Don’t Point That Thing At Me

Don’t Point That Thing At Me is the first book of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Charlie Mortdecai trilogy (After You with the Pistol and Something Nasty in the Woodshed round it out). Don’t Point dates to 1972 (Bonfiglioli died in 1985), but the books and the author are new to me.

I stumbled on the audio version of Don’t Point That Thing At Me and listened to it while commuting. It was quite wonderful, perhaps as much because of Simon Prebble’s narration as Bonfiglioli’s writing. I won’t bother with a description—you can find plenty of that via Google.

The books are available from Amazon, the audio from the iTunes store. If you have access to the 20 Sept 2004 issue of The New Yorker, you’ll find an appreciative review by Leo Carey which, despite the link from Wikipedia, does not appear to be available online.

CyberTran: Ultra-light rail for cities and suburbs

Gar Lipow at Gristmill.

CyberTran: Ultra-light rail for cities and suburbs

CyberTran[1] is a form of mass transit suitable for most parts of the nation, from suburbs to the densest parts of Manhattan. It is not so much a new system as an overlooked one. The advantages:

It offers 24-hour availability.
Your journey time is about the same as in a car.
Your rail-car is ready when you are.
You never need to stand.
Stops are near your home and your final destination.
You can read the paper during your trip.

No magic is involved.

CyberTran ultralight rail uses small cars carrying 20 passengers. (The same-sized cars could be configured to hold anywhere from six to 30 riders.) Small, light cars run on cheaper tracks. The total capital cost of a CyberTran urban system (including rail and guideways) is about a tenth or less the cost per passenger mile of conventional light rail[2]. That is important — capital costs dominate rail expenses.
CyberTran is an automated, driverless system. (With so many tiny cars, it has to be.) Outside of rush hour, it would be an on-demand system, calculating routes on the fly. During rush hour in dense urban areas, a series of CT cars following one another closely would mimic a conventional multi-car train with fixed schedules. Regardless, you would never have to wait more than five minutes or so for a car — usually less.

Sunday Godblogging: A Prayer for War

A Prayer for War

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

— Mark Twain

(Via Sam Smith)

What the Terrorists Want

Bruce Schneier.

What the Terrorists Want

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Schneier includes a number of interesting links, including this one on the practicality of the plot in question.

Fear, of course, serves purposes beyond those of the terrorists.

Sunday Godblogging

Beyond Belief: A Buddhist Critique of Christianity, by A. L. de Silva. The host (The Buddhist Society of Queensland) comments,

This is the electronic version of a Book printed in Sri Lanka. It is reproduced here to make its contents known more widely. The original book contains no mention of publisher or of a copyright notice. Little is known about the author.

I’m not so sure that “little is known about the author”. A little googling finds De Silva described as “an Australian convert to Buddhism” and a “distinguished Theravadan scholar”. His Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism is widely available on the web.

From the table of contents:

Ch 1. Introduction
Ch 2. Christian Arguments for God’s Existence
Ch 3. Why God Cannot Exist
Ch 4. God or the Buddha — who is the Highest?
Ch 5. Fact and Fiction in the Life of Jesus
Ch 6. A Critique of the Bible
Ch 7. Buddhism — the Logical Alternative
Ch 8. How to Answer the Evangelists
Ch 9. Conclusion

(via Ron Avitzur by way of Wikipedia)

Shabbat G-dblogging

Neturei Karta

DC 25 JulyNeturei Karta oppose the so-called “State of Israel” not because it operates secularly, but because the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law.

All the great rabbis who in accordance with Jewish Law opposed Zionism at its inception did not do so merely due to consideration of the secular lifestyles of the then Zionist leaders or even for their opposition to Torah heritage and rejection of its values and practices, but due to the fact that the entire concept of a Jewish state is in direct conflict with a number of Judaism’s fundamentals.

Condemnation of and segregation from anything connected to or affiliated with the so-called modern day “State of Israel” is based on the Talmud, the key fundamental doctrine of the Oral Tradition handed down by G-d to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Talmud in Tractate Kesubos (p. 111a), teaches that Jews shall not use human force to bring about the establishment of a Jewish state before the coming of the universally accepted Moshiach (Messiah from the House of David). Furthermore it states that we are forbidden to rebel against the nations and that we should remain loyal citizens and we shall not attempt to leave the exile which G-d sent us into, ahead of time.

Jews are not allowed to dominate, kill, harm or demean another people and are not allowed to have anything to do with the Zionist enterprise, their political meddling and their wars.

Neturei Karta forbid any participation with the so-called “State of Israel” or any of its subsidiaries. Neturei Karta followers do not participate in “Israeli” elections nor do they accept any aid from “Bituach Le’Umi” (Social Security), and the educational institutions of the Neturei Karta reject any form of financial support from the so-called “Va’ad HaYeshivos” (equiv. to Department of Education).

The Zionist state employs a set of chief rabbis and uses religious parties to ornament their state with a clerical image. They study the Torah with commentaries altered to clothe the words with nationalistic nuances. Our rabbis have countless times proclaimed that it matters little which individuals or parties govern in the Zionist state because the very establishment and existence of the state itself is to be condemned and to be deplored.

The true Jews remain faithful to Jewish belief and are not contaminated with Zionism.

The true Jews are against dispossessing the Arabs of their land and homes. According to the Torah, the land should be returned to them.

Neturei Karta deplore the systematic uprooting of ancient Jewish communities by the Zionists, the shedding of Jewish and non-Jewish blood for the sake of Zionist sovereignty and the Neturei Karta favor a peaceful transition from the present Zionist rule to a non-Zionist entity.

(emphasis in the original)

Why Orthodox Jews are Opposed to the Zionist State

The Source of Europe’s Mild Climate

American Scientist Online: The Source of Europe’s Mild Climate :

If you grow up in England, as I did, a few items of unquestioned wisdom are passed down to you from the preceding generation. Along with stories of a plucky island race with a glorious past and the benefits of drinking unbelievable quantities of milky tea, you will be told that England is blessed with its pleasant climate courtesy of the Gulf Stream, that huge current of warm water that flows northeast across the Atlantic from its source in the Gulf of Mexico. That the Gulf Stream is responsible for Europe’s mild winters is widely known and accepted, but, as I will show, it is nothing more than the earth-science equivalent of an urban legend.

Sunday God[less]blogging

Interview With A Godless Conservative:

DarkSyde: You’re an atheist, what does that mean to you and why are you one?

Brent Rasmussen: It means that I am a human being in which god-belief is absent. Please notice the lack of the mention of an actual god (whatever that is). Atheists are folks in whom god-belief, of any kind, is absent. Conversely, theists are folks in which god-belief is present. Simple, really. It’s an off-on, black or white proposition. Either god-belief is there, or it’s not there.

Philosophically, I hold the same position as George H. Smith — that the word “god” is literally incomprehensible. A blank. A semantic null. I make the further claim that it has a mutable and changeable meaning that is wholly subjective and is different for each and every individual human being on the planet, each and every time they use it — thus rendering it nonsense. Dangerous nonsense, to be sure, but nonsense all the same. The reason that I am an atheist is that the only other choice in this binary spectrum is complete and utter lunacy.

Sunday Godblogging: Blogging the Bible

David Plotz, a self-described not-very-observant Jew, has lately been reading and blogging the Bible over at Slate.

Plotz’s latest installment, “Why Joseph is my hero”, treats the last few chapters of Genesis: Joseph in Egypt, Jacob’s death.

Please bear with me for a minute while I digress to tackle a strange subject: Egyptian public policy during the Josephean administration. Joseph is, of course, Pharaoh’s viceroy during the fat years and the famine. To hear the author of Genesis tell it, he’s the best viceroy the Middle Kingdom had ever seen. But to a modern reader, Joseph is appalling. Here’s what he does: During the seven fat years, he gathers grain from all over the country in warehouses. When the famine comes, he sells grain to the hungry Egyptians and to foreign buyers. This is all well and good. As the famine worsens, Egypt’s peasants return to Joseph to beg for help. So Joseph sells them more grain, collecting “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt … as payment for the rations.” The people were still hungry. Joseph feeds them, but seizes all their horses, sheep, cattle, and donkeys as payment. The famine continues. The Egyptian people, having given all their money and livestock to Pharaoh, come back to Joseph once more. This time, Joseph takes all their land in exchange for grain: “Thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.” Joseph explains the new deal to them: They will be sharecroppers, and will hand over one-fifth of their harvest every year to Pharaoh, keeping the balance for themselves. They reply, “We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”

Didn’t someone write a book on the biblical roots of capitalism and free enterprise? How did he handle this episode? Our hero Joseph abolishes private property, turns freeholders into serfs, and transforms a decentralized farm economy into a command-economy dictatorship. This is bad economics and worse public policy. This is China, 1949. Joseph is Chairman Mao. (And, to speculate a little bit, perhaps this centralized dictatorship established by Joseph is what ultimately led to the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. Once you create a voracious state apparatus, it must be fed. Is it a surprise that slavery became part of its diet? In a less totalitarian state, perhaps slavery wouldn’t have been as necessary or as feasible.

Dyson on Dennett

Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in the current NYRB. Wonderful stuff, as usual. Dyson concludes,

To end this review, I would like to introduce anothe recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. This contains extensive extracts from diaries written by seven of the young men who died in suicidal missions or as kamikaze pilots in the closing months of World War II. The diaries give us firsthand testimony of the thoughts and feelings of these young soldiers who knew that they were fated to die. Their thoughts and feelings are astonishingly lucid and free from illusions. Some of them expressed their feelings in poetry. All of them were highly educated and familiar with Western literature in several languages, having spent most of their brief lives in reading and writing. Only one of them, Hayashi Ichizo, was religious, having grown up in a Japanese Christian family. His Christian faith did not make self-sacrifice easier for him than for the others. He had read Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death and carried it with him on his final mission together with his Bible.

All of the young men, including Hayashi, had a profoundly tragic view of life, mitigated only by happy memories of childhood with family and friends. They were as far as it was possible to be from the brainwashed zombies that contemporary Americans imagined to be piloting the kamikaze planes. They were thoughtful and sensitive young men, neither religious nor nationalistic fanatics.

Here I have space to mention only one of them, Nakao Takanori, who must speak for the rest. Nakao left a poem beginning, “How lonely is the sound of the clock in the darkness of the night.” In his last letter to his parents, a week before his death, he wrote,

At the farewell party, people gave me encouragement. I did my best to encourage myself. My co-pilot is Uno Shigeru, a handsome boy, aged nineteen, a naval petty officer second class. His home is in Hyogo Prefecture. He thinks of me as his elder brother, and I think of him as my younger brother. Working as one heart, we will plunge into an enemy vessel. Although I did not do much in my life, I am content that I fulfilled my wish to live a pure life, leaving nothing ugly behind me.

We have no firsthand testimony from the young men who carried out the September 11 attacks. They were not as highly educated and as thoughtful as the kamikaze pilots, and they were more influenced by religion. But there is strong evidence that they were not brainwashed zombies. They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world. According to Sageman, they were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out.

Even after recognizing the great differences between the circumstances of 1945 and 2001, I believe that the kamikaze diaries give us our best insight into the state of mind of the young men who caused us such grievous harm in 2001. If we wish to understand the phenomenon of terrorism in the modern world, and if we wish to take effective measures to lessen its attraction to idealistic young people, the first and most necessary step is to understand our enemies. We must give respect to our enemies, as courageous and capable soldiers enlisted in an evil cause, before we can understand them. The kamikaze diaries give us a basis on which to build both respect and understanding.

How to cheat good

Alex Halavais, via Bruce Schneier:

I would prefer that students don’t cheat. Yes, they really are mostly cheating themselves, so fine. But it also reflects poorly on the community. Rationally or not, what particularly irks me is that it is disrespectful: of me, of their fellow students, of the university, of the institution of learning, and of themselves. And—did I mention—of me? It is particularly irksome when their cheating implies (reminds?) that I am a fool.

So, to help students across the country cheat better, saving themselves both from easy detection and from incurring the wrath of insulted faculty, and leading to a much more harmonious school environment, I offer the following tips, based on recent experience:

8. Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

This is my Number 1 piece of advice, even if it is numbered eight. When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on. This seems to happen in about 1% of student work turned in, and periodically makes me feel like becoming a hermit.

“We laugh at popes.”

Patrick Nielsen Hayden quotes Ken MacLeod.

This is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We snap our fingers at kings. We laugh at popes.

Go find out why (it involves a time-traveling elephant).

Evolving Evolution

In the NYRB, a review of three new Evo Devo books:

Despite much recent controversy about the theory of evolution, major changes in our understanding of evolution over the past twenty years have gone virtually unnoticed. At the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution is an explanation of how plants and animals evolved from earlier forms of life that have long since disappeared; but his theory says nothing about the factors that determine the shape, color, and size of a particular fish, whale, or butterfly. Darwin and his contemporaries realized that understanding the evolution of animal forms and understanding how a fertilized egg develops into a whale, cow, or human being must be deeply connected; but they didn’t know how to make the connection.

Surprising discoveries in the 1980s have begun to tell us how an embryo develops into a mature animal, and these discoveries have radically altered our views of evolution and of the relation of human beings to all other animals. The new field of study in which these breakthroughs have been made is called Evo Devo, short for evolution and development, “development” referring to both how an embryo grows and how the newborn infant matures into an adult.

I’m O.K., You’re Biased

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in the NY Times:

In short, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it.

When doctors refuse to accept gifts from those who supply drugs to their patients, when justices refuse to hear cases involving those with whom they share familial ties and when chief executives refuse to let their compensation be determined by those beholden to them, then everyone sleeps well.

Until then, behavioral scientists have plenty to study.

…not neglecting campaign contributions.

Sunday Godblogging

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31–46

God, Sufis, and Garry Wills

The BBC article I quoted in my previous post claims that

Sufis believe that at the core of all religions lies the same truth and that God is the only reality behind all forms of existence.

Whether that’s a fair representation of Sufism I have no idea, but it reminded me strongly of some comments that Garry Wills made during an interview [mp3] with Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum.

Wills’s book is What Jesus Meant, reviewed here by Jon Meacham:

Jesus was neither a politician nor a prelate, and this book’s most significant contribution may lie in its reminder that faith is far too important to be considered solely, or even mainly, in political or ecclesiastical terms. Skeptical of the papacy and of many Catholic traditions, Wills convincingly shows that Jesus was a radical whose essential message to love one another totally and unconditionally is fundamentally at odds with the impulses of those living in a fallen world. Jesus left sundry examples of how one should live not for power but for the poor, not for fame but for forgiveness. But it was God’s own unconditional love for this fallen world of ours that led him to do the unimaginable to save it: he sacrificed his own son. The Passion makes the greatest sense for readers if it is seen as the culmination and ultimate expression of what Jesus had been saying and doing in his few years of public life. “Father, forgive them,” the dying Jesus says from the cross; the Resurrection on the third day, Wills says, bears out the words in the Song of Songs “love is as strong as death.”

I haven’t read the book, but the interview is worth a listen on its own merits.

Sufism in Iran

BBC: Growing popularity of Sufism in Iran:

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, appeared in the eighth century in present-day Iraq.

Iranian Sufis say Islamic mysticism has become more and more popular in the country in recent years.

No official statistics are available, but Heshmatollah Riazi, a former professor of philosophy and theology in Iran, believes two to five million Iranians practice Sufism today – compared to only about 100,000 before Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.

He says Iran is home to the largest number of Sufis in the Middle East.

(Via Robot Wisdom)