11 connection. Note that this is vastly outweighed by the massive traincar loads of evidence for al Queda responsibility for 9/11. But it does build a pretty impressive circumstantial case for some degree of Iraqi involvement and foreknowledge of the plot. One that you'd never have heard of if all you ever listened to was NPR et al.

Link via Rantburg.
Jason van Steerwyck of Iraq Now has been back for a month or so now, and has been using that time to get back into the swing of civilian-blogging after his year in Iraq, most of that in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. He is my favorite milblogger, having been both an infantry officer with the Guard and a trained, highly critical journalist.

He took the opportunity yesterday to fisk Jacob Weisberg's recent apologia for his ongoing "Bushisms" column in Slate. He did so in such a thorough and spectacular manner, that I'm not sure there's enough of Weisberg left to fill a shot glass. van Steerwyck noted in passing that he's looking for freelance work as a journalist. While I appreciate this, I'm afraid that this sort of effort isn't likely to get him far in national circles outside of the partisan rags. It isn't collegial, fisking. Andrew Sullivan can get away with it because he's been on the scene long enough to be a feared "old man" - someone who should not be crossed in a serious fashion. At that level, it's integrity issues, and not collegiality issues, which sink a reputation.

At van Steerwyck's level, you have to be serious and somewhat humorless to get a foot inside the door. Phil Carter, a fellow milblogger with a legal orientation, has been able to parlay his well-earned reputation for judiciousness, neutrality, and collegiality into a gig writing military-themed mini-features for Slate. Lord knows, with that vituperative fraud Fred Kaplan serving as their military affairs man, Slate needed somebody. But I fear that Carter's unemotive expertise makes him a much more attractive package than the equally competent van Steerwyck to the Michael Kinsleys of the world.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Excellent point from Brian Mickethwait of Samizdata on the right and wrong way to argue against laws of compulsion and religious legislation. You don't want to set your atheist or agnostic disregard for the religious against their need to introduce aspects of their religion into the public sphere, or into someone else's private sphere. That makes it a religious argument - the disinterested will tune it out, leaving only the interested - those who hold one view or the other. In a popularity contest, the atheist or agnostic is always going to be out-numbered. It's much better to frame such arguments as a distinction between the many private spheres, and the public sphere.
After enjoying XXXholic so much last week, I went and got it's sort-of-companion manga, Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE when it breezed into the Centre County area this weekend. And, well... I liked XXXholic a whole lot more. Where XXXholic is playfully serious, Tsubasa is leaden and literal-minded. It reminds me of nothing more than a comix version of Heinlein's regrettable the Number of the Beast. Now, CLAMP has been playing the Asimov all-stories-blend-into-one game for a few years now - ever since X, to be strictly honest - but it's never been quite this - hrm, rehashed?

It nominally features a fantasy-world-alternate-reality Sakura and Syaoran (of Card Captor Sakura fame), in a Sleeping-Beauty quest-story. Syaoran is given a bunch of sidekicks from vaguely-reminiscent alternate realities - a priest-bishounen from a mashup of RG Veda and Chobits, a ninja-killer from the Epcot Center version of Medieval Japan, a talking Mokona from Rayearth - in an encounter in the XXXholic universe, and the whole motley, arbitrary lot of them are flung into the megaverse to find Sakura's shattered and scattered soul-bits. They end up in a world, babysat by Arashi and Sorata of X sidekick fame.

I say "given" because he doesn't do anything in particular to merit sidekicks. The Syaoran of Tsubasa isn't particularly heroic, or active. He just wanders around and is told things for the whole of the first volume. We're told he's a hero, we don't see it. Except at the end when his deus ex machina appears. Whoop de friggin' do.

Eh, it doesn't suck. But it's not exactly the sort of thing I look forward to, either.
Remember that PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll which proported to show that Fox News watchers were "misinformed" because they thought that Iraq had something to do with 9/11? There's apparently more evidence coming out of Prague supporting the much-discredited reports that an Iraqi intelligence agent met repeatedly with Mohammed Atta in that city. It seems that materials seized from the Iraqi embassy after the fall of the Hussein regime include work product which shows that the agent in question, one al-Ani, had been scheduled to meet with a "student from Hamburg" on the dates that Czech intelligence said he had. No-one in English media outside of Dan Darling and Edward Jay Epstein are talking about this.

No, the Baathists didn't plan or carry out the 9/11 attacks. But the evidence showing that they collaborated, that they might have helped fund, that they aided and abetted, has *not* been debunked, has *not* been falsified, has *not* gone away. But it sure does suit the purposes of some folks to pretend otherwise, doesn't it? The wonders of modern journalism.
Oliver Kamm is back, and none too soon, with Andrew Sullivan losing his shit in a spectacular manner, and Glenn Reynolds down sick with pneumonia. When Kamm is good, he's very good. And when he isn't... well, I suppose the Liberal Democrats are important in a British context. His posts on European political history, like this one on Willy Brandt, are informative on a subject in which I'm not particularly well-versed.
Edward over at Fistful of Euros has an excellent post which spins a terribly plausible case for a Chinese-driven resource-crunch from an article on a recent spate of manhole-cover theft in England. He notes that this theft is almost certainly driven by the recent doubling of the price for iron and steel scrap, due to the voracious Chinese demand for steel. He goes on to discuss the booming South American soya export market, and a decision by the German government to start experimenting with BT corn (maize). Edward truly is the reason I keep returning to Fistful. Great story.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Somebody over on Rantburg pointed out this Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism yesterday, and I spent some time reading through it, and found a number of things that disturbed me.

Now, I'm not actually an atheist - rather, I'm a hard-shell agnostic. What this means is that while I don't really accept any of the major religions, I'm also not particularly enthused with folks who have the intellectual arrogance to hold strong negative opinions on unfalsifiable hypotheses like the existence of divinity. I consider atheism to be as much a type of religious belief as any of the more popular theisms. Thus, I think that this document really needs to be understood as a critique of one religion by an apologist for another, hostile, religion. The more doctrinaire atheists tend to get pretty shirty about how they're objective and scientific and this and that and wave of the future yadda yadda und so weiter. In my eyes, this "Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism" is a better-educated version of that Chick tract about "moon gods".

They start off pretty offensively, by insisting on an archaic, insulting label for Islam - Mohammedanism. They offer a couple counter-examples of religions which are named after founders, who are not considered to be gods or demi-gods - Confucianism, specifically. I'm surprised they didn't offer Zoroastrianism, named after the founder, the probably-mythical Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. Of course, the fact that the living practitioners of that religion prefer to be called "Parsi" does a lot to undermine the nasty little point that our Atheist Guiders are trying to make. Luckily, after a show of contempt, they drop the label for what they refer to as "easier to spell" alternatives, which happen to be what the practitioners actually want to be called.

The bulk of the article is a discussion of early Islamic-Arabic history which I'm not qualified to judge on the merits - it's not my area of interest, let alone expertise. They maintain a pretty good air of plausibility, but they get into some really hairy revisionist terrain, including some of Patricia Crone's more crazed claims that Mecca is a fiction created late in the early Islamic period. This is the point at which the article starts falling off the deep end, and there's a nasty crack about how this is like the invention of Nazareth. They claim that Nazareth didn't exist in the time of the gospels, and therefore Jesus of Nazareth is an invention. I went looking for their claims that archeological evidence bore this out, and found otherwise. This canard about Nazareth is apparently an article of faith among a certain strain of online atheism. These are people who not only feel that the founders of major religions are mistaken, they should preferably have never existed.

I'm therefore inclined to doubt their further claims, some of which - like old mosque layouts which aren't properly laid out in the correct direction towards Mecca - seem to be wilful reworkings which cut against Occam's Razor. (Is it more likely that the original Mecca was actually in northern Arabia, or that the architects of early Iraqi mosques got their directions turned around, screwed up, and were corrected by later, more knowledgeable generations?).

As is usual with religiously-motivated writers, they're inclined to grasp at anything which supports their notions. There are a number of references to Soviet-era "scholarship" which argues that early Islam was a Jewish war-cult, and that it was so until the early Crusades. Soviet historical scholarship still enjoys a certain degree of credibility which it usually does not deserve. Imagine the response if I had swapped out "Soviet" for "Nazi" in the above sentence! There's a lot of hidden poison in historical scholarship left by Soviet-era graffiti, and although I haven't done the digging to confirm my suspicions, I would wager that this nonsense is even more pernicious than all the fantasies of proletarian revolution written about the slave-revolts of the second and first centuries BCE.

In the end, I find that I object to religiously motivated critiques like "The Atheist Guide to Mohammedanism". Their authors poison the well of scholarship by pretending to an objectivity which they do not actually practice. At least with a Chick tract, you have a pretty good idea what's going on.
Hey, Jessica: I think you'll find this guy's mad scientist cookery ideas amusing. I don't even have a stove in my apartment - it's all arbitrary food-talk to me.

The Two Georges

Beautiful news this morning. What looked like the start of a nasty, bloody civil war in one of Georgia's tiny little despotships between the stubborn local despot and the freely, newly-elected President, Michael Saakashvili, has turned around on a dime. The tinpot of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze, had blown up the bridges leading into his fiefdom, and somebody (it isn't clear who, exactly, although guesses can be made) had mined the region's Black Sea port. Abashidze had sent riot police against protesters, and it looked like one hell of a mess. Then I came in this morning, and it's the Rose Revolution all over again.

I give equal credit to George Soros and the Bush administration. Soros' organizations have been training and working with Georgians for a decade in preparation for exactly this sort of bloodless destruction of tyranny. Although I have massive problems with Soros' ego and with his notion of domestic politics, his foundations are the very best face of the often troubled and arrogant transnational-progressive NGO movement. But I also give credit to the Bush administration, without whose backing Georgia's infant democracy would be a very small pup in a kennel full of vicious curs. The Russians were directly backing Abashidze, and have significant garrisons in Adjara. The Chechen cauldron is on Georgia's northern flank, and al Queda infests Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region. American diplomats have been running interference with Moscow, American special forces have been training the Georgian military, and we've been backing the new democracy with financial support.

Welcome, welcome news.

Via the Argus and a brief note from the Instapundit.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Ran into Fred Ramsey down at Webster's last evening. He says there's a gathering of H. Beam Piper fans scheduled sometime in the next three weeks or so in State College. Piper was a SF writer sort-of-local to the area - he lived up in Williamsport, and set an alternate-history novel in this part of Central Pennsylvania. Fred and I talked about a projected tour of the hypothetical sites of the various events of that novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, including the fortress of Tarr Hostigos, allegedly and debatedly on one of the rises around Bellefonte, Seven Hills Valley over on the Clinton county line, and the various battle sites from here to the lower Susquehanna. Sounds like fun. Hopefully, I can get a more specific set of dates for the shindig. I believe Fred said it was on the fiftieth anniversary of the titular protagonist-State Trooper's disappearance outside of Nittany. I suppose if I dug up my copy and checked, I'd have the date in front of me...

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A commenter who goes by the name "GDubya" mentioned in passing in this comment thread on the Command Post that the CBS/NYC poll from late last month had not been norm-balanced for party membership.

The two major national parties are roughly at parity these days, after several decades of decay in Democratic membership and increase in Republican membership numbers. The nation is roughly split, one third Democratic, one third Republican, and one third Independent. (I went from liberal Republican to sort-of-conservative Democrat last year, for those of you following from home, so I, personally, am swimming idiotically against the tide. Don't ask.)

In order to represent a proper, statistically balanced picture of the polity, a poll should approach the census numbers in general outline. In a *political* poll, they should be especially careful to make sure that their sample is not structurally biased on particularly political lines. Political party affiliation, for instance.

The CBS/NYT poll shows Republican/Democratic/Independent/NA numbers of 29/35/27/9. It *should* be closer to 36/36/22/6. (GDubya gives directions on how to find the relevant table - which is buried on page 31 of a 33 page pdf on the NYT link given above.) A perusal of the rest of the party-affiliation numbers, for polls stretching back into the mid-Nineties, shows that this polling group has always had a Democratic-Party bias in their polling. Whatever method they're using to select their survey subjects, it doesn't seem to have adjusted itself as the population has gotten less Democratic and more Republican. I would guess that they settled on some artificial line of procedure back in the days when there were more Democrats, and haven't checked their assumptions since then.

Bottom line conclusion? Don't trust polls from CBS/NYT. Intentionally or not, they've got some sort of systemic bias in their polls. Their results will be consistently somewhat more favorable to Democratic policies than Republican.
Japan, what is wrong with you?? An official was caught at a crowded festival shoving a bag with a camera underneath a four-year-old girl's skirt. The girl's daughter grabbed the SOB and sat on him until the police arrived. Actually, I was a little surprised that the Japanese *had* thirty-year-old public officials. I've always gotten the impression that their bureaucracy was badly aged and decrepit... OK, I'm getting distracted. Pedophiles, bad! Bad Japan, bad!

Via Natsume Maya.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Borders down here on Pittsburgh's McKnight Road has a better first-run selection of whatever than anything in Central Pennsylvania. Among other things, they have a hefty stock of manga graphic novels, including lines from Comics One, CPM Manga, and Del Rey that haven't shown up in my usual Centre County haunts. So I took the opportunity to sample the new Del Rey line with a CLAMP manga called XXXholic. Yeah, yeah - I know. I hesitated myself, although I have enough respect for CLAMP that I went and got it anyways. Despite the title, which sounds like something from SP's Eros line, XXXholic is *not* a sex comic. I haven't figured out the reasoning behind it yet, but I'm sure it'll come. CLAMP doesn't usually indulge in total non sequitur titles.

Anyways, it's another modern-magic fantasy, strongly tied-in with CLAMP's increasingly lengthy list of similar modern-magic fantasies - there's references to Tokyo Babylon, Card Captor Sakura, X/1999, and the new Tsukasa: Reservoir Chronicle. The protagonist, a schoolkid named Watanuki, is haunt-bedeviled. He can see them, and thus haunts are interested in his existence, and prone to pester him. One such incident leaves him on the doorstep of the wish-shop of Yuuko, a sage-witch-psychiatrist with a rather decadent affect. She tricks him into making a wish - well, sort of. The point of the exercise is to guilt him into working for her as a sort of payment schedule on the karmic cost of his wish - to no longer have to see the supernatural. CLAMP plays XXXholic as something of a comedy, but it's got a very sad, unbending feel to it. The theme seems to be that free will and predestination are self-selected - according to Yuuko, "If you believe your destiny is decided, then most likely it's decided. If you believe that nothing is decided, then most likely nothing is decided".

Del Rey's approach to the manga trade is starting out pretty fanboyish. They retain a lot of out-of-dialog kana - sound effects, chatter, und so weiter. There's a lot of honorifics, which is going to enrage the localization fanatics. The translator didn't attempt to replace utterly untranslatable puns with English jokes, which I actually sort of appreciated. But I'm a fanboy, and the localization fanatics have nothing for contempt for my kind. On the debit side of the ledger, the editors also do strange things like publishing both the uncolored and colored versions of the first few pages. I can't imagine why they'd bother to do this - as far as I can tell, the colored version was supposed to replace the uncolored version in the Japanese graphic novel. It plays like a strange textual stutter in the form Del Rey offers. The price-point of the book is about 10% over that of the current bookstore pack, which isn't quite as bad as Dark Horse's 30%, but is still something of a hurdle for distribution. It might explain why the line is slow to penetrate my particular sub-market.

The print-quality is sufficient for the texture of the art. This art isn't exactly what I expect from CLAMP, as it's strictly line-work, with almost no ziptones aside from a very simple, horizontal-line design which blends in perfectly with the rest of the dark linear art. I recognize that this is mostly first-exposure bias speaking, but I tend to associate CLAMP with the dense, intricate, varied ziptone work of manga like X:1999. In addition to the linear art of XXXholic, there is also a lot of black-body inking, especially in panels associated with the dark and whimsically decadent Yuuko. This sort of heavy-black is very sensitive to printing drop-outs, and it's a bit of a triumph for Del Rey that there aren't a lot of faded-grey horizonal bands ruining the art. I can think of at least two or three early-Nineties publishers who couldn't have pulled it off.