Way, way TMI. You’ve been warned.

Can’t say I understand hope. It seems to be a blend of faith and love: if you believe that, in the end, we win, or rather, we ride the coattails of the Victor, then you have hope. This faith that everything turns out well in the end is inextricable from love, it seems to me, as a love of this vision, of justice and goodness, is needed, else the faith soon dies.

This is not what is meant by hope? It is a separate virtue? Or only separable in the abstract? Is hope the actualization of faith & love? Or something else entirely? I don’t know.

Yet, I feel the hope I don’t understand. On every level of life, from getting up in the morning to do what needs to be done that day, to persevering in the sight of mindless rampage, of cynical manipulation, of the appearances of the victory of evil – even in the valley of the shadow of death, a ray of hope breaks through.

And to me, it really is breaking through, from the outside. Half a lifetime ago, faced with despair, I put myself at the mercies of the psychological profession for a season. Crazy, right? What I found out: by the measures that profession uses, I was seriously depressed, as in, there are people institutionalized (so I was told) that aren’t as depressed as I was. The nice therapist lady was, I think, trying to get me take it seriously. She also said that my frustrations over a lifetime of massive underachievement did not take into account how much of my energy was required to hold it together, to maintain a facade of functionality.

Well. This was supposed to be helpful, I suppose. Maybe it even was. Hard to tell.

That was a long time ago, 30 years of marriage and 5 children ago. One odd thing: while I was certainly willing to run the ‘can I eat myself to death?’ protocol, that was it. I have no idea why drugs and alcohol have no appeal to me – seems like they should. Neither does suicide. There are definitely times I wish I weren’t alive, but I’d never actively do anything to make that come about. Somehow, I’ve muddled through. Somehow, we all have.

But – the paradox: I remain one of the happiest people I know. I have 4 living children who love me, and, perhaps more important, love each other. One dead son any man would be proud of. And a loving wife who has put up with all this for 35+ years. I live in a land of plenty in a time of peace. And God loves me.

That last part isn’t a theoretical conclusion nor an act of faith. Things have happened to me. I have been cared for in inexplicable ways. I could no sooner deny that God loves me than I can reject the evidence of my eyes. One can come up with theories, just as one can convince one’s self that we live in the Matrix. Possible – but unconvincing. And, ultimately and by definition, insane.

In the same way, not all the time, but often, I see or rather feel rays of hope. Something from outside me lets me know it will be OK.

Blind Pollyanna? Nope, I’m about as gimlet-eyed in my view of the world as anybody. As Machiavelli said, you have to govern as if all men are animals, for they will sooner or later act like it. But – hope. We can be better. I can be better.

So maybe, today, I work on some short stories or novels or compositions that my fear of failure (and, possibly, an even greater fear of success) have moved me to set aside, often for years and decades. Perhaps I do something good, to shake a fist at the towering tidal wave of angry stupidity that looks like it’s about to break on top of us all.

Something makes me feel that wave will break short of the shore, kick up a mountain of foam, get everybody damp – and that’s it.

One can hope.

Deliver Us From Evil

Speculating on themes common to this blog, attempting to draw a few threads together.

I returned, and saw under the sun: Abandonment is perhaps the predominant feature in the emotional landscape of modern Americans, followed closely by and inextricable coupled with Denial. It’s almost surprising to get to know people – including, I hasten to add, myself – and not find deep wells of unworthiness, of rejection, of abandonment.

But it is impossible to function when you abandon yourself to feelings of worthlessness, so, most of us – it seems, my small unrepresentative sample here – learn to paper it over, to minimize it, to explain it away.

It never works very well or very long.

Compare, and, contrast: the repeated acts of belonging, of membership, common in big happy families and tribes. We ALWAYS get together at Thanksgiving, we ALWAYS consult with each other over major decisions, we organize our lives around major family events, heck, we talk on the phone everyday. Moving out of town is a traumatic prospect – away from all my family and friends? How could I?

To most of the people I know, including myself, family in the sense described is, at best, a longed-for fantasy. For many, it is a taunt; it soon becomes a thing to be hated.

Consider the foundational emotional experiences of most middle class Americans: From within a few weeks of birth, they spend most of their waking hours being cared for by a constantly changing parade of overwhelmed minimum wage caregivers; mom & dad then divorce (at least once) and tell their kids that they still lover them (maybe) but not enough to keep the family together; kids become footballs in a battle between 2 supposed grown-ups.

Kids are blackmailed into pretending that everything is fine; eventually they come to accept it, at least superficially. Parents – seen this first hand – deny that the problems their kids are having have anything to do with the emotional, financial, and often geographic chaos their parents immaturity has inflicted on them.

Then, we grow up, or at least get older. And no matter what we do, daddy isn’t coming back; daddy isn’t going to love us. Mommy isn’t going to stay with us, hold us, be there for us. She’s going to drop us off at the daycare, head to work, and come back after 6:00 in time to throw some food at me and put us to bed, where we will, as often as not, cry ourselves to sleep.

Except, in a nightmare, they will love us – just barely enough to keep the crazy up. Once in a while, we might get lavish gifts, or a special weekend, or an unexpected visit. We continue to hope, thinking, maybe, if we just do something right, mom and dad will stay, will get bacjk together, will love us.

If not for this intermittent reinforcement, we might give up, we might be forced to make peace, as much as possible, or at least develop some less insane coping mechanisms:

  • We beg for attention, only to be told, in so many words, that its our problem.
  • We try to be good and do and say what we are told, because, sometimes, that gets us the attention we are desperate for.
  • We act up, ratcheting up the trouble we cause as needed to get some attention, because being yelled at (or worse) is far better for a child than being ignored.
  • We eventually learn that we are victims.

All that hurt and coping combines, in the now adult children, into a world view where:

  • Our place in the world is defined by our victimhood.
  • We alternate protestations of virtue and trouble-making, expecting love for our virtue, and feeling justified anger in our raging.
  • We cannot accept that time and chance happeneth to all – every problem is somebody else’s fault.
  • Most of all, we are defined by our pain, unable to face the true causes, or, if we face the abandonment, we generalize our oppression to cosmic forces – History, for example, or Capitalism – instead of affixing blame on mom and dad(s).

That last bit is key. I remember reading the tear-jerking story of a little girl who was asked to speak at the sentencing hearing of her own father, who had been convicted of sexually abusing her. She said he should be killed. Then, he should take her and mommy home.

And that’s it. I’ve long said Marxism is a revenge fantasy for people with daddy issues. Marxists clearly want daddy – projected onto the reified abstraction of The System – to die. And then to take them and mommy home. Rational people have long marveled at the casual handwavium invoked for the Marxist future: no details, just a blind, angry faith that everything will be better once The System is destroyed, and you are literally Hitler for even suggesting this claim requires explanation. It is the desperate hope of the hurt, damaged child that daddy can make everything better if he only will.

Job has a beef.

The impression we are dealing with angry, irrational children is not wrong. When we point out that the economic and ‘systemic’ premises upon which the arguments are framed are made in the face of the best economic times, with the most freedom for the most people ever in history – and it’s getting better! – we completely miss the point. From a broader perspective, they even have a point, although it’s exactly the opposite of the point they think they’re making.

Better economic times and more security and freedom enable more and more people to be more and more irresponsible and not, as in all previous ages, pay the price. Before, everyone knew from immediate experience that a husband and wife working together in a community made for a much better chance of survival, let alone a much better life.(1) Divorce was most often an economic disaster; deflowering a virgin, by reducing her chances of getting married off well, was the act of a despicable rake. That the victims of Don Giovanni could be sent to live out their days in a convent was an improvement, generally, on what they could expect otherwise.

With lives being generally short and often violent, the numbers of widows and orphans in the past was high. But simply abandoning your spouse would entail being rejected by the whole social network to which the two of you belonged. A man who abandoned his wife would answer to her father and brothers, at least. You would not get invited to parties. You might get yourself killed. (2)

Thus, philandering and divorce, like horse racing and architecture, became in earlier times hobbies of the rich, who had the resources to ride out the inevitable backlash. Poor people were less likely to get away with it, more likely to catch a knife in the ribs from enraged relatives.

But, today, everybody is rich enough to ride it out. Instead of starving or dying of exposure, the children of all this selfishness and lying get to grow up to become woke and join BLM and Antifa. They will kill daddy overthrow The System and then daddy and mommy will take them home everything will reboot to the future they always deserved.

There is no arguing with this position – not that we haven’t tried. It’s not rational, and therefore not subject to rational refutation. Instead, as Brian Niemeier and John C. Wright, among many others, have pointed out, we have to build a better world while trying to minimize the damage these angry children want to cause.

Tough row to hoe.

  1. In Late Antiquity and Medieval times, the Lone Man was always a figure of danger: what kind of man would travel about alone? No sane and civilized person behaved like that! Instead, you traveled in groups, and announced your ancestry and associations to whomever you met.
  2. Henry VIII’s rejection of Catherine of Aragon was a gigantic slap in the face of Spain; Paolo’s & Francesca’s affair destroyed several families and the relationship between two cities; Romeo and Juliet ended up dead. As Chesterton likes to point out, don’t tear down fences until you know whyt they were put up in the first place.

Bad Science/Real Science

Among my earliest memories is dragging this huge Webster’s down on the floor before I could even read, just to look at the pictures of the solar system inside the front cover. Loved that stuff. Once I could read, I knew all the names, mean distance from the sun, rotational periods, known satellites, chemical composition of the planets, and so on. In the intervening years, approaching 6 decades, those parts of my brain have been repurposed or atrophied.

Which, it turn out, is probably all for the best. Much of what we thought we knew about planets has since been updated, in the sense of tossed. Since ca. 1960, way more moons, considerably different planetary compositions, even, I think, revised rotational periods for Venus and Mercury. And Pluto, according to some heretics and fools, demoted to mere planetoid.

Which is all good, except for that Pluto thing. We should hope that, as technology gets better, freeing more brainpower and providing more gadgets, we collectively should figure more things out. That’s the name of the game, right?

If only we – this is the collective we, which here necessarily means: those who report on this stuff, and those who then report on the reports – could remember the past enough to show a little reserve when announcing the latest findings, as if we’ve *finally* reached the bottom! We *finally* know How Things Are.

A formative experience in my youth was reading a paleo-anthropology book where the author took a moment to mention that all these theories about the origin of man were based on a collection of bones and artifacts that could easily fit on a kitchen table. This truth was reinforced and expanded later by Chesterton in the first few chapters of the Everlasting Man. Later still, read some anthropologist quip that never are the arguments so heated as when the the stakes are so low. It means nothing, practically, if A. africanus, say, is or is not in the direct line from apes to men – yet, somewhere, some anthropologist will go to the wall to defend or deny it.

Saturn, from Robert Hooke’s notebooks, 1666, from Wikipedia

Astrophysics and astronomy suffer this same problem, although it looks like, unlike the study of early man, the craziness is one step removed from the actual researchers themselves. Thus, we here that evidence of life has been found in the clouds of Venus – from people with journalism degrees. Digging just a tiny bit, what has happened is that absorption lines have been observes in spectra of certain wavelengths of light indicating the presence of the compound phosphine. In tiny, tiny concentrations. From this, via a series of impressive ifs and maybes, we get to life on Venus.

Spending a few more minutes googling around, it seems the real take away is: we know next to nothing about phosphine. It’s this very simple chemcal – 4 atoms – that exists on earth mostly as a byproduct of the metabolism of certain extremophile life forms. We think – nobody has yet figured out the extremely complicated biological processes that turn other phosphorus compounds in phosphine. Seems to happen, but, at this point, ‘by magic’ isn’t all that bad of an explanation.

The other place phosphine seems to occur naturally is on Jupiter. There, I’m assured, there are natural, non-biological mechanisms that explain its presence. Because who could doubt that we understand the chemical processes going on deep within a planet hundreds of millions of miles away that we’ve poked with probes a couple times?

What are the comparative chances that a) there’s life in Venus’ upper atmosphere, versus b) there are unknown non-biological ways phosphine can be generated? If there is life on Venus – and sending probes to capture some of her atmosphere and bring it back sounds like the way to go, Andromeda Strain being studiously ignored – way cool. But I’m not throwing a party just yet.

Another more interesting thing is the ever-changing theory of planet formation. Here, there’s nothing new in the news, just that I’m hearing about it now. For years, since at least as far back as when I was a kid looking at that dictionary, we were told about accretion discs, how, through random action and the conservation of momentum, clouds of dust and gas within a galaxy would form flattened rotating discs, out of which further random interactions would create a star. The radiation from this star would drive off the lighter gasses from its immeadiate neighborhood, leaving only heavier dust and chunks to accrete into small, solid inner planets. Far enough out from that new sun, the lighter elements had a chance to congeal into gas and ice giants.

Thus, using the clear arrangement of our own solar system as a template – as the only template available – theorists concocted a model that would require planet formation to follow the pattern we see locally. And this process was stated as if it where a done deal, most famously implicit in many guesses as to the values to be used in the Drake Equation: we were often told, by the likes of Sagan, that there are billions and billions of earth-like planets out there!

Then, starting about 15 or 20 years ago, astronomers had gotten the gadgets, time, and money needed to start seriously looking for planets around other stars. What they found: lots of gas giants very near their stars. Right where they shouldn’t ought to be.

To some extent, this is the predictable outcome of the methods used to find exoplanets. Giant planets very near their stars are going to be easier to find, generally, than small, rocky planets. So these preliminary findings – give it a century or two – are going to be biased away from ‘earth like’ planets and toward giant planets, generally, and particularly toward giant planets near their stars.

The problem: the traditional accretion disc theory really doesn’t have any mechanism to explain the presence of these near-sun giants. it’s tidy mechanisms are all geared toward the solar system we know best – our own.

So, I gather the theory of system formation has undergone a complete revamp. The most important feature: planets may be formed at some distance from their sun, and then, due to interactions with other bodies in their systems, change orbits, sometimes radically, sometimes getting launched entirely out of the system. Our local stable system might be a bit of a fluke.

The way it works, in my very amateur understanding: the star (or stars – many if not most systems appear to have multiple stars) has most of the mass in any system, and, over time, consumes more and more of the available matter in the disc. Everything is getting sucked towards the central star. But as often as not, matter – say, an asteroid or planetoid – may be accelerated, but miss the star. This is the dynamic in the well known ‘slingshot’ maneuver used to send earth satellites to the outer planets and on out of the solar system. You aim the probe at a planet, use the planet’s gravitational attraction to accelerate it. The planet keeps moving along its orbit, so the probe approaches only to have the planet move away. On net, the probe gains speed: its acceleration during the approach is greater than its deceleration upon moving away.

That net energy gain by the probe comes at the cost of a net energy loss by the body doing the accelerating. Mars, for example, looses a little speed every time we slingshot a probe past it. Its orbit shrinks just a tiny bit. The differences in mass make this deceleration negligible, but it is a real thing.

The new theories notice that this process, of capture, slingshotting, acceleration and deceleration, must go on all the time during a system’s formation, and, indeed, over its whole life. And that angular momentum will be conserved. Thus, if you imagine a messy cloud full of not only lots of gas but of many chunks of matter, you will have a situation where, as the larger bodies are formed, they are constantly accelerating smaller ones, lifting them to higher orbits or launching them right out of the system and maybe right out of the galaxy. And, as a result, the orbits of those gas giants are shrinking, moving them closer and closer to their star until, maybe, those planets themselves are consumed – or launched out of the system!

What our planet hunting may have found are giant planets nearing the ends of their lives (astronomically speaking), as they spiral ever down to their doom, to be consumed by their sun. On their way in, they would launch any smaller planets near the sun out into higher orbits or right on out of the system. Or consume them.

The last piece, the one we’ve known about since Newton: the bigger bodies interact with each other as well, most obviously in the way the planets orbit the sun, but also in affecting each other’s orbits. That’s how Neptune and (maybe) Pluto were discovered in the first place: the orbits of Uranus and then Neptune weren’t exactly where they ‘should’ have been. Astronomers were able to speculate exactly where another planet would need to be in order to account for the observed perturbations, and then looked. They nailed it to find Neptune; maybe to find Pluto (or it was a phenomenal bit of luck).

Now that we have this new, messy, theory that accounts for the new, messy appearances, how do we retrofit it to this nice, stable, life-sustaining system we happen to live in? One where the gas giants stayed put where they formed, more or less, and where at least 4 small rocky planets and innumerable asteroids *didn’t* get flung away?

To answer this, the scientists built a computer model. Of course they did. They put planets and other debris into different starting positions and let the simulation run to model billions of years, letting the big bodies accelerate the small and thus have their orbits shrink.

One interesting result – and always remember, models are an expression of prejudice, nothing more, until they have been verified against independent data – had the gas giants migrate in until Jupiter was about where Mars is now, then the pull of the further out gas and ice giants slowly pulled Jupiter back into the orbit it is in now. Another thing to remember: You get the results you tell the model you want. The simulations that showed something else were not discussed; I’d bet a dollar that, over time, the model was modified based on its own outputs so that it generated more ‘realistic’ outcomes. It was ‘improved’ in other words.

All that’s left is to find a way to test that model against reality. Let reality run for few hundred million years, and see how it compares to the models.

If you, like me, have long marveled at what an anomaly our beautiful earth appears to be, this current change in theories only makes our home planet more marvelous. Not only is it smack dab center in the habitable zone, with the most perfectly circular orbit of all the planets, with an inexplicable huge moon that drives the tides that make our planet much more friendly to life – but it has *stayed* in this position for at least several billion years! What? With all this cosmic tag and billiards going on, throwing planets around like rag dolls – and out little gem just got a pass? Extraordinary.

Finding ‘another earth’ is beginning to sound even less likely, Sagan’s billions and billions not withstanding. Maybe it does take a universe to have one earth.

The main point here, and one of the main points of this blog from its birth: one must always distinguish between what is in front of our eyes and the theories that purport to explain what is in front of our eyes. In this case, the right answer, the one that’s the right answer to almost all interesting questions: we don’t know. We don’t know how systems form. All theories have problems and attractive mechanisms in about equal measure.

And we’re having fun trying out our guesses.

A Yearning for Gossip by the Fountain

Once read about some missionary efforts among some unsophisticated tribe, where unusual difficulties were encountered. This tribe, the story went, was unusually light in what we might call religious beliefs, and held a skeptical view of stories, discounting any tale told by anyone who was not a witness to the events themselves, or at least a personal acquaintance of such a witness so that he could testify to the storyteller’s character. Anything more distant than that was considered a tall tale unless proven otherwise.

Missionaries, with their talk of God based on stories told by long-dead witnesses, were viewed as clowns or fools – no sane person, according to this tribe, could possibly take such talk seriously. Or so the story goes.

We, on the other hand, live in a world so spiritual, so accepting of stories told by long-dead demigods, that we swallow whales whole when instructed to do so, and no mere experience can shake our faith. Thus, the tall tales of Marx and Freud, of John Money and Derrida, are received as unassailable dogma no matter what our lying eyes tell us.

Villagers at fountain in Sicily, Italy in 1944-1945 | The ...
from http://www.ww2online.org/image/villagers-fountain-sicily-italy-1944-1945

I get nostalgic, if that’s the right word, for a perhaps mythical world where the village women would gather at the fountain to get water and news, or one where the men might catch up on worldly affairs over a pint at the local pub. Something, someplace, where real people would look real people in the face, within range of derisive laughter and punch in the nose, and tell their tales, far from the sanctuary and safety of the lecture hall and even farther from the fortress of the copy desk and broadcast newsroom. Even a pulpit, in all but the largest churches, is well within range of an eye-roll and a guffaw. We need something, anything, to breech the bulwark of impenetrable condescension under which we receive our ‘news’. Our modern news sources are more unassailable than Moses, who brought news down from the mountain and yet caught flack even with pillars of cloud and fire to back him up.

There was a brief moment, historically speaking, when social media seemed ready to fill the gap, but the anonymity and, ultimately, censorship, doomed that effort. It did, briefly, have the flavor of a bar, or at least of a bar fight.

Now, we’re not only deprived of the weak fellowship of the Web, but of any chance for a chance gathering, a water cooler moment in which perhaps something unguarded might be said within range of a reaction. Nope, both the physical lockup and, more pervasively, the new thought police have locked that down tight.

Give me the girlish gossip at the well, the drunken rantings at the bar, even the uncle who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. Get the conversation going, and going both ways.

The Many versus the Few: Who Do We Trust as Guardians of Liberty

Preliminary thoughts:

In Chapter V of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, he asks the above question: is it better to have the aristocracy or the commoners act as guardians of liberty? His answer: a good case can be made for either. Reason gives one answer – the commoners – while experience seems to favor the aristocracy. His examples for having the aristocracy guard liberty are Sparta and Venice, while the common people guarded it in Rome. Since the liberty of both Sparta and Venice lasted longer than the liberty of Rome, experience favors that approach. But if you want a more active government, one not merely concerned with protecting the liberty of a single city-state but of a larger republic and, eventually, an empire, then the people are the better guardians.

So says Machiavelli. The reader will wonder, I suppose, in what sense liberty under Sparta, Venice, and Rome are the same thing. I certainly do, and note that, if forced to choose, I’d take my liberty under Rome or, maybe, Venice, way before I would take whatever is considered liberty under Sparta.

What liberty means here is a huge question I don’t intend to consider at moment. Instead, let’s look at Machiavelli’s reasons:

As touching reasons, it may be pleaded for the Roman method, that they are most fit to have charge of a thing, who least desire to pervert it to their own ends. And, doubtless, if we examine the aims which the nobles and the commons respectively set before them, we shall find in the former a great desire to dominate, in the latter merely a desire not to be dominated over, and hence a greater attachment to freedom, since they have less to gain than the others by destroying it. Wherefore, when the commons are put forward as the defenders of liberty, they may be expected to take better care of it, and, as they have no desire to tamper with it themselves, to be less apt to suffer others to do so.

So, Machiavelli asserts that we commons have “merely a desire not to be dominated over” and thus won’t be tempted to use our guardianship of liberty to lord it over others. Hmmm.

When I look in the mirror, I do see a guy who mostly wants the government to leave him alone. I don’t want any power over others, and I wish no one, as much as reasonably possible, to have power over me. I fully recognize the necessity and even goodness of laws, and the need, therefore, of those with the power to execute them. But, after Thomas and Aristotle, I want those laws to be few, known by all, and an expression of our best understanding of the will of God (or the natural aspirations of the good man, in Aristotle’s case).

All this had me contemplating our own government at its founding. Jefferson had a copy of the Discourses in his library, and it seems he and the drafters of the Constitution did, in fact, intend to make the commoners the guardians of liberty after the fashion of the Romans. At first, the Roman Senate, backed into a corner, granted merely the veto to the plebs. Eventually, an inch at a time, most offices and honors were open to the little people. But this opening up to the commoners of the opportunity to have for themselves the same roles as the aristocracy seems more a safety valve than a safeguard of liberty: it’s an early version of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the recognition that ambitious men of achievement can arise anywhere. By allowing ambitious and talented commoners to satisfy their desire for honor and achievement, the Romans – and us, I suppose – channel ambition in a constructive, or at least, a less destructive, course.

But for the rest of us, who desire nothing more from our role in government than to be left in peace, what we want, or should want, is merely the veto, as it were, merely the ability to say ‘no’ to the ambitions of the aristocracy, whether it is natural or inherited.

I think that’s how we should view the House, and that’s why Senators, Electors, and Presidents were not to be elected by popular vote. It’s accepting the humility of ambitions that should go along with the humility of goals: if all we really want is to be left in peace, then we shouldn’t be voting on the basis of foreign policy or military strategy or any other complex issue we can’t possibly be expected to have any understanding of, given that we vote every two years at the most, and hardly discuss these matters in between elections, and don’t even get election day off from work!

If we merely said: I want one of us there, to keep an eye on these ambitious jokers, and so I’ll focus my duty on just picking some person for the local House seat who will yell veto when the time comes. I don’t even want to get involved in the big issues I have no time, talent, or inclination to study enough to begin to understand them.

Because these two goals are incompatible: to be responsible for the election of executives and aristocrats based on issues we have no hope or interest in understanding, and wanting to be left in peace.

We meddle, they meddle. Mostly, they meddle by incessant demagoguery. We can hardly complain that they aren’t leaving us alone.

Political Stupidity

One often hears or thinks, when being afflicted by the latest ‘news’: just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse… Implied here is some floor, some level of stupid or bad beyond which any more stupidity or badness is simply unthinkable. Well, I’m here to break the bad news: We’re not close yet. Things can get just a whole lot more stupid and evil.

To illustrate – and, I’m doing this from memory and am not going to look it up, because I’m just going for the general outline here – let’s look at the events leading up to Alaric’s sacking of Rome, as told by R. A. Lafferty in his book The Fall of Rome (reviewed here).

First, start with some very shrewd politics – what one might expect from the Roman empire: the practice of hostage exchanges. You, the Roman Emperor, would arrange to send ‘exchange students’ as it were, to the courts of the leaders of your allies who supply your ‘auxiliary’ troops; they send you some as well, to live at your court. These hostages were the roughly teenage sons of the leading families.

Golden coin depicting man with diadem facing right
Honorius. Manages to look like a goof
on his own coin.

Thus, the Romans had natural spies – a 15 year old Roman nobleman had most likely already been sent on diplomatic missions by his patrician father, and in any event had been raised from the cradle to be a Roman, with all the discipline and focus that ideal entails. Meanwhile, the barbarian noble boys were sent to Rome (or Constantinople) to be overawed by Roman greatness and to be made into Romans as much as possible.

The Romans would get back detailed reports on their ‘allies’ while sending back young men who, it was hoped, had learned to fear, admire, and yearn for Rome.

It even kind of worked.

Now, around 390, Theodosius has at his court a group of Goth and Vandal boys to train up – and makes, according to Lafferty, the extraordinary decision to train them up to be true leaders, going so far as to tell them that any one of them could end up Master General or even emperor, and thus needed to be prepared to lead and rule.

Stilicho, Theodosius’s Master General and one of history’s most impressive characters, had some part in this. He was a one-man advertisement for the greatness and goodness of the Empire: a Vandal lord, yet more Roman than Caesar and more Catholic than the Pope. He was the kind of man who could step into a room full of hardened soldiers and silence them with a glance. His will was iron, and his bravery and prowess the stuff of legend. He and the emperor shared the belief that the Empire was the chosen tool of God to preserve and propagate the Faith, and knew they had to bring the barbarians into the process for it to succeed.

Awesome, and not stupid or evil. It’s what happens next that establishes my personal ‘how bad can it get?’ floor:

Theodosius had two sons, and the Empire was split between them upon his death in 394. Honorius got the Western half, and got Stilicho as his guardian and major general. As one might imagine, the Vandal lord kept a lid on things and held the Empire together for as long as he could. One problem: Honorius had also inherited an advisor named Olympius, who makes Heath Leger’s Joker look like a well adjusted man.

Olympius was evidently very shrewd and good at his job, after a fashion. He was evidently also a sociopath, and the father of intrigues that, according to Lafferty, were so convoluted and involved we moderns couldn’t begin to follow them. Olympius’s goals seemed to be destroying his enemies and seeing how far he could take it. He doesn’t seem to have had or even cared about an end game.

Thus, when he go the chance, he destroyed Stilicho. He had the manifestly incompetent emperor call the master general to court in Ravenna to answer some charges. Stilicho’s friends, seeing an obvious plot, implored him to simply declare himself emperor – he had the army behind him, was clearly being set up, and the emperor was clearly incompetent and being manipulated. Better to save himself and the Empire!

Instead, Stilicho obeyed the emperor’s command, as he had done his whole life. Olympius had him and his family murdered, thus removing the one man who had the will and power to preserve the Empire.

But – and here’s where the evil/stupid becomes incomprehensible: the Visigoths, who, under Alaric and his relatives, made up a critical piece of Rome’s army, had, under the influence of the training they had received as hostages, become, in their own minds, Romans. They spoke Latin, and many of the commanders and soldiers had settled their families in Italy.

Olympius first murders the one man the Visigoths, an armed force in his own land, feared and respected. Then murders his family. Then allowed, and most likely encouraged, the murder of all the Visigoth families living in Italy. Rome for the Romans! the murders cried, not admitting that Rome was still Roman at least in part because the Visigoths had fought to preserve it!

So now you have 30,000 battle-hardened troops in your own country who you’ve incited to very understandable murderous rage while at the same time having murdered the one man with any chance of defeating them – because? Ravenna itself was both impossibly well defended – not that Alaric didn’t try, but the land all about the city was a swampy mess- and well-supplied by ship with grain from Africa.

How did Olympius think this was going to play out? He’s now stuck in Ravenna, everybody with the possible exception of the emperor hating his guts for having gotten them into this situation, with an enraged army at his gates. Did he expect the murder of the Visigoth women and children to blow over, somehow? It’s incomprehensible.

So Alaric, enraged but still a shrewd general, decides he needs to go to Africa, defeat the general there in charge of sending food to Ravenna, and then return to besiege the city to starve Olympius out.

But he needed cash to get the ships.

The Eternal City had cash, and was hardly on the Visigoths’ good side at this point.

Thus Alaric, who had earlier come to think of himself as a Roman and a defender of Rome, who had risked death and lead armies in the defense of the Empire, found himself leading an army to destroy Rome.

The Visigoths did sack Rome, and then headed toward the southern coast to get their ships – and then Alaric died. Honorius also soon died, and his successors promptly had Olympius clubbed to death. The Visigoths, their blood-lust slaked somewhat with the sacking of Rome and death of Olympius, were essentially bough off with Spain, where they settled and became farmers.

Olympius is my floor for stupid/evil politics.

We’re not there yet. I wish I were confident we’re not headed in that direction.

Anybody got a lower floor? I’m afraid to hear it…

Contact Payment

In finance, the concept is that you may want to give people zero payments for, say, the initial 6 months, as an enticement to take on more debt, or over the winter if it’s equipment that requires decent weather to be useful. But if what you’re financing is portable, you don’t want to find out in month 7 that it has wandered off never to be seen again. So, it’s common for the financing of trucks, construction equipment, and other high value and mobile assets to structure the financing with almost zero payments. That $100 payment check is a ‘contact payments’ to let the finance company know the people with the equipment are still there.

Consider this a contact payment. I’m still here!

A. You may heard we’re having a little wildfire trouble out here in California.

Why yes, yes we are.

Confluence of forces: Very hot, dry weather for 2 out of the last 3 weeks; Fairly wet year 2 years ago produced tons of brush; comparatively dry year last year dried it all out; decades of bad forest management have left many areas choked with dead and dying trees; an utterly freak and huge lightening storm ran through the state 3 weeks ago, starting thousands of fires; wind have been strong off and on, fanning the flames.

Over 2M acres burned. Now add winds similar in nature to the famous Santa Anna winds: air heats up in higher elevations, then ‘overflows’ down into lower elevations. Compressed by higher pressure at lower elevations as it flows downhill, it gets even warmer.

Then it hits the fires. Bad news. One outcome of this: a huge fire in the foothills of the Sierra east of here had its ash – lots of fuel in the foothill, the usual brush plus millions of dead trees – pushed east to west against prevailing winds by the winds coming down out of the mountains. To us, in other words.

So a long and an flukish set of circumstances resulted in this:

9 in the morning, can’t find the disc of the Sun in the sky. Orange sky, everything coated with ash
Can’t see much in this picture – that’s the point. The blinds are mostly closed because the sun is typically very bright in this room. Had to turn on lights to see what we’re doing in the middle of the day.

B. Have been wearing my ‘Make Orwell Fiction Again’ long black mask whenever I feel compelled to diaper up for the sake of not getting more or less innocent shop owners and parishes in trouble. I really do have a debilitating medical condition that contraindicates masks: a sever, early onset case of scientific literacy. My blood pressure rises, adrenaline starts flowing in nonconstructive ways, and I’m overall courting a heart attack (or arrest for assault) whenever I have to wear the ratzen-fratzen mask. Everywhere else (do see the morons wearing masks inside their own cars – because?) my face, such as it is, is off leash and running free! Wheeee! Until they arrest me.

It’s all about asking the wrong questions, or would be, if logic and evidence played any part in this. I’ve been mulling over whether knowing the right questions to ask is more art, science, or the inspiration of a muse. And it’s not just science that requires careful, exact statements of questions and answers – any inquire, to be rationally convincing, needs it.

For example: upon careful reflection, the primary question to answer for mask wearing is not ‘does it reduce transmission of the virus’? but rather, ‘does it meaningfully or even measurably reduce overall risk?’

The first question, taken at face value and without any other limitations, is a road to insanity – it’s the road we’re on. For putting everyone into deep sea diving suits would very likely reduce transmission even more! Or hazmat suits with all seams duct taped. Or simply saran-wrap everybody and stash them in the basement for the duration. Because, if the question is ‘does it reduce transmission?’ these, and even more drastic, answers are far better than stupid paper masks.

But, it might be replied, these additional steps are too impractical! Thus, the mask argument shoehorns an additional requirement: steps to reduce transmission can’t be too crazy. But, the pedantically logical person may now notice that those are not compatible or coherent standards. Either you want to take steps to reduce transmission no matter what, OR the real rule is something like ‘take reasonable steps’. And now we get to (if this were allowed) to argue about reasonableness.

Forget transmission for a moment, and consider risk. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that masks, even my pirate Orwell mask, reduce the risk of serious illness from COVID by 50%. Sounds impressive. But for healthy people under 50, that reduction would be from something like a 0.002% risk to a 0.001% risk. Noise, in other words – you could get a similar reduction in overall health risks by losing a few pounds and getting a little exercise. This is not something any sane person would think about, let along mandate.

But what about grandma? Don’t I care for those poor old people? Older people fall roughly into two groups: those with one foot in the grave already, and those who, any day now, will have one foot in the grave. This is common knowledge, and went by the very descriptive name of ‘getting old’. Forget transmission, again, and focus on risk. Per the CDC, if you are 85 or older, you run an all-causes risk of dying of 13.6% of dying this year, a percentage that rises with the passage of time, until it’s about 99% by the time you hit 100. It’s 100% by 120.

When considering the elderly, the risks of COVID must be viewed against what might be called a high risk environment – old people are at high risk of dying soon. Shocking, I know.

As mentioned, the elderly can be roughly divided between the more or less healthy and those with the end clearly in sight – in the West, this division roughly translates to: can live more or less independently and those who need fairly constant care. Those in and those out of nursing homes.

Those in nursing homes can be further divided: those needing mostly physical care, and those suffering from dementia. The first group dies very soon upon admission, typically well within a year. (Dementia and Alzheimer patients last 5-10 years, typically. Their brains are shutting down faster than their bodies.) So, one might reasonably guess the annual fatality rate for non-dementia nursing home patients to be something like 90%. Might be lower, but it’s going to be very high.

So, against that backdrop, does COVID increase the overall risk of illness and death in the elderly? I think the answer, from the data, is: Short term, very much so – people in nursing homes who catch COVID face a very real risk of dying very soon. On a longer term view? No. Those same people stood a very high chance of dying – and dying miserably! Don’t kid yourselves that death by COVID is somehow worse than how old people usually die! – within the year, COVID or not.

So, as I’ve said from the beginning, prudent steps should be taken to minimize nursing home residents’ and other sick people’s exposure to COVID, just as, I presume, reasonable steps are taken every year to minimize exposure to colds, flues, and other communicable diseases that can push old, sick people over the edge. Other than that? End the lockup. Burn the masks. Destroy the political careers of those who pushed this nonsense. (Not that they’ll let that happen – or do you think mail-in ballots will ever be allowed to vote any of these clowns out?)

The rest of the population falls somewhere in between, but the pattern holds: COVID adds a tiny amount to my already existing risks. Masks, even if they work, reduce this already tiny risk by an additional tiny amount.

Then comes the next question: does wearing a mask for hours on end in itself increase our health risks? For that, I can only add that, as far as I can see, the case to be made that masks increase our health risks in and of themselves is at least as good as the case that masks meaningfully reduce our risk from COVID.