Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Reasons Why You’re Too Dumb to Vote

1) You read arguments written by Lena Dunham, a "distinctly unappealing actress". This is an important consideration, which is why I mention it. Her lack of appeal eliminates any need to consider her arguments on their merits. I, on the other hand, shave my skull with a razor and my beard with a fork. My hotness makes my arguments incontestable.

 2) Psephelogical. I use obscure words because I can. You googled it, didm't you?  I could have said "pertaining to elections" but that would not have demonstrated your ignorance relative to my Jovian vocabulary.

3) "As a procedure for sorting out complex policy issues, voting is of distinctly limited value". Fortunately, I have a practical alternative. Consent to the policies I prefer. Because you're too dumb to vote.

4) Shut up. Because you're too dumb to vote.

5) Shut up, you ignorant slut. Because you're too dumb to vote.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Congratulations to India

Earlier this week India put a spacecraft in Martian orbit,  joining an elite international club.  Getting even a robot to Martian orbit is challenging. Of 40 spacecraft launched towards Mars' orbit or surface, only 19 have succeeded.

Not only has India succeeded where Russia, Japan and China have failed, but it has done so at a remarkably low cost: reportedly only $74-75 million. Admittedly,  the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a lot less capable than the NASA and European Space Agency orbiters, but it is still an accomplishment that India can be proud of. India was wise to plan an austere mission for their first flight to Mars: now they can build on that success for their next mission.

With the arrival of NASA's MAVEN, also earlier this week, the flotilla of operational orbiters has grown to five, with two operational rovers on the surface. Five orbiters from three different space agencies: this is how you play the long game!

The oldest of the orbiters, Mars Odyssey, was launched in 2001.

We are getting better at this. Not only have we been wringing the bugs out of our hardware and software and mastering new technologies, but we have been growing a richer world in which six different space agencies can afford to launch interplanetary missions. It's no longer a game with only two players.

The flotilla is more than the sum of its parts. Mars Odyssey has relayed data from rovers that either could not reach Earth themselves, or could only have transmitted a fraction of what they found. MAVEN will take on that role from the aging spacecraft. The orbiters have imaged landers making the perilous dive into the atmosphere and tracked rovers on the surface.

God willing, we will build on this beginning.


Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Lie About a Member of Congress and a Journalist Being Innumerate?

Tyson has claimed that:

1) at least one member of Congress didn't understand the difference between 180 degrees and 360 degrees, and,

2) at least one journalist wrongly thought that “Half the schools in the district are below average." was newsworthy.

In 1998, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) said of Republican Rep. Henry Hyde “You have done a 360-degree turn,” Waters told Hyde. “I’m a little disappointed. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that you would have such a conflict in views about perjury and lying.”

Tyson's quote of an unnamed member of Congress was: "I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” Not an accurate quote, but it's hard to see it as a complete fabrication. The key point is that the speaker thought that turning 360 degrees left you facing in the opposite direction.

Here is a quote remarkably close to #2: But it doesn't exactly follow the wording of "Half the schools in the district are below average." so Tyson's opponents can claim that he invented the quote.


Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Lie About President Bush?

Sean Davis, writing in the Federalist, accuses Tyson of fabricating a quote of President George W. Bush. Tyson is quoted as follows:
TYSON: Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it?  
 He says, “Our God” — of course it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail, let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, but let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God” — he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis — “Our God is the God who named the stars.”
To quote Tyson more directly, from the Hayden Planetarium site:
After the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush, in a speech aimed at distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists, said, "Our God is the God who named the stars". The problem is two-thirds of all the stars that have names, have Arabic names. I don't think he knew this. This would confound the point that he was making.
Now, did Bush attempt to distinguish we from they within a week of 9/11? On September 20, he told Congress "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." That's nine days, not seven, but that's a quibble.

A year after 9/11, President Bush said:
Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a Creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality. More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight. We value every life; our enemies value none -- not even the innocent, not even their own. And we seek the freedom and opportunity that give meaning and value to life. 
There is a line in our time, and in every time, between those who believe all men are created equal, and those who believe that some men and women and children are expendable in the pursuit of power. There is a line in our time, and in every time, between the defenders of human liberty and those who seek to master the minds and souls of others. Our generation has now heard history's call, and we will answer it.
Did Bush try to "distinguish we from them"?  Between those who would intentionaly murder innocents and those who would not? Between freedom and fear, justice and cruelty? Why yes, he did.

Did he think that God was on the side of freedom, justice, life, equality and liberty? And that the other side, "sort of Muslim fundamentalists", were against those things, and that their concept of God's will was a false and evil delusion and perversion? Yes. Read his words and you know this to be true.

Now, as far I can tell, Bush did not talk of "the God who named the stars" in the context of 9/11. But in 2003, after the Columbia disaster, he did say:
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."  
The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.
Now, which  is likelier? That Tyson deliberately fabricated a false quote, or that he incorrectly remembered the context of something Bush actually said? Against the first theory, if he knew that Bush didn't say it as a rebuke of murderous Muslim fundamentalists, shouldn't he also have known that he was running a considerable risk that someone would notice the falsehood?

That said, it's pretty careless to quote a public figure as saying specific things based on your own imperfect recollection of what he said, when it is not so very difficult to find out what he actually said.

And aside from the misquote, Tyson's argument is logically flawed. If there is an omniscient personal deity, as Bush and apparently most Americans believe, then he does in fact know all the stars and has some means of identifying every single one.  The question of which human culture gave human names to the nearest and brightest stars is irrelevant to that belief.

On the other hand, Bush was pretty careless in suggesting in 2001 that "we" all believe in a divine creator from whom our rights to life and liberty flowed. Or, in 2003, that he could could console all of us by referring to the God of Isaiah and the Psalms. Or, if he wasn't speaking to all of us, the exceptions were unimportant.

As far as I can tell, a significant minority of US  citizens do not share his beliefs in a personal Judeo-Christian god.

Update: Tyson has now conceded that he conflated President Bush's speech after the Columbia disaster with what he said after 9/11:
Good to see that the Bush quote was found. Thanks to all who did the searching. I transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote. Perhaps that’s a measure of how upset I was in both cases. The mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Subdividing History in the 14th Century

How did 14th century people think about periods of history? They obviously didn’t think they were living in the Middle Ages.

Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, written in the early 14th c. and translated into Middle English by Trevisa in 1387, gives one Anglocentric structure for organizing the past.

Following St. Augustine he divides pre-Christian history into five ages. The first runs from the
Creation to the Deluge, the second from the Flood to the birth of Abraham, the third from Abraham to the death of Saul, and the fourth from David’s reign to the Babylonian Captivity. These form Higden’s second book, his first book having been devoted to geography.

Higden’s third book covers the fifth age of man, ending with the advent of Christ. Augustine’s sixth age was expected to run from the coming of Christ to his Second Coming, but by Higden’s day, with the Second Coming less imminent than originally expected, shorter periods were more convenient for historians of the Christian era.

Higden’s fourth book ended with the coming of the Saxons, his fifth with the coming of the Danes, his sixth with the Norman Conquest, and his seventh brought history up to his present.

Higden, following a tradition leading back to Eusebius, also interwove other chronologies with the Biblical one, placing the siege of Troy and the foundation of Britain by the eponymous Brutus in the third age and Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in the fifth. King Arthur was an important figure in Higden’s fifth book.

Educated but less learned contemporaries might not have recognized Higden’s Augustinian ages, but they would have recognized the historical landmarks that defined them.

Christine de Pizan, writing slightly later, drew a distinction between “the ancients” and later times. She clearly considered Vegitius, writing between 383 and 450 AD, part of the ancient world. The most common modern date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476. This somewhat arbitrary date seems to have not have been considered a big deal at the time, but Higden’s coming of the Saxons, dated to 449 by the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, is in the same historical ballpark. A French historian might have chosen the coronation of Childeric I, the first Merovingian, in 457, or Clovis I, first king of the Franks in 509, with similar results.

For more recent events, an individual might refer to family oral history to speak of events in his father’s or grandfathers’ time. Both my grandfathers served in theWWI, and one in WWII. I still have heirlooms from my great-grandfather.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recreating Medieval Combat



Recreating medieval combat is hard, and there are a lot of ways to skin that particular cat.

It's a three dimensional trade space. Authenticity, affordability and safety are competing goods. Actually, it's even more complex, because even it authenticity is your primary goal, different aspects of authenticity also compete. The more realistic you make your pollaxe simulator in mass and materials, the less you can use it with the full force blows used in actual combat.

There are a lot of different ways to do it, all better in some ways and worse in others. I would say that the whole "My dojo can beat up your dojo" impulse is pretty unproductive, except that there are actually a very few schools where the founder is wallowing in "I AM YOUR SENSEI" narcissism, and should be mocked and scorned.

Mostly, I think, there are just a lot of different approaches with different tradeoffs.

And remember this: any simulation rules you select will be an imperfect model of a real fight. Once you start using the simulation as a game with winners and losers, the players will be tempted to game the system.

The late great Kurosawa illustrated this brilliantly in two duels at the beginning of Seven Samurai, embedded above.

The master swordsman Kyuzo first fights a weaker opponent with bamboo weapons. The final blows land almost at once and the opponent proudly claims a tie.

Kyuzo responds: "No. I won. If we had fought seriously, you'd have been cut and dead."

His opponent unwisely insists on a replay with sharp blades, but it turns out just as Kyuzo said.

Kurosawa does a good job in the second fight of illustrating that once you start fighting with real swords that will kill you dead, the dynamic of the fight changes a lot.

That said, not all simulation rules are equal. Some do a better job reflecting the dynamics of a fight in earnest than others. If you want to understand real combat, the closer your rules come to a real fight the better.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Political Ignorance and a Partial Solution

Political ignorance is a real problem with democracy as it is currently practiced. Unfortunately, it is entirely rational for a voter to spend little effort educating himself on the issues, since his individual vote has only a tiny influence on the outcome.

I have a cunning plan.

Revert to indirect election of senators. They would not be elected by the state legislatures, the method used before the 17th Amendment, since this created problems of corruption and deadlock. Instead, they would be selected by a jury randomly selected from all the citizens of the state.

This would have two advantages. First, each juror would have a lot of influence on the choice, and would have much more incentive to understand the candidates and issues.

Second the candidates wouldn't have to spend so much time raising funds for expensive general election advertising, and the influence of concentrated interests would be reduced.

If the system worked reasonably well for the Senate it could then be extended to the House of Representatives.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

The World Fantasy Award Trophy: A Suggestion

There is a movement to replace the current design of the World Fantasy Award trophy, a bust of H. P. Lovecraft by Gahan Wilson. Understandably, a number of the award recipients have been made quite uncomfortable having their achievement memorialized by the image of a venomous racist.

And make no mistake, he was, even by the low standards of the early 20th century, an odious and extreme racist.

And he was influential, but a lot of his best work was presented as science fiction. Much of his pure fantasy was an inferior derivative of Dunsany. To the extent that he did write fantasy, his was only one of the streams that fed the modern genre.

The Hugo, of course, commemorates Hugo Gernsbach, who really did have such a critical role in science fiction as a commercial genre that he has a serious claim to be called the Father of Science Fiction. But they don't use his bust for the trophy, understandably, since he was, as Barry Malzberg has said, "pretty much a crook."

There is a petition to replace Lovecraft's bust with one of Octavia Butler. This is poorly considered.  Picking a single individual to represent the entire genre is probably a mistake, especially since she mostly wrote science fiction, and could plausibly described  as chosen because she was everything Lovecraft despised.

You could say with a straight face that Verne, Wells or Gernsbach was "The Father of Science Fiction".  You can't do that for fantasy. There are too many fathers. And mothers.

I say we replace Lovecraft with the Doors of Durin. It would certainly be an esthetic improvement.  I mean, racism aside, that is one ugly statue. Gahan Wilson is a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque, but as a sculptor he's a gifted cartoonist with a taste for the grotesque.

Or a chimera. A chimera works for me.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pitfalls in Understanding the Middle Ages: Archaicism

As a general rule, medieval artists portrayed the past as their own present. The Virgin Mary as a very respectable craftsman's wife of the year painted, the soldiers at the crucifixion in the armor of the year painted, and so on.

Except when they didn't.

The past is a different country. Things changed more slowly then, but still some artists noticed that the armor on the old effigies in the churches was different from the current state of the art, and likewise for old manuscripts and pattern books and so on.

For example, consider BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal/Tristan de Léonois, a beautiful Milanese manuscript of 1380-1385. At first glance, it seems like a detailed depiction of contemporary fashion, arms and armor.

Yet the artist has actually taken steps to evoke an earlier age, since the text is of Arthurian legend. The knights are repeatedly shown in crested helms that have, by the 1380s, been abandoned except for jousts and tournaments. The pollaxes that were popular weapons for  men at arms in the actual 1380s are absent. The knights consistently wear sleeveless tightly fitted coat-armors and jupons over there armor, although artwork done at the same time that wasn't so deliberately aimed at evoking the past often show knights in looser garments with full or partial sleeves.

This sort of  deliberate archaicism was not uncommon in art of the 14th and 15th centuries and later. It is well to know what content the artist was depicting, and whether it was far enough in the past to perhaps justify archaic elements. It is also helpful to know of contemporary art where the artist was trying to depict the present or recent past, as a point of comparison

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Our Wile Y. Coyote Constitution

In oral argument before the Supreme Court on March 26, 2013, the following exchange occurred:
JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m curious, when -­ when did — when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted? Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we said it didn’t even raise a substantial Federal question? When — when — when did the law become this?

MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s an easy question, I think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true. But don’t give me a question to my question. When do you think it became unconstitutional? Has it always been unconstitutional? . . .
It struck me that Scalia thinks that it is an "easy question" that bans on interracial marriage became unconstitutional in 1868. The Supreme Court failed to affirm this was so until Loving vs. Virginia in 1937, and ruled the other way in Pace vs. Alabama in 1883.  It seems to me that our Supreme Court can spend an inordinately long time before noticing that their current interpretation of the law is hanging in thin air without visible means of support.