Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Question of Will

It started out with a simple enough statement: "Abortion is not like ice cream." But that was, perhaps, where the simplicity ended. It was certainly long gone by the time the word "murder" entered the picture.

In a lot of ways the whole point behind the quip, "If you don't like abortions, don't have one," is that it's an assertion that while whether or not an abortion is a homicide is often debatable, in jurisdictions where the practice is allowed, when performed properly, it is not a murder. Murder is best taken as a legal term, not an ethical or religious one. And it's an important distinction to make. (This is, after all, one of the things that worries many secularists about the highly religious - the idea that given the chance, the faithful would force their beliefs on others by codifying them into law.) Because, when it really comes down to it, regardless of how distasteful an action may be, if it's not illegal - it's a choice. Pithy catchphrases are admittedly glib, but the reason that this particular one is so often used is that once you assume that the choice of which ethical or religious path one will chose from a number of options is a personal one, it's effect on the grand scheme of things is no more consequential. The same is not true of legality. I may choose to break the law, or I may not, but the very nature of the law means that this not merely a personal preference.

The Judeo-Christian/Moslem emphasis on the existence of an absolute truth and absolute obedience to the will of the divine is often at odds with a more secular understanding of the world - and even those of religious traditions that are less absolutist in nature. In the Bible, even in the new Testament, there is often a legalistic understanding of morality and ethics:

For whoever observes all the Law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.
The Letter of James 2:10
And this understanding has carried forward to the present. And this often creates friction for the same reasons that secular laws do - legalism doesn't care what one believes or thinks is legitimate or not. The Law is the Law. An action is either illegal or it isn't. It may be the work of weeks by an expert to determine which side of that line an action falls on, but it falls on one side or the other. It can be (imperfectly) analogized as a Boolean function - for any given action under a given unique set of circumstances, the question of whether or not it's legal must always be either "Yes," or "No." And this is precisely why legalism tends to lend itself to black and white thinking.

But once an action is determined to be legal, either because it's specifically allowed, or the law doesn't concern itself with it, under the law it's not much different from any other legal action, regardless of any other consequences that they may have. If I observe that my neighbor is in grave peril, the fact that United States law doesn't observe a generalized Duty to Rescue means that my choice of whether or not I decide to come to their aid is no more legally important than whether I have lemonade or white wine with dinner, even though from a moral and/or ethical standpoint determining whether or not another person lives or dies may be considered infinitely weightier than a beverage choice. It's possible to appeal to Natural Law, but until that earns a place in the criminal code, it's law in name only.

Given this, it's often difficult to talk about the choice of abortion in any other terms. If you don't believe that something is a "must not do," how else do you convey that, other than couching it in the language of choice? (There's a reason, other than simple euphemism, why it's called "pro-choice.") If you don't like abortions, then... what? What do you say to someone in that situation? What can be thought of as being both true to the idea that people should be allowed to decide for themselves and respectful of the idea that they shouldn't? (And vice-versa.) "If you are opposed to abortion, then they are not the right choice for you," sounds more formal, but is it really any different? As near as I can see, the sentiment is the same.

I don't know that there's ever a good way to bridge the chasm between absolutes and choices. Or the distrust that tends to fester in that abyss.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Untruths and Consequences


Yeah, it's "uplifting," but I doubt that it's real.
No, no... I get it, really I do, but can we please stop with the manufactured "tolerant-but-nameless-Pastor-with-a-message-of-love" garbage. Because there are plenty of churchmen (and women, for that matter) who have actually taken some very real (if somewhat small, in the grand scheme of things) risks to get out what they understand their deity's message is, and these sorts of fictionalized accounts, while they may make people feel good, don't give credit where credit really should be due.

I'm calling this particular monolog out as fictional because of the following:
Pastor: The bible doesn't say anything about the consequences of a homosexual lifestyle.
It doesn't?
And when a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman, both of them have done a detestable thing. They should be put to death without fail. Their own blood is upon them.
Leviticus 20:13 - Whatever translation of the Bible it is that my mother gave me.
I dunno... being executed sounds like a consequence to me. But I suppose that you could make the point that men having sex with men is different from "a homosexual lifestyle." After all, men in prison have sex with other men (given that there are no women around) and we don't consider them to be homosexual in orientation or lifestyle. But honestly, it seems like a stretch.

And as for the consequence for divorce having rocks thrown at the initiator - I couldn't find a passage that said as much. Granted, I'm not an expert on the Bible, or anything, but I suspect that even my Google-fu is strong enough that such a thing wouldn't stay hidden - there are a lot of people who would be invested in making sure that it saw the light of day. You can make the point that re-marriage after divorce is adultery, and adultery is punishable by stoning - but that's different than saying that divorce itself is punishable by stoning. Now this could be an actual transcript. But in that case, perhaps someone needs a new pastor. Of course, I could be wrong, and the passage is right under my nose... (Given a literal - or liberal - enough reading of the Old Testament, a good chunk of the population of the United States is due to be put to death any minute now. But even given that, the death penalty for divorceés seems like it would stand out.)

In any event, I don't think that Christian voices that teach tolerance on this issue are so few and far between that people need to make up new ones - especially not if it's too much work to do the research. Why not find the words of someone like the Reverend Oliver White on this subject? As someone who lost his church to foreclosure after his congregation abandoned him for speaking out in favor of marriage equality, wouldn't he have something to say that's just as compelling? And, more importantly, authentic?

P.S.: Oh, and by the way... that "couple of older males" thing? Yeah... that was laying it on just a smidgeon too thick. Next time, dial it back to "11," okay?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Know You

I'm always somewhere between amused, bemused and a bit worried when laypeople (not to mention prosecutors) express confidence in the reliability of eyewitness identification. But it's just as easy to get it wrong in others ways, too.

An article on wrongful convictions was relating research connected to 250 men exonerated by DNA evidence and noted, "Of the 250, 76% were misidentified by an eyewitness — most of the witnesses having been led to that act by police and/or prosecutor, some of them badgered and threatened, others merely manipulated."

And while that's a fairly damning indictment of prosecutorial use of eyewitness testimony, it presumes that absent some sort of outside influence, the witnesses may have been more accurate, or realized that they didn't recognize anyone. I'm not sure I agree with that.

There are two pictures attached to this post. One of them is of me, who most people wouldn't know from a hole in the ground. One of them is of Mike Pondsmith, who's fairly well-known in tabletop roleplaying gaming circles as the author of Mekton and Cyberpunk. Now, we're both black, we're both into gaming and we both live in the Seattle area - I've run into Mr. Pondsmith at a few random places in the vicinity, from the beachfront to the Tulip Festival.

Since here's the part where I admit to borrowing this picture from Wikipedia, you can probably guess who this is.

Not from Wikipedia.
But the first time I encountered him was at NorwesCon, which is a local Science-Fiction and Fantasy convention. I was walking down the hall when someone stopped me and said that my panel would be starting soon. I was just about to ask the guy what the Hell he was talking about when Mr. Pondsmith walked up, and the convention staffer (and I) realized the error.

In the intervening years, I've been mistaken for Mr. Pondsmith on numerous occasions, to the point where I no longer bat an eyelash when someone walks up and addresses me as "Mike." I've had people even seek to continue conversations that they were having before. The first few times, they were met with blank looks and hurried interruptions, as I tried to figure out what was going on, but now I let them make their first point, and when they pause, I gently inform them that I'm not the droid they're looking for.

But this is the thing. People who are familiar and comfortable enough with Mike Pondsmith that they're willing to stop him in public and carry on a conversation don't realize that they're not talking to whom they think they're talking to.

Part if it is that Blacks aren't well-represented in tabletop gaming circles. Middle-aged Black guy... how many of them can there be in Nerd Central Station, right? And because we share certain interests, namely tabletop RPGs and science-fiction/mecha animé, we tend to move in intersecting circles and be seen in some of the same places. And if these photos are any indication, we have similar dress habits. (And I do, on occasion, wear my glasses.) But when people wisecrack, "All you people look alike," it's not as far off the mark as one might think it is. When we're not in the same place at the same time, the really distinguishing features, like differences in skin tone (even in the same light, our complexions are different), the fact that I have more gray, Mr. Pondsmith is taller and we wear our hair differently, simply aren't as apparent.

Given all of these things, I am never surprised to learn that an eyewitness identification turns out to be wrong. In fact, in light of my own experience and some of the research that's been done, I suspect that I should be surprised when they turn out to be right.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Familiar Story

The sign was white cardboard with legible, if crowded, tall black mixed-case letters.

Family of 4
Please Help
She looked up at me, brightly, without a hint of suspicion. She was shorter "in person" than I would have guessed, with a round, freckled face, and long brown hair that streamed down to her hips in a long horsetail. She was just a bit too heavy to be considered average, yet not enough that she couldn't wear it well in a plain white t-shirt and nondescript blue jeans. For the past couple of months she'd been there, at the same corner between the Outback Steakhouse and the 76 station, perhaps two or three times a week, holding her sign and waving cheerfully to the passing cars that were headed for the expressway during the evening rush.

"So." I said. "What's your story?"

It turned out, it was one I'd heard before. For a time, I had even been a supporting character. Difficult home life, stint as a ward of the state, jailed father (she had put him there), and bitter mother leading to banishment to the streets at eighteen. In the intervening years she'd failed to find a steady job, but she had found a husband; now a disabled veteran; and had two children. It was for them that she panhandled on the corner. Child Protective Services took a dim view of children living in cars with their homeless parents, she told me. I already knew. Children and Family Services hadn't been much more understanding. Of course, the climate of Northern Illinois is less forgiving than the Puget Sound. She'd traveled the breadth of the country, from California to Florida, searching for a better life, before returning closer to home. Close being a relative term - the bus ride was nearly two hours each way. But this corner, she told me, was the only place she'd found where people cared for her.

Of course, caring was easy - a good number of the SUVs, sedans and sports cars that drove by bore the nameplates of Audi, Infiniti and Lincoln. She was on one major local thoroughfares, which in the evenings teemed with educated, well paid, knowledge workers - the sort who would never miss the amount of money that she needed to scrape together every day just to keep a roof over her head - and those of her husband and children. Still, getting enough to pay rent on a day-to-day basis was by no means a sure thing.

I gave her the collection of one-dollar bills from my wallet, built up over the course of the week so far.

She took them, gratefully.

"God bless you," she said. "I'll pray for you."

I'm not a believer, I didn't say. Instead, it was the little voice in the back of my head. If this deity of yours answers prayers and grants blessings, you should keep them for yourself. You are in greater need than I. I knew that it wanted me to repeat after it. I refused. I'd never given in to it before, and saw no reason to start then. She meant well, and I saw no reason to tell her that her benediction was for naught. She didn't need me to rain on her. The gathering clouds were preparing to take care of that, if only softly.

Instead, I smiled. "Take care of yourself, and stay safe," I instructed, my voice taking on the gently commanding tone that I'd spent years using in my past life as a child care worker. The youngest of the children I once worked with would now be her age.

I turned and left, and she resumed her cheerful waving at the drivers stopped at the light.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Security and Lies

People are distrustful of [people in government] because they are LIARS.
It was a simple enough statement. With a simple enough answer:
So, more than likely, are you.
Part of the problem is that we tend not to prioritize the truth very highly - it's a means, not an end. When we feel that someone really needs to do something, it's really important to protect them from harm or we're convinced that they just can't handle the truth, we tend to lie instead, and hope to be forgiven later if we're found out. My father taught me to distrust activists, on the grounds that they were likely to highly prioritize getting me to support "the cause," and if that meant not telling the truth... He didn't distrust their motives, simply their facts. He even condoned deceit at times. If a lie was what it took to stir someone to action against an intolerable condition, then that's what it took.

I know that I would be on the horns of a dilemma if I had to choose between being honest with someone or getting them to believe a falsehood that I thought would save lives. And I think that this is what's going on with government. As slimy as we want to see government operatives, I'll bet a lot of them sincerely believe in the rightness and necessity of what they're doing. If another lie would have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing, would YOU want to be the person on the hotseat, explaining why you placed a personal principle over life and limb? I don't know that I would want to be that guy. And, while we're at it, do you think that you'd be praising them for their commitment to the truth. It's easy to teach that honesty is the best policy. But we rarely teach that it's worth any real inconvenience - let alone death or dismemberment.

And that's what makes all of this so dicey. Yes, they're liars. Likely, most of the people you trust are. We want to believe that we're so special that only people with malevolence in their hearts would find a reason to lie to us. Once upon a time, I thought that, too. Then, the real world came knocking. (I think I was twelve at the time.) It's easy to say that security should never require falsehood - that there's always a way to be honest - but nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it themselves and isn't accountable for the outcome.

And that, of course, is the real danger. The stereotype of the openly wicked, mustache-twiddling dictator who disappears people for sport and tortures people because it's better than sex is a fallacy. They may have open contempt for people's intelligence, competency or maturity, but many of people that we regard as the worst in the world sincerely, if inaccurately, believed that they had their citizens' best interests at heart. Just like your mother, parish priest or teacher did when they lied about what you happen if you misbehaved, or adopted the wrong values.

The problem isn't when governments decide that we don't know what's best for us. Your parents and other people in authority over you all thought the same thing, at some point in your life. The problem is when governments stop making a distinction between what's best for them, and what's best for us - that their interests are what's best for everyone around them. The point behind insisting on transparency and openness is not to keep them on the right side of the line - it's because we don't know exactly where that line is, until after it's been crossed.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Note - if you haven't seen Iron Man 3 (and still plan on it), or read Iron Man: Extremis you may consider this post to have fairly significant spoilers.

I was talking to a co-worker about Man of Steel, and he was conjecturing that the Powers that Be in Metropolis likely had the following conversation with Superman when it was all said and done:

Thanks for helping us out. Now please leave.
One of the unanswered questions of the movie is why Superman chose to fight General Zod and his henchmen in an developed area. The body count must have been massive, and if Superman was the target, surely he could have lead them away to somewhere that the collateral damage wouldn't have included so high a human toll?

On the Marvel side of the ledger, I read the Iron Man: Extremis collected volume over the weekend. Extremis forms much of the kernel of Iron Man 3, and it left me with a question: If Maya Hansen could be the behind-the-scenes manipulator in Extremis, why was that role given to Aldrich Killian in the movie, and Hansen downgraded? While I think that it's possible to make too much of the role of the "Damsel in Distress" trope in popular culture, there doesn't seem to be a good reason to take a character who had a minor role in the source material and make him the driver of events at Hansen's expense. This strikes me as a case where a female character is deliberately downgraded by Hollywood.

I get that, for the most part, these are things that most audiences don't actively care about, and that's what makes it sort of strange. Why not have things make a bit more sense, or seem a little less stereotyped, for those people who will notice?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Daddy Issues

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, opens "The Distinct, Positive Impact of a Good Dad," with the following:

I understand where Jennifer Aniston is coming from. Like many of her peers in Hollywood, not to mention scholars and writers opining on fatherhood these days, she has come to the conclusion that dads are dispensable: "Women are realizing it more and more knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child," she said at a press conference a few years ago.

Her perspective has a lot of intuitive appeal in an era where millions of women have children outside of marriage, serve as breadwinner moms to their families, or are raising children on their own. Dads certainly seem dispensable in today's world.
Mr. Wilcox then sets out to debunk this alleged liberal "theory of the dispensability of dads." And fails, miserably. He lays out four ways in which fathers are different from mothers, pulled from a book that he himself co-authored. And they certainly seem like "guy" things to do with children. But there is no reason why "physical play that is characterized by arousal, excitement, and unpredictability," encouraging risk, "protecting their children from threats in the larger environment" and confronting their children and enforcing discipline are the exclusive domain of fathers in particular or men in general. Nor is there any reason given as to why these specific things are required for children to grow up healthy and well-adjusted, other than a vague suggestion that "fathers, by dint of their size, strength, or aggressive public presence, appear to be more successful" at keeping horny teenaged boys away from their daughters. (I noted the conspicuous absence of any mention of fathers keeping their sons from skirt-chasing in the first place.)

He then goes on to present some charts, compiled by of National Marriage Project (natch), that purport to show that children who have high-quality relationships with their father have lower rates of delinquency, teen pregnancy and depression than those will lower-quality relationships or an absent father at all (although low-quality relationships with fathers are sometimes worse than none at all). But only in the depression ratings are the results statistically significant. But in no case does having a high-quality relationship with a father drive the numbers to zero, nor does any group appear to crack the 50% mark. So the presence of even a good father is not a panacea, nor is the lack of a father an inescapable doom. So while Wilcox' statement that: "great, and even good-enough dads, appear to make a real difference in their children's lives," the fact of the matter remains that he can't point to any factors that are the exclusive province of such men.

And interestingly, when you follow the link from the story back to some details about the study, you find the following (emphasis mine). "These three questions [which were used to establish the quality of the relationship between teens and their fathers] were asked only of respondents who reported a father (or father figure) resident in the home. For this analysis, only respondents who were living with both biological parents were used." Remember Aniston's point - that a woman need not stay with with a particular man simply to have a child. Since nothing prevents a woman from later marrying a different man, the specific assumption that women who are single at the birth of their child will be single mothers forever (and thus the deliberate culling of other men who may fill the father role) seems unwarranted.

Given these factors, the article takes on the appearance of a reactionary screed against growing acceptance of the idea that "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage" mustn't always be the order of things. But this isn't a new concept. Men have been running out on the women who bore their children since before the concept of marriage was first created. There are many species that mate monogamously and for life. Humans are not among them. The fact that our current society allows for women to chose to be mothers despite this isn't a disaster. Treating it as such is little more than making a show of clutching metaphorical pearls. So let's stop pretending that women who decide that taking a chance on motherhood now, rather than waiting for Mister Right later, are doing something unconscionable. The conservative impulse to preserve the traditional nuclear family is a worthwhile one. But not so much as to realistically curtail other choices. So the impacts, and implications, of those other choices shouldn't be overstated, simply for dramatic effect.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wolves at the Doors

Conor Friedersdorf takes a little time to tackle the numbers, and concludes that our willingness to cede freedoms, civil liberties and privacy in the War on Terror is wholly irrational. Even in 2001, the absolute peak year for American deaths due to terrorism, nearly ten times the number of people killed by terrorists died due to gun violence in the United States. And that number doesn't get you to half the number of fatalities from diabetes in that same year. And if you take the period from 1999 to 2010, if you round the number of gun deaths to the nearest ten thousand, you drop more deaths than the total deaths due to terrorism in that period. By the time you move down the list to something that kills about as many Americans annually as "peak terror" did in 2001, you're talking about food poisoning.

Mr. Friedersdorf accurately points out that we "would never welcome a secret surveillance state" simply to deal with threats to life and limb such as "the sober incompetents and irresponsible drunks" that we have to contend with every time we get in the car to go somewhere. But terrorism produces "exaggerated fears and emotions." We find terrorism to be much more frightening than the automobile accidents, bathtubs, building fires and lightning strikes that are much more effective killers. While there are exceptions, most of us wouldn't tolerate programs like the NSA's PRISM to deal with street gangs or the mafia. These groups are scary to many people, yet terrorists are even more so.

But I think that there is more at work than just a scariness quotient. Time and again we're told that the secret surveillance state is being put in place to protect us from unsavory non-Americans and their traitorous allies. Americans who kill other Americans for reasons unrelated to violent Islamic extremism may be murderous thugs, but they're our murderous thugs, and as a result simply can't be the same level of existential threat that an angry young Afghan represents.

We, as the collective American public, have more or less given up on the idea of imposing restraints on ourselves/each other in the service of saving lives. Run rights advocates have managed to completely deep-six the very notion of the government even knowing who owns some remarkable deadly weapons, via the threat of effectively mobilizing their supporters to the polls, out of what often seems to be little more than tinfoil-hat paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. But in our terrified rush to control others, we've constructed the tools that would make a dictator's job a walk in the park. And for what?

The notion that the United States, simply by being it's wonderful, freedom-loving self, has somehow earned the enmity of the bad people on planet Earth is comforting, and provides truly effective stroking to our national ego. But that egotism is blinding us to the fact that we're just as capable as anyone else of making grievously bad choices. Our need to see ourselves as better than the world around us, and under threat from those who are not like us, is prompting us to surrender our autonomy and both the right and responsibility to hold our government accountable. History tells us that this hasn't worked out well for society upon society that's embarked on that path. It's doubtful that, exceptional as we see ourselves, that we're special enough to avoid a similar fate. I wonder if we think that we are. Or are we as individuals, not wanting to upset the apple cart, simply betting that the Grim Reaper catches up to us before the corrupting influence of power does?

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Larry Alex Taunton, the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, penned an article on The Atlantic about how Christians can make their religion stronger. Presumably by convincing more young people that unbelief is a "historically naive and potentially dangerous" corruption.

I won't hide the fact that viewpoints like that concern me. While I find the idea that not believing in a deity is "historically naive" to be somewhere between confusing and laughable, "potentially dangerous" and "corruption" raise alarms. This is the stuff of which pogroms are made. While humankind's capacity for atrocity is constant, when people feel that they are protecting themselves or "the children," they can unwittingly dial it up to "11;" and marginalize - or even victimize - people who suggest turning the volume down again.

But in the end, the article was interesting, even if I found some of Taunton's conclusions to be overly self-serving. I was impressed that Taunton expressed surprise at finding that for most Americans, as I see it, their "atheism" could just as easily be expressed as "achristianity." While I spent some time investigating other world religions and deciding that I didn't believe in any of their deities either, for most people in the United States, their only conceptualization of what it means to be religious is whichever faith their family followed when they were growing up. Leaving that tends to mean stepping into the void, rather than looking for another harbor.

It's worth understanding that there is a difference between people who arrive at achristianity as a result of the faith not living up to the hype - and the often conflicting (and/or unrealistic) expectations that centuries of different sects and factions have created - and those who arrive at atheism because of a lack of sufficient evidence of something that is claimed to be true. (Not that this is a binary state; there are other paths and other destinations.) The young woman who decides that the Christian God is non-existent because a specific prayer wasn't answered or disavows a belief in the afterlife because she wants a hated relative consigned to oblivion, is not the same as someone who doesn't believe in something because the burden of proof they ask for has not been met.

And while it's true that while one doesn't have to follow a faith to respect those that do, there is more to faith than being able to quote scripture and proselytize. When I determined that many of my ostensibly Roman Catholic classmates at our parochial high-school didn't actually believe in God, it wasn't because I doubted their knowledge of the Bible or their desire to convert people. After all, I had been in the same Theology classes that they had taken and been on the receiving end of their apologetics (and outright hectoring) on multiple occasions. I doubted their belief because, frankly, they were big enough assholes on a regular basis that it was hard to understand how they could possibly have believed that there was an omniscient observer who watched their every move and would judge them for their actions.

I doubt that the relationship between atheism, achristianity and communities of faith will ever be an easy one. Atheism and achristianity, despite the fact that both eschew faith in the Christian God, are not actually the same - treating them as an undifferentiated mass will simply spark frictions. Taunton's desire to see them all as people who can be brought back into the fold (or kept from leaving) by conservative Christians being themselves, just ever so much more so, is unlikely to work as he intends. While I approve of his efforts to understand those with whom he disagrees, seeing them as individuals is a next, necessary, step.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Wonderous Times

Just how cheap is technology?

If you check out this article from China Daily that Mike Elgan turned me on to, you'll see that an entrepreneur named Huang Jie in Kaşgar (Kashgar), in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of China, is offering a tablet computer for two sheep. Now, his goal is twofold - to cut out the middleman, so that residents can buy technology goods less expensively, and to sell those technology goods to more people.

Which is interesting, even if it seems a bit silly to some of here in the industrialized West, for whom directly trading livestock for goods sounds a bit like Little House on the Prairie or something.

But here's what struck me about this.

When King Offa of Mercia, who reigned from 757 to 796 AD, adopted the Frankish standards of silver coinage; based on the old Roman libra, solidi and denarii; the solidus became the scilling (later shilling) a unit of account (not an actual coin) worth 12 pence (denarii). Now, during the Carolingian period, it was common for items to be spoken of in terms of their values in scillings or sols/sous (the Frankish equivalent). In most places (Kent, in England, being a notable exception) one sou/scilling/solidus was worth one sheep.

According to Osprey Publishing's The Age of Charlemagne, the cost of equipment for a mounted warrior prior to the time of Charlemagne was about 45 sous. Or, roughly 45 times the value of one sheep. The book doesn't provide a breakdown of what was worth what, However, some library research from a few years back provided me with a list of prices, denominated in livestock and apparently from Kent, for the equipment listed in the Osprey book. Knowing what a scilling could buy in Kent (it's amazing the kind of trivia you can find on Wikipedia) allows for a simple conversion, and we learn that for two sheep, a warrior could obtain what Osprey tells us is the absolute minimum needed to be an effective fighting man - a lance and a shield. (The conversion requires that we make some supportable assumptions, but this is long enough as it is, so I'll spare you the details.)

Late eighth-century England and modern China are several thousand miles and more than a millennium apart, but that's kind of the point. A Carolingian lance, rather than the piece of jousting equipment of the late mediaeval or renaissance that we commonly think of today, was simply a long cavalry spear - a straight shaft of wood with a dagger-like head at one and, and maybe a smaller metal point or ferrule at the other. And a shield was simply a big domed sheet of wood, with a metal boss at the center, a metal rim, often covered with a layer of leather and/or paint. And while "authentic" replicas of these items are expensive, because the period processes used to make them are labor intensive, modern replicas are of much higher quality, and are only moderately pricey from specialty catalogs. If mass-produced for some reason, they'd be a dime a dozen.

A tablet computer, on the other hand is a marvel of engineering that required dozens, if not hundreds of highly-educated specialists to design. The materials needed to make one can be rare, and many of them require technological marvels of their own simply to dig up out of the ground. While "dark ages" arms making required some limited infrastructure, modern electronics require it on a grand scale. Even though the devices are likely made in China, Kaşgar is on the other side of the country from China's industrial centers. From there to Shanghai is a longer distance than from Kent to Tabriz in Iran (let alone, say, Seattle to New York City). And that's not counting getting the materials to the factories in the first place.

While it makes for an inexact comparison, we can, after a fashion, compare the efficiency gains that we've made over the past thirteen hundred years in the difference between what a spear and shield cost an aspiring dark ages warrior and what a tablet computer costs an aspiring techie. The times we live in are truly a marvel.

Friday, June 7, 2013


How to read Milo Yiannopoulos’ essay “Don’t believe the hype: Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘sharing economy’

  • Step one: Drink a LOT.
  • Step two: Read article.
There's one good point at the start of the article - namely that the “sharing economy” is really simply a feel-good way of talking about “Renting.” Or, if you’d rather be really hip about it, “Peer-to-peer renting.” (Well, sometimes, anyway.)

There's one good point at the end of the article - namely that it’s good to maintain some private space in the name of mental health.

It's the middle, which is a fear-driven (and seemingly alcohol-fueled) screed against some insidious guilt-ridden socialist plot to take all of our private stuff away from us, that's suspect. Because, I guess, it must not be like participation in “the sharing economy” is voluntary or anything. That black helicopter? It’s coming to make sure that you list your home on AirBnB every time you're away for the weekend. Or else. Because, you know, the New World Order and Big Brother feel that everything must be shared.

As with many things like this, a point-by-point takedown is simply a waste of time. Suffice it to say, as also with many things like this, Yiannopoulos takes the world that he want to live in, and extrapolates that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer.

(But I do want to take down this one point that Yiannopoulos makes. Actually, I don’t have to be a surfer to borrow a surfboard. I can take pictures of one with someone posing with it, or just stand there and look at it without any skill at using it. Just so you know.)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

God, Certified Financial Planner

While a lot is being made of Virginia lieutenant gubernatorial candidate E. W. Jackson's apparently widely-held (in certain Evangelical circles) beliefs about the relationship between Satan and Yoga, that's not actually the bit from his 2008 book that I find most interesting.

It turns out that in Jackson's view, God is a socialist:

We live in the most interesting times in human history. These are the days spoken of in Scripture, the days of fulfillment. [...] Part of what must happen during this period of great harvest for the kingdom of God is a massive wealth transfer. It is not going to happen by theft or governmental policy. It is going to happen supernaturally. Those invested in God’s market are going to reap a windfall. Make up your mind now to buy in.
Wisecracking about redistribution aside, there's something a bit pernicious here. While I'm somewhat inclined, simply from reading this, to think that the "windfall" would be mainly a spiritual one, I have to admit that it's really not written that way. The theological linking of wealth and righteousness is always a tricky business, because it allows people to tell themselves that no matter what they're doing, if it means that they make more money, then they must be "doing right."

To a degree, this is simply an implementation of the concept that the rewards of being a Christian are not solely in Heaven. And as far as that goes, there's nothing wrong with it. After all one of the complaints that has been voiced about American Christianity is that some strains of it teach passivity in the face of adversity - looking to the divine for the strength to cope, rather than to change, negative life circumstances.

But in a religious worldview that sees obedience (sometimes blindly) as the highest expression of morality, linking wealth and uprightness can lead to evaluation the morality of actions after the fact, based on how much they bring to the bottom line. And when one specifically rules out theft and governmental policy as factors seeing your goodness reflected in your bank balance becomes easier.

This is not to say that I expect a wave of people to start trying to lay their hands on every dollar they can, and site divine election as justification. But the human tendency for self-justification is nothing if not persistent. Throwing it such an obvious bone may not be the best thing for it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A View of Character

Over on Google+, one Jim Pries alerted me to a link that another user had shared to an article about Character. Namely about how we should expect others to have it, and avoid defending those who lack it to those who expect it from them. I, for my part, do not normally care to be the "judgmental" type. (How good I am at being otherwise, however, is not for me to determine.) This is not to say that I don't make determinations as to who I do and do not like, and would be willing to hang around with. I just don't find attempts to make this into an objective determination, using terms such as "character" or "a quality person" to be useful. Reading this prompted me to think about why.

As I see it, most systems of honor, morality, character, ethics, et cetera, work on a very simple premise - there are times when, regardless of its utility, selfishness is inappropriate. Simple enough. The trick is figuring out when those times are. Different people draw different lines. For some people, death is preferable to certain selfish acts. For others, life is the most important thing. And when things aren't cut and dried when life and death are on the line, other situations can become downright random.

Any system that doesn't deal in absolutes tends to become caught up in the subjective realm of human perception. And this is where something interesting occurred to me. I'd soured on the concept of "honor" some years ago, having come to the conclusion that it was too often used as a way of sneering at people who couldn't afford the luxury of having a higher priority than doing whatever it took to win. In the same way, I realized, morality, character and ethics also expected that someone take the position that they had the luxury of forgoing certain advantages otherwise available to them.

To a degree, all of these things are a matter of perception, whether or not we choose to treat them that way. Viewed this way, it neatly wrapped up why poor people were often considered to be lacking in these areas. Wealthier people, who faced little in the way of serious consequences for letting certain opportunities get away from them created a standard of judgment that required that everyone act as though they had that luxury (sometimes even while castigating those who reached for more material luxuries they could manage to scrape together the price of). For myself, perception is always a matter for the individual. If someone doesn't see themselves as having the luxury of being honest, then so be it. I wouldn't associate with that person, however. But not because of their supposed "character flaw" but simply for my own purposes.