Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Advent of World War III

ISIS' latest atrocity, the publicized murder of uninvolved Frenchman Herve Gourdel, is only the latest of a string of brutalities that underscores how violent and ruthless the extremist group is.  And I believe it is just another shot in the opening salvo of World War III.

World War I was the result of a runup of tensions all over Europe.  You can't easily point to any one thing that led to it but the climate was ripe for a thunderstorm.  When Yugoslavian archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Black Hand (almost by accident as an earlier planned attempt had gone wrong and Ferdinand was returning from visiting bystanders wounded by that attempt when a lone member of the Black Hand took advantage of Ferdinand's sudden appearance in a wrong turn and shot him), it was only the first pebble of the avalanche.  By itself Ferdinand's assassination didn't amount to much, but it was the lynchpin that set other, larger events in motion.

World War II was more complex.  Rather than having a few incidents that we can point to as the actual starting gun, WWII was more of a rising tide, with things happening everywhere at once, but inexorably.  I guess if you want to single out one thing, it would be Poland deciding it was its own independent state and not kowtowing to demands from Germany.  After that, things get exciting.

ISIS took custody of Herve Gourdel, a mountaineering tourist in Algeria, after he was kidnapped there by the Jund al-Khilafa.  Evidently ISIS believes in farming out work to suppliers and subcontractors.

Once they had him, ISIS forced Gourdel to speak for them, then they killed him.

Now, it's bad enough these bastards kill each other.  As bad as that is, I say let them.  That means less of them for us civilized people to have to contend with.

It's way worse when they seize nonpartisan journalists in-country and murder them.  If their cause is right and good, having it reported by journalists is good.  It gets theirr face out in front of the global audience and wins them support.  Killing such neutral parties is counter-productive, it makes them  look out of control, unreasonable.

Snatching a completely uninvolved tourist who is hundreds of miles removed from any fighting is just over the top.  It's bad enough when bad guys do that kind of thing to demand ransom, ransom that helps fund further activities.  But to use the poor victim as a mouthpiece and then murder him too?  That's just too much. 

Not that they are reserving their hatred and violence for foreigners.  ISIS's monstrosity is almost without limit.  Their victims are almost universally Muslim - they claim to be Muslim themselves, but how can anyone claiming any kind of faith carry out the acts they do?  It beggars belief.  And as bad as their behavior is, as long as it was contained to the Middle East, with Islamists killing each other, we were willing to look the other way, like neighbors to a house where the adults fight and yell at each other.  Not our house, not our business.  We don't get upset - well, too upset - as long as the fight stays inside the house.  When those fighters come spilling out of the house and into the street, banging on our doors however, they have dragged us into what had been exclusively Someone Else's Problem.

If ISIS were ever hoping to consolidate animosity against themselves, they're on the right track.  Few things could galvanize public opinion harder against them than deliberately and ruthlessly targeting the innocent, the uninvolved, the unsuspecting.  Gourdel was on vacation, spending his money in a foreign country, offending no one.  NOTE: these things are good for  economies.  You WANT tourists.  If you want your economy to suffer, scare away the tourists.  There'll be a big, noticeable dip immediately.

Can you imagine American tourists heading to the Middle East right now?  I sure can't.  I once imagined I might like to see Saudi Arabia or ancient Babylon at one time, not any more.  And any French tourists who had plans for Algeria has likely suddenly changed his destination to someplace a lot less chancy, like Portugal or Scotland.

Now I think the best thing to do with the entire Middle East region is to bomb it flat until the sand melts.  There are entirely too many factions, too much fundamentalism, too little rationality.  Kill the entire mess until it is completely, utterly dead, dead forever.  But that's me.  I believe very strongly in the fix-it-fast solution, which can sometimes lead to over reactions.  That's why I'm not in politics.

For all you innocent citizens living in the Middle East, I am very sorry for you.  I am.  Somehow this cancer has sprung up within the body of your population, and it absolutely must be killed before it poisons others.

So cut it out for yourselves, before the rest of the world has to cut it out.  It will be bigger and bloodier if we have to do it.  And if we have to do it, it will be known in the future as World War III, the first religious World War.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thinking About Cars: Colt Vista Update

My grandmother's 1992 Colt Vista, quirky genre-busting tall AWD wagon, is no more.

You may recall I posted a brief review of the strange machine last year, and pointed out that while the Colt Vista answered questions few people ever really asked, it had its strong points.  It boasted cartoonish volume inside its otherwise modest dimensions, room for an entire circus' worth of clowns.

One of those strong points was never corrosion protection.

While under the care of my grandfather before he died, the Vista enjoyed regular maintenance and lived in a garage.  That's good, but the garage was in the great state of Minnesota, where winter is long, cold and full of snow.  They salt their roads in Minnesota.

We salt our roads in Tennessee too, but in Minnesota they mean it.  A couple of decades of that can take a toll on things that are made of steel and then put up wet in a slightly warm environment.  Lather, rinse and repeat a few hundred times and it can be pretty hard on your underbody.

I had no idea.  I've long known that Japanese cars of a certain age are susceptible to breathtaking corrosion problems, particularly Toyotas and Hondas from the 70s and 80s.  But I had assumed that, by the 90s, they would have figured out that American roads are hell on cars and would have taken steps to make them last better.

I called on a nice guy who'd been offering advice and encouragement via e-mail, a nice guy who had left a note on the car when I left it at the shop offering to buy it.  He came over and looked at it.

"Oh, man!" he said, clambering out from under the car, shaking his head.  "I'm so sorry.  There's almost nothing left."

I had spent all my time under the front of the car - the very front, removing bits so I could get around to pulling the head.  It's a bit greasier up there and things are usually in somewhat better condition.

"You've got cracks in the suspension mounts, the pinch weld is almost rusted completely through, shoot, you have cracks in your driveshaft.  I mean, wow."

I squeezed under the car and looked around.  It was amazing.  I had spent absolutely zero time under the car aft of the front wheels, looking around under the Vista's back 40 was an education in decay.  It gave me the shudders to imagine trying to drive it anywhere at all, let alone letting my kids drive it.

"Well," I said.  "That's that."

Tom was dismayed.  "I'm really sorry to give you bad news, man."

"Don't be.  I don't have any emotions wound up in this car.  I don't even associate it with my grandmother that much."

Tom showed me his handiwork under the hood of his very cherry sedan, showing me his deep interest in other Mitsubishi models and particularly his handiwork wrenching on Mitsu engines.  The mill under the hood was beautiful, and definitely not stock.  "I take it to the strips and make the Corvette guys work for their slips on Saturdays."

"Sweet work.  What's that do to your fuel economy?"  I can't stop being an ecomodder.

"Well, at the end of the night I push a button to fire up the economy programming and it gets 30-plus the whole way home."


We said our goodbyes and I called Pull-A-Part to come get the Vista.  And now that it's gone, I'm actually much happier.  It was hanging around, no one was driving it, and it took up space.  So that's the end of that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Quite a Book Review: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Full disclosure: I didn't actually read the book.

First I purchased a graphic novel of the book.  I have always had a love for graphic novels, moreso than regular episodic comics in that a graphic novel will usually either draw together an entire storyline from a regular superhero title and publish it all in one go, or else it will render a more conventional story in a pictures-and-word format that is, if not as complete as the original text-only version, maybe more fun.

There are also certain titles, epic titles, that have never been offered as anything else.  Love and Rockets by the Brothers Hernandez has, since 2008, only been published as a graphic novel.  Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman tell his father's reminiscences as a Jewish Pole before and during the Jewish extermination in World War II, and of surviving the concentration camps and a strained life afterward.  It is a gruesome, fascinating tale and oddly continues to fall under the heading of fiction.  It is Spiegelman putting his father's words on paper, his own family's history, but the people are portrayed as talking animals.  Perhaps that's where the problem lies.

But this is about Anthem.  Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was originally from Russia, born into what was about to become the Soviet Union.  As a young girl she was bright, intelligent and not especially challenged by her education.  She went on to college but was purged as a member of the bourgeoisie, only to be reinstated long enough to officially graduate.  She made a trip to the US in 1925 and made it her goal to live there as it was much more to her taste, basking in the individualistic and self-deterministic ideals of "Americanism."  Rand, an atheist, went on to found her own ersatz religion. I use the word guardedly because in fact "Objectivism" as it is called is more correctly described as a philosophical system, which isn't as fun to say knowing Rand's own religious bias.  Objectivism insists that there is nothing more than one's own perception of things as they are, and that the highest moral imperative is pursuing one's own happiness.

This leaves room for argument, if one's happiness comes from eating live kittens or blowing up shopping malls full of frightened tourists.  I haven't dug deeply enough into Objectivism to determine whether there are any asterisks that allow the greater populace to overrule certain individuals' happiness.  God (oops, sorry Ayn, my bad) forbid that the needs of the many might supercede the needs of the one.

In Anthem the protagonist is a bright young man by the unlikely name of Equality 7-2521.  That's his entire name.  That implies that there are a great many other Equalities and in the world where the story takes place, that's to be expected.  Individuality is quashed vigorously, to the extent that unrepentant declaration of individuality is punished by burning at the stake.  Yipes.

Equality 7-2521 is curious, intelligent, and asks difficult questions.  He does not like the answers he receives by the officials of the town or, later, the World Council.  Personal achievement is not striven for and where achieved, frowned on with great prejudice.  In this dystopic vision of the future, the invention of the candle - which was done by a committee! - took decades, and wasn't implemented by the people at large until the candle's impact on the greater economy had been pored over for a similarly lengthy period.

When Equality 7-2521 discovers a long-forgotten underground bunker, and within it tools and devices whose purposes he doesn't know, he is starting from scratch.  He undertakes experiments and explorations, working from a ground state of complete ignorance, until finally, after years of quiet tinkering he discovers electricity and eventually cobbles together a crude light bulb.  He brings his invention to the Council to give it to the world.

As you might imagine, it is rejected utterly.  Its impact on the world cannot be guessed at, and so it must be immediately suppressed and Equality 7-2521 imprisoned.  But again, these are people who are singularly lacking in imagination and Equality escapes.

He runs into the deep forest where no one ever goes.  Why don't they go?  Because it just isn't done, and no one has enough imagination to wonder why not.  Rand hammers on this point a lot, that the population is led and when led hard enough for long enough, the entire mass will eventually blindly go - or in the case of the forest, not go - and, satisfied to not have to think for itself, the population's will to ask, to debate or wonder, withers.

Along the way Equality meets up with Liberty 5-3000, the fetching young lady he has admired during his quiet rebellion.  She observed his escape and followed and now they together continue to wander through the forest until they discover a house.

The house is an Aladdin's cave of wonders full of archaic light bulbs - Equality recognizes them for what they are now - books and clothes, and the two of them marvel in particular when they come to the realization that this house was only intended to house two people.  At his initial discovery of the place, Equality had believed that the house had been intended to house only a dozen, and was almost criminally roomy for so few.

Because this is a work of fiction, the house is exactly what Equality needed.  The books are books of philosophy and science, by which the couple become much more conversant in the language that has fallen away from their peers, the words "I" and "me," and answers to difficult questions like "why not?"  Why not, indeed.

Rand was clearly disgusted by the anti-individual pattern of development of the early socialist country that ultimately became the Soviet Union.  In an ideal world a truly socialist nation could achieve great things without destroying individuality.  That, of course, is not how things came to pass.  Humans are riddled with weaknesses, greed being strong among them and socialism is desperately vulnerable to corruption from within in the absence of a system of checks and balances.  This is the space into which the Soviet Union evolved, enormous power wielded by the heady few, and the surging sea of impoverished humanity holding up the economy that drove the ambitions of those few.

Anthem came about eight years after her first landing in the United States, after she had had sufficient time to drink in the highly individualistic tone of the country, how each person is expected to shift for himself, to sink or swim.  Interestingly, it also came about 13 years after the publication of a similar story, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  Zamyatin had also lived in the early communist Russia, and I have to wonder whether Rand had read We before she wrote Anthem.  If so, that would make Anthem unoriginal at best and render Rand a hypocrite of the first order.

Before I decided to publish a review of the story, I decided I needed a bit more exposure to it.  So I listened to it as an audiobook.

I downloaded it for free from Librivox.  I will say again that I love Librivox as much as anyone can love an inanimate website.

Anthem's message of individual effort for the sake of one's own individual reward, beholden to none, lands very flat in the context of a freely-provided, jointly produced recording of people volunteering their time and effort to read from a public domain text.  The irony is deep, grand and delicious.

And finally (I am inserting this addendum months after originally writing the review, I had intended to make this point then and forgot it, such is the life of the scatterbrained writer) Equality makes the terrible mistake of claiming unto himself his successes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Equality relied heavily on the deus ex machine of the exact thing he needed, a house for him that is full of books written by other people who came before.  His idea of reinventing the light bulb came out of his observation of ancient light bulbs that had been made by people before him.  Even the house was an artifact left behind by other people.  So even as Rand is hammering on the point of individual success and the indomitable triumph of ego, she is actually subverting her own message.  Equality would likely have never succeeded as well as he had, were it not for the myriad efforts of untold people before him.   Ego is good, but community is crucial.  A man unto himself is indeed an island...a desert island, devoid of life, lacking context or potential.

Rest in piece, Ayn Rand.  You provided me with a good chuckle and you never even knew it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

ISIS, ISIL, Infidels

Q: When is an Islamist not a Muslim?
A: When he's a member of ISIS and ISIL.

Already having shown its extremist tendencies by mowing down hundreds and hundreds of their own countrymen, countrymen who are ostensibly fellow Muslims, ISIS and ISIL have upped their game to what can only be described as pure madness.

I will not provide any links.  These nutcakes have been in the news enough that you don't need me to show you where to find more evidence of their cruelty.  I don't want to send you somewhere that points up, in graphic clarity, the extent of their brutality.  No one needs that in his head.

And yet, ISIS' and ISIL's operatives keep that in their heads, keep it and visit it upon others.  I'm going to try to dig up some supporting doctrine that might excuse their behavior.

Quran 41:34 says: "Goodness and evil are not equal; repel evil with what is better."  If ISIS try to tell us they are answering hurts with similar hurts, well, that's just wrong.  Their holy book says so.  And there are indeed passages that condone violence but only in the context of defending against an attack.  One wonders what attack David Haines, an aid worker in Syria not backing any political agenda at all, might have committed to be answered by his heartless murder.  And then again there are passages that call for violence but no one has made a definitive call whether those passages, the Sword Passages, supercede the Peace Passages.

Haines is only the most recent in a long list of what can only be described as hate crimes propogated by the "state" that is ISIS and ISIL.  Certainly these attacks have raised ISIS' and ISIL's profile in world media, if only for the fact that where they sorta-kinda had a fundamentalist rationale for killing those countrymen of theirs who did not adhere to the same doctrine as their own, the neutral nature of previous victims who were both journalists and this most recent atrocity clearly targeted non-Islamic, noncombatants.

In the case of Haines, ISIS is literally biting the hand that is helping feed its countrymen.  Bad ISIS!  Bad!

When a dog goes that bad, you shoot him.  I won't go into the various ways the Quran is just bad doctrine - Muhammad was not the great guy Muslims want us to think he was, if you go digging into his history he's bad news - but that's for another day.  Right now ISIS and ISIL need to be scraped off the surface of the earth.  Its so-called "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as caliph and leader of all Muslims everywhere - when really most Muslims are pretty annoyed with him at best, and downright horrified by him and what his group's actions have done for Islam in general.  I know the Geneva convention prevents deliberate targeting of a head of state, but really Baghdadi isn't a head of state - he's a terrorist with a really big support cell behind him.  So blast 'im and we can all enjoy a quieter Middle East, which is really what everybody wants.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Day...oh, who cares? 174, and Who's Surprised? Not me.

I haven't been keeping close track of how many days it has been now, but the important part is that I haven't drifted back into the 180s.  Even after a long holiday weekend, I tipped the scales at 174, a nice modest number and less than a handful of pounds from my main goal.  My stretch goal is still somewhere around 165, but 170 is a good number for a guy my size.  It means I get to remain a guy my size, and maybe start searching for pants a size down from where I am.  Some days, the belt just doesn't quite feel up to the challenge of keeping my 36" pants up, and moving back down to a more modest size would be a great thing.

In other news:
I saw this news item back in June: a new young driver in South Carolina, stepping up to the photo booth at the DMV for the very first time, the closest thing the US has to a rite of passage common to every kid, was told:

"Hold it, kid.  Scrape off the makeup and then we can take the picture."  You might be just a bit outraged, when has the DMV ever demanded a woman take off her makeup before she can get her picture taken?

Except this new young driver is male.

Chase Culpepper is male but doesn't conform to any gender.  Whether that's by choice is beside the point.  He wears clothes that lean toward the feminine, he definitely looks feminine with his eyelashes, skillfully done makeup (I've worn enough on stage to know what it takes to look good, as opposed to merely clownish) and hair.  More to the point, there's quite a few photos of Culpepper dressed and made up this way.  I can't find as many of Chase in a less-feminine guise, though there are some to be seen.  Either way, he's a good-looking kid.  Got lucky in that respect.  I do not make an attractive woman, and it takes a good thick layer of makeup to get me to where I make a passable woman.

But here's the point: women are not required to remove makeup before license photos.  Chase was required to remove his because DMV personnel considered it a "disguise," a deliberate attempt to alter his appearance to make future identification difficult or impossible.

Well, looking at his photos, I would say there's probably at least a 50-50 chance that if stopped by police, Chase would look like his photo, regardless of how he was made up or dressed, either in the picture or in person.  Knowing that, what the hell difference does it make?

And with that exact question in mind, the Culpeppers are taking the South Carolina DMV to court.  Who's shocked?  Raise your hand!

Hmm, no hands went up.