Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair
It's the only way to go
Long, boring, senseless Marxist and/or Randian screeds to braue@ratsnest.win.net. Those I actually bother to read may have the names and addresses of their authors printed here; fair warning.

It should also be noted, of course, that requests in polite e-mails (even those that tell me how hopelessly wrong I am) to conceal names and/or addresses will be honored. But "don't publish this!" will not work with me as a threat.

My pen is so gay

Will La Belle France become the Fourth Reich?

Not too likely, you may say. Yet, how many in 1925 would have predicted that Germany would become the Third Reich? Yet, as today's International Herald Tribune shows, casual anti-Semitism pervades French schools.

American liberals rightly condemn the use of the word "gay" as a casual term of opprobrium: "Oh, that's so gay". Even if the unthinking teens (a pleonasm if ever there was one) are not considered to be infused with a casual, reflexive homophobia, it is feared -- not without grounds -- that being accustomed to the use of the word in that manner will leave them and their hearers vulnerable to it.

One wonders, therefore, what the use of "Jew" as a generic insult shows for the present and the future.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 11 Feb, 2004 10:57

New World Order, Old World propaganda.

The big thing in the current version of the Petulant Left's campaign against the Antichrist Bush is the question "what did he know and when did he know it?" about Iraq? The approved answer is that he knew along that Hussein had no WMDs, but that he deliberately lied to the Congress and America about it to go to war with Iraq, despite the best efforts of wiser heads such as Annan and Chirac.

Bush certainly put the best spin possible on the intelligence that he had that pointed in the direction that he wanted to go in, and downplayed any that didn't. Of course, the English-speaking media pointed this out in endless detail at the time. That they claim now that we should be shocked, shocked, to discover this is their admission that their credibility with alleged news and opinion consumers is effectively zero.

The same intelligence was available to -- and believed by -- Clinton, who chose to ignore it for domestic political reasons. It was available to -- and believed by -- Blair, to chose to add the U.K.'s weight to that of the U.S. It was available to Annan and Chirac; no one can say what, if anything, they believe, but certainly the bribes by Hussein out the "Oil for Food" program played a part in their vehement, if impotent, opposition.

Most important, Hussein himself did everything in his power to affirm that intelligence, since to do otherwise would reveal Iraq, not the U.S., to be the toothless tiger of jihadi rhetoric.

Was the intelligence wrong? Almost certainly. The Petulant Left has spent decades trying to ensure that the intelligence we receive must be worthless. I tell you three times: there is no substitute for HUMINT. HUMINT, however, comes from thugs and traitors; people who can be bribed, bullied, blackmailed, or seduced. The left as embodied in Congressional Democrats has insisted that the CIA must stay far away from such people. Perhaps they have some childish delusion that HUMINT will be provided gratis by principled whistleblowers, although they seem not to realize the contradiction between shrilly demanding that American whistleblowers must be protected by law against even the most minor of retaliations, and their acceptance of tyrants murdering, raping, and torturing foreign whistleblowers and their families.

The Petulant Left is responsible for their belief, held with the unreasoning vehemence of a fundamentalist insisting the teaching evolution is a Satanist plot, that neocons are fascists and that Bush would be Hitler if only he had the brains and guts. The Petulant Right, however, joins with them in the responsibility for insisting that the clock could easily be turned back to 10 September 2001 -- or perhaps 10 September 1801 -- if it were not for the imperialist ambitions of Rumsfeld and Perle, and the greed of Cheney and his buddies at Halliburton.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 09 Feb, 2004 13:10

Jackson Reaction

The reactions among the people that I know to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" have been two-fold:

  1. "Janet who?"
  2. "Look, it was a publicity stunt by two fading pop stars and a geriatric video jukebox network. Can we talk about something real now?"
I incline to the latter view myself.

The whole half-time performance sucked. CBS ought to be fined, not for violating broadcast standards, but for having the bad taste to put it together in the first place. One person that I know called it "an attempt to justify bin Laden's call for jihad against the West".

The discussion seems to be controlled by a very small group of reactionary yahoos who think that Jackson et al. need to be treatd with something more serious than contempt, and a rather larger number of faux-edgy commentators who natter on about it as though not being admiringly riveted by the sight of a tit on broadast TV is a serious moral failing.

Not only La Jackson, but the whole phalanx of self-styled ultrapostmodernists can be written off as fluff.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 05 Feb, 2004 17:49

Talmud Torah -- Bava Metzia 1:1

Let us consider the mishnah itself, before going on to consider the subsequent gemara.

Rishonim and aharonim1 have asked, "Why does Bava Metzia begin with this particular mishnah, which seems to be but loosely related to the rest of the tractate?" An obvious explanation, of course, is that Bava Metzia is but part of the original, much larger tractate Nezikin; when it was divided, the middle ten chapters were called Bava Metzia (the first ten chapters were established as Bava Kamma, the "First Gate", and the last ten as Bava Batra, the "Last Gate"). This division, then, was done for reasons of symmetry and convenience, rather than with careful atention paid to subject matter, and anomalies can be explained this way. This is the view of Tosafot2.

 Rashbatz3, on the other hand, maintains that this case is but loosely related to others in Bava Metzia. However, the principles used in deciding the mishnah are general in scope, going far beyond the mere division of a lost object, and are also interesting in themselves. The Talmud often discusses a specific, interesting case, going on to elucidate far-reaching principles implied in it, before discussing mishnayot of apparently more general application. Therefore, he holds, he ought not to view this as a mere artifact of an arbitrary division.

Our mishnah begins, "Two are holding on to a garment..." Why a "garment" specifically? Why is a more general term, such as "object", not used. Torat Hayyim4 points out that, in the following gemara, it is established that there are certain laws appropriate to garments and the ways in which they are held which do not apply to other objects; therefore, the mishnah discusses "garment", specifically, in order to elucidate these laws.

It is noted that the item under discussion in the mishnah is the tallit. In the early centuries CE, this was a large, rectangular piece of cloth with ritual fringes (tzitzit) worn as an outer garment by men (roughly analogous to the Roman toga). It survives in the present day as the tallit koton ("prayer shawl"). The tallit is used as an example here for three reasons. First, since the tallit was an outer garment, it common for men to remove it before doing physical labor (as with a coat or jacket in modern times). Thus, it was not uncommon to find a lost tallit, blown away by the wind or simply forgotten by its owner. Second, whilst the tallit might be woven of stuffs of different textures and/or colors (although not, of course, of different materials), it was essentially just a piece of cloth. In chapter 2 of Bava Metzia, we learn that Torah law requires us to return a lost object to his owner, provided that it has such identifying features as to make us reasonably certain that the claimant is in fact the owner, and not someone seeking to claim it for his own gain. A tallit is quite likely to be lacking such identifying features, and thus may be justly claimed by the finder. Third, a tallit, being as mentioned before, essentially just a piece of cloth, is thus capable of being physically divided without destroying its value, as would be the case if the item under dispute were, e.g., a live donkey.

A further note is made of the Hebrew spellings. The first and last letters of tallit are different. The first letter is tet, which is invariably is romanized "t", and pronounced /t/. The final letter, however, is tav. Around the beginning of the Common Era, this letter was pronounced as an aspirated "t", very roughly /th/, a pronunciation similar to that of koine Greek theta, and which is preserved in Yemeni Hebrew (due to the influence of Arabic) to this day. In Ashkenazi Hebrew, however, tav has come to be pronounced /s/, whilst in Sephardi (and Israeli) Hebrew, it is now pronounced /t/. The romanized spellings generally follow one of these pronunciations, although tav is sometimes romanized as "th" (e.g., "matzoth"), by analogy to the romanization of theta.

It is noted that the last letter of tzitzit is also tav. The rules of tzitzit are one of the most obvious (although perhaps not the most fundamental) differences between Rabbinic (or Talmudic) and Karaite Judaism, the latter being a strain of Jewish thought arising in the eighth century CE that denied the authority of the Oral Torah. In Deuteronomy 22:12 and Numbers 15:38-40, the mitzvah is found to dye some threads used tekhelet. Tekhelet is both the name of a particular color, and of a specific dyestuff (cf. English "indigo"). Chazal ruled, in accordance with their understanding that the mitzvah is to make tzitzit of threads dyed with tekhelet, that the mitzvah cannot be followed (Menahot 4:1)5,6. The Kara'im, on the other hand, say that the mitzvah is to use threads dyed the color of tekhelet, and that if actual tekhelet is unavailable, a substitute must be used

.1Rishonim are "first ones", commentators on the Talmud prior to the publication of Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulhan Arukh ("Set Table") , the authoritative collection of Halakhic decisions, in 1565 CE. Aharonim are "last ones", commentators since then. It is a rule of decision-making that no aharon has the personal authority to independently disagree with a rishon, although he may adopt the position of a rishon whose views are not generally followed in Halakhah7.

2Commentators and novellists of the French and German yeshivot of the 12th and 13th centuries CE, expanding on the work of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105, greatest of all Torah and Talmud commentators). Many of Tosafot were not only Rashi's students, but his descendants.

3Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemah Duran, posek of Spain, 1361-1444.

4Rabbi Avraham Hayyim Shor (d. 1632), so called after his great collection of Talmudic novellae, Torat Hayyim.

5Tekhelet was made from a specific type of snail, the haltzun (cf. Tyrian purple, which was a different color, however). Already when the mishnayot were being composed, the haltzun was so rare that it was said to appear only "once every seventy years"8 (idiomatic for "once in a great while"). It may be extinct; moreover, we cannot identify it and, even if we could and it is not extinct, the method of preparing tekhelet from it has been lost.

6There are 110 pages of gemara for Menahot in BT, but none in JT; they may been lost, or never collected in the first place.

7"Tao" ;) Really; halakhah is, literally, "path" and is used to mean normative law.

8Menahot 44a.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 26 Jan, 2004 21:23

Does human nature allow space colonization?

I've had an interest in space exploration and exploitation for many years, and am also involved at the moment in a debate as to the significance of the Fermi Paradox (an article on that later, IY"H). So the question of whether human nature makes unsuited to space colonization is of interest to me. And therefore you, Gentle Reader, will hear about it will you or nihil you. (Well, you could stop reading, although I hope that you won't).

I know nothing of Sylvia Engdahl, so I may be completely misunderstanding her position; she is invited to correct any misinterpretations that I make. It seems to me, though, that she is arguing that a tangible economic return must be expected for colonization to be seen as feasible. People (especially politicians and the state-level resources that they control) are not naturally altruistic; the only non-altruistic motive is economic profit; therefore, a profit must be anticipated (not necessarily correctly) for colonization to occur. As there is no place in this solar system, at least, where colonists could realistically "live off the land" (i.e., lead a low-tech existence with restricted access to capital), a high capital input is necessary, with concomitantly high ROI being expected. Absent a previously-existing infrastructure, nothing (with the possible exception of SPS; there are separate, purely political problems with that) can promise that kind of ROI; therefore, any colonization scenario of a pre-O'Neill type is impractical.

Now, readers of my blog will know that I agree that the expected ROI is negligible to negative (especially when opportunity costs are factored in). OTOH, I don't agree that the only non-altruistic motive is economic profit; this smacks too much of anarcho-capitalism to me. It is unnecessary even to admit to the legitimacy of state power to admit that it does exist, has existed in the past, and is overwhelmingly likely to continue to exist in the future (extropian fantasies aside), and that therefore the wielders of that power may well use it in both non-altruistic and unprofitable ways.

It is characteristic of end-stage empires (Spenglerian "final political forms") that they love big projects for the sake of bigness; the ruling class invests the resources of the Ecumen in gigantic statues, buildings that strain contemporary engineering, planned (and useless) cities with sweeping vistas. Neither the economic nor the human costs are counted; Shih Huang Ti's massive enterprise, the Great Wall, is not called "the longest cemetery in the world" without reason (although it did serve the dual purposes of helping to protect China from the northern barbarians, and being a convenient way of disposing of Confucians). The colonization of space is a likely project for the Empire of the West to undertake; something very like Jerry Pournelle's BuReloc will periodically sweep up the rabble ("rabble" being gangbangers, intellectuals who make nuisances of themselves, and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in a sweep without the ability to bribe, bully, blackmail, or seduce the guards) and ship them off to Martian penal terraforming camps. Whether ten or ten million die in the attempt -- indeed, whether the attempt itself is successful or not -- will not matter to the Imperial bureaucracy. If the Deputy Vice Minister for Rites wakes up in a good mood, she might authorize a plaque to be put up extolling the noble sacrifices of the brave colonists -- or not. Indeed, if one's imagination is dark enough (and, after Auschwitz, it need not be darker than reality), one can imagine the warden-cum-administrator of the Martian Terraforming Project musing: "I need organic matter to turn regolith into topsoil...and I've got all these otherwise useless laborers...".

Even semi-altruistic motives can be imagined. "The Earth is too fragile a basket to keep all our eggs in" is a meme frequently encountered among space enthusiasts. As with so many other things, one should careful as to what one asks for, lest one get it. End-stage empires have been ruled by cranks: Akhenaten, Nero, and Wang Mang come to mind. Especially coupled with the life-extension technologies that so many extropians and transhumanists fervently express a desire for, it is not beyond the bounds of the imagination that some future Emperor will tell his cabinet: "Take a century or so to develop a practical interstellar ark; then round up a few thousand of the usual suspects and send ‘em to Alpha Centauri". Less explicable things have happened.

Beyond the final fall of Western civilization, of course, there may well be new cultures. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom took generations to build pyramids, and the medieval Westerners cathedrals, not as a mere expression of grandeur or to attract tourist dollars, but out of a genuine expression of religious fervor that is alien to us on the cusp of late modernity and genuine postmodernism. It may well be that the Grelbish culture of the fifth millennium CE will see interstellar travel in the same way.

Many now proclaim their willingness to participate in a diaspora; it ought not to be surprising if, from whatever motive, they someday encounter those willing to send them.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 24 Jan, 2004 14:02

Late modern art

I've asserted previously that the quasi-Spenglerian model of metahistory is the one to follow, and that it indicates that we are in (or are about to enter) the death-throes of Western culture. That shouldn't be taken as a prediction that the world is in (or is about to enter into) a new barbarism. In the Spenglerian model, a High Culture is succeeded by a civilization; Classical culture died at about the same time as Caesar (although not because of Caesar's death), and was succeeded by the Classical civilization of the Roman Empire. In the same way, the Hyksos were succeeded by the New Kingdom, the Chou and the contending feudal states by the Ch'in and Han, and the atabegs and despots by the Osmanlis. In every case, the stability and illusion of strength lasted (with notable exceptions that make interesting reading but were horrible for the people trying to live through them) for centuries; in cases where nobody could be bothered to knock over the skeletal remains (post-imperial Egypt or Japan after the beginning of the Heian period), they could survive indefinitely.

I'd originally intended this series of posts as a polemic against modern "art". When I gathered my sources, however, I was surprised to find that there was so little to rave about. This not because, like Wagner's music, modern art is better than it sounds; it's because there's no "there" there. Modern art, particularly late modern art, is like one of those beads formed by dropping molten glass into cold water; it looks to be a stable, cohesive structure, but break off its "tail", even scratch it, and its disintegrates into dust.

Casually, this is because of the cultural exhaustion that I mentioned previously. With fewer and fewer meaningful questions to be answered, art becomes increasingly self-referential, creating a jargon without meaning, used not to communicate anything other than "I speak the same jargon, so I must be an artist" (this is by no means limited to art, incidentally).

Spengler considered that a civilization is essentially synthetic and curatorial, as distinct from the analytic, creative culture that proceeded it. The curatorial function in art appears to extend (in America, which is certainly part of Western culture) back to the end of the nineteenth century; its manifestation in Western culture is the non-profit corporation. Prior to that time, "serious" art and popular spectacle, contemporary composition and pre-modern literature and music, tended to be run together on the same bill; in a single evening and without moving from one's seat, one could see and hear scenes from Shakespeare, trained dogs, and contemporary poetry. People absorbed it all, bearing up under the hardship of their betters not being able to tell them what was to be drooled over, and what was too vulgar for words.

About 1900, beginning in Boston, the better people (i.e., WASPs) decided that true culture needed to be protected and preserved from the low-class rabble (i.e., non-WASPs) that was overrunning their fair city. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, however; the museums and orchestras that they provided for the people weren't attended by the people. Actual people wanted to hear early-modern works of the sort that the sophisticated arty types, characterized a generation later as "Bright Young Things", sneered at as old-fashioned and repressive.

A century later, very much the same thing can be said. The Western modern musical canon runs from Mozart to Mahler. There is plenty of avant-garde music being produced by radical spirits, subsidized by academia, government, and the foundations, but no one wants to listen to it. (Rock music is not only ephemeral, its upholders insist that it must be ephemeral; listen to a devotee of "alternative" or "indie" rock bitch about the persistence of "classic" rock in masscult.)

Genuine postmodernism -- civilization, rather than culture -- tends to find late modernism so embarrassing that it tries its best to forget about it; if necessary, murdering any number of "artists" and destroying any number of "works of art" to do so. I note that the Hyksos Period -- late modernity in Egyptian culture -- is generally dismissed as a completely sterile time; whilst we might argue that absence of evidence should be taken as evidence of absence in this case, we might justly wonder if New Kingdom artistic styles were truly ab initio.

Western civilization, when it finally arises -- and it should be remembered that I'm using "civilization" in a technical sense, as opposed to culture -- will likely deny that the 20th century ever existed.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 23 Jan, 2004 14:28

Late Modernity

Whether I'm a Spenglerian who fills in the gaps with Machiavelli, or a Machiavellian who fills in the gaps with Spengler, I'll leave to the readership to judge.

I do think that Spengler had some insights into metahistory, and its insights into the development of Western culture and civilization, although I do not adhere slavishly to his timescale (and I note that Spengler himself wasn't totally dogmatic about this; his measure was the generation, a measure whose increments, and translation into absolute years, is always open to dispute). I try to use "culture" and "civilization" with the same technical meanings as he did, although at times I conflate them, to the confusion of anyone trying to make sense of I write. "Culture" is dynamic, developing, and creative; "civilization" is static, dead, and sterile. Too often, perhaps, we point to early civilization as a sort of Golden Age; in fact, it tends to be the stage where a society is completely exhausted, and by virtue of that fact takes a deep breath, gathering up and sorting out the treasures that its predecessor culture has created. They were there all along, but now they're on display; we can wander through the museum, laid out for us, instead of having to sort throughout newspaper clippings (or potsherds) and exercise judgment.

I consider that Western culture is not quite dead, although it is in its last generation. After a couple of generations of chaos, it will be completely dead, and have been succeeded by Western civilization. We probably wouldn't like that civilization, and in fact I doubt if its inhabitants will like it much, although they'll prefer it to the few centuries that preceded it.

I'll lay out a few definitions here; whilst I don't expect that everyone will agree with all (or perhaps any) of them, it will enable us to agree as to what we disagree on.

A distinctive Western culture -- one in which people actually thought that they had meaningful things to say and do -- arose about the ninth and tenth centuries CE. It borrowed some names and forms, and even a few ideas, from the Classical society which had gone before it, and even from its earlier contemporary, Magian/Islamic society (I consider Muhammed to be analogous to Martin Luther; a figure whose importance should be underestimated, but a reformer, not the founder of a new society. I'm also rather more Machiavellian than Spengler in this; I view them as autonomous actors, rather than as marionettes helplessly compelled by mysterious forces) but it was essentially different. The only thing of the essence that it inherited from Classicism was Christianity, which was, contrary to certain Christians, a low-probability victor in the Second Religiousness phase of late Classical civilization.

(Those who like to blame everything on Christianity might contemplate a post-Classical Mediterranean and Europe where "astral piety", that mishmash of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, won out. Secular humanism -- which has also come in for more than its fair share of abuse -- is not the only alternative. Those who believe that it is also probably believe that history began about 1960).

Culture, like Gaul, can be divided into three phases: early, middle, and late. Middle culture begins when people begin to ask, "Why?". Late culture begins when people no longer accept, "Because that's way thing have always been" or "Because that's the way that God made the world" as answers to those questions. By that definition, late or, as many call it, "modern" Western culture began with the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century.

I'll insert at this point that I consider references to contemporary culture to somehow be "postmodern" to be complete bullshit. It's nothing more than an attempt by contemporary cultural icons to appear edgy; as ignorant of the fact as they may be, or as distasteful as they may find it, they are part of a smooth (in the mathematical sense) cultural evolution from Beethoven and Goethe.

Modern culture then not only asks the question "Why?", but also the converse "Why not?". Appeals to the numinous are explicitly rejected. The ignorant and the manipulative like to pretend that this is unique to Western culture; but Hellenism, Mu'tazilitism, and the "Hundred Schools" period of Chinese philosophy are sufficient to refute this claim. We've been here before; if humanity doesn't become extinct, we'll be here again.

It should be noted that in Spengler's view most cultures do not successfully make this transition. The intellectuals suffer a crisis of (self-) confidence when faced with the necessity of rejecting the cultural traditions in seeking answers for their questions; their culture remains in a state of arrested development until and unless destroyed by a stronger external culture. Those cultures that do make the transition Spengler identified as "High Cultures" or, in his later writings, as "End Cultures"1.

A "High Culture" is inherently mortal; it will eventually exhaust and destroy itself, leaving behind a "civilization" which, although it might appear to be (and in many ways is) impressive when seen with historical foreshortening, is actually no more than the fossilized evidence of what its predecessor culture had achieved in the past. We might draw an analogy (and it is no more than that) between a pre-pubescent child having to choose between an indefinite life-span as a pre-pubescent, or accepting the transition into adulthood with a life-span than is thereby limited to sixty or seventy years (Larry Niven's A World out of Time, although not a Spenglerian novel, deals in part with this theme).

FTR, Spengler considered the "High Cultures" to be:

  • Egyptian
  • Babylonian (of the Bronze Age)
  • North Indian
  • Chinese (of the Chou and Han dynasties)
  • Classical
  • Magian (Byzantium, Sassanid Persia, and Islam)
  • Mesoamerican
  • Western

He considered that Mesoamerican High Culture had successfully transitioned from pre-modern to modern culture, but had not yet reached civilization, when it was destroyed by the West. Toynbee (whose metahistorical model is similar to, but much less deterministic than, Spengler's) identified two complete cultural cycles in China; the Chou-Han, which he called "Sinic", and a cycle culminating in the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, which he called "Far Eastern". Western culture long ago successfully transitioned to modernity, but has not yet died and left a civilization behind it; Spengler writing nearly a hundred years ago, opined that the final death of Western culture would occur late in this (i.e., the 21st) century.

The stock of questions generated by a pre-modern culture is not infinite; this is what guarantees its mortality. Note that for Spengler, these questions and their answers were not strictly philosophical; quantum mechanics, the Eroica, and the League of Nations are all equally valid answers to different (but equally meaningful) questions.

After a time, the stock of questions starts to run dry; modern culture is certainly not unable to formulate new questions, but they are answered more quickly than new ones can be posed. The question "Why?" is supplemented by the question "Grblzk?"; a meaningless question, to which no one wants to know the answer, not the ones who proposed it (they are more interested in the material and psychological kudoi for having come up with an "answer"). The rot sets in in all fields of cultural endeavor; science and mathematics become sterile, turning to a filling in of details rather than bold new advances; art in all its range is divorced from the masses, becoming increasingly self-referential; and politics becomes appeals to naked force, increasingly thinly masked in populism and calls for "direct action".

1In his later writings, Spengler seemed to have been moving away from a strictly "circular" interpretation to a "helical" one; history repeats itself, but each cycle is grander in scope; there is real progress. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke in 1927 which prevented him developing from these ideas on the grand scale of The Decline of the West.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 20 Jan, 2004 09:40

The Raj Reborn

Scott Palter at a senile cow's rightwing rants has an interesting NYT article on the Pakistani nuclear network, and some comments on it.  I pretty much disagree with the preferability of the options he offers.

The 1947 partition of India by the British Laborites was of a stupidity and vileness that went unnoticed only because it happened in the wake of WWII.  The economy and military might of India has grown absolutely and relatively to that of Pakistan to the point where, if there is a fourth Indo-Pak war, Pakistan will become extinct.  The only thing that could save it would be direct U.S. intervention, and I do not see the U.S. doing that in any foreseeable future, even to prevent nuclear war (especially as that intervention would more likely to trigger than to prevent it).

That war wouldn't be at all fun.  Leaving out such unlikely scenarios as U.S. and/or Israeli special forces managing to secure all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons before they can be used, the war will go nuclear.  The result would likely be 200 million dead, either direct casualties of the war, or dying of starvation or disease in its aftermath, due to destruction of the subcontinent's infrastructure.  However, India would survive it; there would be a badly damaged but still viable political and economic structure afterward.  Pakistan would not; I would estimate that 65-80% of its population would die as a result of that war, directly or indirectly.

Musharraf is caught between the rock of Islamism and the hard place of American demands for co-operation against al-Qa'ida, but that is less his fault than ours, and it is because our political and cultural élites refused to countenance either empire or autarkic isolationism.  Some concessions of textile tariffs and the promise of a bolthole for Musharraf personally could have bought far more pro-Americanism, but we're good little democrats who don't play those games.

His scenario #2 is merely hoping that the horse learns how to sing, putting off the evil day until it is, perhaps, immensely more evil.  A stable, moderate Pakistani government that shuts down the madrassas, the ISI, and the barely-covert nuclear technology sales is possible -- in the sense that it would not violate the laws of physics.  It is possible in the same sense that a delegation will arrive from the U.N., informing me that I've been elected king of the world...but I do not sit on my doorstep with crown, orb, and sceptre, awaiting the glorious day.

I would argue that U.S./Indian relations in the past, which admittedly have ranged from bad to chilly, were largely a product of Cold War, a/k/a "World War 2½", compounded by Congress socialism, the ambition of the now extinct Nehru/Gandhi dynasty, and the pernicious myth of republican isolationism so pervasive in American politics.  India will not be the good little puppet of the U.S.  It could be a junior partner -- and could even grow in strength to be the senior partner -- of a serious international alliance that includes both nations.  Such an alliance, however, must by its very nature exclude Pakistan as an independent polity.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 09 Jan, 2004 01:33

Talmud Torah -- Part 1 of, presumably, a couple myriads

Back last November, I decided that I really needed some intellectual self-discipline to prevent me sleeping all afternoon.  Since I do read Talmud occasionally, I decided that The Thing To Do was to write some commentaries on it.  This did work for about a month or do; in fact, it failed to work only when I got lazy and decided to sleep instead.

So, I'll not only resume writing those commentaries, and this blog, I'll post those commentaries to this blog, too.

I'll start with a few disclaimers.  I have no semikhah (ordination), and nothing that I write should be presumed to be original, authoritative, or even correct.  My Hebrew and Aramaic are poor, so anyone who claims that I've mistranslated or mistransliterated a word is probably correct.


The Talmud is divided into six orders, comprising broad groupings of subjects, some with little obvious relationship to each other. Traditionally, each order was sub-divided into ten tractates.

The fourth order of the Talmud is called Nezikin -- "Damages", and deals various aspects of temporal law, including what we would call "civil" and "criminal" law, and the composition and procedures of the various courts. In ancient times, this order was headed by a very long tractate also called Nezikin. The great length of this tractate -- thirty chapters and more than 400 folio1 pages in standard printed editions -- caused it to be divided into three "Gates". The middle ten chapters are known, logically enough, as Bava Metzia -- the "Middle Gate". It deals with much that we would consider normal business dealings for the pre-industrial small farmer or merchant -- lost objects, loans of money and objects, and the like.

The Talmud is divided into two kinds of material: Mishnah and Gemara. Mishnayot (the plural of mishnah) are terse, legalistic statements in Hebrew, composed roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE. They were organized and edited, first by Rabbi Akiva, then by his student Rabbi Meir, and finally by the great Rabbi Yehudah haNasi ("Judah the Prince"), invariably referred to in the Talmud itself simply as "Rabbi".

The final definition of the mishnayot did not, of course, end discussion of them. That discussion continued, analyzing their exact wording and applicability, including such "meta-topics" as "Who might have composed this mishnah?", and often discursing into""By the way, that reminds of the time..." stories. These discussions are gemara; those portions of it that are normative are called halakhot (laws, literally "paths"), whilst the non-normative portions (everything from elevated moral discourses to personal anecdotes) are called aggadot.

There are actually two gemarot, and thus two Talmuds. The Babylonian Talmud (also BT or Talmud Bavli) records the Babylonian gemara as edited by Rav Ashi and Ravina; the Jerusalem Talmud (also JT or Talmud Yerushalmi), the Palestinian gemara as edited by the students of Rabbi Yohanan bar Nappaha. The Babylonian gemara is later, more extensive, and more carefully edited than the Palestinian one; thus, the Babylonian Talmud is considered more authoritative. A reference to "the Talmud" unqualified is to the Babylonia Talmud. Both Talmuds, however, contain and refer to the same mishnayot.

Bava Metzia 1:1 (i.e., the first mishnah of its first chapter) is:

Two are holding on to a garment. This one says, "I found it", and this one says, "I found it". This one says, "All of it is mine" and this one says, "All of it is mine". This one shall swear that he does not have in it less than half of it2, and this one shall swear that he does not have in it less that half of it, and they shall divide it.

This one says, "All of it is mine", and this one says, "Half of it is mine". The one who says, "All of it is mine" shall swear that he does not have in it less than three-quarters, and the one who says, "Half of it is mine" shall swear that he does not have in it less than a quarter. This one takes three-quarters, and this one takes a quarter.

Two were riding on an animal, or one was riding and one was driving3. This one says, "All of it is mine", and this one says, "All of it is mine". This one shall swear that he does not have less in it than half of it, and this one shall swear that he does not have in it less than half of it, and they divide it4.

Whenever they admit, or if they have witnesses, they divide without an oath.

1The Talmud is traditionally numbered on the basis of the folio (dual-sided) pages in a tractate. Each page is numbered, and the two sides are designated aleph ("a") and bet ("b"). The first page of each tractate is numbered "2".
2Has no less than a half-interest in it.
3Is walking along side of it or in back of it with a switch.
4The gemara states at 8a that where a physical division of an object, such as a live animal, would destroy its value, the court orders it sold, and the disputants divide the proceeds.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 08 Jan, 2004 20:25

Our fiends the French

Call this long gap an "extended hiatus".  Whether the hiatus resumes will depend on how the job market treats me this year.


Black Jacques Chirac quite famously denounced the wearing of the hijab, the headscarf prescribed by Muslim tradition for women, in the schools.  For his troubles in promoting secularism, he has been vilified by Muslims and loony leftists worldwide; Islamist terrorism may even have reached out their cruel hands to murder Frenchmen.

My nose bleeds for M. Chirac.  He has tried to ride the tiger, and been thrown and mauled for his pains.
When he made his speech, American tranzies (if the term is not an oxymoron) immediately turned on him.  Yes, they hate Bush with a passion that passes all understanding.  Yes, they hate American unilateralism in Iraq (as opposed to, say, French unilateralism in West Africa).  But they, not Republican neo-cons, are the true proponents of "if you are not with us, you are against us".  For Chirac to be insufficiently multicultural is a killing offense; and since they cannot physically kill him, they must kill him in what they think is the popular view; i.e., theirs.
This is one more battle in the tranzie Kulturkampf.  If Islamist terrorism strikes a hard blow at France, they will waffle on the moral responsibility for it, and counsel the French to remember why Muslims hate them so.
The difference will be in the response.  America is a nation of moral ideals; however lamentably short we have fallen in practice, however much Americans have paid lip service to those ideals instead of acting to implement them, they have remained with us, simultaneously a goal and a goad.  However hypocritically, Bush invoked those ideals to justify, in part, the Third Gulf War; we would overthrowing a vile and vicious tyrant, he claimed, and bringing democracy to Iraq; at the worst, we would be doing well by doing good.
France's only standard of conduct has been "France first; the rest nowhere".  Their reach is shorter and their arm lighter than ours, but their strength will be used ruthlessly, without the introspection that has so often caused us to hesitate.  Those Americans who, in the events leading up to the Third Gulf War, thought that Chirac and France stood for peace, diplomacy, and tolerance will find themselves cruelly deceived.
Just possibly, one or two of them will realize that they deceived themselves.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 08 Jan, 2004 08:20

A Soldier's Letter from Iraq

Read A Soldier's Letter from Iraq.  It has some interesting things to say.

One thing, about which I've been thinking for awhile, and will probably have some more commentary on shortly, is this.  Combat troops are not garrison troops.  The guy who's willing to go to Iraq is not the guy who will fight, bleed, and die for his home.  The U.S. has pretty much treated them as identical throughout its history, however.

This may have to stop.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 02 Oct, 2003 05:21

Valuable Arabs, throwaway Jews

Reuters publishes a claim by Hamas that an Arab state foiled an Israeli plan to assassinate its leaders.  The press release doesn't contain a byte of verifiable information, however -- the mouthpiece for Hamas doesn't identify who, where, or when, and the Israeli government, naturally enough, ain't sayin' nuthin'.  This is the kind of "news" that is of meaning only to the gullible news junkie who thinks that possessing a word processor, and fax machine, and a T1 connection automatically makes one incapable of lying.  That there was such a plan should be taken with as much as salt as will not raise one's blood pressure to dangerous levels.

That there is any veracity to the idea at all -- the general notion that Mossad is targeting terrorist handlers, not that there was a specific plan thwarted by Arab "security services", an oxymoron if ever there was one -- is suggested by the mere issuance of this propaganda. It is apparently a crime for Israel to target Hamas thugs for assassination, but perfectly acceptable, apparently for Hamas to murder Israeli civilians.

(By the way, Muhammed, your squawking gives the lie to your claim that Hamas is not intimated.  It suggests that Hamas is intimidated, and frantically attempting to use its fellow travelers in the media to put pressure on the Israeli government to desist.)

There is, however, a very worrisome claim, which Reuters of course includes as an throw-away line, as if reporting an established fact of nature.  To wit:

The quartet of Middle East peacemakers -- the United States, Russia, the European Union (news- web sites) and the United Nations (news- web sites) -- said last week Israel had the right to act in self-defense.


But it called for an end to settlement activity, criticized an Israeli security fence and appealed to Israel to minimize civilian casualties.

(Emphasis added.)

Is not a security fence in essence a totally passive defense, at most reacting against those -- whether terrorists or "mere" illegal immigrants -- who would attempt to breach it for their nefarious purposes?  Whilst the Middle East "peacemakers" -- a group in which, shamefully, the U.S. is included -- pay lip-service to the Israeli right of self-defense, they apparently deny that it can be exercised.

Miso-Judaism in Europe has never really gone away.  Whilst Nazi atrocities embarrassed European miso-Judaists into keeping silent for decades, the memory of the Shoah has now faded enough that they can be respectable again.  This, combined with the depraved bloodlust so often demonstrated in European history, suggests that European political bosses merely want to spin out the destruction of Israeli for as long as possible, to maximize the titillation of their subject.  If so, they ought to remember that their hand-wringing about Arab desperation applies equally to Israeli desperation. 

John "Akatsukami" Braue 01 Oct, 2003 11:56

An apology, of sorts

Both of my readers will have undoubtedly all sorts of weirdness in the appearance this site in the past couple of weeks -- strange characters, strange font face switches, and the like.  The reason for this is simple.

CityDesk 2.0 sucks.  In fact, it sucks big fat hairy diseased moose penis.

There's probably a certain amount of WILIWIK involved.  There's also probably that, after returning to blogging after so long away, I've just forgotten all of the little tricks that were second nature to me to maintain an acceptable appearance.  But there's also little question that CityDesk 2.0 doesn't translate anything beyond 7-bit ASCII to HTML entities well.  In fact, it doesn't even make a reasonable attempt.

This blog is a labor of love -- well, mild like; if it were a passionate affair, I wouldn't have stayed away for months -- so I'm not going to spend big bucks on software to more precisely control its appearance;  I no longer have the big bucks to spend.  Now that I have a better grasp of the limitations of CityDesk, however, I'll do a better job at using it.


John "Akatsukami" Braue 30 Sep, 2003 20:59

High flying

The Pentagon is apparently contemplating the return of the lighter-than-air airship as part of its mix of intelligence options.

Will it work?  Don't be silly; nothing works, exactly the way that we wanted it to, the first time that we ever try.  As one of my comp sci profs used to say, if your program compiles and run the first time, it was too trivial to have been written in the first place.  What will be interesting is what misconceptions will be disspelled by this attempt; although the Navy didn't shut down its LTA program until 1962, airship development was pretty much halted by a series of disasters in the 1930s (including the Hindenberg, although it should emphasized that it was about a fifth cousin to this proposal) and then swept aside by World War II.  Essentially, no one not living has any actual experience with developing them.

Our good fiends...ahh, friends...the Federation of American Scientists, has a take on the current generation of LTA craft ("aerostats") used by the government.  Their assessment is not sanguine, although it should be noted that perfection is not good enough for them when it comes to an effort that they oppose...that is, anything done by DoD.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 30 Sep, 2003 19:57

The Other Extreme

A group styling itself "Independent Texans" has an on-line petition calling for an independent districting commission in Texas.

And, of course, if and when said petition is delivered to the Texas state legislature, the legislators will say, "A e-petition e-signed by a bunch of geeks who couldn't even get off their fat asses to really sign a real petition, but thought that they could just sit in front of their computers and click away?  Boys, I don't know if any of these names are real, but if they are, we've got a list of people who won't drive to the polls and vote against us no matter what we do!"

I tell you three times, and what I tell you three times is true:  politicians don't even read e-petitions.  They hire college freshmen as interns at minimum wage to delete that stuff from their mail boxes, sight unseen.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 30 Sep, 2003 12:27

Power to the Black Bloc

Brendan Miniter asks, "Why Doesn't Johnny Vote?". Although he gets the proximate cause correct -- social studies classes suck, and have for decades -- I believe that he's not altogether right on the causes behind the causes -- the meta-causes, so to speak.

Direct action -- which leftist political theorists have taught, and leftist political theorists have put into practice, for decades -- is profoundly anti-democratic and anti-liberal. Democracy and liberalism are often confused in the popular mind, but it is not necessary that a democratic regime be liberal, or a liberal regime be democratic.

Democracy is best defined as governance by the popular will, whether that will be expressed directly through referenda, plebiscites, or an Athenian-cum-town meeting type of constitutional arrangement, or indirectly, through delegates that (presumably, hopefully) make decisions according to that will. Note that there is nothing said about rights here; the "Jim Crow" laws of Dixie in the early 19th century were democratic; they reflected the will of the majority -- Southern whites. That they oppressed, to an intolerable extent, a minority -- Southern blacks -- is not at variance with democratic theory. Libertarians like to say that democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on the dinner menu, and they are quite right about that. Although classical Athens was not "democratic" as we would understand the term (Greek demokrateia was conceived of as "one man, one vote", it was "one sword, one vote"; the quarrel with oligarchs was over who should be allowed to wield swords), it nonetheless carried this democratic practice to an extreme. Athenian citizens were quite willing to condemn any one of their number, at any time, for any case, including not liking the cut of his khiton. The condemned had no recourse, even in theory.

Liberalism (and of course I speak of real liberalism, not of FDR's personality-cult-driven pragmatic fascism) is almost the opposite of this: the recognition of the pre-existing rights of the individual and, in consequence, areas into which the state may not intrude. A liberal regime need not, in theory, be democratic (although the minority seems quite as willing to dispense with the rights of the majority as vice versa), and, in 19th century Europe, there were some notable liberal-oligarchic regimes.

Direct action, on the other hand, is theocratic in nature. The activist, assured that he alone possesses The Truthâ„¢ (and that others share in his gnosis only to the extent that they agree with him), is invited to dispense with the democratic process as merely representing institutional ignorance. To the left, no theory of rights that precludes his concern from being enforced by the government can be tolerated; all rights must be swept aside in his efforts to save the children, or the whales, or whatever his cause might be.

Democracy and liberalism are both modern ideas -- "modern" in the Spenglerian sense. Direct action is a post-modern notion. Democracy, however imperfectly implemented, is the Athenian ekklesia, the Roman comitia, the U.S. Congress. Liberalism is the Bill of Rights. Direct action is the circus mob.

Of course, we should remember that Justinian had the Nika Riots --the last outcry of the circus mob -- suppressed by the deaths of 30,000 rioters. This is unlikely to be the intent of the direct action theorists. One thing that they cannot comprehend, however, is that there other people, who have other intentions, and that those people and their intentions might prevail. Direct action can sweep away everything in its path -- or itself be swept away. Only democrats can compromise, and only liberals can agree that some areas are off-limits to political discourse.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 30 Sep, 2003 10:45

All the news fit to sell

Via Jerry Pournelle's website comes mention of this Observer article castigating the media for finding Iraqi deaths from American action unimportant, not worth reporting.

Of course, the article leaves out a key point: why were American troops raiding Farah Fadhil's apartment building? Because they were bored, callous young men looking for a little excitement, or because they believed that fedayeen or other terrorists were using it a base? If the latter, why did not the late Ms. Fadhil plead with them in fluent Arabic to leave civilians in peace? Perhaps because she feared being gang-raped by them before being tortured to death.

It is a cliché of journalism that "dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is". For soldiers to act brutally and cruelly is not news; so it has been throughout human history. For American soldiers to act in a humane, cautious fashion, at the risk of their own lives, is not news, either; certainly, not the sort of news that attracts reporters for the Observer. Only those incidents astonishing by the standards of journalism --"man bites dog" -- will be reported.

The death of any civilian, at anyone's hands, is tragic. It is no less tragic if it happens at Islamist hands than at American, but perhaps it is less likely to be reported. People reacted in horror -- perhaps real, perhaps feigned -- at the report of the atrocities committed by Hussein, his sons, and his regime. They were certainly known before, but the established media -- including Marxist outlets such as the Observer  --  did not bother to report them. It was more than just they feared the loss of "access" -- knowing things for the sake of knowing them -- they did not care. Third World dictators are supposed to be brutal and cruel; reporting on the Ba'athist regime's brutality and cruelty would be reporting that the Atlantic is wet.

Dr. Pournelle comments that

If this is part of progress, and the price of progress, perhaps we should be very afraid; because I suspect that a free election held in that neighborhood just now would not produce results very favorable to the United States.

If a free election were held in that neighborhood, that would be news; throughout 99.9% of human time and space, it has not been so.

Of course, if that neighborhood is instead ruled by gangs of thugs intent on exacting the maximum tribute in the form of gold and virgins, it will not be reported. After all, it isn't news; it's history.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 24 Sep, 2003 16:34

Afghans act human:  film at 11

Amy Waldman seems upset and pessimistic that Afghan warlords are acting...well, as their predecessors have for the last 2,500 years. This, of course, is not the way that European political bosses act; their predecessors murdered, raped, and looted for 3,500 years.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 24 Sep, 2003 15:23

Give Fluffy to your girlfriend

This story, from Reuters via Yahoo, claims that toxoplasmosis can be responsible for a range of stereotypical behavior in both men and women.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 24 Sep, 2003 14:38

Expensive or obvious?

From The Economist:

A need for nurseries

Milan's shortage of affordable childcare is a common complaint among local parents. But there are signs of change. The city has set aside €500,000 ($560,000) to finance small nurseries in the homes of local residents. About a half dozen such nurseries were up and running by mid-September, and 15 more should open by Christmas.

Bruno Simini, the city official responsible for education, promises places for 200 children unable to get into one of Milan's 117 city-run nurseries by next June. The city government has already introduced incentives for businesses to offer corporate day-care.

Some have wondered just why child care is so expensive. Some have theorized that it is because we demand perfect outcomes at a price that even the destitute can afford. Others theorize that its the litigation explosion, where a baseless allegation that one abused a child in one's care twenty years ago can cost big bucks to defend against.

I would put forth an alternate hypothesis. For 99% of human history (and for much of humanity even now), child care was provided by a mother who kept one eye on the sprogs whilst they were all pulling weeds on the family subsistence farm.

If we assume that the value of that child care was equivalent to a present-day working mom's salary, plus the benefit to the family of those pulled weeds, then the cost of child care probably hasn't changed much over the past few centuries. We've just changed the accounting; we're laying out cash instead of relying on unpaid labor.

One of the great myths of our time is that the liberal/libertarian agenda is costless and painless. It is not. The cost may be paying, the pain may be worth suffering, the result may be greatly preferable to what went before -- as is the case with genuine women's liberation. But our punditry promised that there would be no cost to pay and no pain to bear. They told us -- and it was because it was what we wished to hear -- that there were no choices to make, that the gritty details did not need to considered, that we could have it all and all at once, not merely in child care but in every other political, social, and economic sphere.

They lied, of course. But they've found an economic and social niche in the telling of soothing lies. It is our role to laugh at them derisively, to point the finger of scorn, to tell them that they are unworthy of speaking to us unless they inject some truth and rationality into the discussion. We preferred not to do so, because the process was too difficult and unpleasant.

John "Akatsuukami" Braue 24 Sep, 2003 12:48

Leviathin Redux

It's been about five months since I've bothered to update this blog. In that time, I've grown five months older, five months sicker, and five months poorer; I still do not have an income, or any prospect of one. As Dr. Johnson said, knowing that you'll be hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully; at least in my case, however, it does not concentrate the mind on blogging.

There's a slightly interesting op-ed on page B6 of the Washington Post today, roundly condemning (of course) the Bush tax cuts, but pleading for fiscal responsibility on the part of Democrats.  "Fiscal responsibility", of course, means raising taxes, not only to cover the current deficit, but any new spending schemes as well.

It's mostly tranzie-oriented bullshit.

Are Americans "historically" overtaxed? Well, that depends on whether you believe, as the Post seems to, that "history" began in 1979. We might argue, of course, that things that happened more than a generation ago should have no weight in the current political consciousness. By this argument, though, we ought to congratulate Pinochet on surviving so long that no one of political sense could fault him for his actions (this same argument could be applied to reparations for both slavery and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans). Indeed, taking a "that was then, this is now" attitude towards these matters largely undercuts the argument of the fascist left that America ought to be opposed in present time because of its less than ideal acts in the past. Who cares about those acts?, we can say in reply; they happened before you were born.

Now, we can certainly argue whether the redistribution theme of the progressive income tax is to be seen as populist or fascist, and therefore whether it should be accepted as an unfortunate but necessary concession to the reality that an-caps so vehemently deny, or should be fought as a matter of basic morality. What cannot be argued, though, is that the scope of the modern state is so large that it cannot be financed by liturgies, tariffs, and excises, but must take some substance from the middle class. As Willie Sutton is alleged to said when asked why he robbed banks, that's where the money is.

One thing (among many others) that the Post shows no evidence of understanding is the difference between current and capital expenditures. For the sake of discussion, let us take GAAP as representing sound accounting (whilst acknowledging that, as often as not, they are an attempt to dress up the vagaries of the tax code in lace panties). We ought, then, to distinguish between current spending, which ought to come out of the current revenue stream in anything approaching normal times (we can concede in, that in a WWII-type situation, all bets are off -- survival comes first, then, if we live, we can worry about the damage caused by our policies), and capital spending, which can be justly financed.

The mention of Social Security and Medicare is telling, too. Like most tranzies and the institutions that they maintain, they seem to be schizophrenic about their financing, asserting that everything is just peachy when a threat, however unrealistic or ill--thought-out, is made to place those monies beyond their immediate control, and yelping that it is irresponsibly inadequate otherwise. A large portion of this blame, of course, may be placed on the AARP, which insists on pretending that Social Security is a defined-benefits pension plan rather than a Ponzi scheme to supply non-means-tested welfare to its members.

The Post is probably correct in condemning the Bush tax cuts; the evidence of all history (that is, since 1979) is that, given the choice between spending money that isn't coming in and balancing the budget, the left will choose the former every time (nor, let it be acknowledged, will a Republican Congress make a different choice). However, they reach the right conclusion for the wrong reasons; they are less impressed by a balanced budget than by a big one. Conservative politics ought to concentrate not on starving the Federal government so much as amputating parts of it. That, of course, will be a much harder sell for conservative politicians; they will have to think, instead of repeating "tax cut" as a mantra.

John "Akatsukami" Braue 21 Sep, 2003 12:43