Friday, April 22, 2016

There's no future in England's dreaming...

This caught my eye over at Nancy's place:


Just for the record, I have no particular problem with the idea of a "constitutional monarchy". It seems to me that modern Britons have no fewer "freedoms" as "subjects" than modern Americans have as "citizens" which, for those people in my social milieu and income bracket, are largely the freedom to starve and sleep under bridges once their jobs are offshored or eliminated.

No, the interesting thing to me about this is the degree to which this picture - deliberately, I'm sure - could just as easily be Fildes or Sargent or, for that matter, Gainsborough or Reynolds. Nancy observed that the benefit of Diana Spencer's death prior to the photograph is that the People's Princess lacked the goofiness to fit into this little royal family portrait.

And it is pretty goofy, but I think it's a very peculiar quality of goofy that has nothing to do with Diana's own astrologist-and-aromatherapist-and skeevy-lover sort of goofy.

The goofy here is the Classic Old School British Goofy, composed equally of exaggerated self-worth, lack of introspection, hauteur, and noblesse oblige, the Stuff of Empire Goofy that doesn’t see any humor in pretending that it’s still 1894.

Diana had her own massive Goofy but it was a thoroughly New Age Goofy incomprehensible to the stodgy House of Grammy Windsor. The Goofy on display here is a Goofy of centuries of "breeding", a sort of stud book of Goofy that values humans for their lineage rather than their accomplishments.

Sad when you consider that the clan threw out the perfectly good surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, too. Sigh.

The idea of keeping a nice old granny around out of pure nostalgia is hardly worse, say, than the idea of Donnie Trump or Ted Cruz as Chief Executive of a nuclear superpower. But as government it's a very, very peculiarly goofy idea, an idea the presumes that the worth of one person or a small group of people is higher than the worth of many.

(Mind you, our own "system" that purports to exalt the worth of the many over any individual is kind of odd, too...)

But the only real issue I have with the British system is that it really only works if you can pretend that it's still 1894 and the King or Queen actually matters. It's kind of like spending a fairly sizeable chunk of cash to keep a long-running reality show on television and then insisting that everyone pretend that that's really important.

So I used to get a chuckle out of the ridiculous royal pantomime across the Pond, thinking that We the People had, at least, nothing equally ridiculous.

Then, of course, this Republican primary came along.


And now I feel kind of like that stone parrot, the one on the bottom that's clearly getting its psittacene conge' in the form that The Donald plainly intends for his own daughter and God help me how I wish I could scrub that image out of my brain.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Khalsa shall rule!


"In a decision by the U.S. Army Thursday, Capt. Simratpal Singh, a decorated Sikh-American officer and combat veteran, has received a long-term religious accommodation to serve with long hair, a beard, and turban in accordance with his Sikh faith."

But the turban has to be digital camo, I see.

Interesting, in that given the Sikh tradition of military service and the U.S. Army's need for warm bodies I'd have thought this one would be pretty much a slam dunk a long time ago.

But, then again, peacetime armies tend to be kinda anal about uniform regulations. Frankly, I'd have loved to see AR 670-1 updated to include something like this as Sikh dress blue headgear:


Ain't gonna happen, sadly. My Army just doesn't have the passion for fashion. Sigh.

Anyway, consider this an open thread about the minutiae of military dress.

3 decembre 1627


...is the date on the fictional lettre de cachet that Dumas' Richelieu gives his agent, a get-out-of-jail-free card that authorizes any sort of skulduggery for "the good of the State".

It's that sort of secret lawlessness that has always been considered the hallmark of despots and autocrats. In theory, at least, We the People of the United States have always insisted that that sort of extralegal business is off-limits. That's the theory.

In fact, and especially since 2001, we've been playing a dangerous game with these things under the name "National Security Letters" or NSLs.

The misuse of these imperial orders has been somewhat downplayed in the past several years but it seems that the secret snooping continues, most recently at the website Reddit, which must have received one some time during 2015.

That got me thinking about these things.

An interview at the website boingboing contains what I consider a telling statement:
"After I sued the Department of Justice over the constitutionality of NSL's in 2004, the DoJ's inspector general released a report detailing FBI's use of NSLs. In that report they looked at the years 2003-2006 if I recall correctly. And in that time period, the FBI had issued something like 192,000 NSLs. If you do some quick math, that's getting close to one NSL per 1000 Americans. And FBI has continued to issue 10's of thousands of NSLs every year since."
Why telling?

Because there's a military saying; who attempts to be strong everywhere is strong nowhere. Nearly 60,000 of these things a year? 200 a day? That's nuts. There's no possible way that any intelligence analyst could spend enough time to extract any value from that mass of raw data, let alone draw together the connections between the disparate pieces of a threatening covert operation.

This bluing the landscape with these fucking secret letters? It's worse than a crime; it's a mistake. There's no possible way to process that much raw intel, and the intelligence agencies must be wasting a ridiculously huge number of manhours trying.

But it's also a damn crime, because (as I wrote five years ago);
"We cannot know if the lettre de...excuse me, the "national security letter" has been misused...because those against whom it has been used cannot speak of their misuse, and if they attempt to do so they will find themselves in another modernization of Bourbon justice, the Chateau d'If of the "secret prison".

Can you imagine a United States with "secret prisons"? With nameless prisoners, latter-day Monte Cristos but in their orange jumpsuits and hoods? With secret letters demanding secret interrogations, carried on in secret and then buried below further layers of secrecy, lowered into a well a midnight, never to be known?

Is this the United States we pledged allegiance to as children? And if not, why not? Because of some raggedy Islamic fantasists plotting in some dumpy motel in Lahore?"
Given all the other panics we've been pummeled with this sneaky spying may seem trivial, but I'd argue that this - more than Muslims, more than immigration, more than Mexican rapists, more than terrorism - is how a republic dies, when it's supposed-civil-servants can carry out any act and, when questioned, present the questioner with:

"It is by my order and for the good of the state that the bearer of this has done what he has done."

Monday, April 04, 2016

Shoeless Ruminations


This post germinated from a couple of seeds.

First, my own body. Because although my surgeon got me a lot of leg length back he didn't get me everything. I'm still about 3/8 to 1/2 inch shorter on the right side than the left. Meaning? That walking barefoot for any distance is fairly hard on me and, in practice, means that I can't go barefoot other than for short distances indoors.

And, second, an article in the World's Worst Newspaper advocating going barefoot as much as possible. I've tried to find it on the paper's website but it seems to have disappeared.

But the gist of it was a local mom (or dad) advocating for kids' playing barefoot as much as possible in the form of an anecdote about her/his kids shucking shoes-and-socks and the shocked reaction of the other parents at the playground.

Note that this is entirely expected here, where a substantial proportion of us embrace every "natural" and "paleo" and "organic" and "local" and whatever-isn't-whitebread-and-mainstream thing you can imagine. Raw milk, antiflouridation, tattoos, kids going naked until puberty, hipster this and hipster that...the people they make fun of on Portlandia? Yeah, that's kind of us. A lot of us, anyway.

Portland, BTW, is very much a Skinnerbox for that particular subset of barefoot enthusiasts, the barefoot runner. Despite our nasty cold, wet winters and our urban setting we have a fairly large number of people out pounding the pavement (or the trail) sans shoes and, often, railing against the shoes as the worst thing to happen to feet since the ingrown toenail.

So I wasn't surprised that Oregon's Newspaper would print something like this. What surprised me was my instinctive reaction to it; that the author made a case that was only effective prima facie, and that there were a lot of potential problems she didn't address.

So do I think that walking around barefoot is a bad idea? Hell, no. I'd love to be able to walk barefoot again. Like running (and playing soccer, and squash, and about a gajillion other things) I am now unable to do that, but I like to kick my shoes off as much as anyone.

At the same time, as a medic, and as someone who has seen something of the lesser-paved parts of the world, and has studied a little history, I also have a certain ambivalence to the notion of the average Portlander (or the average person in an industrial-Western-culture-type society) wandering around barefoot.

For one thing, we're not born to it. Aboriginal cultures that live their lives barefoot typically have a thick layer of callus on their soles that act as form of sandal; most of us don't have that nor do we have the years of ambling about skyclad from the ankle down to develop it.

For another, our industrial landscape is not friendly to bare feet. Pavement is unforgiving and the sort of litter we produce includes some really nasty dangers; metal, glass, plastic, and half a dozen other sorts of objects that will rip the hell out of even the toughest sole.

Another is the sort of historical amnesia you tend to see when antivaccination quacks turn up. Sorry, barefooters, but that's the comparison that comes to mind; you guys just seem very blithe about some very nasty diseases that love to attack your bare feet. It's been so long since most of us had to live barefoot that we tend to forget the hookworm, strongyloidiasis, and cutaneous larva migrans that were fairly common hazards for people before the widespread adoption of shoes.

And people DID widely adopt shoes, long before the coercive power of advertising made having this or that possession the key to coolness and riches and power and getting laid a lot. The Fort Rock people made themselves sandals damn near 10,000 years ago.

Even without the hammering feet take on pavement or the risk of picking up a nasty parasite the universal hazard of stones, thorns, even things like the sharp edges of dry leaves are damn hard on the foot. You could see why as soon as they can people would try and come up with some sort of gimmick to protect their feet.

So I guess that while I'm not completely hating the notion of floating about bare-toed I'm not sure that the idea is right up there with not getting involved in a land war in Asia as a no-brainer.

So, anyway, I'm curious; anybody else got any thoughts on this barefoot thing? Any particular insight or ideas on this? In your opinion is the Oregonian writer spot-on on the wonder of leaping about shoeless, completely off-balance, or is this more a case of being largely where I am; not utterly agin it but with a lot of reservations..?

Just random musing for a Monday...

Friday, April 01, 2016

Down and Out in Schofield Barracks

A friend of mine put this up on her Facebook feed with the observation "This is a good point":


I see some variation of this stuff from time to time and usually just snort and move on. I have no idea why it pissed me off so much this time. Maybe it's that the Portland coppers are in the process of chasing our local homeless people out from under the Steel Bridge, one more round in the endless "We aren't willing to spend money to try and figure out a solution but we're fine with spending money to kick the problem-can down the road again" game we play here in the Land of the Free to Steal Bread and Sleep Under Bridges.

Maybe it was reading Jim Wright's terrific column discussing the whole nonsensical yet fucking insanely irritating obsession of the roughly-one-third-of-my-fellow-citizens who think of all taxes as theft...unless they're going to pay for killing people and breaking shit in which case, hooah!, America, fuck yeah!

But whatever the reason, it really, really pissed me off.

First, because it's a straight-out, brass-faced, fell-off-the-back-of-the-crapwagon bullshit lie.

Because the poor sad little broke GI or Marine (I add "Marine" because that the person that originally posted this thing has some sort of "jarhead 4 jarhead" header) doesn't "just" get paid $8.85 an hour.

Snuffy and Chesty also get free medical and dental care, free housing, and free meals. That's huge. Like, tens of thousands of dollars a year huge. and that's not all.

The poor little fellow's work clothes are paid for. He walks to work, so he doesn't have to have pay for a car, or gas, or insurance unless he wants to. He gets two weeks paid vacation a year and can spend it paying Motel 6 rates at Fort DeRussey at Waikiki Beach of he wants to fly there. And she doesn't even have to pay more then ten bucks for her vacation travel, either, if she flies space-A, a privilege kinda out of reach of Burger McFlipperson.

Poor little underpaid Joe and Molly are also working towards a guaranteed 50% base pay retirement after only 20 years service (meaning an 18-year-old private is only 38 at retirement) when he or she gets a huge veterans preferment for almost every civil service job.

If he makes 30 years he gets 75% of what is a pretty sweet top-three-grade pay and allowances.

Not to mention the fact that most American troops aren't ragged dog faces out in the tules, but truck drivers, IT techs, wing wipers and sailors who sleep in a bed and go to work in an office.

Plus everybody thanks his GI and Marine ass for their "freedoms" even though the last time an American soldier killed anyone for "freedom" was in 1945.

And second and last, this little screed pisses me off as a sad attempt to belittle the working poor, who have it way worse than 99% of the folks who wear a uniform, and that's coming from someone who wore one for 22 years.

This goes back to Jim's point about the nonsensical notion that paying taxes for tanks and aircraft carriers is a "public good" but paying taxes to help prevent a critical mass of your fellow citizens living in poverty and sickness and ignorance isn't. That somehow nations with lots of weapons are "healthy" and "strong"" even though they may be riven with social dysfunction from fostering a permanent underclass and a poorly educated, unhealthy, credulous citizenry.

That's nonsense, of course. Not that I'd expect a "conservative" to see that. But nonsense all the same.

Hey, I love GIs, too. But a lot of those GIs are gonna get out and find that they're going to have to try and make ends meet flipping burgers or making beds or stocking shelves and trying to do that while paying for their food and clothing and rent and aspirins, so being a dick about how poor people should be poor? That's...well, that's just being a dick.

So. As far as I can see the only "good point" this damn screed makes is the one that every GI figured out long ago;

If you crossbreed a "conservative" with a gorilla what you get you get is a retarded gorilla.

Ha! And you thought I was going to make that joke about Marines, didn't you.

April Fool.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Love Means Never Having To Say "Wha...the hell? Gah! Get OFF me!!!"

One thing that often gets pushed aside during post-op recovery is marital...ummm..."personal time".

That, in turn, leads to inappropriate behavior as demonstrated at bedtime last night.

The Bride (already halfway towards unconsciousness): "Mmmm...can you nudge me tomorrow morning? I don't want to sleep through my alarm."

Me: "Nudge? Hell, I can do better than that. I can remove my garments and lie on top of you writhing with lascivious abandon."

Bride: (opening one eye): "Gah. Okay. I don't promise anything like 'enthusiasm', you understand." (Mojo is whatever you'd call the complete and utter polar opposite of "morning person"...)

Me: "I'm okay with that. 'Acquiescence' will do just fine."

Bride (snorts sleepily): "Mmmmhmm."

Me: "In fact, I can pretty much work with anything right up to 'violent resistance'".

Bride: "You need to go to sleep, Romeo."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Life is Life: A Master Chief story

When my father was dying last spring several of you asked me to tell you something more about him. I don't know...yes, I do know why that occurred to me this morning; a friend of mine just lost her mother and I thought back to losing my father.

So. You recall that I told you that my father the Master Chief was a proudly intellectual man, an engineer, with an engineer's dislike of obfuscation and insistence on precision in both word and deed. That made him something of an uncomfortable man to be around; he was perfectly capable of the sorts of small evasions and elisions that we use to lubricate our interactions with others, but one could never be sure if, or when, he might simply state an unpalatable truth. Not rudely, perhaps, or as a weapon of social combat, but simply as he saw it.

I'm not sure when this was - probably some time in the early Seventies when I was between puberty and young adulthood and full of the sort of rudely anxious certainty that seems to come with our early teens - but I was holding forth at dinner on the unfair requirement that I perform certain chores during the long summer vacation, in that that vacation time was itself limited and the requirement to put my own entertainment on hold even further seemed grossly burdensome, a needless reduction of my already-painfully-short free time. The Master Chief listened to this gravely, and nodded, and replied:

"Well, yes, but you still have more free time than you will ever have again in your life. After your school days are over you will never have this much freedom again. Not just less but much less. You'll probably never have more than two weeks vacation the rest of your life. You'll work at your job that means five days a week or more, no spring breaks, no summer vacation, no half-days, no two weeks a Christmas. Just work and two weeks a year."

This seemed appallingly, punitively unfair, and I said so. Was that it? School and work, work and school, endlessly and forever with only the thinnest of hopes of a rest? What was the point, then? What was the end? When did it stop?

"Once you're older, perhaps, if you've planned and worked carefully, there might be a "retirement" when you will have all the free time you could hope for." he noted. I wailed that this seemed even worse; the only hope for freedom was to hope to be to ancient to enjoy it. What hope then?

"Well, then you die." was his conclusion. Dinner done, he retired to his chair to smoke a pipe and mark up the paperwork he'd brought home with him.

My mother was horrified; "Jack!" she exclaimed, and hurried to reassure me that life wasn't that bleak. But I think that my father was well satisfied to remind me, hedonistic youth of the hothouse hedonism of the Seventies and the relative wealth that his work had brought us, that at bottom what mattered was living up to your promises, taking satisfaction from work and life well-done, and dying without regrets, without leaving your works unfinished.

And that was my father, or at least a part of him.

John L. "Jack" Lawes Jr. 1927-2015

Friday, March 25, 2016

Battles Long Ago: Tollense Crossing 1200 BCE

Not really one of my usual "battles" pieces, but I came across this and found it truly fascinating.

The short version is that at some time around 1200 BCE some sort of combat took place along the bank of the Tollense River on the north German plain.

The Tollense valley is glacial and about half a kilometer wide. At the time of the fight it was getting increasingly marshy as Holocene post-glacial sea level rise lifted the level of the Baltic and inundated the plain.

In Bronze Age times the streambed was broad, and flat, and probably studded with alder and birch.

The surrounding forests were dominated by oak, ash, lime, and elm. Jantzen et al (2010) says that "The Bronze Age environment can be described as a partly open landscape that showed limited human impact. However, flax, barley, oat and wheat pollen indicate some farming activities (nearby)".

We don't know who the combatants were who met in the Tollense valley in that year near 1200 BCE, or why they fought, of what the outcome was. The most common explanation is some sort of pitched battle between warbands:
"About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. (T)his was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten."
This is not the only explanation and, frankly, is hard to square with the presence of elderly and infant remains among the dead.
Another possibility is that this was a crime rather than a war; robbery on a massive scale as a raiding party bushwhacked a merchant party and its armed guards:
"A Silesian caravan transporting large quantities of tin and other metals was moving...along the Tollense river...protected by armed guard which consisted of both horsemen and infantrymen. The caravan was attacked by a gang or even a small...army which probably came from the north west, probably from the Jutland peninsula or even further north. These people were armed with more primitive weapons, arrows with flint arrowheads, wooden spears and wooden clubs. Denmark and Sweden have huge flint deposits so it is quite possible that the attackers came from there.

The attackers...launched a surprise attack from the forest which surrounded the river. They first pelted the caravan with arrows, targeting the mounted soldiers first. This is why we have dead people mixed with dead horses. Remember the clustered bronze arrowheads mixed with human and horse bones? Were they the arrows which the horsemen never got to take out of their quivers? I believe that the arrows with the bronze arrowheads were fired by mounted archers. The proof for that is the bronze arrowhead which was found embedded in a skull. This arrowhead could only have been fired from a position above the head, which would indicate that the archer was on a horseback.
Also the flint arrowhead which was found embedded in a humerus (upper arm) bone is embedded under such angle that the shot must have come from below, meaning that the arrow was fired by a foot soldier shooting a mounted warrior.

(After the exchange of bowfire) the frontal assault ensued which resulted in hand to hand battle. It is most probable that the attackers won. The number of dead would suggest that this is what happened. The attackers killed all the people from the caravan, collected all the metal, metal armor and weapons and other valuables and remaining pack animals and returned back to wherever they came from. They left all the dead Silesians where they fell."
This interpretation is in the minority. The bulk of the scholarship gleaned from the Tollense concludes that this was the clash of arms; feuding tribes, or even more - the assembled warbands of a local king, perhaps, or remnant of a mass migration produced by the stress of changing climate. The women and children? Camp-followers; Bronze Age logistical support elements.
Jantzen et al (2010) conclude that this battle that may have taken days or possibly even weeks:
"The number of individuals (~100) so far identified from the Tollense Valley, who were probably killed during a conflict over some days or weeks, is on a larger scale than earlier examples for potential violence (see Thrane 2006: 278). It is unclear whether we are dealing with professional warriors. Some women and children are also present in the sample; according to ethnographic data they could have supported the men in fighting, for example by organising food or by carrying weapons (Keeley 1996: 35). The considerable number of individuals involved does not support the scenario of a small-scale conflict of local farmers or small war bands (Osgood 2006). Some bronze pins of Silesian types (Ulrich 2008) found in the Tollense Valley indicate close contacts with this region (~400km) to the south-east. First results of δ13C and 15N analysis of the human remains indicate millet to be part of the diet, which is uncommon during the Early Bronze Age in northern Germany, and might suggest invaders from the south."
Or the the travelers were from the south and the invaders were from the north...how could one tell from the bare bones and metal and stone? The answer is that we can't.
No, we will never know the answers. Never know the who, or the why. Those are as lost to us as are the people who fought and died along the Tollense all those thousands of years ago.

Which, in its way, is a good reminder. That for all that we think of "history" as the great events, the memorable and the remembered, history is made up largely of people like you and me, living ordinary lives and dying ordinary deaths and being forgotten, leaving nothing behind us but our bones.

Variations on a Local Food Theme

This is something called "Timbers Poutine":

It's served at one of the concession stands at the Civic - oh, sorry, "Providence Park" - and consists of a bed of waffle fries littered with bacon, cheddar cheese squares, and fried chicken breast bits all slathered with a brown gravy.

It's a sorta-kinda version of the original Quebecois version of the thing, which 86ed the bacon and chicken and included cheese curds rather than actual cheese. Poutine, BTW, is Quebec's contribution to the "local-specialty-kinda-junky-but-beloved-comfort-food" category, right up there with chili cheese fries and the monkey meat guy outside the Corozal PZ.

Interestingly enough, Portland is something of a hotbed of poutine, complete with a website devoted to Portland poutine and several local joints also serving this melange of the ridiculous and the sublime.

Frankly the Timbers' version is...well, it's belly-timber and not bad for a hungry pre-match feed. But the cheese-cheese isn't a good substitute for the cheese curds and the chicken is really superfluous, a doughy/bready distraction that adds nothing of its own. I've had it without the chicken and that improved the stuff but now that I've sampled it I'm jonesing for a taste more like the real thing.

But I got to thinking about this as I was looking for a good local poutine that Portland doesn't really have a "local specialty". Voodoo Donuts? Meh. Beers? Yeah, we've got a pantsload...but that's not food.

So if we did have a "Portland specialty food"...I wonder...what would it be?

Hmmm.

Friday Jukebox: Dirty Deeds Done Damn Spendy Edition



This is, apparently, a parody of some sort of Miley Cyrus song called "Party in the USA". I ran into the video at Frank Moraes' place and, like him, liked the goofy Cubist cartoon style. But, like him, I can see how this isn't exactly a purely-for-fun sort of thing.
"Party in the CIA" also bothers me
Frank says,
in that it is the kind of thing that people can take differently on the basis of their politics. I know that Yankovic is a liberal. But I also know a lot of authoritarians who would watch this video and come away with the idea that it would be totally great to be in the CIA and topple unfriendly governments. The truth is, in this song, Yankovic doesn't tip his hand. That's great for most subjects. Not for this.
Yep. Living as we are in the Age of Trump, where "terrorists" are people who kill people with cheap automatic weapons and homemade explosive belts but not people who kill people with silenced rifles or torture or air-launched cruise missiles...yeah. I can see the problem here.