Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I spent last weekend at an Advanced Urban Carbine class, building skill in and knowledge of  the defensive use of rifles.* The class was taught by John Farnam, with the assistance of Richard Wright and Bill Doar.** As are all of John's classes, it was effortful and challenging.
Instruction was encouraging, but standards were high because life is unforgiving and there's usually only one chance to get things right. There was a test, as there is in all of John's classes; not incredibly difficult but hard enough. It's pass/fail and you get multiple chances at it, but there's no part credit and no excuses. Again, kind of like life. Most students passed, a few didn't. I didn't. I didn't get the commemorative pin John gives to those who pass, nor is there a consoling participation ribbon. That I almost passed--I was .38 sec. too slow--is irrelevant. So my weekend was a failure, right?

Not exactly. I got to try some new exercises with a rifle I'd never used in a demanding situation, and improved some old skills also. Now there's more to practice, to get competent should the need arise. I got to spend time with good folks, and share information about important things like staying alive under difficult circumstances. I found some limits that age and lousy eyesight impose, and ways around them.  I'll be better next time. 

Which brings me to the point, because this essay isn't a "What I did last summer" assignment. I spent forty-plus years teaching undergraduates and mentoring grad students. I've seen lots of colleagues come and go during those years,too. Far too many of them have defined success by some kind of award---a grade, a degree, a publication, a grant. They directed their efforts toward a prize, narrowly defined, rather than what the prize was supposed to represent. As students they asked "What's on the test?" instead of "What are the important ideas?" As grad students and professors they asked "What's publishable?" or "What's fundable?" They chose the safe, easy questions, the popular topics, the politically correct positions on controversies. They chose to spend their lives, personal and professional, not failing, and they called that success.

It's not. Real success requires failure, because real success means that you're pushing beyond the comfortable and familiar. In academia it means inventing questions nobody has thought to ask before, and answering them in ways others haven't explored. In sports it may be a new way of training, or a different technique. In business, a new product or service. You get the idea. Success is the result of taking on a challenge just far enough out of the safe, familiar and socially approved that it forces the extra effort that creativity depends on. Most often, one fails, but in that failure there's information, if you choose to use it instead of making excuses. 

I've found, too, that there's no shortage of people willing to help if your effort is there. Some of my best work was the result of following the advice a journal editor gave when he rejected a manuscript, one that represented many months' work. The modest success I had in motorcycle racing came in no small part from listening to people who knew better than I, and had no patience for excuses. In shooting and self-defense,it's the same.***

We do our children, our students,our colleagues and friends no favors when we protect them from failure. They, and we, need to fail, learn from it, then get up and try again, until we and they succeed. And then, what's the reward? We all get to set the standard a little higher, so we can fail a few more times until we succeed again. Sure, there are trophies and honors and maybe big money, too. All that's fine, but they're not the real goals. The real goal is being better. Better than you were yesterday, better than the next guy, better than the doubters thought you could be. Just---better.

Quote of the week:

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."


* For those of you who aren't gun people, yes, there are many circumstances in which assault rifles are the best choice for self defense. Ask any Korean from LA.
**John and his wife Vicki are highly respected instructors and good friends of ours. So are Richard and Bill.  For those of you who don't know them, this doesn't mean they were easy on me, nor that I would expect them to be.
*** I'm still astonished by and grateful to all the very accomplished people who share their expertise with me for the asking. You know who you are. Thanks once again.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A while ago a friend asked me when I was going to write about Libya. I passed, explaining that I have no expertise in foreign relations, intelligence or security, and therefore doubted that I had anything except personal opinions to offer. We all know what they're worth. So why now? It occurred to me that there are aspects of the whole sad, sickening Benghazi affair that I do know something about, and that nobody else seems to be discussing. Let's start with background:

If you've read the "evolution" essay you know that I take natural science seriously. In that context let's examine the Obama policy toward the Middle East, the "Arab Spring" particularly. I maintain it's one of appeasement and playing to the mob. Obama's words and deeds are designed to give the impression that we support the so-called "democratic" movements despite their dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups. He, and his mouthpiece Clinton, speak and act as if al-Qaeda is no longer a viable threat despite all the evidence to the contrary. This fits Obama's fantasy image as a terror-fighter, as if he'd fast-roped into Bin Laden's compound with a Bowie in his teeth, MP5 blazing.

Our real policy is very different. We hamper our troops in Afghanistan with with unrealistic rules of engagement and overreliance on technology (read here) while using drones to blow people up by remote control. Consider this: Afghans, Persians and Arabs place tremendous importance on honor. Honor includes personal courage, among other things. Drone attacks and restrictive rules of engagement don't signify courage to these people; they imply cowardice. It doesn't matter how much personal courage our troops have if our enemy doesn't see it. It doesn't matter how much courage our people display if our leaders are seen as cowards. What matters is that cowards are weak. When attacked, they run.

Given the above, what does it say to our enemies about American resolve and courage when the Marine guards at our Egyptian embassy have no live ammunition? When the United States contracts the security of our Benghazi consulate to questionable locals and refuses repeated requests for real forces? These actions fit the Obama/Clinton line that Muslims love us, but they communicate weakness to anyone paying attention. Here's the punchline: Throughout the natural world, weakness attracts predation. Everywhere, all the time. Obama's public relations game virtually guaranteed an attack somewhere, sometime---especially on the 9/11 anniversary.

That's Part 1. Part 2 is why security at the Libyan consulate was so poor despite repeated requests from our late ambassador. Start with the organizational culture of every bureaucracy, public or private. How does one survive? By going along and keeping one's head down. How does one advance? By sucking up. At General Motors it was widely known that the surest way to ruin your career was to be right when your boss was wrong, and prove it. Is there any doubt that the State Department is the same? Who's going to dispute the Secretary and stand up for the people under threat?

Given the top-down political imperative to make Obama's policies look successful, and the doubt that serious embassy and consular security might cast on that image, it's no wonder that neither the realities of Libya nor our people's repeated, almost desperate, requests made any difference. Clinton went along with Obama because her personal ambitions--whether as a Supreme Court justice or future presidential candidate--are tied to his success. Now she's taken responsibility for her department's failings, acting the good soldier to protect her boss. But her public-relations efforts can't hide the fact that the conditions precipitating the murders of Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were the direct, deliberate creation of Barack Hussein Obama in the service of his reelection. Hilary Rodham Clinton is an accessory both before and after the fact.  Both are guilty of depraved indifference to the lives of our overseas personnel, and both have the blood of Stevens, Smith, Woods and Doherty dripping from them.

Quote of the week:

"You ask, what is our policy? I say: To wage war... with all our might  and
with all the strength God will give us; to wage war against a monstrous

tyranny...  What is our aim?  I answer with just one word: Victory!...

absolute, final, immaculate... victory for which neither we nor  our

descendants will ever apologize!"

 Winston Churchill

No wonder Obama had Churchill's bust removed from the Oval Office. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

So Thomas Jefferson was human, after all...

I subscribe to Smithsonian magazine. It's interesting, well-produced and features a variety of articles on topics like science, history, art, culture and biography. If you look you can detect some liberal, usually environmentalist, bias, but not terribly much. This month's cover story is about Thomas Jefferson, and is revisionist history of a sort. Henry Weincek, the author, shows pretty convincingly and with clear documentation that, contrary to popular belief and most historical writing, Jefferson treated his slaves as did other Virginia planters of his time. Probably no worse, maybe in some cases better, but not the way a man who had written extensively about the evils of slavery might be expected to act. Certainly his moral stature falls in comparison to George Washington, who freed his own slaves.

The apparent motive for his hypocrisy was money. He needed a lot, being deeply in debt due to his constant reconstruction of Monticello. According to the article, Jefferson's moral downfall was occasioned by his good management; he discovered how much profit his slaves were making for him by their "increase." That is, breeding. The bottom line? He kept people in captivity, treating them as clever livestock, because it allowed him to pursue his social, scientific, architectural and horticultural avocations. Was he worse than other 18th and early 19th century people--- a time, please note, when even some Quakers kept slaves? No. We're disappointed because he wasn't better, because he didn't conform to modern morality. Like every prior generation, we consider our standards to be the most enlightened in history, and judge our ancestors by them.

What bothers me about the article and the forthcoming book is not its delineation of the real, sad flaws in Jefferson's character--and I leave it to you to decide how they compare to Woodrow Wilson's overt bigotry or Bill Clinton's sexual bullying, just to name two--but what might be made of them. If Jefferson didn't act as though "...all men are created equal..," some will ask, why should we? Why not "...some (animals) are more equal than others?" And if that part of the Declaration of Independence doesn't count any more why should we act as though people are "...endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" (Emphasis added.) If that line's tossed out, the rest of the document, especially the parts about governments existing to preserve rights and that bit about the right of the people to alter or abolish them when they don't, well, that certainly needs to go as well.

Silly and paranoid, you think? Maybe so, except...exactly that has been done throughout history. Ad hominem attacks on ideas are part of every social controversy; it's the demagogue's favorite logical fallacy. Can't happen here? It already has. Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; Jackson's removal of the Cherokees; Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus; Prohibition; Roosevelt's imprisonment of Japanese citizens; modern civil forfeiture laws; and of course the Patriot Act. Rights to life, liberty and property are constantly besieged by government. Any government. The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are our walls against this assault, but they're only as strong as our belief in them and our willingness to fight for them. 

Jefferson's ideas, and the centuries of philosophy before them, exist independently of the author's human failings. I wish he'd been a better person, but the ideas count, not the individual. I am equal before the law to any other person. I claim my right to life, liberty and property; to freedom of expression, assembly and worship; to self-defense and due process; and all other rights not specifically enumerated. I do so because I can. I do so because I am willing to fight for these by any means necessary, against anyone who would take them from me. That's it. No more justification is necessary.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Prejudice and Pride


It seems that Emory University is finally coming clean about decades of antisemitism in its
now-gone dental school. You can read about it here:

Emory's president, James Wagner, is apologising for the slimeball former dean and the equally slimy faculty collaborators who were responsible for victimizing the few Jewish students they admitted. They're also sponsoring a video about it. The former students feel vindicated, now that it's clear they didn't fail. Their school did, in most of the ways it's possible for an academic institution to fail. So now it's OK and we're all friends again, right?

Not hardly. I've got three words for Emory University: Talk is cheap. If you want to make amends, DO something. Not reparations. The affected students don't need them and likely wouldn't accept them if offered. Not affirmative action, either. That would be as laughable as it is unnecessary. What, then? 

Put your school's money where your mouth is, Dr. Wagner. Take some proportionate share of the Emory endowment---$100,000 per affected student seems about right---and donate it to some appropriate charity. How about the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which supports the elderly and frequently poor Gentiles who helped Jews survive the Holocaust, as well as carrying out educational programs? Or Alyn Hospital, which is Israel's only children's rehabilitation hospital? Perhaps the former students themselves, or their survivors, could select the recipients.

Talking about feelings  doesn't cut it.


Georgia Tech's Pride Alliance has just finished celebrating Coming Out Week, for the benefit of the Tech LGBT community. You can read about it here: http://pridealliance.gtorg.gatech.edu/Events/gtcow.php
This is the place I should explain that I have nothing against "LGBT's." The first gay man I knew (at least, the first one I knew was gay) was in college. He wasn't openly gay, naturally.
In the early 60's that was dangerous. But he was sort of effeminate, and guys would ask me why I was talking to "that fag." Because he was a nice guy, and funny, and interesting, mostly. Kind of artsy, as stereotypical as that sounds. We weren't close friends because our interests differed; mine were women and motorcycles, his...weren't.  But we enjoyed talking from time to time and that was enough.

My neighborhood includes lesbian and gay people, too. One former neighbor and friend, a gay man, was also a colleague at Tech with whom I collaborated. He and his partner moved on, but there are several others. They're all good folks and I wish them well. 

As to gay marriage, I'm mostly indifferent in the sense that if people want to marry, that's fine with me. I'm not going to be an advocate but if it came to a vote I'd mark "yes." In fact, I'll go further:  Once we rule out exploiting children (which should be a death penalty offense) people should be free to do whatever pleases them. I not only don't care who one marries, I don't care how many of what one marries. If somebody wants to solemnize their deeply emotional, spiritual and physical relationship with a goat (billy or nanny) and an '86 Monte Carlo with a ragged vinyl top, that's fine with me. I just don't want to hear about it.

Which brings me to the point. I can understand and sympathize with people for not tolerating bigotry. I'll stand up for them in that effort. What I don't understand is people identifying themselves by their sex lives. If we have LGBT pride, why not BDSM? Given the success of the "Shades of Grey" books there must be a lot of them out there. Why not swingers? People in various forms of group marriage?  Guys who like to be on top? C'mon, folks. Some things should be private, if not for your sake then for the rest of ours. If you want to be proud, do something. Achieve something, not for the sake of some hypothetical community of like-sexed people but for yourself. Let Tech, and everyone else, be proud of you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

You Say You Want Some Evolution?

Let's get something straight : Evolution is a fact. You can make it happen in the laboratory; you can see the evidence in fossils; medicine deals with it every year when a new flu vaccine is necessary. What is theoretical and the subject of academic research is how evolution occurs, whether on a macro (e.g. species) or a micro (e.g. genetic) level. What is not the province of science is why evolution occurs. The question of why physics works the way it does isn't, either. These and similar "first cause" questions are the province of faith, or on a more academic level, theology.

One would think, then, that those having no faith, who worship no Supreme Being(s), would leave the issue of "belief" in evolution alone. Other than quite properly opposing the required teaching of "intelligent design" as science (because it isn't), they should simply take no interest in the topic, as a physicist takes no interest in others' belief in, say, gravity. They might, if pressed, politely decline to discuss it.

But no. The faction of "militant atheists" takes it on themselves to actively oppose religious faith, seeking to replace it with one--or none--of their own. They like to flatter themselves that theirs is the more "scientific" philosophy, despite the fact that atheism is no more defensible as a scientific position than the most rock-ribbed, Bible-thumping, hellfire and damnation Christian fundamentalism (or, for that matter, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, ancestor worship, animism, ....) Science depends on data; that is, the generation and testing of falsifiable empirical hypotheses. No form of faith or non-faith can do that. Faith is not about data, it's about belief. Faith is about certainty. Science is always skeptical.

Militant atheists don't believe in nothing, of course. In place of religion they have politics, today enrobed in the vestments of "progressivism."  They have their symbols, like the little "Darwin Fish" car ornaments and the "We have fossils--We win!" bumper stickers. These serve to proclaim their beliefs to the world just as the "Jesus Fish" ornaments and "Jesus Saves" bumper mottoes do.

The odd (from a logical perspective) thing is that these self-proclaimed scientific progressives display a marked reluctance to apply evolutionary reasoning to their own policies. In the writings of Dawkins (The God Delusion), Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and other prophets of non-belief there is scathing contempt for anyone who advocates for the intelligent design of physical and biological systems. And yet, the same people believe absolutely in the intelligent design of social and economic systems. That is, so long as they and their friends are the designers.* Both social behavior and the design, production, and delivery of goods and services are to be governed by a "higher power." Whether that power is royalty, the Politburo, the Department of Commerce or the EEOC, it's all the same. Call it divine right, fascism, socialism, communism, environmentalism or whatever, it all comes down to the control of society by a central authority. It is socioeconomic Lysenkoism,** an orthodoxy forcing itself on the rest of us, justified by pseudoscience. 

If one really took the principles of evolution seriously, what policies would make sense? In biology, random variation and selective retention is the principle explaining the adaptation of organic life to environments, including the appearance of entirely new kinds of organisms.  By analogy, any socioeconomic system seeking to optimize adaptation and growth must maximize the diversity of goods, services, ideas, and so forth so that those useful and satisfying to people would be chosen and those less so would not. In consumer products, education, housing, transportation, and so on, society should foster innovation---that is, variation--on which selective retention would work. The same goes for modes of life, philosophies, arts, entertainment and the like.

Darwin would recognize this idea. So would Adam Smith. Or Thomas Jefferson. Economically, it's called "free market capitalism." Socially, it's simply called "freedom," as in the Bill of Rights. Intellectually, it's called the "marketplace of ideas," what universities were supposed to be and so seldom are.*** 

The next time you're harangued by a militant atheist or some other progressive type you might ask them why they deny the validity of evolution by natural selection. Then you can explain, as above. You won't convert them, because ideologies are emotional, not reasoned.
But it's fun to watch them sputter and fume, and at the very least they'll quit annoying you.


The essay above was intended to be a poke at the militant atheists, not because I have anything in particular against atheism itself, but because the militants tend to be pompous jerks as well as leftist ideologues. I don't like either pompous jerks or ideologues, and when those two are conjoined that dislike is increased exponentially. As luck would have it, though, on Saturday we all heard that Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) delivered the opinion that both evolution and the Big Bang theory were "...lies from the pit of Hell..." I'm not sure if he dismissed the heliocentric view of the Solar System as well, but wouldn't be surprised.

I have no argument with people of faith, whatever faith that might be, and ask only that they show the same respect for others and their rights that they expect for themselves. However, 
there is a limit. When religious doctrine (or any other ideology) is presented as fact, and the ideas of science deformed to fit that doctrine, that limit is shattered. Broun also presents himself as a scientist, which he most emphatically is not. He's an MD. They tend to be smart people, and certainly do critical work, but the work of an MD is most similar to that of an engineer or a technician. They use the results of science, certainly, but they don't do science.
Yes, MDs do research, sometimes even well, but so do engineers and automotive tuners. As important as that all is, it's not science.

Broun, in fact, denies by his statement the scientific basis for every advance in medicine since Louis Pasteur. One wonders, for instance, where he thinks his vaccines come from, if he in fact uses them. Perhaps he's given up medicine, since it relies on devilish theories, and has taken up faith healing instead.  It's no wonder the militant atheists target people like Broun; they're easy. Calling attention to the atheist's similar failings and inconsistencies when Broun and his friends insist on being silly in public is a little like fighting a war while allied with France. 

* Academics are particularly prone to this fallacy.
** If you don't know about this, you really, really should. Start here:
*** See "The New Plantation," if you haven't already.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Here's my position on college football and basketball: They're children's games which, courtesy of TV, radio, and other revenue sources, have corrupted almost every major university. I'm not going to spend time detailing the history and extent of the corruption, whose most recent example is the Jerry Sandusky case. It's a fact.

Besides undermining the purpose of the university, big-time money sports hurt students in two ways:

First, directly. The kids recruited to play have a very small chance of a professional career, which is what most of them want. Not only do the demands of their sports leave them little time for study (and thus an alternative career), the culture of most teams doesn't support academics in the slightest. Add to that the sad fact that at least some recruits are functional illiterates eased along in bogus majors and you have a situation that seriously handicaps any kid who might actually care about his education.
There's also the real possibility of a career-ending, possibly crippling, injury.
In short, the college athletes are trading years of their lives for the minuscule chance of a pro career; without the education they're supposed to get they're often left with nothing.

Second, other students are cheated as well. Those who might want to play the "minor" sports--swimming, gymnastics, tennis, fencing, wrestling, hockey, and so forth--are too often out of luck. The budget isn't there. Title IX is blamed for the absence of support for some of these programs, but that's garbage. When you look closer you see football and basketball sucking up all the oxygen in the room. A lot of kids who might want to play, the real "student-athletes," get the short end of the stick.

Since money drives athletics as it does every other aspect of university policy, the question becomes how to retain income while avoiding corruption and providing real opportunities to student athletes. After all, somebody's got to pay for that new stadium.

Here's my proposal: Make football and basketball programs formally what they are in fact, farm teams for the NFL and the NBA. Lease the use of the stadiums and university symbols, mascots, team names and so forth to for-profit corporations, perhaps subsidiaries of NFL and NBA teams, which would then run the programs. They would hire the players at competitive wages, with health and pension benefits negotiated as they are in the "big" leagues. The same would apply to bands, cheerleaders and other support personnel. None of these people would be required to be students, although they could be if they met entrance requirements. They would pay tuition just like everyone else. The contract between the university and the team corporation would be subject to periodic renegotiation and cancellation in the event of criminal activity or other scandal.

The payments received would go first to paying bond indebtedness for athletic facilities and the like, then to supporting athletics for all students. There might even be enough to fund academic scholarships based on merit and need. Who knows? Schools might even be able to reduce tuition.

But--you might say--what about school spirit? What happens to alumni contributions inspired by thrilling athletics? Frankly, I doubt very much that alumni care who is playing in the school colors as long as they see a winning game. As for the students, from what I've seen in the last fifty years their pre-, during-, and post-game spirit is more likely to be cheap tequila and cheaper beer than loyalty to dear old Alma Mater. If there's any old-fashioned school spirit left it's better expressed cheering for the soccer players, swimmers, wrestlers and others. After all, they're real students. When the kids say "We won!" it will actually mean something.