The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Review: the Map That Changed The World 

The Map That Changed the World;
William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
Simon Winchester

This is the story of William Smith, a man from the lower classes with only a basic formal education, who created a map of England that revolutionized our understanding of the earth, and created modern geology.

Smith was a coal surveyor and canal-digger, and while engaged in these pursuits he began to notice the way bands of rock and earth repeated themselves across the landscape, though not always exactly. He realized that the strata he observed had to be laid down at the same time, and came developed a way to confirm the relative ages of strata by comparing the fossils one could find in them.

He spent some twenty years, and experienced financial ruin, in creating a massive and beautiful map of the strata he observed. But instead of then relaxing and enjoying his well-deserved accolades, he was pushed aside by an "old boys club" of wealthy nobles. It was many more years before his fortunes were restored and the injustice rectified.

Winchester provides us with a wealth of historical detail (though Smith's own life is sometimes a bit vague due to a lack of records) relating to canal-building, coal-mining, early geologic theory, and how people dealt with fossils before they were understood for what they really are.

There some faults here. One is simply Winchester's at times almost whimsical style. He writes in a kind of first person, and a significant chunk of the book is devoted to his own observations and memories as they relate to the subject at hand. I confess I found these a bit dull and skimmed over them, wanting to get to William Smith. Another is how he goes on at some length about the hide-bound religious beliefs of the day were such a problem and even something of a threat to thinkers like Smith (the much maligned Bishop Usher makes his expected and tiresome appearance at this point). But no where in the narrative do these things cause any trouble for William Smith. Nor for that matter, except of a passing reference to Charles Darwin, do they cause anyone any trouble. No parsons appear to denounce Smith, no angry crowds hang him in effigy. One is left wondering just what the point is. Some of Aristotle's concepts also retarded science in the West for thousands of year, yet he rarely gets the sort of smacking around that Usher receives with such monotonous regularity.

In the end, though, these gripes do not detract from the strength of the book. The Map That Changed the World is an interesting story about a remarkable man, and how his observations made an important contribution to our knowledge of the world.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Road From Wigan Pier 

I know Democrats and Liberals are awash with advice from all directions, but in light of the bozos of the Urban Archipelago and numerous other similar writings to be found on both the Left and Right, I'd like to offer something I found the other day.

I was reading George Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier" the other day (the sort of books that one can randomly pick up in this house is amazing) and came across a passage that seemed so ideal for the occasion it seems almost unbelievable that it was written in 1936. Substitute conservatism for fascism, or left/liberalism for fascism in the following passages, and you can see the applicability of what one of the great political writers of the 20th century had to say:

But the underlying feeling of Fascism, the feeling that first draws people into the Fascist camp, may be less contemptible. It is not always, as the Saturday Review would lead one to suppose, a squealing terror of the Bolshevik bogey-man. Everyone who has given the movement as much as a glance knows that the rank-and file Fascist is often quite a well-meaning person--quite genuinely anxious to better the lot of the unemployed.

But more important than this is the fact that Fascism draws its strength from the good as well as the bad varieties of conservatism, To anyone with a feeling for tradition and for discipline it comes with its appeal ready made. Probably it is very easy, when you have had a belly-full of the more tactless kind of Socialist propaganda, to see Fascism as the last defence line of all that is good in European civilisation. Even the fascist bully at his worst, with rubber truncheon in one hand and castor oil bottle in the other, does not necessarily feel himself a bully; more probably he feels like Roland at the pass of Roncevaux, defending Christendom against the barbarian. We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere advancing, is largely the fault of Socialists themselves. […] They have never made it sufficiently clear that the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty. With their eyes glued to economic facts, they have proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul, and explicitly or implicitly they have set up the goals of a materialistic Utopia. As a result Fascism has been able to play upon every instinct that revolts against hedonism and a cheap conception of "progress". It has been able to pose as the upholder of the European tradition, and to appeal to Christian belief, to patriotism and to the military virtues. It is far worse than useless to write Fascism off as "mass sadism", or some easy phrase of that kind. […] The only possible course is to examine the Fascist case, grasp that there is something to be said for it, and then make the case clear to the world that whatever good Fascism contains is also implicit in Socialism.

Worth remembering, I think.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Some Things of Interest, Plus a Mini Rant 

If you are still worrying about massive vote fraud (as opposed to the sort of low-level stuff that happens somewhere every time) in the recent election, you could do a lot worse than to check out The Mystery Pollster. He sure seems to know his stuff, and can provide very useful and contextual commentary on the various studies "proving" one thing or another. Just go there and keep scrolling down until you've had enough. For my money, the fact that this is starting to dissolve into dueling regression analyses makes it hard to get really interested. Use the category Exit Polls to get to all the good stuff. Or you can continue to think that Diebold did it.

By the way, we always hear that turnout favors Democrats. Its in the "everyone knows" category. How do we know it? This paper suggests that the conventional wisdom is true, but points out that not all studies support it, and that other factors can overcome it.
Slate is running a cool dialogue on Welfare Reform. All three participants basically support it, though from slightly different angles. Still, very much worth a read.

These folks (via Andrew Sullivan) sort of get it. I think people are beginning to realize that the divide in this country is not really one of states, but more of one of urban vs. rural areas (I, by the way, think even that is a bit overblown).

However, while seeing that much, the people creating this page proceed to pretty much proceed to blow it. The writers rant on and on about the intolerant, backward, stupid, etc. etc. backwoods people. Rather "progressive" of them, no? You wonder if they've wandered down many back alleys of those urban wonderlands. How many blue-voting jerks would they encounter? Plenty.

I Also reckon anywhere from 25% to 40% of those enlightened urbanites voted Bush, and similar numbers for the benighted interior went for Kerry. Even the urban/rural split isn't as night and day as people would have you think.

Here's one sample:

If you ignore the selfish whimperings of the Kirkland contingent, it's not too hard to envision a time when the only vehicles allowed on the streets of Seattle are buses, trams, and shuttles. Utopian? Wrong: reality-based.

Contrasted with:

It's not a question of tolerance, nor even of personal freedom; it's a matter of recognizing the fundamental interdependence of all citizens--not just the ones who belong to the same church. Non-urbanites have chosen to burn the declaration of interdependence, opting instead for tyranny, isolationism, and "faith." They can have them.

Amusing, no? Think they even noticed the contradiction?

How long, do ya reckon, could those urban oases of light survive without the products of the grubby hinterland? About two to three weeks, I imagine. The countryside would eventually go under itself, of course.

These, of course, are broad strokes.

Well, thank God for that. Too bad the writers of this piece didn't think a bit more on that piece of wisdom before running with the rest of their hateful little rant.
People, we need each other. Neither rural nor urban populations have any sort of corner on rightousness, nor on sin. The sooner we get over this north vs south, state vs. state, urban vs. rural BS, the sooner we can deal with real issues. Values may tend a certain way in certain places, but they have a tendency to cut across any sort of simple geographical divide.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Review - Charlie Wilson's War 

Charley Wilson's War
George Crile

If this had been an attempt to write Clancy-esqe fiction, the author would have had the manuscript thrown back in his face. As it happens, the entire tale is apparently completely true, yet it would still only take some modest wordsmithing by a Christopher Buckely to turn it into an outrageous bit of farce. It's about the reaction of certain people to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the changes they wrought.

Charles Wilson was that once common, now increasingly rare politician known as a liberal hawk. In Charlie's case, the hawk side was focused on fighting communism. When it came to America and freedom versus the commies, Charlie was a true believer. A former Navy officer, tall, with rugged good looks, a booming voice, well-read, and intelligent, and possessing great skills at bureaucratic infighting, the East Texas Congressman had only one problem -- himself.

Because in addition to his many positive qualities, Charlie Wilson was also a playboy wastrel. Women, booze, maybe even some drugs. An attachment to high living caused him to make full use of every perk available to a congressman and more (though he never appeared to engage in kickbacks or other activities that would enrich his personal fortune). On more than one occasion his wild living almost brought him down. As an example, just before leaving on a diplomatic mission, he was drunk and committed a hit and run. Only the barest of good luck, a generous settlement, and full-bore brazenness got him through.

And that's just one of an amazing cast of characters. We meet Joanne Herring, a Houston socialite who so charmed a Pakistani ambassador that she became an honorary consul -- a status she kept even after Zia began to re-impose severe Islamic restriction on the women of that country. It was she that introduced Charlie to the Afghan cause. Then there is Gust Avrokotos, second generation Greek-American from a tough Pennsylvania milltown, who rose up from the ranks in the CIA's dirty tricks division and eventually came to run the CIA's Afghan operation. Mike Vickers, the rough equivalent of a Captain or Major in the CIA, who eventually designed the Afghan war plan that broke the Soviet army's back. And Carol Shannon, the belly dancer from Dallas Charlie took with him on one of his trips.

That's not all the people we meet and see, but you then have to move on to the circumstances. The CIA's initial efforts in Afghanistan amounted to a trickle of money and old cast-off weapons (many of the Mujahadein were given bolt-action Lee-Enfields, which the British phased out after World War I). This wasn't sufficient for Charlie, who began pushing hard to have amount and type of aid increased. To do this he had to overcome the caution of the CIA (worried about provoking the Russians) and the indifference of the White House (concentrating on the Contra war in Nicaragua), eventually creating his own little bit of foreign policy in the House of Representatives.

Charlie and his friends broke or bent virtually every rule there was, written and unwritten, both here and in the mostly Islamic countries they sought for more help from (Saudi Arabia matched whatever amount the US Congress appropriated for Afghanistan, effectively doubling the CIA's budget), to get aid to the Afghan fighters and to, in Avrokotos blunt words, "kill Russians".

By then en, wounded fighters were being flown to US hospitals for treatment, and billions of dollars in weapons and aid were flowing to the Mujahadein, including Stinger missiles to shoot down the dreaded Soviet Hind helicopter.

The butcher's bill was enormous. Over a million Afghans died, millions more were refugees, and 28,000 Soviet Army soldiers were killed. Untold numbers more on both sides were wounded.

As an anti-Soviet Union operation, the Afghan War was a stunning success. Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam, only worse. Many people credit the Afghan war with hastening the eventual crack-up of the USSR by several years. But in the vacuum of the Soviet withdrawal the Muj took to fighting amongst themselves as well as the Soviet-backed puppet government. Fundamentalist types reasserted themselves. And the full measure of America's support for the freedom fighters was never fully understood by the Islamic world, who saw only heroic Afghans killing Russians, not the massive amount of support they received from the United States. This created the odd situation of Osama bin-Laden; who had little to do with driving the Soviets out, creating himself as the face of successful jihad.

In the end, pretty much all of those involved say the effort was worth it, despite the mistakes. And it makes for a truly amazing story. Jammer-Bob sez check it out.

Monday, November 15, 2004


I've been toying with this idea for some time now, and I think I need to go ahead and make it official. As a purely political blog, I am just not going to make it. I have too many demands on my time to put in the effort doing it right would require.

So I think its time to switch over to something I refer to as the Jammer's Review of Books model. I'll still make commentary from time to time, but I intend to spend more of my efforts on reviewing books and other things of note. I think that will be a better niche than simple politics.

So check back in a day or two for my review of Charlie Wilson's War.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Review - Ghosts of Vesuvius 

Ghosts of Vesuvius
Charles Pelligrino

Charles Pelligrino may be one of the last of the Renaissance Man type of scientist. A paleontologist, biologist, physicist, whatever, he's dug up ruins, written science fiction, dived on the Titanic, and examined the after effects of volcanoes. Along the way he has written several entertaining books about what he has seen.

Volcanic effects is what Ghosts is about. More specifically, it is about surge clouds, those by-products of eruption (and other events) that are as capricious as tornadoes in their effects, and often even more destructive. Pellegrino begins by focussing upon the clouds created by the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and ends by examining similar effects created by the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Along the way we detour into early Christian religious practice, Roman law, the beginning of the universe, how order can appear from chaos, and the genesis of life on Earth.

Or are they detours? One thing interesting about this book is the way Pellegrino seems to veer off into an unrelated tangent, only to return to his subject from an unexpected but nevertheless enlightening direction.

The surge cloud is a first cousin to the pyroclastic flow, another nasty eruption byproduct. The flow is generally mud, lava, and other items we think of as causing destruction. Surge clouds are generally air, though air heavily laden with crushed rock, and in the case of the volcano, usually superheated. This combination produces something that moves much like a fluid. What happens is that the superheated air, full of crushed rock from the eruption starts out moving up, but at some point the balance of forces (heat + the vocanic upthrust) is insufficient to overcome gravity, and the cloud "falls" down to earth, flowing over the land and reaking havoc.

But a sometimes an unpredictable sort of havoc. In some houses, foot-thick wooden supports were turned to charcoal while only a few feet away wax seals were completely undisturbed. Massive pillars are thrown down and hurled hundreds of feet from their starting position, while plates set for an afternoon lunch remain in place until uncovered centuries later by archeologists, with their contents still arrayed in Martha Stewart-like artfulness. Pellegrino expertly weaves modern-day forensic investigation and scientific speculation with contemporary accounts of the eruption from Pliny the Younger.

I have two complaints. The first is that Pellegrino seems to name-drop shamelessly. Arthur Clarke, Stephen Gould, Hawking and others make their appearances. Perhaps its a matter of style; quotes from these people would not seem out of place in a book of this type normally, but since Pellegrino writes is as his experiences, not just as what happened, it makes the narrative much more personal. Generally, this is fine, except when naming all these notables.

The second complain is something a lot more troubling. Pellegrino refers to something he calls the "Byzantine terminal event", and suspects it to be a volcano. But accordiong to him, this event occurs in 535AD. The Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, didn't go anywhere after 535. There was a nasty plague in that general time frame, but the Empire survived and prospered, reaching its apogee of power somewere around the year 1000. And its not a misprint, unless the misprint occurs three or four times over the course of the book. I have a hard time seeing this as a minor flub; Pellegrino has been working and digging in the Mediteranean for years. Byzantine sites and history should be well known to him. Unless he is using some odd definition of Byzantine, its a baldly wrong statement troubling in an otherwise very entertaining and informative book. You cannot help but ask, is he a crank on this, is it just one of those things, or are there other problems in the data?

Still, as off-putting as these matters are, they are ultimately forgiveable, and seem to pale into insignificance next to Pellegrino's masterful and often moving account of the last moments of the Twin Towers, and of several of the police and fire crews who went there to try and save them. At times he waxes a bit spritual here, and occasionally sounds like he is toying with dropping his self-professed agnosticism.

Flaws and all, for its amazing blend of volcano science, historical detective work, and cutting edge physics, Ghosts of Vesuvius is well worth your time and money. Jammer-Bob sez check it out.

Monday, November 08, 2004


I had a nice long book review of Charle's Pellegrino's Ghosts of Vesuvius just waiting for a decent post-election interval, and I accidently deleted it. Oy. I'll try again in a day or two.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Post Election Thoughts 

Okay so the election is over. All the way over. Bush wins by around 3 points, with way more votes than anyone has gotten in some time. It was both precisely as close (Ohio) and yet not as close (popular vote) as I had thought. Please realize that I come not to gloat (for reasons that are my own but might surprise you) but just to do what I do, pontificate.

Reactions are pretty much predictable, from glee to bitterness, depending on how much you had invested in the election -- particularly the folks who felt it wouldn't be close. Post mortems on why things went they way they did are also for the most part predictable, from Diebold conspiracies to utter rejections of Left-Liberalism, both of which are a crock.

A big loser this time around is polling organizations, and the mainstream media, which as a tool of the left or right pretty much screwed the pooch over and over again. The CBS memo fiasco is only the most celebrated of many goofs.

A major downer for me has been the descent into hackdom of Josh Marshall. He started out as a calm but convicted liberal blogger and therefore often cogent critic of the right. He has has since devolved into a lesser-paid version of Paul Krugman, where a White House Statement that the sky is blue would result in a snarky comment to the effect that it can be purple at sunset and is usually black at night, and what idiots those people are not to acknowledge the fact. Consider this statement from his blog:

It would almost be comical if it weren't for the seriousness of what it portends. This election cut the nation in two. A single percentage point over 50% is not broad. A victory that carried no states in the Northeast, close to none in the Industrial midwest is not nationwide, and none on the west coast is not nationwide.

And yet he plans to use this narrow victory as though it were a broad mandate, starting right back with the same strategy that has already come near to tearing this country apart.

Wanna bet that had those three point gone Kerry's way, he would spin this election as a massive rebuke from coast to coast? Ya think? Of course, he wouldn't be the only one, and people from the right who try the reverse are missing the boat as well.

Another puzzler was the way Andrew Sullivan flipped from strong Bush supporter to completely dissing his every move. Andrew's shift came on the heels of Bush's support for the FMA, a perfectly legitimate criticism which I understood and defended and which Andrew spent way too much time trying to pretend was not the case. But the shift was not just partial, it was complete and total. It even led at one point to his rather ludicrously suggesting that the Democratic National Convention was channeling Reagan.

Anyway, wither the Democrats? An extremely bad day for them nationally, one presumes also locally outside of the blue states (though they did well in Colorado, which went big for Bush). They don't lack for people willing to give advice. Go more left. Go rightwards to the middle. Be unabashed hawks. Just nominate a center left southerner and not a northeastern liberal. Will Saletan provides us with one of those suggestions that reveals a bit more about Saletan's attitudes than it does the electorate by urging the Dems to "go simple".

Mark Hasty has some interesting things to say on the matter. I think he's got a good point about Dems needing to stop being so uncomfortable about religion, though I'd quibble (but not today -- this is long enough already).

I do not know what is best for the Democrats. I know what I'd like (I want both parties to agree with me) but who knows if that would win any elections. Being pro-war and pro-gay rights can be disconcerting to some folks. I do think there is no one silver bullet that will do the trick (aside from a super-charismatic candidate next time 'round). I also know that ludicrous bitterness isn't going to get it done.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Well, Here We Are 

Election day. After literally years of campaigning and hundreds of millions of dollars, things seem likely to come down to three or four guys from Ohio trying to decide if they should make it to the booth or have another beer, despite claims from both camps that they expect to win big (big in this case meaning they get over 300 EV's and a 5% popular vote differential). What hath God wrought?

We've had accusations of fraud from the Right, of suppression from the Left, and plenty of generic disgust from the middle. You go, Jon Stewart, even though you're probably voting straight Democrat.

I recall a friend of mine, back when Clinton was elected. I said I hoped he'd be a good President. He hoped Clinton would suck. I reckon that for a lot of the loudest people, that is more or less what they hope as well. Not that they want anything bad to happen to America (well, maybe the The Nation, IndyMedia, and Lew Rockewell types -- their vision for America doesn't exactly mesh with the mainstream --feel free to insert your crazy right-wingers here), they just want their political opponents to have to eat rocks.

I confess, I'd like to see my political opponents (note that word, opponents, not enemies) eat rocks too, but I'd rather not blow up the country to do it.

I may try to read the tea leaves post-election, but it seems to me that neither party is poised to jump off a cliff, barring a truly unseen tsunami of support for one of the candidates. Sure there, will be infighting and recriminations, but both sides look to have enough inertia to keep themselves cohesive in defeat, more's the pity. Oddly, it seems to me that victory may be more divisive for the parties' respective coalitions than defeat. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Allow me to leave you with a cheery thought: No matter how long the count takes, the 2008 Presidential Campaign starts tomorrow.


Meant to add this earlier. Despite the fact that all polls are within a few points of each other, that they mostly show only 1-3% leads for the candidates, and the fact that they all have error margins of 3-5%, do you want to bet that a decisive (3-5%) win by either candidate will be spun as prima facie evidence that the vote was rigged somehow?

God, I hope there's not one closely won state that could prove the difference like Florida did in 2000.

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