Saturday, February 29, 2020

Saturday Snippet: Cossack patriotic overkill

In 1835, Nikolai Gogol published his famous work Taras Bulba.

It's an over-the-top patriotic panegyric to the Cossack people and culture of the time, wildly exaggerated, but very popular ever since.  Wikipedia says of it:

The main character is based on several historical personalities, and other characters are not as exaggerated or grotesque as was common in Gogol's later fiction. The story can be understood in the context of the Romantic nationalism movement in literature, which developed around a historical ethnic culture which meets the Romantic ideal.

Initially published in 1835 as part of a collection of stories, it was much more abridged and evinced some differences in the storyline compared with the better known 1842 edition, the latter having been described by Victor Erlich as a "paragon of civic virtue and a force of patriotic edification" while the first being "distinctly Cossack jingoism".

Given such swashbuckling romanticism, it's no surprise that Hollywood adopted the story with enthusiasm during the age of epic films.  Here's the poster and trailer for the 1962 motion picture, which was even more over-the-top than the book.

Here's a battle scene from the book.

But the army of the enemy was already marching out of the city, sounding drums and trumpets; and the nobles, with their arms akimbo, were riding forth too, surrounded by innumerable servants. The stout colonel gave his orders, and they began to advance briskly on the Cossack camps, pointing their matchlocks threateningly. Their eyes flashed, and they were brilliant with brass armour. As soon as the Cossacks saw that they had come within gunshot, their matchlocks thundered all together, and they continued to fire without cessation.

The detonations resounded through the distant fields and meadows, merging into one continuous roar. The whole plain was shrouded in smoke, but the Zaporozhtzi continued to fire without drawing breath—the rear ranks doing nothing but loading the guns and handing them to those in front, thus creating amazement among the enemy, who could not understand how the Cossacks fired without reloading. Amid the dense smoke which enveloped both armies, it could not be seen how first one and then another dropped: but the Lyakhs felt that the balls flew thickly, and that the affair was growing hot; and when they retreated to escape from the smoke and see how matters stood, many were missing from their ranks, but only two or three out of a hundred were killed on the Cossack side. Still the Cossacks went on firing off their matchlocks without a moment’s intermission. Even the foreign engineers were amazed at tactics heretofore unknown to them, and said then and there, in the presence of all, “These Zaporozhtzi are brave fellows. That is the way men in other lands ought to fight.” And they advised that the cannons should at once be turned on the camps. Heavily roared the iron cannons with their wide throats; the earth hummed and trembled far and wide, and the smoke lay twice as heavy over the plain. They smelt the reek of the powder among the squares and streets in the most distant as well as the nearest quarters of the city. But those who laid the cannons pointed them too high, and the shot describing too wide a curve flew over the heads of the camps, and buried themselves deep in the earth at a distance, tearing the ground, and throwing the black soil high in the air. At the sight of such lack of skill the French engineer tore his hair, and undertook to lay the cannons himself, heeding not the Cossack bullets which showered round him.

Taras saw from afar that destruction menaced the whole Nezamaikovsky and Steblikivsky kurens, and gave a ringing shout, “Get away from the waggons instantly, and mount your horses!” But the Cossacks would not have succeeded in effecting both these movements if Ostap had not dashed into the middle of the foe and wrenched the linstocks from six cannoneers. But he could not wrench them from the other four, for the Lyakhs drove him back. Meanwhile the foreign captain had taken the lunt in his own hand to fire the largest cannon, such a cannon as none of the Cossacks had ever beheld before. It looked horrible with its wide mouth, and a thousand deaths poured forth from it. And as it thundered, the three others followed, shaking in fourfold earthquake the dully responsive earth. Much woe did they cause. For more than one Cossack wailed the aged mother, beating with bony hands her feeble breast; more than one widow was left in Glukhof, Nemirof, Chernigof, and other cities. The loving woman will hasten forth every day to the bazaar, grasping at all passers-by, scanning the face of each to see if there be not among them one dearer than all; but though many an army will pass through the city, never among them will a single one of all their dearest be.

Half the Nezamaikovsky kuren was as if it had never been. As the hail suddenly beats down a field where every ear of grain shines like purest gold, so were they beaten down.

How the Cossacks hastened thither! How they all started up! How raged Kukubenko, the hetman, when he saw that the best half of his kuren was no more! He fought his way with his remaining Nezamaikovtzi to the very midst of the fray, cut down in his wrath, like a cabbage, the first man he met, hurled many a rider from his steed, piercing both horse and man with his lance; and making his way to the gunners, captured some of the cannons. Here he found the hetman of the Oumansky kuren, and Stepan Guska, hard at work, having already seized the largest cannon. He left those Cossacks there, and plunged with his own into another mass of the foe, making a lane through it. Where the Nezamaikovtzi passed there was a street; where they turned about there was a square as where streets meet. The foemen’s ranks were visibly thinning, and the Lyakhs falling in sheaves. Beside the waggons stood Vovtuzenko, and in front Tcherevitchenko, and by the more distant ones Degtyarenko; and behind them the kuren hetman, Vertikhvist. Degtyarenko had pierced two Lyakhs with his spear, and now attacked a third, a stout antagonist. Agile and strong was the Lyakh, with glittering arms, and accompanied by fifty followers. He fell fiercely upon Degtyarenko, struck him to the earth, and, flourishing his sword above him, cried, “There is not one of you Cossack dogs who has dared to oppose me.”

“Here is one,” said Mosiy Schilo, and stepped forward. He was a muscular Cossack, who had often commanded at sea, and undergone many vicissitudes. The Turks had once seized him and his men at Trebizond, and borne them captives to the galleys, where they bound them hand and foot with iron chains, gave them no food for a week at a time, and made them drink sea-water. The poor prisoners endured and suffered all, but would not renounce their orthodox faith. Their hetman, Mosiy Schilo, could not bear it: he trampled the Holy Scriptures under foot, wound the vile turban about his sinful head, and became the favourite of a pasha, steward of a ship, and ruler over all the galley slaves. The poor slaves sorrowed greatly thereat, for they knew that if he had renounced his faith he would be a tyrant, and his hand would be the more heavy and severe upon them. So it turned out. Mosiy Schilo had them put in new chains, three to an oar. The cruel fetters cut to the very bone; and he beat them upon the back. But when the Turks, rejoicing at having obtained such a servant, began to carouse, and, forgetful of their law, got all drunk, he distributed all the sixty-four keys among the prisoners, in order that they might free themselves, fling their chains and manacles into the sea, and, seizing their swords, in turn kill the Turks. Then the Cossacks collected great booty, and returned with glory to their country; and the guitar-players celebrated Mosiy Schilo’s exploits for a long time. They would have elected him Koschevoi, but he was a very eccentric Cossack. At one time he would perform some feat which the most sagacious would never have dreamed of. At another, folly simply took possession of him, and he drank and squandered everything away, was in debt to every one in the Setch, and, in addition to that, stole like a street thief. He carried off a whole Cossack equipment from a strange kuren by night and pawned it to the tavern-keeper. For this dishonourable act they bound him to a post in the bazaar, and laid a club beside him, in order that every one who passed should, according to the measure of his strength, deal him a blow. But there was not one Zaporozhetz out of them all to be found who would raise the club against him, remembering his former services. Such was the Cossack, Mosiy Schilo.

“Here is one who will kill you, dog!” he said, springing upon the Lyakh. How they hacked away! their shoulder-plates and breast-plates bent under their blows. The hostile Lyakh cut through Schilo’s shirt of mail, reaching the body itself with his blade. The Cossack’s shirt was dyed purple: but Schilo heeded it not. He brandished his brawny hand, heavy indeed was that mighty fist, and brought the pommel of his sword down unexpectedly upon his foeman’s head. The brazen helmet flew into pieces and the Lyakh staggered and fell; but Schilo went on hacking and cutting gashes in the body of the stunned man. Kill not utterly thine enemy, Cossack: look back rather! The Cossack did not turn, and one of the dead man’s servants plunged a knife into his neck. Schilo turned and tried to seize him, but he disappeared amid the smoke of the powder. On all sides rose the roar of matchlocks. Schilo knew that his wound was mortal. He fell with his hand upon his wound, and said, turning to his comrades, “Farewell, brother gentles, my comrades! may the holy Russian land stand forever, and may it be eternally honoured!” And as he closed his failing eyes, the Cossack soul fled from his grim body. Then Zadorozhniy came forward with his men, Vertikhvist issued from the ranks, and Balaban stepped forth.

“What now, gentles?” said Taras, calling to the hetmans by name: “there is yet powder in the powder-flasks? The Cossack force is not weakened? the Cossacks do not yield?”

“There is yet powder in the flasks, father; the Cossack force is not weakened yet: the Cossacks yield not!”

And the Cossacks pressed vigorously on: the foemen’s ranks were disordered. The short colonel beat the assembly, and ordered eight painted standards to be displayed to collect his men, who were scattered over all the plain. All the Lyakhs hastened to the standards. But they had not yet succeeded in ranging themselves in order, when the hetman Kukubenko attacked their centre again with his Nezamaikovtzi and fell straight upon the stout colonel. The colonel could not resist the attack, and, wheeling his horse about, set out at a gallop; but Kukubenko pursued him for a considerable distance cross the plain and prevented him from joining his regiment.

Perceiving this from the kuren on the flank, Stepan Guska set out after him, lasso in hand, bending his head to his horse’s neck. Taking advantage of an opportunity, he cast his lasso about his neck at the first attempt. The colonel turned purple in the face, grasped the cord with both hands, and tried to break it; but with a powerful thrust Stepan drove his lance through his body, and there he remained pinned to the earth. But Guska did not escape his fate. The Cossacks had but time to look round when they beheld Stepan Guska elevated on four spears. All the poor fellow succeeded in saying was, “May all our enemies perish, and may the Russian land rejoice forever!” and then he yielded up his soul.

The Cossacks glanced around, and there was Metelitza on one side, entertaining the Lyakhs by dealing blows on the head to one and another; on the other side, the hetman Nevelitchkiy was attacking with his men; and Zakrutibuga was repulsing and slaying the enemy by the waggons. The third Pisarenko had repulsed a whole squadron from the more distant waggons; and they were still fighting and killing amongst the other waggons, and even upon them.

“How now, gentles?” cried Taras, stepping forward before them all: “is there still powder in your flasks? Is the Cossack force still strong? do the Cossacks yield?”

“There is still powder in the flasks, father; the Cossack force is still strong: the Cossacks yield not!”

But Bovdug had already fallen from the waggons; a bullet had struck him just below the heart. The old man collected all his strength, and said, “I sorrow not to part from the world. God grant every man such an end! May the Russian land be forever glorious!” And Bovdug’s spirit flew above, to tell the old men who had gone on long before that men still knew how to fight on Russian soil, and better still, that they knew how to die for it and the holy faith.

Balaban, hetman of a kuren, soon after fell to the ground also from a waggon. Three mortal wounds had he received from a lance, a bullet, and a sword. He had been one of the very best of Cossacks, and had accomplished a great deal as a commander on naval expeditions; but more glorious than all the rest was his raid on the shores of Anatolia. They collected many sequins, much valuable Turkish plunder, caftans, and adornments of every description. But misfortune awaited them on their way back. They came across the Turkish fleet, and were fired on by the ships. Half the boats were crushed and overturned, drowning more than one; but the bundles of reeds bound to the sides, Cossack fashion, saved the boats from completely sinking. Balaban rowed off at full speed, and steered straight in the face of the sun, thus rendering himself invisible to the Turkish ships. All the following night they spent in baling out the water with pails and their caps, and in repairing the damaged places. They made sails out of their Cossack trousers, and, sailing off, escaped from the fastest Turkish vessels. And not only did they arrive unharmed at the Setch, but they brought a gold-embroidered vesture for the archimandrite at the Mezhigorsky Monastery in Kief, and an ikon frame of pure silver for the church in honour of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary, which is in Zaporozhe. The guitar-players celebrated the daring of Balaban and his Cossacks for a long time afterwards. Now he bowed his head, feeling the pains which precede death, and said quietly, “I am permitted, brother gentles, to die a fine death. Seven have I hewn in pieces, nine have I pierced with my lance, many have I trampled upon with my horse’s hoofs; and I no longer remember how many my bullets have slain. May our Russian land flourish forever!” and his spirit fled.

Over-the-top indeed, and buckling every swash in sight:  but a classic book in the Romantic tradition, that's earned its place in our literary history.


Friday, February 28, 2020

Too cute!

Following a link on Instapundit, via Reddit, to YouTube:  here's Ozzy the desk weasel.

Ain't he cute?


Evolution in action?

I found this over at Chief Nose Wetter's place yesterday:

I resemble that most recent "evolved" man a little too closely for comfort!  (Looks down ruefully at expansive belly . . . )

How about you?


COVID-19: Personal observations over the past couple of days

I continue to believe that the current "panic stations" response by many to the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic is overblown.  Nevertheless, practical preparations are in order for most of us:  and the evidence that they're needed is growing.  Here are just a few things I've personally observed over the past couple of days.
  1. Stocks of some China-sourced products are getting low, and stores are unable to tell me when they'll receive new stocks.  Example:  I was in Sams Club yesterday morning, and heard a couple complain that the automotive department couldn't supply a battery to fit their car.  Intrigued, I wandered over there and asked about a battery to fit my six-year-old vehicle.  They had one, and only one, in stock:  and when I asked, they told me they had no idea when they'd get more, because the central supply system was "overloaded".  Guess where almost all automotive batteries, and/or the materials used in their manufacture, are made?  Yep - China.  Guess what?  I bought that battery.  My vehicle's old enough that I don't know how much longer its battery will last.  This one can sit on my shelves until then, along with spare air and oil filters.  Even if there are others available when the time comes, I've lost nothing by buying it early - and I know it'll be there when I need it.
  2. Among the things I shopped for yesterday were feminine hygiene products.  The specific brand and type I wanted were not easy to locate.  I eventually found just three packets of them, wedged in the bottom shelf of the display stand behind other products.  When I asked one of the shop assistants, she said that whilst many of them are made in the USA, others (and many of the materials used in US-manufactured products) come from - guess where? - China.  She told me they've been warned to expect disruptions in supply as a result.  I bought all three packages that they had, and I'll be checking other supermarkets in town to see if I can get a few more.  Man with happy wife is happy.  Man with unhappy wife is unhappy.
  3. Yesterday evening I saw the fifth mile-long train this week of empty double-stack container cars passing through town, this one heading east.  That's at least four more than I usually see in any given week.  My comments last Wednesday apply.
  4. Amazon is asking its selling partners whether their products may be affected by the shutdown in China.  It looks as if the company is worried about having enough goods for sale to keep up its volume of business.  If it can't, expect thousands of warehouse staff to be furloughed or laid off until more goods are available.  I'm in touch with someone who used to work for that company, and who knows their staffing situation.  It'll bear watching.
  5. A number of vehicle models are imported from China (for example, Buick's Envision SUV).  Right now, none are being built there.  It's too soon for that to have led to a shortage in the USA, but if China's shutdown continues, that'll happen sooner or later.  Other vehicles may be made elsewhere, but depend on Chinese parts.  If you're likely to be in the market for a new car, you might do well to check on whether or not your preferred make and model is likely to be available - and whether it'll cost more, thanks to delays and shortages.  The same applies to spare parts, if you're planning to do maintenance that will require them.
  6. I continue to be surprised by the number of products made in China and almost nowhere else.  For example, did you know that most consumer-grade electricity generators come from that country, irrespective of brand or model?  Miss D. and I have been planning to buy one for some time, to have in reserve in case of extended power failure (if we buy a freezer-full of meat, we don't want to lose it!).  I suspect we may bring our purchase forward, to get one while it's available.  (We want a name-brand product, which according to owner and user reviews is far more reliable and trustworthy than cheaper competitors.  However, thanks to their well-earned good reputation, and the extra time, trouble and care put into their manufacture, such products are more likely to be in short supply than el cheapo knockoffs.)

Miss D. and I have stocked up on basic over-the-counter medications, hygiene and sanitation products, and other basic necessities, enough to get us through six months or more without worrying.  That gives us greater peace of mind in this developing situation.  We already have sufficient food and essential supplies for a good three months.  It's comforting to have them available, in case local quarantines become necessary.  My next step is to fill our empty jerrycans with gasoline, to have extra available for our vehicles and generator if required.  Our goal is to keep two gas-tanks-full for each vehicle in reserve, but we've used up a fair amount of that over the past year and not replaced it.  That was short-sighted, and I'll rectify it now.  (What's more, I'll buy non-ethanol gasoline.  It works better in smaller engines like our generator or lawnmower, and it stores better over the long term, too.  Those are factors worth thinking about.)

What additional measures are you taking, readers?


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Inflation and your clothes (literally)

I'm still mind-boggled after reading this report.

After London College of Fashion designer Harikrishnan unveiled his inflatable latex trousers that come in a variety of colours, people couldn’t help but make fun of the high fashion number.

The quirky graduate collection featured billowing latex trousers which are tapered at the ankle.

But folks in their droves took to Twitter to say it looked more like ‘swollen testicles’.

Tough crowd. Clearly the essence of the piece was lost on the audience.

There's more at the link.

Looks more like an inverted life-jacket to me.  Let's call it a death-jacket.  Fall into the water in those things, and your inflated legs would hold your non-inflatable head underwater until you drowned.  (Not that there aren't certain fashion designers who deserve no less . . . )

On the other hand, they may offer advantages as a defense against rape (see my previous post).  Wannabe rapists would have such a hard time getting out of them - not to mention seeing their intended victims pointing and laughing at their appearance and antics - that it might be the ultimate de-flationary experience!  An anti-condom, perhaps?


Rape, political correctness, and the real world

Yet again we've seen the usual suspects scream in outrage at even the suggestion that women's behavior might just possibly contribute to their getting raped.  This time it's in Kenya.

A top Kenyan university has apologised after blaming "reckless" female students for becoming victims of rape.

The security memo, which was sent to all students on Tuesday, was "insensitive", the University of Nairobi's vice-chancellor admitted.

A petition started in response to the memo questioned how women could be blamed for their own rape.

Popular media personality, Adelle Onyango, posted on Instagram: "This is what victim shaming looks like."

. . .

The memo, signed by the head of security, said the rising number of cases of robbery and rape of university students in the capital, Nairobi, occurred at certain spots close to campuses.

"In all the three rape incidences reported last year, a clear case of recklessness on the part of our female students can be drawn," it said.

It gave an example of a drunk student who was gang-raped on her way back in the early hours of the morning.

It also included tips about how to keep safe in social gatherings, suggesting students always go out with trusted friends, memorise important numbers in case they lost a phone and never leave their drinks unattended.

Ms Onyango, who is raising funds to launch Safe 24/7 to offer free therapy and support to survivors of rape, said such advice given to women was part of the problem.

"Right now, where we go, what time we will go there, who we will go with, how we will get there, what we will wear etc is governed by how safe we will be and that is NOT normal neither is it OK!

"If men just stopped raping us, rape will stop."

There's more at the link.

I understand and appreciate Ms. Onyango's sentiments:  but I also know that she's basically lying to herself and to everyone who accepts her words as even a partial reflection of reality.  Here's the cold, hard truth:  Rape is an expression of power and dominance.  It's been that way roughly since the first rapist realized that his intended victim was weaker than him.  (Note that men can be as much victims of rape as women, particularly in circumstances where women aren't available - for example, in prison.)  Physical strength is used by the rapist to take what he wants (and sometimes she - yes, female rape is a thing).  In a world where the rapist may have nothing else under his control, he feels that he can take and use a victim whenever and wherever he wants, and thus control them whether they like it or not.  In so many words, that's the reality of rape.  Other factors - social conditioning, substance abuse, upbringing, etc. - do play a part, but they're all merely facets of the basic reality of power and dominance.

To say to a rapist that he's got to "just stop raping us" is facile, idiotic, stupid . . . one rapidly runs out of adequate descriptions.  It defies reality.  It won't work.  It has never worked, and never will work.  In Africa in particular, it won't work.  Cherie Blair pointed that out last year, and I added more details when I discussed her warning.  It's still true.

Back in 2014, I wrote:

My main problem with those who talk about a "rape culture" and blather on about the need for "education for rapists" (by which they mean any man, because in their eyes we're all at least potential - if not incipient - rapists by definition) is that they have no idea what they're talking about. Their world view isn't grounded in reality, but in some kooky moonbattish perspective that appears to stem from the same universe where unicorn farts generate power. The real world simply isn't the way they want to see it - but they can't and won't accept that. If you try to point out to them that this is the case, they scream blue murder and accuse you of sexism, political incorrectness and anything else they can think of.

. . .

I know a lot more about rape than those liberal/progressive/feminist idiots who've never experienced anything like it, and who think that even impaired consent (as in, being drunk) amounts to rape.  They have no idea.  Frankly, I hope and pray that they never will have any idea . . . but their bloviating stupidity is just too much.

I stand by those words, and the rest of what I said back then.  With the greatest of respect to my lady readers, I say:  if you believe that you'll solve the problem of rape by simply telling or persuading men not to rape women, you're living in cloud cuckoo landIt won't work.  Even to say it is to deny reality.  It's as simple as that.

Women also need to understand and accept that their behavior can, and does, attract rapists.  If you look like prey, you will attract predators.  If you go where prey gathers, you will run into the predators who prey on them there.  That's true for lions preying on springbok, impala or gazelle on the plains of Africa.  They don't go where their next meal isn't:  they go where they know their next meal can be found, and attack it there.  That's equally true for rapists.  Why do you think they tend to concentrate their efforts where they know they can find easy prey?  Drunk or drugged university students are like a victim handed to them on a silver platter.  They know these kids - and let's face it, they usually are still kids, not yet fully mature - simply can't handle their drink, and are going to be egged on to over-indulge by their "friends" and fellow students.  After the booze and/or drugs have taken effect, they're basically victims on the hoof, injured prey at the mercy of the predator.

I'm not condoning the behavior of rapists in the slightest.  I agree, they deserve the harshest punishment, and I'll administer it myself without a qualm if the need arises.  This meme, which I posted back in 2017, still holds true:

I've provided more than a few ladies of my acquaintance with the means, and the training, to do exactly that, and I remain ready, willing and able to do the same in future.  Rapists are scum, (im)pure and simple, and deserve to be treated as such.

However, saying that doesn't alter the reality that if you put yourself in a place, and/or in a position, to become a victim, the odds are pretty good that someone will make you a victim.  Even if you do everything right, there are those who'll seek to prey on you.  That's a very nasty thought, but it's also a reality;  which is why we should be prepared to defend ourselves if necessary.  Nevertheless, it's better to stay away from places where that's likely to be needed.  I've quoted John Farnam's sage advice in these pages on several occasions, and I daresay repeating it here won't be amiss:

The best way to handle any potentially injurious encounter is: Don’t be there. Arrange to be somewhere else. Don’t go to stupid places. Don’t associate with stupid people. Don’t do stupid things. This is the advice I give to all students of defensive firearms ... Crowds of any kind, particularly those with an agenda, such as political rallies, demonstrations, picket lines, etc are good examples of “stupid places.” Any crowd with a high collective energy level harbors potential catastrophe. To a lesser degree, bank buildings, hospital emergency rooms, airports, government buildings, and bars (particularly crowded ones) fall into the same category. All should be avoided. When they can’t be avoided, we should make it a practice to spend only the minimum time necessary there and then quickly get out.

The University of Nairobi's memorandum may have been "insensitive", but it was also accurate.  That's the way the world is, even if it's not the way women want it to be.  To reject the memo on the grounds of insensitivity, or to blame it for "victim shaming", is to deny and defy reality.  Good luck with that.  You're going to need it.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

An opinionated, one-sided bigot, posing as a journalist

I have no sympathy for ABC News correspondent David Wright after he was suspended by his network for comments he made to a Project Veritas investigator.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

ABC News has suspended veteran Washington correspondent David Wright for remarks he made that were captured on video by Project Veritas.

Wright was disciplined after higher-ups at ABC News reviewed footage in which Wright describes himself as a "socialist" and appears to criticize the network for the way in which it chooses to present the news.

“I feel terrible about it. I feel that the truth suffers, the voters are poorly informed, and people also have the opportunity to tune into whatever they want to hear,” Wright said in the video, which also features an ABC News producer.

“And so, it’s like there’s no upside, or our bosses don’t see an upside in doing the job we’re supposed to do, which is to speak truth to power and hold people accountable.

There's more at the link.

The arrogance of those statements is astonishing.  Think about it.  "The job we're supposed to do ... is to speak truth to power and hold people accountable."  No, it isn't.  You're a bloody journalist!  Your job is to report the news, not comment on it or give us your opinion of it!  If the latter was your job, you'd be a commenter or an opinion/editorial writer - neither of which are reporters' positions or functions.  As for "people [having] the opportunity to tune into whatever they want to hear," that's precisely what we should have.  You don't get to tell us what you want us to tune into and/or hear, much less insist that we do so!

Sadly, it appears that a great many other so-called "journalists" hold similar views.  Project Veritas has uncovered some of them in its previous videos.  Kudos to the organization for making it clear, over and over again, that the mainstream news media is staffed and served by people pushing their own agendas, rather than impartial reporters of news as it happens.  Nowadays, if anyone were to introduce themselves to me as a journalist, I'd instantly classify them as unworthy of trust unless and until proven otherwise.  It's gotten that bad.

As for ABC News, along with CNN and most other mainstream TV news stations and networks . . . well, the less said about them, the better.  I'll go elsewhere if I want to know what's really happening in the world.


Double "Heh!" - automotive edition

Yesterday both of these photographs were sent to me by readers.  I don't know their origin, but they made me laugh.

First, Toyota's mid-size SUV is visually linked to a famous movie (click the image for a larger view):

Next, modern motoring leads to a new musical conundrum:

As long as the truck doesn't have an open container of beer (another country music staple) in the cab . . .


COVID-19: an update, and planning considerations

Last week I wrote about preparing for the economic impact of China's coronavirus epidemic.  It now looks certain that it's going to cause major disruptions to world trade, and probably to the social fabric of many (perhaps most) countries - including the United States.  COVID-19 is showing a very rapid infection rate, far faster than might be expected.  South Korea went from zero reported cases to (at the time of writing) 1,146 infected and 11 dead in less than a week.  Italy has gone from zero to 229 infected and 7 dead in a similar period.  The USA now has 53 confirmed cases, including a number who were evacuated from a cruise ship in Japan already infected with the disease.

Fortunately, the coronavirus doesn't appear to be a highly lethal strain - at least in its present form.  (Viruses mutate.  It's what they do.  Tomorrow's coronavirus may not be as mild as the current epidemic.)  The death rate seems to vary according to age, sex and pre-existing conditions.  As of February 23rd, Worldometer lists the fatality rates as follows:

Brian Wang points out:  "The rates are mainly for hospitalized cases in China. There is likely 5-10 times as many people who caught the virus but had no symptoms or did not need to be hospitalized or were not diagnosed ... Coronavirus (COVID-19) is most problematic if you are over 70, a smoker and already had heart and lung problems of some kind."  That's cold comfort for me.  I'm a former smoker, and a cardiac survivor, so I fit two out of three of those conditions - ample justification for me to be as careful as possible!

I don't expect the coronavirus epidemic to disrupt the availability of all consumer products.  Many are made in the USA, and will continue to be.  (For example, I don't see the panic buying of toilet paper in Hong Kong occurring here, because we make our own, whereas they have to import all of theirs.). However, so many consumer items come from China that it'll be a good idea to put some away in reserve.  Here are a virologist's suggestions about what to buy, and I mentioned a number of useful products last week.  Since then, I've found others.  For example, almost all batteries - from the biggest to the smallest, from industrial-grade to consumer AA, AAA, C and D cells - come from China.  The factories making them are closed down at present, and/or can't get their staff to come to work thanks to quarantine regulations.  The only stocks available are what's in this country already;  so, if you use a lot and/or need regular supplies of specialized cells, you might want to stock up quickly.

Given the possibility of quarantines in urban areas, I do think it's more advisable than ever to stock up on essential foodstuffs and prepare to survive for at least 3-4 weeks without having to go shopping.  It'll be almost impossible for the authorities to distribute enough food and other supplies to everyone who'll need them if they can't go out to buy them.  (For example, think of families with small children - the demand for diapers alone will be daunting, let alone laundry facilities if they can't take their kids' clothes to a laundromat.)  Fortunately, Miss D. and I are already equipped to do that, which is a blessing.  We've stocked up on filters for our HEPA air filtration units and our house A/C system, because many of them come from China.  I already have enough surgical/isolation masks, a few disposable N-95 dust-mask-type respirators, and filters for "real deal" respirators (all discussed in another blog post some days ago) to last a couple of months at least.  I'm glad I'm not scrambling to buy them now!  The same applies to domestic hygiene and cleaning solutions, also discussed recently.  We've bought enough to cope with the expected demand, as well as hand sanitizer to carry around with us.  I daresay both will be needed.

I suggest you should be careful who you tell about your preparations.  Given the shortages that are already happening, and more that are likely, you may find "borrowing neighbors" demanding that you share what you've got.  If you only have enough for your own household, that's a non-starter.  This disease is too dangerous for you to take chances.  Discretion is the better part of safety!

Something both Miss D. and I have noticed is the change in rail and road traffic over the past couple of weeks.  We live not far from a major east-west railway route and a couple of major Interstate and regional highways.  Several heavily laden container and consumer-product trains pass through our area every day.  We've been watching their composition change.  There are a lot more empty double-stack container cars being repositioned - we've seen several mile-long trains of them.  There have also been fewer autorack trains and cars, presumably because vehicle imports from the Far East have slowed.  What's more, there appear to be fewer eighteen-wheeler trucks on nearby highways and Interstates.  All this is an early indicator that there simply isn't the same volume of goods coming into this country as there was previously.  We expect to see it get worse as China's economic shutdown continues to disrupt world trade.

This poses serious questions for workers in transport and related industries, and in major transport hubs.  What are the big West Coast ports going to do when their container traffic is drastically reduced?  As GCaptain reports:

Cargo traffic through the Port of Los Angeles is down about 25% in February amid a rash of canceled ship sailings, Executive Director Gene Seroka said Monday. That could drag the total container volume in the first quarter down 15% from a year ago, he said.

. . .

Even if the virus can be contained in the near term, the effects may linger in the shipping industry. There is a glut of containers in the U.S., both full and empty ones waiting to return to Asia, Seroka said. Those will need to be moved rapidly once the supply chain starts to return to normal, potentially creating bottlenecks and other problems.

“That will create an artificial spike in the traditional calendar year of the shipping industry, and it’s going to keep swaying, this imbalance, back and forth until we can find a way to level set it,” he said. The repercussions could extend into the fourth quarter.

There's more at the link.

Longshoremen in those ports have "made hay while the sun shone" for years, demanding - and getting - feather-bedded contracts, making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year while forcing the ports to meet their terms.  What are they going to do when the lower volume of traffic halves their working hours, and hence their income?  Expect industrial disputes.  The ports themselves are also going to be in a tight spot, as are major cargo airports, trucking and railroad companies, and those who work for them all.  Lower traffic means lower income for all concerned, companies and people.  I expect furloughs, layoffs and shorter working hours.  If you may be affected, have you made plans to cope with a lower income for a while?  I suspect you may not have much choice in the matter.

Those working in health care should also carefully consider their position.  If you have a family (particularly younger children), you're going to have to take particular precautions not to bring the virus home with you.  Hygiene and isolation procedures at hospitals, doctors' surgeries and other typical health care locations are going to become vitally important.  That's definitely something to think about, and plan for.  If your facility doesn't have, or may run out of, enough precautionary supplies for everyone (isolation masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc.), would it perhaps be useful to buy some of your own and keep them handy, just in case?  If I were in that situation, I certainly would.

I don't think this disease can be contained any longer.  It's spread too far, too fast, for that.  Its further spread is now inevitable.  I think we can cope with its impact in its present form, although that depends on it not mutating too fast;  if it emerges in a more lethal strain, all bets are off.  Nevertheless, I don't think there's any need to panic based on what we're facing right now.  There will be economic repercussions, and some of us will be at higher risk than others due to health or age factors, so we'll need to be more careful.  Nevertheless, with care and planning, we'll get through this, please God.


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

OK, warbird fans, you can geek out now

A treasure trove of World War II-era aviation blueprints have been saved for posterity.  Warbird Digest reports:

AirCorps Aviation of Bemidji, Minnesota has just announced that they have acquired a massive trove of original manufacturing drawings for North American Aviation (NAA) covering types such as the P-51, T-6, B-25 and P-82.

Ken Jungeberg was the head of the Master Dimensions department at Columbus in 1988 when the factory closed its doors. When he heard that North American was planning to burn all the WWII era drawings in their archive, he knew he had to do something. He began writing letters and making calls to his superiors, advocating to save the drawings. Discouraged by responses that there was nothing he could do, Ken had all but given up, until a twist of fate changed everything.

A situation that would have been a tragedy under normal circumstances turned positive when a pipe burst in the archive room that stored the drawings to be destroyed. The room all but filled with water, cracking the cement foundation, and soaking the contents of the room. North American employees emptied the room, and piled the soaking wet drawings in a heap on the factory floor, where they sat for the next two weeks.

It was at the end of these two weeks that Ken got the call he had been waiting for. He was told that he could have the drawings, if he came to pick them up immediately, and promised that they would never end up “blowing around in a landfill”. Clearly the company was still concerned with preserving the name and reputation that North American was known for. Ken rented a truck and he and several friends loaded the drawings, and took them to a barn where Ken began the monumental task of laying them out to dry. Because the drawings were done in pencil on tracing vellum (a very durable media), the information was essentially undamaged.

Once the drawings were dry enough, Ken sorted, re-rolled, and boxed them up. He took many to his home, and stored the rest at his hangar at the Warren County Airport in Lebanon, OH. The drawings would remain in this same location for the next 32 years, until 2019.

. . .

Ken has done the vintage and legacy aircraft community a great service through his persistence, and understanding of what these drawings would mean in a historical context.

There's more at the link, including some very interesting historical photographs.  The blueprints really are works of art, as well as engineering and manufacturing references.

That's an amazing aviation legacy.  One could take these blueprints and use them as manufacturing guides today, starting from scratch to produce a brand-new aircraft.  Of course, having someone make the parts would be difficult and expensive, but with the original blueprints, it's entirely feasible.  I wonder how many warbirds will be kept flying thanks to the ability to make new parts for them or rebuild them, courtesy of this historical and technological treasure trove?


How much were can a werewolf wear if a werewolf could wear wolf?

The headline was inspired by a blog post and question from author Charles Stross, who poses a couple of intriguing questions.

SERIOUS QUESTION for space geeks:

The flight of Apollo 11. Postulate that Mike Collins is a werewolf. At what point during trans-Lunar injection does he go furry? And how many times during the mission profile is he forced to shapeshift by the light of the full Moon?


A full Moon must subtend an angle of at least 0.5 degrees to trigger shapeshifting in werewolves. A werewolf is aboard a spaceship bound for Ganymede, largest moon of Jupiter. In low Ganymede orbit, how many Jovian moons trigger shapeshifting?


  • Werewolves are real.
  • Shapeshifting is not triggered by direct exposure to the light of the full Moon, but by the existence of a full, uneclipsed Moon in the sky (otherwise werewolves could just hole up indoors to avoid furry hijinks).
  • Werewolves shapeshift involuntarily in an arbitrary short period of time (WARNING: any discussion of relativitic effects or the use of werewolves as an FTL signaling mechanism will be firmly discouraged).

There's more at the link, including more assumptions.  (The responses from his readers are worth reading, too.  Some of them are giggleworthy.)

Okay, space travel, science fiction and fantasy geeks, here's your chance.  Have at Mr. Stross' questions in Comments (but please check his other assumptions first).  Let's see if we can come up with something special!


No, it doesn't figure

The BBC points out that the so-called "gambler's fallacy" has never worked, and never will.  It's a mathematical calculation that many don't understand.

... a reasoning flaw called the “gambler’s fallacy” [is] a worryingly common error that can derail many of our professional decisions, from a goalkeeper’s responses to penalty shootouts in football to stock market investments and even judicial rulings on new asylum cases.

To find out if you fall for the gambler’s fallacy, imagine you are tossing a (fair) coin and you get the following sequence: Heads, Heads, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails, Tails. What’s the chance you will now get a heads?

Many people believe the odds change so that the sequence must somehow even out, increasing the chance of a heads on the subsequent goes. Somehow, it just feels inevitable that a heads will come next. But basic probability theory tells us that the events are statistically independent, meaning the odds are exactly the same on each flip. The chance of a heads is still 50% even if you’ve had 500 or 5,000 tails all in a row.

For the same reason, HTHTTH is just as likely as HHHHHH. Once again, however, many disagree and think that the mixed sequence is somehow more probable than the streak.

As its name suggests, the gambler’s fallacy has been of most interest to researchers studying games of chance. Indeed, it is sometimes known as Monte Carlo Fallacy, after a notorious event at one of Monaco’s roulette tables in 1913, with 26 blacks in a row. Observational studies – using casino security footage – have confirmed that it continues to influence bets today.

Surprisingly, education and intelligence do not protect us against the bias. Indeed, one study by Chinese and American researchers found that people with higher IQs are actually more susceptible to the gambler’s fallacy than people who score less well on standardised tests. It could be that the more intelligent people overthink the patterns and believe that they are smart enough to predict what comes next.

Whatever the reason for these false intuitions, subsequent research has revealed that gambler’s fallacy can have serious consequences far beyond the casino. The bias appears to be present in stock market trading, for instance. Many short-term changes in stock price are essentially random fluctuations, and Matthias Pelster at Paderborn University in Germany has shown that investors will base their decisions on the belief that the prices will soon “even out”. So, like Italy’s lottery players, they trade against a streak. “Investors should, on average, trade equally ‘in line’ with the streak and against it,” he says. “Yet that is not what we can see in the data.”

The gambler’s fallacy is a particular problem in the very professions that specifically require an even, unbiased judgement.

There's more at the link.

It's interesting how often one encounters this in everyday life.  A good example are the big interstate lotteries, the Powerball and Mega Millions.  I've heard any number of people say something like "Sooner or later my luck's got to change!", or "I've bought so many tickets, the odds have to be shortening in my favor!".  Sadly, neither is true.  They've both been fooled by the Gambler's Fallacy.

It's not a bad idea to examine our own conduct, and see whether this affects us in any way.  If others are being promoted around us at work, and we're convinced that the odds of us being next are better and better . . . no, they're not.  If others are being fired or laid off around us, yet we're convinced that our odds of not being fired are better . . . ditto.


Monday, February 24, 2020

Concerning Michael Bloomberg and farmers . . .

. . . which we've previously addressed here and here, I received this image over the weekend via e-mail (origin unknown).

Makes sense to me.  When I look at the size of Michael Bloomberg's fortune (over $60 billion, by all accounts), I have to ask how much "dirt" went into amassing so great an amount.  If it all happened without a single lapse in ethics or honesty, and entirely within the law, I'll go out and buy a hat so that I can eat it!

(Of course, the same applies to most large fortunes, irrespective of the political affiliations and/or ambitions of their owners.  I daresay a certain amount of skullduggery was involved in all of them.)


The "ruling class" are losing their grip

Tucker Carlson addressed the issue last week.  This five-minute clip is well worth your time.

Andrew Codevilla, whom we've often met in these pages, discussed the "ruling class" a decade ago.  His insights then are as valid today as always.

Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and “bureaucrat” was a dirty word for all. So was “social engineering.” Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.

Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.

The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners — nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, “prayed to the same God.” By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God “who created and doth sustain us,” our ruling class prays to itself as “saviors of the planet” and improvers of humanity. Our classes’ clash is over “whose country” America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark’s Gospel: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

. . .

At stake are the most important questions: What is the right way for human beings to live? By what standard is anything true or good? Who gets to decide what? ... This dismissal of the American people’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral substance is the very heart of what our ruling class is about. Its principal article of faith, its claim to the right to decide for others, is precisely that it knows things and operates by standards beyond others’ comprehension.

. . .

In sum, our ruling class does not like the rest of America. Most of all does it dislike that so many Americans think America is substantially different from the rest of the world and like it that way. For our ruling class, however, America is a work in progress, just like the rest the world, and they are the engineers.

. . .

The ruling class’s appetite for deference, power, and perks grows. The country class disrespects its rulers, wants to curtail their power and reduce their perks. The ruling class wears on its sleeve the view that the rest of Americans are racist, greedy, and above all stupid. The country class is ever more convinced that our rulers are corrupt, malevolent, and inept. The rulers want the ruled to shut up and obey. The ruled want self-governance. The clash between the two is about which side’s vision of itself and of the other is right and which is wrong. Because each side — especially the ruling class — embodies its views on the issues, concessions by one side to another on any issue tend to discredit that side’s view of itself. One side or the other will prevail. The clash is as sure and momentous as its outcome is unpredictable.

There's more at the link.

As Tucker Carlson pointed out, we're seeing the "ruling class" losing its grip.  It was first evident in the election of Donald Trump, overriding the "rulers" of the Republican Party.  We're seeing it now in the surge of support for Bernie Sanders, whose supporters typically dislike and distrust the Democratic Party "machine" and see Sanders as a candidate who can transform it, and the country.  In a sense, Sanders is as much a Democratic Party insurgent as Donald Trump was a Republican insurgent.  Trump has effectively taken over the Republican Party machine, both by leading from the top and by grass-roots activism from the ground up.  Can Sanders do the same for the Democratic Party?  That remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, both Trump and Sanders are anathema to the party political machines, of either or both sides.  Either party would much prefer to deal with the "old elites" of the other.  They understood each other, and would make deals to get things done in their mutual best interests (whether or not those were actually in the interest of the country as a whole).  Now that they can't get away with that any longer, they're desperately searching for ways in which to reassert control of the political process.  The mainstream media is a wholly-owned subordinate and co-conspirator in that process.  After all, just six corporations control 90%+ of all media in the United States.  The people controlling those corporations are - guess what? - part of the "ruling class", by any and every definition that matters.  Do their media properties reflect that, and the interests of that class?  Of course they do!

The American people have seen through that public facade.  They no longer believe or trust the mainstream media - on both sides of the political aisle.  Its deceptions and self-serving manipulation of the news have become so blatant that they're obvious, and no-one in his right mind believes any longer that they're objective sources of information.  The ruling class has not yet been able to come up with any other way of controlling public opinion, and in their desperation to do so, they're becoming ever more blatant and shrill in their repetition of the same tired old inanities.  Trouble is (from their perspective), not many people are listening.


"The Roots of Our Partisan Divide"

That's the title of a long and very interesting article by Christopher Caldwell.  Basically, he argues that a culture of "civil rights" has usurped, and threatens to overthrow (and may perhaps already have overthrown) the constitutional foundation of our republic.  I'm going to quote from it at some length, in an attempt to capture the essence of his argument.

But it is a third strand of the story, running all the way down to our day, that is most important for explaining our partisan polarization. It concerns how the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, divided the country. They did so by giving birth to what was, in effect, a second constitution, which would eventually cause Americans to peel off into two different and incompatible constitutional cultures. This became obvious only over time. It happened so slowly that many people did not notice.

. . .

What I am talking about are the emergency mechanisms that, in the name of ending segregation, were established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These gave Washington the authority to override what Americans had traditionally thought of as their ordinary democratic institutions. It was widely assumed that the emergency mechanisms would be temporary and narrowly focused. But they soon escaped democratic control altogether, and they have now become the most powerful part of our governing system.

. . .

To put it bluntly, the effect of these civil rights laws was to take a lot of decisions that had been made in the democratic parts of American government and relocate them to the bureaucracy or the judiciary ... The problem is that when the work of the civil rights legislation was done ... these new powers were not suspended or scaled back or reassessed. On the contrary, they intensified. The ability to set racial quotas for public schools was not in the original Civil Rights Act, but offices of civil rights started doing it, and there was no one strong enough to resist. Busing of schoolchildren had not been in the original plan, either, but once schools started to fall short of targets established by the bureaucracy, judges ordered it.

Affirmative action was a vague notion in the Civil Rights Act. But by the time of the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, it was an outright system of racial preference for non-whites.

. . .

Finally, civil rights came to dominate—and even overrule—legislation that had nothing to do with it ... Civil rights law had made it impossible for Americans to get what they’d voted for through their representatives, leading to decades of political strife ... More and more areas of American life have been withdrawn from voters’ democratic control and delivered up to the bureaucratic and judicial emergency mechanisms of civil rights law. Civil rights law has become a second constitution, with powers that can be used to override the Constitution of 1787.

. . .

So overpowering is the hegemony of the civil rights constitution of 1964 over the Constitution of 1787, that the country naturally sorts itself into a party of those who have benefitted by it and a party of those who have been harmed by it.

Let’s say you’re a progressive. In fact, let’s say you are a progressive gay man in a gay marriage, with two adopted children. The civil rights version of the country is everything to you. Your whole way of life depends on it. How can you back a party or a politician who even wavers on it? Quite likely, your whole moral idea of yourself depends on it, too. You may have marched in gay pride parades carrying signs reading “Stop the Hate,” and you believe that people who opposed the campaign that made possible your way of life, your marriage, and your children, can only have done so for terrible reasons. You are on the side of the glorious marchers of Birmingham, and they are on the side of Bull Connor. To you, the other party is a party of bigots.

But say you’re a conservative person who goes to church, and your seven-year-old son is being taught about “gender fluidity” in first grade. There is no avenue for you to complain about this. You’ll be called a bigot at the very least. In fact, although you’re not a lawyer, you have a vague sense that you might get fired from your job, or fined, or that something else bad will happen. You also feel that this business has something to do with gay rights. “Sorry,” you ask, “when did I vote for this?” You begin to suspect that taking your voice away from you and taking your vote away from you is the main goal of these rights movements. To you, the other party is a party of totalitarians.

And that’s our current party system: the bigots versus the totalitarians.

There's much more at the linkHighly recommended reading.

I've seen this happen in microcosm in the American penal system.  Convicts are sent to prison both as punishment for their crimes and - perhaps even more important - to safeguard society from their depredations.  However, since the rise of the civil rights culture, pressure groups have used relevant legislation and judicial action to enforce more "humane" treatment for convicts, whether or not it serves any useful correctional purpose, and whether or not it serves either as punishment (or an effective means of rehabilitation) for the perpetrators, or protection for the victims.

I've had many people tell me, even to my face, that prison should be a place of punishment, not a cosseted refuge where criminals can relax while planning their future crimes.  We hear jokes about the so-called easy-going conditions in Federal prisons - "Club Fed".  Most people don't know that those conditions were mandated by courts, which have required the Bureau of Prisons to provide amenities, facilities and protection for "inmate rights" that were not originally built into the system - and, in many peoples' opinion, never should have been.  The BOP had no choice.  The "civil rights culture" was used against it.  To this day it's forced to spend a large part of its budget - paid by taxpayers, you and I, let me remind you - to satisfy those demands.  That's also why it has to maintain a large staff of in-house lawyers, to deal with litigation from inmates.

Inmates know - and pressure groups are quick to remind them - that they can use civil rights laws to demand, and sometimes get, privileges to which they would otherwise not be entitled.  Failing that, they can use lawsuits to harass "the system" and force it to spend hours, days or weeks of staff time in responding to their nuisance suits.  (Here's just one extreme example, out of many I could cite.)  The authorities are forced (by the courts) to provide law libraries for them, so that they can spend their days figuring out what lawsuits to file and how best to manipulate the system.  I've watched them do it, day in, day out.  Some even tried to ask me for suggestions as to what grounds they could use to "sue the Man" for more benefits.  "[In 2014], more than 32,000 lawsuits were filed in federal courts from inside prison walls — 11% of all civil cases.  More than 6,200 so-called in forma pauperis cases were on the Supreme Court's docket in June [2015] — 77% of the total."

I see exactly the same culture pervade our society as a whole.  Look at what's happened to President Trump since his election.  Any and every group and individual that's disagreed with one or more of his policies has turned to the courts to block their implementation.  With the help of liberal, civil-rights-oriented judges, they've succeeded in imposing significant delays on many of his efforts, even if they haven't been able to overturn them.  The forces behind such efforts are also loudest in their condemnation of President Trump's efforts to appoint judges who will exercise their office in accordance with the Constitution, rather than from a civil-rights-culture perspective.  They appear to be terrified of what may happen if he gets to appoint a larger conservative majority to the Supreme Court - witness the liberal "panic" when Justice Ginsburg became seriously ill, and was feared to be at death's door.

I think Mr. Caldwell has advanced a very rational opinion in his article, and in his book on the same subject.

Both are worthy of attention, IMHO.  I'll be buying his book, to read more about his perspective.  From what I've seen so far, he appears to make a good case.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sunday morning music

A few weeks ago, friend, fellow author and fellow blogger Cedar Sanderson sent me a link to the video clip below.  It features the guqin, an ancient Chinese zither-like instrument that defies precise comparison with Western instruments.  It's a lovely piece.

Wikipedia describes the guqin as follows:

The guqin is a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family. It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favoured by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement, as highlighted by the quote "a gentleman does not part with his qin or se without good reason," as well as being associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as "the father of Chinese music" or "the instrument of the sages".

Intrigued, I looked for more information about the video clip above.  It's from the Zi de Guqin Studio, which offers more videos on their YouTube channel.  Unfortunately they don't have an English-language Web site, but they do have social media posts on Chinese web sites, which you'll find linked beneath some of their videos on YouTube.

Here's another video from the studio's channel, giving a broader perspective on their work.

Finally, just for fun, here's a short video from the studio, coupling a theme song with a few cats for good measure!

It looks like Chinese kittens are just as rambunctious as their Western counterparts . . .


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Saturday Snippet: Between silk and cyanide

One of the most remarkable autobiographies to come out of World War II was that of Leo Marks, who became the code specialist for Special Operations Executive (SOE), the clandestine operations department set up by Winston Churchill with the directive to "set Europe ablaze".  SOE supplied arms, money and operators to resistance movements all over occupied Europe and throughout the Far East.  It made many mistakes and experienced many failures, but grew into a massive organization that made a measurable contribution to victory.

Many years after the war, Marks wrote about his SOE experiences.  He battled for almost a decade to get official clearance for his book (which talked about encoding and code-breaking methods that had not hitherto been discussed - some of them devised by him.  Many are still in use, and still secret.)  Eventually, "Between Silk and Cyanide" was published in 1998, shortly before his death.

The book got its name due to the need to provide codes to agents that could not easily be detected during body searches by the German occupying forces.  Marks wanted them printed on silk, which won't make a noise when patted down, and is so thin it can't be detected by feel when it's sewn between layers of other clothing.  In this excerpt, Marks explains how he sold the idea to his (very senior) superiors at SOE.  They were initially unimpressed, because silk was a vital strategic material during wartime, with huge demand for limited supplies.  He'd have to be convincing.

"Since you're here," Courtauld said wearily, "you'd better explain why these lollipops or whatever they're called have to be on silk."

If I had a lollipop I knew precisely where I'd stick it.  In lieu of such a luxury, I leaned forward and, before Courtauld could stop me, or I could stop myself, ran my hands rapidly over his tunic, beneath his armpits, and as far down his abdomen as propriety permitted.  In case he took this personally, I hastily explained that the Gestapo and the Vichy police cordoned off entire streets without warning and searched everyone in sight.  If he were a Frenchman carrying a code, wouldn't he prefer it to be on silk which groping hands couldn't feel rather than on sheets of paper hidden inside a portable object which they might have time to examine?

His mouth was so wide open that I feared he'd have a stroke.  There was an extraordinary sound from somewhere on my right.

It was Tommy Davies laughing.  "Point taken," he said before I could offer him the same facility.  "It's clear that silk has its advantages ... I presume, Marks, that you've brought some figures with you?"

This was the moment I'd been dreading.  I'd prepared some estimates for them but Hitler's fortune-teller could have done a better job.

"Well?  Have you brought them or haven't you?" demanded Courtauld.

"Yes, sir."

I lifted the estimates from their rain-sodden envelope.  They'd been typed by Muriel as if they were a royal proclamation but each page was covered in manuscript corrections and the ink had run.  Wishing I could join it, I gave the drier copy to the Gestapo (Courtauld), and surrendered the other to the Vichy police.

Watching them cordon off the rest of the world while they searched the pages for concealed common sense was a lesson in concentration I wished I could have shared with all coders.

They reached the last page without complaining about the ink-blots (there were enough for a Rorschach test), then exchanged glances like Gauleiters at the door of a torture chamber.

. . .

They ploughed through the European estimates with growing despair.  Courtauld then gave me a brief lecture on how they should have been prepared which was probably priceless and which I pretended to understand.

Then Davies took over.  "What the devil's this?" he enquired.  " 'Contingencies, various', with none of them stipulated."

"Perhaps they're too confidential to share with us?" suggested Courtauld.

Another mistake.  In attempting to keep the document to consumable length, i hadn't considered what would be important to them.  I rattled off a few of the 'contingencies, various' - How many agents would lose their codes? ... How many replacements would go astray? ... How many [codes] would Secret Armies need?

Davies interrupted sharply.  "Have the country sections agreed to use the bloody things?" he asked.

"They will, sir.  Colonel Nicholls is going to talk to them himself."

"And you'll have a word or so to say, I don't doubt," commented Courtauld.

"Only to fill in the details, sir."  I began explaining why the 'bloody things' would make so much difference to our agents.

"We're not questioning their merits," said Davies, "but the reality of getting silk.  There's a queue a mile long for it."

"You have an excellent case," said Courtauld quietly, "but so have all the others."

How many people with excellent cases have sat in this chair asking them to use their influence to produce the unobtainable?

Davies glanced impatiently at his watch.  Courtauld gave a hardly perceptible nod.  "Well now," said Davies, "if you'd like to leave these figures with us..."

I tried to spot the waste-paper basket, but I was the only one in sight.

"Unless you feel there's something you should add," said Courtauld.

"Yes, sir.  There is."  I wondered how to convince them that silk codes were more than just another 'excellent case'.

The 'hard men' - whom I finally recognized as responsible men seeking hard facts - waited expectantly.  What would jolt them into jumping the queue for the sake of the agents queuing to jump?

I decided to stake the future of our codes on a loaded question.  "Will SOE be allowed to know the date of D-day?"

They looked at me in astonishment.  "Why the devil do you ask that?"

"Because at some stage in the invasion the agents will have to be sent instructions from London."

"What of it?" demanded Courtauld.

"It would be safer for SOE to use Courtauld's code* than the present systems."

Courtauld sat motionless.  Davies rose from his chair.  "What do you know about Courtauld's code?" he thundered.

"That it's a variant of the commercial code, and you use it to minimize the high cost of international cables."

"Who told you about it?" he persisted.

I'd seen a copy in Dad's shop.  "Do I have to answer that, sir?"

"No," said Courtauld heavily.  "We've more important matters to dispose of."  His other half continued to glare at me.

I waited to be disposed of.

"We'll help you all we can," said Courtauld, "though the final decision won't rest with us."

"Far from it," said Davies.

"It will be made by a certain person who has very little time to spare."

"Very little indeed," confirmed Davies.

"It would be a great help to him - and to us - if you could put down on half a sheet of paper the difference silk codes would make to our agents."

"Half a sheet at most!" echoed Davies.

"I think it could be done in a phrase, sir!"  But what?

"Oh?" said Courtauld.  "We'd be interested to hear it."

"It's between silk and cyanide." **

There was a pause.

"Is it now?" said Courtauld softly.

* George Courtauld, mentioned in this excerpt, was before the war a director of Courtaulds, a major British textile and chemical producer.  It used its own code to communicate with its subsidiaries overseas over the public telegraph system.

** Agents usually carried a cyanide capsule to commit suicide if their capture was imminent, rather than face certain torture at the hands of the Gestapo, and the risk of betraying their comrades and their mission.

Not only did that phrase become the title of Marks' book, it was also successful in persuading the powers that be to allocate enough silk to SOE for the printing of their codes and ciphers.  That, in turn, made a major contribution to the safety of their agents in Europe under German occupation.

Marks' book is a remarkable memoir of the 'secret war' that raged across Europe and the Far East during World War II.  I recommend it highly.  He's very blunt about the failures and shortcomings of SOE and other intelligence organizations, as well as mentioning their successes.  From that perspective alone, it's a very worthwhile contribution to the history of the Second World War.