Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sun Tzu at the Battle of Glorieta Pass

The following post presumes some knowledge of "The Art of War." (Chinese title, "Sun Tzu Bing Fa" meaning "Master Sun's Military Method.") I also recommend the book "Sun Tzu at Gettysburg" by Bevin Alexander and the Teaching Company's lecture series "The Art of War" by Andrew Wilson.

One quickly sees how strategy in the American Civil War's little-known New Mexico Campaign reflected the personalities of the theater commanders, each of whom was deeply flawed while yet possessing one or two favorable qualities. The Union commander, Col. Edward Richard S. Canby (by the end of 1862 promoted to general), was the military governor of New Mexico Territory. He would later be described by Gen. U.S. Grant as “insufficiently aggressive” in war but an able and even indispensable administrator in peace. Canby’s thoughtful preparation for the impending Confederate invasion rather than his battlefield acumen significantly contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Confederate campaign. Intelligence—or lack of it on the Confederate side—proved crucial when Canby intercepted a letter that revealed the Confederate commander’s intentions many months ahead of time. Secrecy and surprise having been denied to the Confederates, greater speed might have made up for it, but this proved impossible for them*, allowing Canby time to use his strength as an organizer to improve his defenses.


The Confederate commander was General Henry Hopkins Sibley. (Not to be confused with his distant cousin, General Henry Hastings Sibley, who served the Union by fighting Native Americans in the Dakotas and eventually became governor of Minnesota!) Much the opposite of the deliberate Canby, Sibley was a dreamer—impetuous, creative and romantic, and he only rarely manifested these qualities in good ways. (He is remembered by some as the inventor of the Sibley tent and Sibley stove, each of which, not coincidentally, resembles a teepee.) Indeed, it was his propensity for bragging about his pipedreams that moved him to share his invasion plans in the letter that his adversary intercepted. His intelligence gathering was limited to memory of his experience in New Mexico from the late 1850s up until mid-1861, and he apparently did not know about or did not appreciate the significance of the drought conditions that developed after his departure from the territory. He also did not know that Canby would use his lead time to improve major fortifications, rendering them more impregnable than Sibley remembered. His previous career in the United States Army had been checkered to say the least, including a court martial for insubordination in Wyoming in the 1850s. A couple of years after the New Mexico Campaign, his alcoholism would lead to a Confederate court martial in Louisianafor dereliction of duty. Alcoholism and dereliction also characterized his leadership in New Mexico, but he had excellent subordinate officers who provided better tactical leadership than Sibley could have. Nevertheless, Sibley’s plan, despite his leaking it to Canby, was so bold that even though Canby warned the War Department of it, hardly anyone in Washingtonbelieved it; consequently, Canby received no support and was forced to plan the defense of New Mexicoon his own. Moreover, once Sibley got past the Battle of Valverde Ford, fought on the Rio Grande at the end of February, he rapidly captured Socorro, Albuquerque and Santa Fe before sending his men on to Fort Unionwhich was the only obstacle to the capture of the Santa Fe Trail.


The place of the New Mexico Campaign in the whole strategy of the Civil War is worth mentioning. The rationale in Richmond, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis met and was overly impressed with Sibley, was that capturing territory out West would be beneficial only if it could be done cheaply. Sibley’s overconfidence that he could do a great deal for almost no money induced Davisto give his approval to the scheme. Sibley was not completely mad, however, and his scheme had its merits. In Washington, the War Department early on determined that it needed trained men to fight in the East, so it drew soldiers out of the western territories. This left the various outposts short-staffed and induced Native American warriors to raid civilian ranchers without much fear of reprisal. Since Washington deemed the Civil War in the East to be more important, this drain made sense, but it meant that Canby and other territorial commanders had to make do with less, and the failure to protect frontier civilians enraged many of them, particularly in the New Mexico Territory where some came to support the Confederate takeover of the territory’s southern tier, which was renamed “the Confederate Territory of Arizona.” Some pro-Confederate residents of this territory provided Sibley with volunteer reinforcements.


When the War Department heard in March that Sibley had captured the territorial capital of Santa Fe, Secretary Edwin Stanton doubted his overall strategy for the first time. Should troops be sent from the East to the West, reversing the one-way policy up to that point? General Henry Halleck was asked to render an opinion. After studying the situation, he assured Washington that Canby had matters in hand, and the idea of sending troops west was dropped; but obviously if the Confederates had not been stopped before taking control of the Santa Fe Trail, then Washington would have been forced to send troops into the West, thereby altering the course of the war, not to mention history, which would now have to take note of these events rather than ignoring them as it has.


Like a good Suntzean general, Sibley intended to have his oversized brigade—which he styled “The Army of New Mexico”—live off of the land, but he did not count on two things. Firstly, the drought in New Mexico in 1862, which made foraging a time-consuming challenge for his men and animals; secondly, the fact that Canby had given his troops orders to destroy or hide all supplies before any retreat. In only one instance was this order not obeyed, resulting in Sibley capturing some supplies at Socorro, but when he took Albuquerque and Santa Fe, he was soon starving for supplies. (Louisa Canby, the colonel’s wife and Sibley’s captive at Santa Fe, took pity on the sick and wounded Confederates and showed them where medical supplies and blankets had been hidden, but evidently weapons and ammunition had either been hidden separately or more thoroughly destroyed.)


Probably one of the most brilliant things that Canby did was to use knowledge of weather to his advantage. He reasoned that, since there was a drought, the Confederates would be forced to invade via a river that could sustain a large force of men and animals. He concluded that only three rivers would be suitable and, since two of the rivers were close together, Canby only had to divide his meager forces into two parts rather than spread them along the entire border between New Mexico and Texas.


Another wise move was the reinforcement of his small professional army with volunteer units. Canby actively campaigned to raise New Mexico volunteers and delegated a significant part of the recruitment task to the territorial governor—an Anglo who spoke fluent Spanish. (Unfortunately, the New Mexico units were poorly trained except for the First New Mexico Volunteers which was led by Col. Kit Carson.) Canby also persuaded the territorial governor of Colorado to send a contingent of volunteers. While these reinforcements proved helpful, overall, there were drawbacks. The New Mexico Volunteer unit that defended Socorro was of the poorly trained variety that retreated without destroying supplies that then fell into Confederate hands. Also, the officers of the otherwise able Colorado volunteers were inexperienced. Most notably, Col. John P. Slough of the Colorado Volunteers disobeyed Canby’s order to stay inside of Fort Union and defend against any Confederate attack. Slough, a lawyer who had no military experience, went out and directly attacked the more able Confederate commander, Col. William R. Scurry. Slough lost the conventional portion of the Battle of Glorieta Pass and might well have handed the Confederate invaders their ultimate goal: Control of the Santa Fe Trail and access to Colorado and parts west, including silver mines and other resources of value to the cash starved Confederacy.


Glorieta, the last major battle of the campaign, drips with irony because of the purely accidental use of an unconventional maneuver. Though the conventional confrontation was easily won by the Confederates, an unconventional flanking maneuver—in which the novice Union commander Slough had had no particular confidence and no great interest—dealt a fatal blow to the whole Confederate campaign. Led by a major in the Colorado Volunteers and a colonel in the New Mexico Volunteers, a unit of men that was meant to outflank the Confederates instead found itself behind enemy lines and right on top of lightly guarded Confederate supply wagons, which were quickly and thoroughly destroyed with fire. Without supplies and knowing how scarce replacements would be, the Confederates soon realized that they would have to abandon their campaign, and they retreated all the way back to Texas.


Although he planned with foresight, Canby was unable to stop the advance of the Rebel brigade, and was later criticized for letting the Confederates flee back to Texasvirtually unmolested. Canby did pursue them, but, as Grant might have said, with insufficient aggressiveness. The Confederate retreat was troubled by only one light skirmish. (But Confederate moral was plagued by the fear that they might be attacked at any moment, knowing that they were vulnerable in their starving and exhausted state.)


While Canby was present at the Battle of Valverde Ford, the first major battle of the campaign (when Sibley stayed in his ambulance many yards behind the lines), Canby and Sibley were both absent from the last major engagement at Glorieta. The accidental outcome at Glorieta, as favorable as it was to the Union, was not under Canby’s control. Despite only having to divide his forces in two, Canby was nevertheless hindered by the vastness of the area he had to cover. Should he lay siege to Santa Fe, where Sibley remained while his troops marched up the Santa Fe Trail? He was undoubtedly at least somewhat worried about his wife being Sibley’s prisoner, having no way of knowing that she was being treated well. Fortunately for the Union, Sibley’s campaign—which might have presented the Union with a more formidable challenge in the hands of a more able commander—collapsed under Sibley’s mismanagement. While Canby’s organizational skills contributed significantly to the Confederate defeat, his adversary’s incompetence made the difference between the New Mexico Campaign bringing the focus of the Civil War westward or becoming a mere footnote to the war.

*While Sun Tzu would have admired Sibley's intent to live off the land in New Mexico, he would have been underwhelmed by Sibley's slowness in getting his invasion underway. About six months elapsed between Sibley's getting permission for his campaign from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his men leaving their base camp in Texas. Logistics was the problem. Equipping his little army with leftover weapons, ammunition, animals and other supplies--in many cases, men having to provide their own uniforms and equipment--took Sibley far more time than it should have.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Movie Critics Who Don’t See What is On the Screen,

or  My Fourth Major Pet Peeve (Don’t ask about one through three)



When the movie “Gods and Generals” came out in 2003, I recall a review that claimed that there was an anachronism in the film. According to one reviewer, there was a reenactment of the Christmas Truce of World War I that the movie set in the American Civil War. The Christmas Truce was an unofficial stop to the fighting that involved a sizeable number of troops on both sides of the line in Belgium between Allied (mainly French and British) and Central Power (in this case, mainly German) soldiers during Christmas of 1914. Men not only stopped fighting but visited each other across the battlefield and shared holiday festivities.


The reviewer of “Gods and Generals” claimed that the movie anachronistically recreated that event only setting it in 1860s America. The reviewer was right that, historically, this did not happen. Unfortunately, it also does not happen in the film. The closest thing to it occurs when one Confederate and one Union soldier meet each other at a creek and decide not to fight each other. Two soldiers do not a Christmas Truce make, and, historically, such isolated instances of one-on-one truces did take place in the course of the Civil War.


A 1985 movie review in the San Jose Mercury News criticized “The Color Purple” for having Celie (Whoopie Goldberg) make an anachronistic “power salute” to her abusive husband, Albert (Danny Glover). Again, the movie reviewer did not use his eyes to see what was actually on screen. A power salute would be a closed fist raised up; Celie’s gesture is arm thrust forward with the pinkie and thumb sticking out, significantly suggesting the horns of the devil. The gesture is not an anachronistic power salute, but a universally recognized cursing gesture. At the time that “The Color Purple” is set, it was known to country people in places as diverse as Italy and the American South. But, of course, the urban movie reviewer would not know about rural gestures. Still, his ignorance is no excuse for not seeing that the gesture on screen is not what he wants to make it into for his convenience. Movie reviewers, of all people, should know how to see what they are looking at.


In 1979, Boston Globe reviewer Bruce McCabe opined that he had found an inconsistency in the movie “Being There” in which Peter Seller’s character, Chance the Gardener, laughs when a Russian tells him a joke. McCabe thought it was out of Chance’s innocent character to pretend to get a joke in a language he did not understand. In this case, McCabe might be forgiven for not having read the book, “Being There,” which explains that the reason Chance laughs is that the Russian, by whispering the joke close to Chance’s ear, tickles him. McCabe made a similar mistake to the Russian in thinking that Chance’s laughter was a reaction to the words rather than to the breath. Perhaps McCabe only demonstrated the film’s point: how we see what we expect and want to see, how plausible a case of monumental self-deception is. Or perhaps he demonstrated how lazy he is not to have read the one book that can be finished in less time than it takes to watch the movie version.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Pope and the Rabbi

In medieval Italy, the Pope declared that all Jews would have to leave Italy. The Jewish community sent a letter of protest. The response from the Vatican was that the Pope would let the Jews stay only if one of their members could defeat the Pope in debate. So the debate took place between the Pope and a rabbi, but since neither of them spoke the other’s language, the debate was conducted in silence.


First the Pope opened the debate by holding up three fingers. The rabbi responded by holding up a single index finger.


Then the Pope spread his arms out. The rabbi pointed to the earth under his feet.


Next the Pope brought out the wine and host of the Eucharist. The rabbi produced a simple apple.


The Pope, seemingly distressed, went out and announced that he had lost the debate and the Jews would no longer have to leave Italy.


The cardinals asked the Pope what had happened, and the Pope explained:


“First I held up three fingers to represent the holy Trinity. He held up one finger to show that we are all under one God.


“Then I spread my arms to indicate that God is everywhere. He pointed to the earth beneath his feet to show that God is right here, right now.


“Finally I brought out the Eucharist to prove that Christ gave his body and blood to save us from our sins. He responded by bringing out an apple to show that we are all heirs to original sin. So, you see, he bested me at every turn. What else could I do but allow his people to stay?”


The rabbi went back to his synagogue and was also asked what had happened. While admitting to being baffled by the Pope’s change of heart, he recounted the debate this way:


“First he held up three fingers to indicate that we had three days to leave Italy. I held up one finger to indicate that not one of us will go.


“Then he spread his arms out so as to say, ‘Clear out of here, all of you’; so I pointed to the ground to indicate we’re staying put.


“Finally, he brought out his lunch, so I brought out mine.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Everything You Know is (Probably) Wrong

Science is politicized because knowledge has always been power. The myth of the immaculate perception of the scientist, unblinkered by religious or political prejudices, is often used as proof that whatever scientists agree upon must be the truth so far as the best available evidence can reveal the truth; but this is far from true. It is especially untrue when politics and science work together.

(True scientists might stick to the facts as they are established, but what use is that when society embraces the fallacies so that the ranks of science are invaded by young turks who have been miseducated by politically correct high school teachers?)

Where the criterion for truth is practical results (more a matter of technology than science) then science cannot be fudged. Where truth is more controversial, then a rush to consensus can and often is possible.


Add to this the dissemination of scientific ideas in the popular culture, and the influence of politics on the establishment and statement of scientific truth becomes even more painfully obvious. What is scientifically established or establishable is shaped by what is acceptable to the group think of the academy as well as the pundit class that writes newspaper editorials and appears on television and radio.


All of this is a birds-eye view of the social situation under which arise the following specific cases of what might be classified as “Everything You Know is Wrong.”


Take the case of the famous polar bear looking forlorn on a chunk of ice and surrounded by water. Environmentalists love this photo because it inspires in the unformed intellects of children a feeling of empathetic distress. The bear appears to be lost, never to touch land again. (Okay, the bear pictured here is not isolated on a piece of ice, but use your imagination.)


The reality, however, has nothing to do with these suppositions or the feelings they encourage. The polar bear, in actuality, happens to be a great swimmer. If we want to anthropomorphize the picture for the benefit of children, what would be more accurate than the tragic tale of the stranded polar bear? How about the bear simply plunging into the water, swimming fifty miles and arriving home in time for dinner. If bears could talk and Mrs. Polar Bear asked him about his day, then instead of saying, “It was awful. I was nearly stranded on a chunk of ice,” Mr. Polar Bear would be more likely to say, “Oh, same old same old. Went for a long swim. Sad to say, though, didn’t catch any fish.”


Why is the more tragic interpretation so popular? (From the bear’s perspective, of course, not finding any fish or other creature to eat would be a tragedy of sorts, and, indeed, is the kind of thing that usually threatens the population of any species.) It is because environmentalism has seeped into our educational system bringing with it prejudices that do not suffer contradiction by any facts. The ideology of environmentalism trumps science in more and more curricula around our country and around the world.


That leads to a larger discussion, but since we are taking an overview of the pervasiveness of politicized science, lets consider another example.


Everyone, by now, knows that Thomas Jefferson fathered some five or six children by his slave Sally Hemings. The only problem with this story is that this “fact” is not known by anyone who has taken the evidence seriously. In the modern rehearsal of this controversy, the two arms of argument are 1) a 1998 DNA test comparing descendants of two of Sally Hemings' children with descendants of Thomas Jefferson's uncle, Field Jefferson; and 2) speculation by historians.

The DNA evidence is far from conclusive with regard to Jefferson himself. Only one of the two descendant lines from Hemings showed any genetic similarity to the Jefferson line. This was the line descended from Eston, Hemings' youngest child. The other descendant line, that of Thomas Woodson, presumably Hemings’ first child, proved to be unrelated to the Jeffersons. Furthermore, the DNA from Field Jefferson’s descendants can only show whether or not someone descended from Thomas Jefferson’s GRANDFATHER might have procreated with Sally Hemings or someone else in her direct line. There were twenty-six such people alive at the time that Sally Hemings bore her children. Ten of them, including Thomas Jefferson, seem to be likely candidates because of their access to Miss Hemings. A more likely candidate than Thomas Jefferson, it has been suggested, is his younger brother, Randolph. In any case, the genetic evidence cannot narrow down the number of candidates further than someone descended from Jefferson’s father’s father.


In the face of this ambivalence of the evidence, however, the standard approach among historians and popularizers has been to assume that Thomas Jefferson did, indeed, father Hemings’ children, and not just one but all or most of them. This, however, appears upon sober reflection to be nothing more than the result of academic groupthink as well as the more easily achieved popular groupthink. The “reasoning” seems to run like this: “He could have, and we want him to have; therefore, he did.” Like the polar bear myth, this is all tied up with the political ideology popular among academics as well as the mass media. Environmentalism and theories of class and race exploitation color every discipline's conclusions whether that discipline's scope includes these things or not. A good deal of idealism leads to unexamined assumptions.


Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has always interfered with science, and while we like to believe that our civilization has overcome the intrusion of wishful thinking into what is supposed to be reasoned inquiry, both our society and even (or especially?) our scholars are still influenced by the whims and fads of political ideologies and utopian schemas.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Revelation curiosities

Although I have read the Bible on and off since I was a boy, I have not read the entire book from beginning to end. Over the past twenty years, however, I have read much of the New Testament. Only recently did I decide to read that most forbidding of N.T. books, Revelation.


I notice there are some odd things about Revelation.


Mixed metaphors and non sequiturs:


“7:14 …They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”


This is not earthly blood, for sure.


“7:17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,…”


The lamb is also the shepherd?


Also, the twenty-four elders are on their thrones, but every time the Four creatures give glory and honor to God, which they do without ceasing, the elders fall down and worship; the elders must spend so little time sitting on their thrones that one wonders how the visionary saw that they ever sat there.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Television Tech and Content: How Far We've Come

If someone who lived in 1969 took all of his appliances to 2009—skipping the better part of half a century—most of those appliances would function as well in 2009 as they had in 1969.* The shock of changes in content might, at least at first, be more overwhelming than changes in technology. But in many cases, as we will see, it is difficult to separate technology from content—or, at least, from context—completely.

Consider the entertainment devices. A householder from 1969 might be expected to own a television set, radio, phonograph player, and possibly a tape deck and a speaker system. All of these devices would work in 2009, at least at the beginning of the year. For most of them, all the owner would have to do is plug them into an electrical outlet and turn them on—this technology has not changed. The phonograph and tape player would do what they do just the same. They are, after all, self contained once they are able to draw electrical current, and the radio airwaves have not changed and are available to any commercial tuner from the 1960s. The glaring exception, of course, is the television set.

Beginning in the first decade of this century, television around the world prepared for the conversion to digital broadcasting, the first technology change that would render a 1960s television set useless unless its user were somehow able to attach a new digital converter. From its invention in 1927 until the first decade of the twenty-first century, electronic analog television had changed little. Improvements made to this technology were profound in some ways but television sets still had the ability to pick up analog television signals.

None of this, of course, accounts for the entire revolution in communication technology that occurred between 1969 and 2009. It is not just that our time-traveling householder has a device that would be outdated by the digital conversion, but rather that he would be missing the broader technological innovations that were added to the earlier technology. Take, as an obvious example, the video cassette recorder, which became available in the 1970s but was then too expensive for the average consumer. By the 1980s, the cost had come down so that nearly everyone could afford to enjoy an additional source of entertainment using their television set. Similarly, other changes, like cable, VCR, DVD, and—in the 1990s—satellite TV, might be thought of as “add-ons,” that changed the television set because they required new receptacles on them to accommodate the new technology; but these technological changes also had profound effects on viewership and even content.

Up until the late 1980s, there had long been only three national television networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. From 1946 to 1956, there was a fourth network called DuMont, but it went out of business as a broadcaster and became, instead, an owner of broadcast stations with its name changed ultimately, to Metromedia. The only other national network was the National Education Television (NET) network, which began in 1954 and became the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970. There were other commercial affiliations such as the Westinghouse Group, which owned numerous stations that were often, but not necessarily, also NBC affiliates. Another such group was Metromedia, and much later there arose another called New World Communications, which like Metromedia, would play an important role in the rise of a new fourth commercial network late in the twentieth century. These networks also syndicated programs exclusively through their affiliates.

While cable television had been around earlier, its scope changed in the ’70s. Cable was originally used to bring television to people who lived in areas where television reception was poor, such as in valleys. Someone would put an antenna on a mountain top and charge residents of the valley below for access. In the 1970s, however, the cable market exploded for “pay TV,” even for customers who did not live in hard to reach areas. More channels and clearer reception sold the notion, and new channels like HBO and TBS, available only on cable, made the idea increasingly attractive—along with the cosmetic change of calling it “cable TV” instead of “pay TV.” (Another phenomenon that actually had its roots at least as early as the 1970s was the privately owned satellite dish, which was physically very large at that time, and possibly caused the most legal problems because users were directly stealing broadcast feed from networks.)

While the technology of television broadcasting changed little, a host of changes had occurred around them that changed broadcasters’ place within the television industry. For the one government and three commercial broadcast networks, their oligopoly as the providers of home entertainment was increasingly being challenged. It started gradually enough that, initially, there seemed no cause for concern at the Big Networks, but as more and more people watched other sources of entertainment on their television sets, viewership of broadcast television began a downward course that continues today. (I remember reading an article in TV Guide back in the late 1960s or early ’70s, in which it was noted that what was then called pay TV might make inroads into broadcast viewership, but it was pointed out, humorously, that this change would not be so drastic that network presidents would be reduced to selling pencils on the street; yet the gradualness of the change has seemingly made the threat worse because the Big Networks have been slow to react to the change—except to buy cable networks as if their only plan is, if worse comes to worst, to abandon their broadcast operations someday and move over completely to cable, satellite or Internet.)

Some changes could be purely classified as changes in the content of television fare. With the introduction of pay channels such as HBO, the use of obscene language and nudity could be allowed because only viewers who paid for the service were supposed to be exposed to such content, and it was no longer a matter of transmission over the “public” airwaves—an example of how even an issue that at first appears to be purely a matter of content turns out to have a technological aspect. The means by which signals could reach a television set were no longer limited to broadcast but were multiple.

One of the most daring projects in the American broadcast television industry occurred in the late 1980s when the FOX network was launched. It was already clear that video and cable television were overtaking broadcast television as a popular source of home entertainment, although it was true—and continues to be true—that some poorer Americans still have not acquired the newer technologies. (Nevertheless, in 2001 the U.S. government found that, regardless of income, more than 98 per cent of Americans had color television sets.) It was probably a now-or-never proposition to start a new network, and the Fox Broadcasting Company took the risk by adding a new commercial network in 1986. Cautiously, the network began by broadcasting only on Sunday nights. At the beginning, there were only a few stations that had been purchased from Metromedia. (How appropriate that FOX was built upon what remained of the defunct fourth commercial network.) In the beginning, most of FOX’s affiliates were not VHF but the less desirable UHF stations, all of which, however, were not already affiliated with the Big Three. Gradually, over its first few years, FOX added nights until it had a nearly full weekly schedule, although it was always the plan to have only two-hours of programming each night so that affiliates could begin the late news at ten o’clock, an hour ahead of most Big Three affiliates.

A change in fortunes in the early 1990s sealed the destiny of FOX. Its owner, wealthy international businessman Rupert Murdoch, had always been committed to putting as much money as necessary into making FOX a success. In 1993, he outbid CBS for the National Football League broadcast rights. Within a year, FOX was joined by all of those former CBS-affiliated VHF stations that had been owned by New World Communications. Football had made FOX a permanent player on the big network field. From now on, it would the Big Four in commercial television.

Other companies also tried to follow the example of FOX and launch new commercial networks during the 1990s. Principally, there were the Warner Brothers Network (WB) and the United Paramount Network (UPN), but despite a few noteworthy television series, these two networks had joined the party too late and found themselves struggling to win over the same small share of viewers. Eventually they decided to merge, becoming the CW Network in 2006. (Previously, UPN had been sold to CBS but had not seen much improvement in its performance; when it merged with the WB, the new name was created by combining the “C” from CBS with the “W” from the WB.)

Today, in 2012, another major communications innovation—to which I have already alluded—has come to affect both the technology and content of television. The Internet had its origins with the Defense Department of the U.S.government at the end of the 1960s. The idea was to connect a network of military computers via phone or cable lines. The idea was actually dreamed up by scientists at universities in the early ’60s, but it took the U.S. military to provide backing. Not surprisingly, universities were soon online as well, and then large institutions such as banks were close behind. Anyone who needed to communicate information over a large network quickly saw the advantage of establishing a computer network. The global impact of this revolution was only felt by the average person after the various institutional networks united to create the world wide web by the beginning of the 1990s, largely thanks to work done by Tim Berners-Lee and other scientists. (As a kind of footnote, another player in computer networking had been the Xerox Corporation, which, almost bizarrely, did a great deal of research into the computerization of the workplace in the late 1960s without ever capitalizing on it. Its ideas were nevertheless influential, notably having an impact on such later innovators as Steve Jobs.)

While the Internet evolved from a military-academic to a private and commercial communication system, digital video and audio were being developed as well. The marriage of these innovations made “streaming video” over the Internet possible. Today, this technology is revolutionizing home entertainment. It is, in fact, making “home” entertainment an outdated misnomer, because now lap top computers can make watching video entertainment a moveable feat; anywhere you can take your lap top, you can usually take your entertainment, too.

This does not leave actual home entertainment without its advantages. In his 1949 dystopic novel “1984,” George Orwell posited the “wallscreen,” a television built into the wall of one’s home, large and obtrusive, and able to watch you as readily as you could watch it. Today, tall and wide, wall-mounted flat screens are becoming ubiquitous, and it is now possible to watch streaming video on a television screen with the addition of an Internet-connected device. There are even two ways of doing this. A computer can be plugged into a port on the TV set so that the screen becomes a computer monitor on which streaming videos can be watched. Another way is to purchase a device dedicated to particular Internet video sources such as Hulu, Netflix and Hulu Plus now has a library of thousands of television programs and films that are available on demand to be watched whenever the viewer chooses. Whereas the time frame during which a viewer in 1969 could watch a television program on network television was limited to the portion of a specific hour when that program was broadcast, today a streaming video program may be viewed any time within the period during which the Internet service makes that program available, which can extend to days or months or even be made indefinite. What is more, most of the broadcast networks, and some of the cable networks as well, make their broadcast programming available on streaming video, either through their own websites or through Amazon, Hulu or Netflix. Within twenty-four hours after a network presents a regular program, it is usually available for streaming. The only exception is CBS which has not made its programs available to Hulu, for example, but may make programs available on its own website.

The past fifty years have seen profound changes in video technology, from TV to YouTube. The changes could be ignored if a viewer wanted to create a bubble and use only his old technology (with the unavoidable exception of conversion to digital television), and the sameness of the television set as the primary vector of home entertainment over such a long period of time has been an impressive technological feat. Upon reflection, though, particularly considering the cumulation of other innovations during that span of time, the switch to digital broadcasting likely signals a coming transformation that will so change what we have come to think of as television that it will finally render television as unrecognizable to us as it would be to our householder from 1969.

*My reasons for choosing 1969 are largely subjective, although, by 1969, color television had become widely available and vacuum tube technology had been replaced by solid state transistors, making such issues as television repair in 2009 a little less of a problem. I am not sure that a 2009 television repairman would know where to begin if confronted with 1950s vacuum tube technology. Also, the picture that a television set made in the 1930s or ’40s would have received from later television broadcasts would have been below par in quality. Of course, 2009 was chosen because it is the year during which analog to digital conversion took place in the United States, and approximately when the same transition occurred in many other countries.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

Through my subscription to Hulu Plus, the streaming video service, I have discovered Korean television. If you don’t know about Hulu Plus, you must at least have heard of, so I will not explain it here. Check it out, though, if you have any inclination to do so. It is a fun way to watch TV, anytime you want instead of having to keep an appointment in which you have no say.  

I seem to favor sci-fi/historical dramas such as “Joseon X-Files” (2010) and “Dr. Jin” (2012). That is unusual right there: there are two shows that combine sci-fi and historical drama.

Hulu Plus seems to come up with its own titles to foreign shows, so IMDb calls it “Joseon X-Files” but Hulu calls it “Secret Investigation Record.” (That probably should be “Secret Investigative Record or Report”; I think Koreans translate these titles; they certainly compose the subtitles with occasionally amusing results.) The “Korean X-Files,” as I call the show, takes the basic premise of the American TV series “The X-Files,” and changes it up. First of all, the series is set in 1609. Inspector Kim Hyung Do (Kim Ji-hoon) works for the royal government of the Joseon Kingdom (often spelled “Choson” or “Chosun”—Korean does not distinguish between the sound pairs represented in English as “b,p”; “g,k”; y,l; and “j,ch”), which was a kingdom on the Korean peninsula that existed, officially from 1392 to 1897 (although it actually continued on after 1897 as the Korean Empire).

Inspector Kim is brought in to investigate “tale bearing” about mysterious objects in the sky. The emperor is afraid that such stories, speaking as they do of power the emperor cannot control, will undermine his rule; if he cannot explain or control such phenomenon, why should the people trust him? Kim is expected to find out that there are no such phenomenon so the government can write off the reports as false, but Kim’s integrity won’t allow him to stop short of a full investigation. It turns out that Royal Secretary Ji Seung (Kim Gab-soo—also spelled Kim Kab-soo, Kim Gap-su and Kim Kap-su), is fully aware that there are strange goings on throughout the kingdom and in other countries, as well, but along with his research assistant, Heo Yoon-yi (Im Jung-eun), a woman who must hide her intellectual accomplishments in a feudalistic culture, he means to let Kim find out as much as he can and then bury the report where it probably will never be read.

“Joseon X-Files” is reminiscent of “The X-Files” but with little differences: Inspector Kim is like Mulder except that he is driven by a thirst for truth unalloyed with credulity; he doesn’t want to believe, he wants to find out the truth and to make rational sense of it. In this, he is more like Scully than Mulder. On the other hand, Assistant Heo is a believer; she has seen too much not to be, but, although it turns out in later episodes that she has her own demons, she generally seems calm in her knowledge of things that mystify and frighten others.

There is the added feature of Magistrate Jang Man (Jo Hee-bong) who is a stock comic character in Asian drama. Think 3-CPO from “Star Wars” only with flesh instead of metal skin. (Actually, I’ve read that George Lucas created 3-CPO and R2D2 based on a pair of lackeys in a 1958 Japanese movie called “The Hidden Fortress.”) He “helps” Kim in his investigations—when he is not getting in the way or dragging his heals, afraid to get in trouble either with ghosts or higher ups.

Though Jang Man is often the butt of humor, the fun is best when everyone is involved. In one episode, there is a telling bit of business that turns out to be more memorable than the overall plot. It has to do with the fact that in 1609, firearms are being introduced to Korea but are still somewhat rare. (Asia is already beginning to fall behind the west in technology, although most Asian rulers will be slow to appreciate the implications of this for more than two centuries.) At the beginning of the episode, Jang is trying to figure out how to operate one these new fangled pistols. Heo and Kim watch him struggle, and Kim tells him to let him know when he has figured it out. Being careless with the unfamiliar weapon, Jang shoots a hole through the brim of his own hat—while it is on his head. (A note about hats: all the upper-cast men wear dark, broad-brimmed hats made of a sort of transparent mesh; this fashion did not change between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.)

Later in the episode, everyone is searching for a homicidal and elusive monster in a forest. Kim and Jang are armed with the pistol, which they have barely gotten the hang of. When Heo shows up, they express concern for her safety, but she assures them that she can take care of herself and produces a pistol of her own. “You know how to use one of those?” they ask in wonder. But, they wonder next, why didn’t you tell us you already know about firearms when we were trying to figure them out? You didn’t ask, she replies.

Many of the strange goings-on are never fully explained. Not even close, in some cases. In a later episode, Inspector Kim stays at an inn located in the middle of the wilderness where he meets a fellow guest who also claims to be a government inspector. In this episode, a true oddity involving firearms turns out to be neither funny nor, in the final analysis, comprehensible. There is a group of somewhat menacing soldier/hunters whose intended prey might just be human. These men are armed with matchlock muskets, entirely plausible in that day and age: these were antique firearms that required the musketeer to light a fuse and wait for it to ignite his gunpowder before the weapon would discharge. A chancy weapon as is made clear in the scene where one of the men stares down the barrel at a charging vampire, hoping the gun fires before the creature reaches him.

Then, in a climactic scene—and I am going to spoil the surprise  here, so stop reading if you want to and are able—one of the muskteers prepares to shoot the mysterious man who claims to be an inspector. As the muskteer’s fuse burns down, the “inspector” pulls out a revolver and shoots the musketeer dead. Yes, you read it correctly: a revolver, a weapon that was not invented for another two centuries. Indeed, the glimpse of it that I got suggested to me that it was of a type that would not be invented until the late nineteenth century but which continued to be manufactured into the twentieth century and might still be made to this day. The obvious conjecture is that the “inspector” was really a time-traveler, but the episode did not provide any conclusive explanation.

Speaking of time-travel, my favorite Korean TV series is “Dr. Jin.” I do not know whether “Joseon X-Files” has origins in other media, but “Dr. Jin” (aka, "Time Slip Dr. Jin" or “Dak-teo Jin”) is a Korean version of a Japanese television series called simply “Jin,” (2009-2011) and it, in turn, is based on a Japanese graphic novel (manga) of the same title by Murakami Motoka. So this story has been told and elaborated before. Still, the Korean version is the first one I became familiar with; so I am understandably partial to it.

“Dr. Jin,” like “Joseon X-Files,” is set during the long-running Joseon Kingdombut more than two hundred years later than “Joseon X-Files.” Revise that: since this is an all-out time travel tale, it begins in the early twenty-first century when crack neurosurgeon, Jin Hyuk (Song Seung-hun), pining over the loss of his fiancĂ©e (Park Min-young), is mysteriously transported back to 1860. Not much has changed since the seventeenth century. The hats are the same and the commander of the imperial police, Kim Kyung-tak (Kim Jae-joong) is the only person who carries a firearm—and it's an eighteenth century flintlock.

Poor, disoriented Dr. Jin lands in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being a member of a band of rebels. Running for his life, he eludes the police but falls over a cliff where he dangles precariously until he is rescued by Lee Ha-eung (Lee Beom-su) who turns out to be one of my favorite characters in this drama. He is like the elf that the hero meets in the forest and at first underestimates. (Think Yoda in “Star Wars.”) Lee (or Yi—as I said before, the difference between “y” and “l” is ambiguous to the Korean ear—it’s the same lightly pronounced “l” sound that the Japanese can’t easily distinguish from their “r” sound.) is a member of the royal family but has been forced aside by the powerful Kim (of) Ahn Dong family. (I have learned that the Kims had been providing Queens to the Lee - or Yi - dynasty for generations and thereby had become powerful ministers who decades before had reduced the Lee dynasty to puppet status.) Intelligent and subtle, Lee Ha-eung has been forced to play the buffoon for years in order to stay alive. Remembering his Korean history, however, Dr. Jin eventually realizes that Lee is none other than Heungseon Daewongun who within a few years would become the regent of Joseon until his son could take the reins of power as king. For now, poor Lee must force his young son to hide his intelligence lest the Kims decide to nip a potential rival in the bud--something they had often done to members of the Lee family.

Dr. Jin has other things to worry about at first. He meets the Hong family, also poor nobles on the outs, when he finds Hong Young-hwi (Jin Yi-han) stumbling about with a head wound. It is a good thing that Jin is a brain surgeon because he is repeatedly called upon to operate on haematomae in the brains of important people. Hong is his first patient. The families of his patients are always reluctant to let Jin cut their loved one’s skull open, but after his first few successes, his methods are not only accepted but acclaimed. The royal physician does not share everyone else’s enthusiasm, however, and becomes Jin’s implacable enemy. When the Kim who is the de facto head of state suggests that perhaps Jin learned his mysterious medical skills from the Chinese or from Westerners, and Jin replies, “Something like that,” the royal physician, who is anything but stupid, mutters that he has studied Chinese medicine and even perused Western medical texts and knows there is nothing there about Jin’s methods. Oops. My favorite medical anachronism is Jin's use of the stethoscope he has made, because I happen to know that even American physicians had not adopted the stethoscope at this time; only the most advanced European doctors were using them.

But most troubling of all for Jin is the fact that his first patient’s sister, Hong Youngrae (or Younglae), is the spitting image of his lost love—which she is, of course, because she is played by the same actress, Park Min-young. To add mix to the soup, she is not available since she is betrothed to the police commissioner, Kim Kyung-tak. Jin would probably spend more time than he does moping about this, but he doesn’t have time as he must constantly battle diseases with primitive medical equipment that he often has to make himself. He thus manages to cure brain injuries, tumors, cholera and syphilis. It is only when he is inventing penicillin to cure syphilis that he begins to be worried about the Prime Directive that every “Star Trek” fan knows to mean that superior technology should not be introduced to a primitive culture lest it result in cultural changes that could be devastating.

Dr. Jin tries to put the breaks on his introduction of advanced medical technology before he finishes making penicillin, but his friend, Lee, begs him to save his girlfriend who seems to be the only case of syphilis in Korea at the time. (She caught it from a westerner who was the secret guest of the head of state’s son.) Jin is too involved with these people and can’t deny his friends the fruits of his knowledge and skill. (One problem, never explicitly addressed, is an obvious one: If Jin does not strictly regulate his new “panacea,” people will gladly take his penicillin for whatever ails them and soon the drug will stimulate penicillin-resistant strains!)

I should not forget Jun-pal (Lee Won-jong), the king of the underworld, to whom Lee Ha-eung owes money for gambling debts. (Think Jabba the Hutt from "Star Wars.") Lee Won-jong portrays him as a sharp-eyed wheeler-dealer with taurean appetites and a mercurial temper such that he can be comical at one moment but menacing the next.
While I have seen all twelve episodes of “Joseon X-Files,” I at first believed that there could be more episodes of “Dr. Jin” to come, but the series is actually finite and complete. There are two ways I might have already spoiled the ending of this story for both myself and you, dear reader: First, I have already guessed a partial explanation of how Dr. Jin traveled through time, especially in terms significant to the denoument, and, second, I have read about the history of the historical period where Jin lands in his backward time travel. So, taking the second case first, Jin actually spoils the story by revealing that Lee is the future regent of Joseon. Indeed, with the story set in 1860, Lee is only three or four years from taking control of the kingdom away from the Kims. At the end of episode eight—which could be a season finale, Lee has won an audience with the secluded Dowager Queen Sinjeong who has the power to name the curent puppet King Cheoljong's successor.

As to the story of Jin himself, his time-travel is precipitated after he operates on a mysterious patient whose face is obscured by bandages. The patient has a highly unlikely homunculus in his head, which Jin removes and puts in a jar for further study. But before he can do anything further, Jin goes to the roof to mope. Meanwhile, the patient, his face still covered in bandages, gets up, steals a bag of medical equipment and the jar, and goes to the roof where he attempts to jump off. In trying to stop him, Jin himself falls off the roof clutching the bag and reaching in mid air for the jar. Suddenly he falls into a wood outside the Joseon capital of Hanyang in 1860.

I think the solution—or at least the partial solution, because I don’t know yet where that little homunculus came from or how it triggers time travel—is that the bandaged patient was Jin himself, having traveled from 1860 to 2012 via the homunculus. Now Jin has gone back to 1860 with the jar containing the homunculus. Sometime in the not too distant future, he will decide to go back to the future for more supplies, and he will end up causing his earlier self to go back to 1860 in the first place; thus causing a time loop.

Now that I have spoiled that storyline, I still am curious to find out all the details that I haven’t guessed, and I am also fascinated with the melodrama of all these characters, even knowing how the historical events are supposed to play out. I suppose that the real guilt of this pleasure arises from the fact that near or at the heart of the story is the love triangle between Jin Hyuk, Hong Young-rae and Kim Kyung-tak. You just know that Hyuk and Young-rae are meant for each other, but Kyung-tak has her within his grasp and won’t let go. The flaw in his love, which is real enough on a platonic level, is that he is in love with the idea of her more than with the woman. To Kyung-tak, who is the illegitimate son of the head of state, she is a noble woman whose betrothal to him means advancement in his status and, certainly, that of any children their marriage produces.

But I am also intrigued with watching how Lee and Jin navigate the tricky waters of the potentially fatal court intrigues they have gotten into. Their enemies are gathering and are warned. The head of state obviously no longer buys the ruse that Lee is just a buffoon, if he ever really bought Lee’s act at all, and the court physician is out to get his rival Dr. Jin one way or another, whichever is most permanent.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Inaccurate with an Asterisk

A response to

10 Historically Inaccurate Movies by Jane McGrath

McGrath criticizes Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" for its historical inaccuracies, but did the filmmakers know what they were doing?
After watching "Braveheart" seventeen years ago, I did some research of my own. Screenwriter Randall Wallace impressed me not with his accurate telling of history but his obvious knowledge of what he was doing in bringing bits and pieces of history together in a collage. For example, Isabella did have an affair with a Welshman (not a Scotsman) who fathered a "prince"; but this was a generation after William Wallace was executed. And Edward II's gay lover was murdered, but not by his already dead father, but rather by members of his court.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Pop of Cinema Popcorn

The next time you buy popcorn at the movies, you might want to thank Mike Blank who first served popcorn at a  movie theater in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1930s. (I have not nailed down the exact year, yet.)

Myron “Mike” Blank (1911-2005) was the son of Abraham Blank, the owner of the Central States Theater Corp., a theater chain with screens in Iowa and Nebraska. At age twelve, Mike went to work for his dad. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1933, he became an executive in the family business. Up until that time, theater goers had long favored snacking on peanuts. Popcorn was frowned upon because it had too many hulls and because many thought the popping process smelled bad. Mike found an oil that smelled good and reduced the number of hulls. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Socialist Argues that Jesus Was a Socialist


Jesus Was a Socialist

By Valentine Lobar (blog post)

Jesus was the very first Socialist. Got your attention with that statement, didn’t I?

Over the past several months, many of my more politically right friends and family members have grown quite bellicose during discussions about the current administration and in particular the current President. One of the most frequent slanders I have heard is, “Obama is a Socialist!” Well, as I have heard this label more than once applied to this President, to many Liberal Democrats, and to others myself included who believe there are better options than flat out capitalism I decided to look into the situation and determine for myself the following:

A) Is Obama really a Socialist?

B) Is Socialism an entirely bad economic framework?

C) What was the basis of Socialism, where did it start?

In the West, we have peculiar views of Socialism. In fact, all too often, we wrongly equate Socialism with Nazism, the Third Reich, and post WWII Russia Communism / Marxism, in truth many pundits, those talking heads where so much of our social views seem to be derived from have put horns, cloven hooves, and a tail on socialism and call it evil.

[Huh? Who ordinarily equates socialism with Nazism? It is true, but rather few people understand that equivalence. Though Hitler himself was more an opportunist than an ideologue when it came to socialism, he used its doctrines to regulate industry and turn it into a war machine as well as to “stimulate” Germanyout of the Great Depression, for which Hitler has received praise from noted leftists like John K. Galbraith. Beyond Hitler, many Nazis were ardent Marxists at one time and arguably never stopped being Marxists in their hearts. (These included Joseph Goebbels and Otto Strasser.) And why only post-World War II Russia [sic]? The Soviet government did plenty of evil before the War. How do you think it came to power in the first place?]

Further, we wrongly connect Socialism with a political movement, which it is decidedly not. Consider the definition of Socialism, there are many however, for the purpose of this discussion I will use the following classic definition:

"Socialism". OxfordEnglish Dictionary. "1. A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all. 2. A state of society in which things are held or used in common."

[Just how have we established here that socialism is not a political movement or system?]

I want to go a step further and identify the historically and generally accepted forms of socialism; I believe they are applicable. During my reading, I found many different theories, different standards, and applications. I was surprised to learn how far back the theory of Socialism went, the first writings of which were by Henri de Saint-Simon in 1823. What you say, nearly 200 years ago that can’t be right; nevertheless, it is indeed the truth Utopian Socialism emerged as a economic theory in the early 19th-century laying the groundwork for modern Socialist thought.

[All the way back to 1823! I would say there were many earlier yet relatively recent influences. Thomas More’s Utopia being only one. The author might be interested to know that J.S. Mill wrote his early 1860s (posthumously published in the 1870s) essay “On Socialism” with reference almost solely to early 19th century socialists; Mill seems to have been completely unaware of Marx or any other German socialist. All forms of socialism are utopian, BTW, especially if, like Marx and Engel’s brand, they claim not to be.]

What I found in my reading were two distinct schools of thought:

The first is the Social Democrats; this theory proposes a mixed economy with the nationalization of key industry. Social Democrats promote private ownership of property, capital, and enterprise. What appears to be the differentiators in those nations where Social Democrats hold or have held sway is market-regulation and tax funded welfare programs.

The other school of thought is the Libertarian Socialist; this theory rejects all forms of state control and private ownership reverting instead to collective ownership of production and the economy. Decision-making done via councils or workplace democracy. The Libertarian Socialist movement is more closely aligned to the original Utopian view of Socialism, which espoused communal ownership and no private property or enterprise.

[The author has nothing to say about the degree of interpenetration between these ideologies; they have, in fact, cross-pollinated from the start. Today, no one on the left does not owe a debt, intellectual or otherwise, to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism. That theory has taken over the field in socialist thought. This is one of the reasons why it is foolish to argue that President Barack Obama is not a socialist, because whenever someone says “redistribution of wealth,” Karl Marx deserves a notional footnote.]

Now, having established the forms of Socialism as both economic and social theories it is time to examine why I believe Jesus was the first Socialist.

Jesus was the first Socialist, this isn’t really a question, but a statement of fact based upon the New Testament Bible. In fact I find it an interesting phenomenon that those who are most vocal in their rejection of social programs to assist the poor and displaced of our society are the very same who in most cases call themselves the “Moral Majority” and espouse Christian values as the basis of their political stance. Nevertheless, let me return to my proofs of why Jesus was the first Socialist, how I have arrived at this conclusion.

I am going to start with Mark Chapter 10:21-25 21Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

So here, we have a very good example of Utopian Socialism in action

[Now there’s a contradiction in terms; Jesus is always more interested in action than theory, which is what “Utopian Socialism” is, a modern theory.]

with Jesus telling the wealthy young man the only way to follow him and gain heaven was to give away his great wealth to the poor, in other words redistribution of personal wealth to those with great need from those with great riches. Naturally, this must be very difficult for some to swallow, notice that the young mans face ‘fell’ when told he must give away his wealth to follow Jesus. Here though is our first proof, we must have no personal wealth beyond our needs; Socialism seems to be de rigueur.

[The author conflates VOLUNTARY with INVOLUNTARY “redistribution of personal wealth.” Also, she begs the question by calling voluntary sharing of wealth “Socialism” without having demonstrated that it is. Also, note that some of Jesus followers were wealthy and put their wealth at his disposal. See especially the activities of the wealthy youth, Lazarus, in John, chapter 12, where he apparently hosts Jesus and his disciples (12:1-2) and joins them when Jesus preaches (12:9). If it were not contrary to tradition, one might admit that this wealthy young man was essentially an honorary apostle.]

Moving on to the next area that might prove my point and which certainly has a few feathers ruffling today; that of health care or in this case Jesus Healing those in need. He certainly didn’t seem to pay much attention to the conventions of the time, like oh say working on the Sabbath, which got him into a few bits of trouble with the powers that be. Nonetheless, heal he did without concern or consideration for pre-existing conditions or whose toes he was stepping on Jesus made his way through the land casting out demons, healing leprosy, epilepsy, and other dastardly illnesses that afflicted the people, he cared not a whit for whether a person was rich or poor, of the ruling class, or the most destitute beggar before the temple he healed them. The Pharisees, although the ruling class within the temple at the time and thus in control of wealth, law, and healing could not prevent him from teaching or healing, even on the Sabbath.

[Under Obamacare, a doctor who healed people that the government told him not to would end up being fined or put in jail, if not executed!]

There are many examples of this sprinkled throughout the New Testament, here are just a few:

[One of my bugaboos is people who cite scripture without quoting it (or at least summarizing it as I do above) so that by the time the rest of us have looked it up, the perpetrator has left the building in self-righteous triumph. On the other hand, with nothing but the citations, I am free to read the translation of my choice.]

Matthew 4:23

[“He went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness among the people.”],


[Identical to 4:23 except that this occurs beyond Galilee “in all the cities and villages.”],


[“When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him,” I suppose the author means we should read the following verses, too. This is the start of a story about someone asking for healing and Jesus giving it, but not before, at the beginning of verse 17:17, he complains about having to endure “this faithless and depraved generation,” which might be meant for everyone present or especially for his disciples who had already tried and failed to cure the patient.]

Mark 7:31

[“Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” At least this time we have a complete sentence, but I find this verse thin on evidence that Jesus was a socialist. Once again, we are looking at the start of another healing story.],


[“They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him.” At least this time we get that we are about to hear that Jesus healed yet another person.]

John 9:51

[Oops! My Bible doesn’t have any verse John 9:51, but 9:35-41 is a healing story. Perhaps the author means that passage. In any case, none of these passages proves anything except that Jesus gave away his healing power to everyone regardless of class (which must be the point that the author is belaboring here) for free unless we account for the fee his patients sometimes paid by having to listen to his angry rants, a small price to pay for the cure of epilepsy and blindness, to be sure!]

Now to one of the best proofs and that is found in Matthew 25:31-46: The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. For those that don’t know this one the key statement is as follows:

41"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. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.' 44"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?’ 45"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.’ 46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”.

[Again we have the continued conflation of VOLUNTARY (Jesus) and INVOLUNTARY (Marx, Hitler, Obama, etc.) redistribution of wealth as well as the segregation of those to be hated and rejected, which superficially could be seen as parallel to modern socialist-inspired class hatred, but let’s not be carried away by the unexamined conflation of beliefs from two completely different historical periods. BTW, I see that I use the word "conflation" a great deal to describe the author's notions; that is because the conflation of antitheses is her most frequent fallacy.]

Finally, the teachings continued after the death of Jesus, the best example of the Utopian Socialism being the following by James found in 2:1-7:

1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

[This passage is, at least at its outset, about TREATING people equally, rather than arbitrarily MAKING them equal, the latter being what socialism seeks to do. Note that James does not say that we should steal the ring and fine clothes of the rich man and give them to the poor man. Also it is not clear whether the “rich” who aggravate James here are fellow Christians; they might be in one verse and might not be in the next, or in neither. Note, too, that the rich exploiters (or “oppressors,” which is how the Greek word is usually translated) are not exploiters in terms of the Marxist class theory of exploitation, but, rather, as James suggests, oppressors in two specific ways: bringing legal charges against (fellow?) Christians and slandering (or “blaspheming,” as the Greek actually says) against Jesus. What if a rich person doesn’t do either of those things but continues to be a rich person? Is he still an oppressor? James does not say. Besides, these and the following verses form an admonition to those who would be inclined to curry favor with the rich rather than an attack on the rich themselves, which seems to be a side issue and not James’ main point (and to the extent that he does go on about his particular grudge against the rich, it might tell us more about James than about Christianity).]

So now, we circle back around to my original questions; is the current President, Barack Obama a Socialist? I think the answer is that he is not any more a Socialist than any other American is, we simply have a difficult time recognizing ourselves or our economy for what it truly is. The fact is the current economic system has some aspects of Socialism including government regulation of certain industries, provisioning of health insurance for the elderly (Medicare), provisioning of care for the poor at a state level (Welfare, WIC, and Medicaid), taxing authority supported police, fire, and aid (911) are all examples of socialist programs. Each is generally found in countries with mixed economies, that is Socialism and Capitalism are both at work. Thus, my first conclusion Barack Obama is not a Socialist he is not even very far left of the middle; he is a Democrat and that is all he is.

[In other words, socialism has become the norm, therefore the president is not a socialist. The idea that President Obama is “not even very far left” and is close to the middle is incredible; he definitely comes from the far left—socialist—wing of the Democratic party. His parents were socialists; his grandparents were socialists; his mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was a card carrying Communist; he explicitly sought out Marxist friends and teachers wherever he went. He has been steeped in and chosen to steep himself in socialism his whole life. He worked as a community organizer when that was nothing other than a socialist occupation based on the teachings of the socialist Saul Alinsky. It would be miraculous if he were not a socialist after all of that. He also allied himself with the most radical parts of the labor movement before his election and has pandered to them since. He is in favor of wealth redistribution and universal single payer health care, the latter of which is more simply called socialized medicine. (Actually, in 2007, he told labor activists that he had always been in favor of universal single payer health care; then, in 2009, he told the American people he had never been in favor of it; you decide which audience he was lying to, but you can't deny he lied to one or the other.) To this man a mixed economy is not a system to advocate but is rather a mere station on the way to absolute government control of the means of production. Also, lumping together welfare and police protection as socialism is apples and oranges since the Framers of the Constitution envisioned a society that provided some sort of permanent police power (mostly though not exclusively local) but not one where the public dole became permanently run by the federal government.]

The next question I asked is easily answered, is Socialism an entirely bad economic framework? The answer is yes, it is a bad framework as a stand-alone economy it is not possible to successfully manage a country in a pure Socialist economy. Nevertheless, the mixed economy of capitalism and Social Democracy is the appropriate and moral basis of a successful nation. This is true both from an economic standpoint and from the standard of ensuring all members of a society are able to their ability to be educated, work in relevant jobs, participate in government, and be cared for when necessary. Providing for the weakest members of society should be a given rather than a fight. Just as a purely Socialist economy is not sustainable neither is a purely Capitalist driven economy as we have ample proof of today in the United States.

[I suppose we are to be grateful that the author realizes that pure socialism is a bad idea, but do we have proof today that pure capitalism is a bad system? For that to be true, we would have to have pure capitalism. But there isn’t a pure capitalist system. So how can we prove that pure capitalism doesn’t work with examples from a mixed economy such as ours? It is a mixed economy--moving in the direction of pure socialism--that we have proof doesn’t work.]

So I say again, Jesus was the first Socialist. Perhaps all those who shout from their pulpits and their soapboxes about their moral right to gain riches on the backs and at the cost of others should check their premise.

[The author might want to check her premise that anyone claims such a right. The notion that capitalism is about riding others' backs or achieving at the cost (and presumably to the detriment) of others is not what free market capitalism is about at all. It is about benefiting from mutually beneficial exchanges with others and benefiting from the fruit of one's own labor. It is, indeed, the only moral way to live as opposed to setting up a system whereby not only those who are truly needy, but also those who are merely lazy and/or foolish, are free to take what they want from others without so much as compensation.]

While they are pointing fingers and calling names, perhaps they should read the book they are standing upon, yes that would be the Bible they so readily reference usually incorrectly. During their ranting and ravings, their demand that the government “keep their hands off their Medicare”; perhaps it would serve them well to review the statements and teachings of the man who is the basis of their entire belief system, maybe this would help them.

[Did the author really attribute to her opponents the slogan “keep [the government’s] hands off [our] Medicare”! This does not seem to be a fight over capitalism versus socialism but rather a duel between recipients of different entitlements. That is indeed something we are likely going to see more of, and that is so precisely because the socialistic programs being advanced in the name of health care reform are going to pit Medicare recipients against Medicaid recipients as well as others; this conflict seems to be what the president wants since his legislation has made it inevitable.]

Obama is not a Socialist. Jesus however was the first Socialist.

[At best, the Scottish verdict of Not Proven would seem to apply. I rather conclude that the president is very much a socialist, and more so than any Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt (who used to roll into cabinet meetings with the greeting, “Good morning, fellow socialists”; but at least Roosevelt was an American nationalist whereas Obama is an internationalist, more interested in helping other countries overtake the United States economically and militarily). To ignore the president’s own expressions of his socialism (as well as his internationalism and anti-Americanism) is just ostrichism. Jesus, on the other hand, having lived long before socialism was even conceivable in its modern sense, was not a socialist. To the arguable extent that he was political at all, he was an anarchist who advocated non-participation in political-economy, equal treatment (not equal outcomes), and freedom of choice. He did not believe in patronage but associated with everyone freely and led by example. He rejected charity by force, never even considering such an absurdity. He did not propose to coerce anyone into anything. He recognized that charity is a choice, not a mandate and that if it isn't a choice, it has no value.]

Friday, April 20, 2012

William Herschel

William Herschel was born in Germany in 1738 but spent most of his eighty-three years in England. He is best remembered for discovering the planet Uranus, and the symbol for the planet contains a letter “H” in his honor. This discovery was only one of his many accomplishments.

Herschel also discovered two moons orbiting Uranus and two moons orbiting Saturn. He discovered more than 800 binary stars, which are pairs of stars that are very close together and orbit each other. He was the first to guess that such stars are bound to each other by gravity. In addition, he found over 2400 groups of stars, some of which later turned out to be galaxies.

Herschel was the first to see that the ice caps on Mars expand and shrink, proving that Mars has seasons. He also measured the tilt of the axis of Mars. He realized that our sun and its planets are moving together and figured out the direction we are traveling. He studied our galaxy and correctly concluded that it is shaped like a disk that is much wider than it is thick.

Herschel sometimes surprised himself with his discoveries. One day in 1800, while he was studying sun spots, he separated sunlight into its colors with a prism and, using a thermometer, found that beyond the red band of light there was a great deal of heat but no visible light. He had discovered infrared light, a kind of light that is invisible to humans.

Some of Herschel’s ideas were not fully developed. For example, he guessed that by studying changes in the price of wheat over time, he could make conclusions about changes in the weather and the sun’s activity. Years later, other scientists found out that his theory works, but Herschel did not have enough information, during his lifetime, to carry out accurate research. He also coined the word asteroid, but did not use it exactly the way that scientists do today. Some of his ideas were wrong and even silly, although many people who lived at the same time did not think they were silly. For example, he thought that every planet and star, including our sun, is inhabited. He even guessed that the people who live on the sun would have giant heads.

In his scientific work, Herschel did not limit himself to astronomy. He was as fascinated by microscopes as telescope, and he built both. By looking at corals under one of his microscopes, he discovered that they are animals rather than plants, as most people thought at the time. In this way, he made a contribution to biology. His talents were not even limited to science. Herschel could play the violin, cello, harpsichord, oboe and organ, and he composed twenty-four symphonies as well as other musical compositions.

The rest of Herschel’s family was also gifted in music and science. His father and brother were musicians, and his sister, Caroline, and son, John, were scientists. Caroline discovered several comets and updated a book on stars for which she was honored by the Royal Astronomical Society. John discovered more than one thousand objects in the night sky and gave names to the moons of Saturn and Uranus, some of which were discovered by his father. John also contributed to our knowledge about mathematics, chemistry, photography, ultraviolet light and color blindness.