Saturday, December 22, 2012

Not All Private Voices Presage Madness

Some people's inner voices are smarter and more eloquent than others...

Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination by Daniel B. Smith is a brisk and compelling read.  Smith has a gift for making an ancient story current and a complex story accessible.  There's more to say on this but I'm behind schedule on a couple things...


Prayers to Broken Stones

Winter solstice is darker and more desperate this year...


The great stones stacked by our Neolithic ancestors mark the moment.  Death presses hard upon us.  The bereft wrestle with theodicy, faces numb and streaked with tears.  The sun returns but offers little warmth.  Prayers go unanswered.  The cosmos unfolds faster than light.  We scarcely notice.

The phrase, prayers to broken stones, comes from the title of a fine and sad anthology of fiction and horror by Dan Simmons.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Oh, Is That All?

I'm sorry, but a team of commandos in every school is not going to be one of the answers...

As a nation we are all reeling from the horror of Sandy Hook.  Even before we understand precisely what happened and why, we are flailing around for the means to reduce our fear of future attacks.  A company called Chameleon Associates posted an article titled, Countermeasures against School Shootings.  Some of their ten countermeasures are thought-provoking and bear further consideration, but number eight is typical of a very popular notion we've been hearing since last Friday.

“Have armed response capabilities – Having an armed security guard on premises does not mean you have “armed response capabilities”. Most armed guards are neither trained nor experienced with tactical response to an active shooter scenario. The armed security guards must be trained in: instinctive shooting, when-to-shoot scenarios, when to stop shooting or chasing, shooting through a face-forward crowd, hand-to-hand combat, aggressiveness training and more. The shooting technique for the guard must be based on an instinctive reaction where he does not need to think, only react and attack the shooter fully neutralizing him as soon as possible. He should not call for backups (someone else will.) He should not take cover (this allows the shooter to be in control.) He should not stop to treat or evacuate the wounded (someone else will.) The guard must know how to shoot while moving fast, forcing the adversary to defend himself. This type of shooting and response requires A LOT of training to the point where the guard’s response is completely instinctive.”

Oh, is that all? Most cops aren’t trained to this level; just ask the nine wounded bystanders at the Empire State Building shooting this year. I wonder what recruiting, screening, selecting, training, equipping, insuring, maintaining, providing time off, and supervising a person at this level would cost each year. How many of these shooters does Chameleon Associates recommend per school to provide sufficient counter-force for one attacker?  How many for two?  On these details they are silent.

Posting heavily armed and armored Navy SEALS in every school in America is certainly a comforting fantasy as we recover from the horror of Sandy Hook, but at some point we'll have to reclaim all our senses and find solutions we can sustain in the real world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not The Time For Numbers

The statistics that tell us mass murder and school shootings are rare offer very little comfort this weekend...

Along with the rest of our nation I'm numbed by the unspeakable tragedy that devastated the community of Newtown, Connecticut, Friday morning.  For now we'll mourn for murdered children and grieve with their families.  We'll take great pride and small comfort in the knowledge that several adults at the school died rushing the gunman in an unsuccessful attempt to stop him with their bare hands.  In time we'll learn more about the nature of the shooter's brutal derangement; knowledge that will come much too late for the 26 victims, their families, and their community.

Already there are pleas for more gun control - and less gun control - from each end of that debate.  Some plead for another assault weapons ban, while others ask that teachers and other adults be allowed to carry concealed handguns in school.  Ironically, while they go about it in different ways, people on either side of this culture war issue seek to create a sense of safety and control in the face of fear and uncertainty.

While this debate is likely to rage on for some time, there is one idea upon which I hope all parties can agree and then do something about today:

Persons suffering from psychotic delusions or personality disorders that make them a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms. 

This is not a blanket indictment of the mentally ill.  Most mentally ill persons are at greater risk of being the victim of a crime than they are to commit one.  However, while very few persons with mental health problems or personality disorders commit mass murder, almost all persons who commit mass murder (other than criminal massacres, go figure) have a serious mental illness or suffer from a dangerous personality disorder.

Under federal regulation and state laws persons with serious mental health or drug abuse issues are not allowed to purchase firearms.  Persons named in protective orders are not allowed to buy guns and they are also supposed to surrender any they possess.  These details are supposed to be verified before a firearm purchase is permitted, but dangerous people can and do defeat these safeguards.  Regrettably, the madmen who killed 32 at Virginia Tech, six in the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords, and 12 in Aurora, Colorado bought their weapons while they could still color inside the lines.

Preliminary reports tell us the three guns used by the shooter in Newtown belonged to his mother and that he used one to kill her before leaving their home.  It's not my place to question her decision to own firearms, but I question her judgment in allowing her disturbed son access to them.  She would too, if she were still alive.  The rifle used to kill two and wound another at the Clackamas Town Center Mall was stolen from its owner by the shooter.  The AR-15 is a lawful implement with a variety of legitimate applications, but I question the owner's storage precautions.  I imagine he will too, for the rest of his life.  How might our world be different today if the guns used to commit these recent horrors had been locked away behind the armored door of a gun safe?

What about you, your family, and your friends?  Do you own firearms?  Do you know anyone who does?  What have you done to prevent these powerful tools from falling into the wrong hands and being used to perpetrate evil?  Do you have a sturdy safe in which to protect your guns from theft, misuse, and tragedy?  If you keep a pistol for personal defense do you store it in a lock box only you can open?  If you're an anti-gunner, instead of arguing with your gun-owning friends and relatives about the need for new gun laws, how about convincing them to buy a gun safe instead?  If you're a fervent proponent of the right to keep and bear arms, instead of rushing out to buy another assault rifle before the next gun ban, how about using the money to buy a safe large enough to secure all the guns you already own?  Think on it.  It's something every one of us can do without giving up an inch from our respective positions on the gun rights issue.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Or decontextualized?

There I was trying to decide between Schneier's Liars and Outliers or Bultmann's Kerygma and Myth for some late night bedtime reading when I defaulted to NetFlix.

I watched Battleship Potempkin for the first time.  The scene on the Odessa steps was pretty powerful - nothing says czarist repression like jackboots, bayonets, and live ammo crowd control, but otherwise it was not even remotely so awesome as its reputation led me to believe.  Subtlety was certainly not a option on Eisenstein's palette, but The Ebert tells us that was a deliberate element of his method.  Maybe you had to be there, or maybe it needs to be the first movie you ever saw, or maybe it would rouse you to action if you were actually a member of the proletariat?  I'm probably just некультурный.

I know, I know; I should have gone with the Bultmann...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Atheist Is Probably Right

But Homo Religiosus has all the fun...

Me, I find indulging my agnosticism - by way of a deep interest in the history and philosophy of religion - more interesting that being an angry anti-theist.  In that pursuit I am indebted to historians, philosophers, psychologists, and theologians of the 20th century.  Useful guides in this territory have included Tillich, Otto, James, Jung, Campbell, and several times now, Eliade

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion is the most accessible of the several books by Mircea Eliade that I've read. History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, was pretty dense. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was a bit of a slog.  Were you to read only one book by Eliade The Sacred and the Profane is the one I'd recommend, at least until I've read more of him.

Unlike the Angries who think religion should be simply and finally dispensed with by modern societies, Eliade (and the others) explain that some sort of religion is all but inevitable.  The religious impulse is hard-wired into how we perceive the world and interact with each other.  We've likely had religion for as long as we've had speech, music, and art; it may even spring from same nexus of traits that made us finally fully human.  What humanity has done with - and proposes to do with - this drive is as significant today as it was 2,000 or 20,000 years ago.  Religion is not going away, if anything the most dangerous sorts of it are resurgent.  Understanding religion and sort of certainty that leads to life-changing (or life-ending) dogma, doctrine, and action is more important than ever.

If the study of religion is your thing you've probably already read The Sacred and the Profane, but if you haven't, you should. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Discovering the Alien in Us

Deep thoughts, passionate characters, and a thrilling story, skillfully wrought…

Embassytown, by China Miéville, won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.  It was also nominated for the Arthur C. ClarkeAward, Nebula Award for Best Novel, and Hugo Award for Best Novel. 

While Embassytown can be read as a subversively creative science fiction story, it works on a variety of levels, addressing addiction, allegory, American adventurism in the 21st century, apocalypse, armed rebellion in colonial states, civil war, the excesses of revolutionary movements, human perception, ineffable experience, mans' inhumanity, Marxism, metaphor, philosophy, post-WWII liberation movements, the role of language in cognition, simile, social justice, Taliban brutality, transhumanism, Western imperialism in China in the 19th century, and what it means to be truly alien.

evokes familiar and not so familiar images and concepts from literature, art, and politics as varied as Alien, cyberpunk, Dune, H.R. Giger, Homage to Catalonia, Lord of the Rings, Machiavelli, Marx, and Starship Troopers.

This is the sort of novel one reads and then seeks out the company of friends, compatriots, and literate strangers with whom to tease out and argue over all the book's many ideas while drinking through long beer lists and eating too many peanuts.  My appointment for just such an ethanol and sodium-fueled recapitulation is this Friday.

If you love science fiction or fine writing read Embassytown.   It's both.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Foreign and domestic...

When America fails to abide by its laws, respect its Constitution, and live up to its ideals and aspirations it usually does so in a big way.  Our internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was one of those failures.  In my youth I knew the Matsuura family.  Mr. and Mrs. met in the camps and both enlisted to serve the war effort.  After the war they took up a new life together, their former existence forever interrupted by this ugly spasm of institutionalized xenophobia, racism, and bigotry.  They seemed sad about the internment but not bitter.  In their lived response to this injustice they were better Americans than those who imprisoned them, and those who stood by and watched...

Tip of the hat to Christopher Bellavita at Homeland Security Watch for posting an article that reminded me of childhood friends and stories of bravery and resolve.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

e-Books On iPhones...Just Say No

It's like reading a novel written on a pad of Post-It notes.  

I signed up for a GoodReads giveaway for Freedom Club.  I didn't win the drawing, but was pleased and surprised to receive an email from the author Saul Garnell, who offered me an e-book download with his compliments.

Freedom Club takes its name from the writings of the PhD, madman, and domestic terrorist Theodore Kaczynski, who killed three people and maimed dozens more during his malignant reign of terror as the UnabomberGarnell does an interesting job of folding Kaczynski's madness into the plot.  In fact he makes frequent digressions into the history of a variety of deep (and - in the case of Kaczynski - evil) thinkers.

Cleverly plotted, Freedom Club features a variety of engaging characters and a story that is a plausible extrapolation of current social and technological trends.  Along the way we are treated to some moral ambiguity and and several very effective action scenes.  Garnell's writing reminds more than a little of early Neal Stephenson.

I did Saul's novel a serious disservice by reading it on my iPhone where this science fiction novel's 416 densely written pages were magically expanded to 1985 virtual snippets, each only a paragraph or two in length.  The format leaves much to be desired.

My next Garnell e-book is Eat Fish and Die, for which I must find a method to read in a full-size or at least paperback-sized format.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What's Not To Like?

Rats, Lice, and History, by Hans Zinsser, is a hoot!

Hans Zinsser - physician, scientist, war hero, and author - wrote a book in 1934, which he titled, with mock yet informative

Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, which, after Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever

Also known, at various stages of its Adventurous Career, as Morbus pulicaris (Cardanus, 1545); Tabardiglio y puntos (De Toro, 1574); Pintas; Febris purpurea epidemica (Coyttarus, 1578); Febris quam lenticulas vel punticulas vocant (Fracastorious, 1546); Morbus hungaricus; La Poupre; Pipercorn; Febris petechialis vera; Febris maligna pestilens; Febris putrida et maligna; Typhus carcerorum; Jayl Fever; Fievre des hospitaux; Pestis bellica; Morbus castrensis; Famine Fever; Irish Ague; Typhus exanthematicus; Faulfieber; Hauptkrankheit; Pestartige Braune; Exanthematishces Nervenfieber, and so forth, and so forth.
Any popular book on natural history that starts by skewering the news media, the literary establish, and social convention is going to be great fun to read.   Before engaging his topic he takes much time to explain the philosophy of science, the history of epidemiology, and microbiology as it was understood at the time.  Awarded many honors for his brave and selfless service as a military doctor working in the trenches of WWI, Zinsser makes much of the impact typhus and other diseases have had on military campaigns across history.  Throughout this informative book's text, footnotes, chapter subtitles,and myriad discursions, Zinsser applies wickedly pointed turns of phrase to criticize political fashions, military misadventure, and cultural norms.  This classic was well-received in its day and is still regarded as an important treatise.  Rats, Lice, and History should be read by anyone who is interested in history, biology, or literature.