26 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #24

The agonizing wait has ended: Obama has finished bidin' his time, and selected his running-mate. It’s being said that the Delaware senator was chosen because of his “foreign-policy experience,” which both seems odd and speaks of the distinction being experience and expertise. One month after the suicide missions against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Biden, as reported by the New Republic, demonstrated his sagacity in this field by proposing to placate the Arab world with a $200,000,000 gift to Iran (which is not an Arab country). Anyway, Biden is campaigning not for the office of president but for that of vice-president, which confers no authority over foreign affairs.
Whatever the reason for the choice, it came as a surprise to me. I expected the Future-Answer-to-a-Trivia-Question's pick to be someone like the "Mini-Me" in those Austin Powers films: a small replica of himself, who would distract no attention from him and thus not threaten his evidently colossal ego.

22 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #23: Why Is There So Much Negativity About Negativity?

Voters are airing their familiar gripe about the conducting of "negative" political campaigns. I, too, would prefer that those who stand for public office emphasize their own merits rather than denigrate the competition; it seems to me, though, that the "negativity" phenomenon has resulted naturally from the fact that so many political candidacies nowadays are negative, that is, the politician in question has more negative than positive traits, and so his opponent tries to capitalize these drawbacks. (If the shortcomings of him who is doing this capitalizing outweigh his good qualities, he has even more reason to focus the public's attention on the other person.) When we see or hear a paid political announcement that "attacks" the other major nominee, therefore, we shouldn't complain about or dismiss its claim cynically, but instead endeavor to determine whether it's justified.
Above all else, this applies to McCain-versus-Obama. People won't learn anything that they need to know about the Democratic nominee from the mainstream of our left-wing news media, whose "coverage" of this man's quest for the presidency has been perhaps the most blatantly and outrageously biased in the history of countries whose elections can generally be considered free; they can learn it only from the Republican foe and his allies. How can anyone who's pitted against so problematic a candidate as Barack Obama not run a "negative campaign?"

20 August 2008

Miscellaneous Musing #8

King Edward I of England (1272-1307) was preceded on the Throne by Edward the Elder (899-925), Edward the Martyr (975-978), and Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Why, therefore, was he called "Edward the First?" It's true that he was the first King of that name since the Norman Conquest, but why should that matter?

Miscellaneous Musing #7

To me, one of the mysteries of World War II is precisely why the Yanks, Canadians, and Britons proper carried out Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.  The customary answer is that they needed to relieve the USSR by opening a "second front"; the "D-Day" landings, however, actually established a third front, since British, Commonwealth, and de-facto Commonwealth (that is, US) forces were already fighting in Italy. (Indeed, since the Italian campaign was just a continuance of that in North Africa, whence it was transferred upon defeat of the Axis forces in Tunisia, the Eastern Front (USSR v. Axis) was not even the first front from June 1941 to the same month in 1944; British, imperial, and Commonwealth forces were already battling the Germans and Italians in Africa in 1940, at which time the Soviet Union was still allied with Germany.  It should be borne in mind also that from December 1941, the USSR's allies were busy fighting Japan as well.)  Why didn't the Western armies forego Operation Overlord and just do then what they would do over two months later, in the obscure Operation Dragoon: invade southeast France, from Italy and North Africa?  (The advantages of doing so would have included the fact that Provence, unlike Normandy, was under the Vichy regime and thus within that section of France not occupied by the Germans; it was reasonable to expect the Vichy French to either welcome the Allies as liberators or, at the very worst, to merely put up half-hearted resistance to their landings.)

19 August 2008

Miscellaneous Musing #6

I can easily tolerate stupidity, but not inanity. The former is a demonstration of low intelligence on the part of someone or something that actually has such a level of intelligence; the latter (by my definition), a demonstration of low intelligence on the part of someone who simply doesn't use what brains he has.

14 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #22: A Word to the Dinosaurbrains—I Mean, Birdbrains

This commentary begins with three questions, but don't panic, because these are easy ones; in fact, I answer them for you.
Question #1: Are birds descended from dinosaurs? Answer: It's not yet known.
Question #2: If they are, does it mean that they are dinosaurs? Answer: Of course not. A bird is a bird, and a dinosaur is a dinosaur.
Question #3: Were there feathered dinosaurs? Answer: No. There may have been feathered animals that otherwise resembled reptiles, but if they had feathers (a classic hallmark of birds), how could they have been "dinosaurs?"
In Asteroid Asininity, I alluded to the unpleasant penchant that many scientists have for speaking on purely conjectural matters as if their views had won universal acceptance; this practice is also apparent in regard to the issue of how birds relate to the extinct therapods, viz., carnivorous dinosaurs. According to the online University of California Museum of Paleontology:
"The oldest known fossil unambiguously identified as a bird is still the dinosaur-like [the italics are mine] Archaeopteryx, from the Solnhofen Limestone of the Upper Jurassic of Germany. However, it was not the only bird of the time. Very recently, another bird of almost the same age was discovered in northeastern China, and named Confuciusornis; Confuciusornis resembles Archaeopteryx in having wing claws, but unlike Archaeopteryx and like modern birds, Confuciusornis lacked teeth…."
A second u.r.l. from Berkeley reads thus:
"Archaeopteryx is considered by many to be the first bird, being of about 150 million years of age. It is actually intermediate between the birds that we see flying around in our backyards and the predatory dinosaurs like Deinonychus…. [i.e., dromæosaurs]"
A third u.r.l., from the same site, tells the visitor:
"According to current thinking, birds are hypothesized to have shared a common ancestor with the dromaeosaurs sometime in the Jurassic period; Dromaeosauridae is thus termed the sister group of the clade Aves (which includes all birds). It may even be that the ancestry of birds lies within this group, which would make them dromaeosaurs too…."
A different site posits that "Protoavis [which means "first bird"] predates Archaeopteryx by 75 million years pushing the origin of birds to the Late Triassic and is considered the oldest known bird (Chatterjee 1999)." The site also depicts a "Life restoration of Protoavis," and informs us that "the presence of feathers is inferred from quill knobs. (Chatterjee 1999)" The ubiquitous "Wikipedia" relates that dromæosaurs appeared in the second epoch of the Jurassic period, 176-161 million years ago, and disappeared some 100 million later. One source, which I consulted no more than a few years ago—I don't remember now what it was—says matter-of-factly that palæontologists now believe that birds hail from the dromæosaurs and that archæopteryx was an evolutionary dead end! Another forgotten font of knowledge concurs that birds sprang from dromæosaurs, but asserts that archæopteryx is considered to be neither a transition fossil nor a dead end, but merely a juvenile cœlophysis mistaken for a separate species.
What, then, have we learned of avian lineage from these sources that set the record straight so authoritatively, three of which actually are from the same museum but presumably of various authorship? We have learned that the earliest bird was archæopteryx; that the earliest bird was protoavis; that palæontologists deem archæopteryx a dead end; that palæontologists deem archæopteryx not even a valid species; that birds descend from, yet have a common ancestry with, dromæosaurs, which originated at least 11 million years before the younger candidate for the title of "first bird" and at least 50 after the older; that dromæosaurs yet existed at a time when, as fossils show, their descendants the birds were well-established; that a bird of "almost the same age as" archæopteryx differed significantly from its near-contemporary; and that birds may qualify as dromæosaurs, and thus as reptiles.
Naturally, none of what I've said here proves that birds are not the progeny of dinosaurs; I, also, even as a child, noticed that the latter bear in some ways (e.g., the bipedal posture of the therapods) greater (though perhaps superficial) similarity to the former than to modern reptiles. It only shows that this debate, like that over whether human action causes "global warming," is far from over. What I read while growing up merely stated that archæopteryx was a link between birds and reptiles, not necessarily dinosaurs; this seems a much safer position to take. What's the point of speculating as to whether a sparrow can call a deinonychus "Grampa," when we don't even know how long ago the earliest true birds lived?

07 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #21

When the USSR disintegrated, there was talk of disbanding the league that had opposed it, i.e., the NATO. (This is, by the way, the correct designation: "the NATO," not simply "NATO." The reason is the same as why I began this uncommon commentary with "When the USSR….") At the time I disagreed, but only because I knew that there are other threats for a collective-security body like (the) NATO to resist; indeed, in that year, 1991, the People's Republic of China announced that a new "cold war" had begun, between herself and the West. If the NATO were actually functioning in this rôle, I would favor its continuance; instead, however, it has become a sort of EU police force, and if that's the one purpose that it serves, it might as well be done away with.

Uncommon Commentary #20: Error of Olympian Magnitude

The Olympics have deviated far from their original purpose. It was natural that the athletes of ancient Greece would desire to test themselves, first, versus their own standards of physical attainment; second, versus the best athletes from their own city-states; and third, versus the best from the other polities of that civilization. Every four years, therefore, they gathered on the plain of Olympia to determine where they ranked in the Greek world. The reason for the modern revival of this institution, in 1896, was to add a fourth level of competition: versus the top athletes even from other nations. My point is that the rivalry in ancient olympiads, and perhaps in the earliest modern ones, was between athletes, not between the states from which they happened to come; the games were never intended as fierce nationalistic struggles, with teams representing the USA battling teams representing Uruguay or wherever else, and the press keeping track of which "country" leads the "medal count." That, however, is precisely what they've become.
(It could be argued that the politicization of the Olympics has value, since, it is often said, the fact that Black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin "destroyed Hitler's theories of racial supremacy".  It could not, however, be argued correctly. Undoubtedly Hitler was displeased at Owens' physical feats, but the Führer had always allowed that peoples whom he deemed inferior could produce extraordinary individuals, and the fact that Germany “won” that olympiad—see above—must have, in the opinion of many, validated the Third Reich’s racist ideology.)

06 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #19: Discovering Inanity

It's wearisome to read of, or hear, people referring to Speke, Champlain, da Gama, and so forth as the "European discoverers" of some locale or another. Both words within quotes indeed apply to them, but to use the two in conjunction implies that the high status of these men has resulted only from some sort of bias versus non-Whites. Pay attention now, because I'll explain this just once: Merely knowing that something exists does not make you its "discoverer." To discover something, geographically speaking, means to bring to it the attention of the learned. Neither American Indians nor Vikings qualify as discoverers of America, for instance, since neither added the fact of its existence to the body of geographical knowledge. The term "New World" presupposes cognizance of an old world, but the only geographical familiarity that the Indians had was with their own surroundings. As for the Northmen, they did know of lands on both the western and the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean; having merely a Barbarian level of civilization, however, and thus lacking true intelligentsia, they had no one to record the information but skalds, who did so not in scientific form but in that of the sagas. They never communicated this knowledge to the one estate of Western civilization among which literacy was the rule rather than the exception, namely, the clergy.
This sense of "discover" applies as well to sciences other than geography; for instance, Antoine Lavoisier obviously was not the one person ever to experience the presence of oxygen, without which mankind could not survive, but it was he who described this substance as an element. The word even applies to the entertainment industry; we might speak of someone as having discovered the Beatles, not because the quartet from Liverpool didn't know of their own existence, but because it was that person whose efforts made their name widely-recognized. By extension, I can say that when someone on television makes an asinine statement such as "This place is named for Verrazano, but I think the Native [sic] Americans may have known about it first," that person is not discovering, but merely displaying, the fact of his smug ignorance.

05 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #18

I naturally oppose the use of torture in order to extract confessions from those who are merely suspected of illegal activity, but would it be so wrong to employ the method on those who unquestionably are guilty of monstrous crimes, especially if doing so could help to prevent another such crime? (For the sake of the interrogators' own spiritual welfare, this would have to be done dispassionately rather than out of cruelty.)

Miscellaneous Musing #5: "The Russians Aren't Coming! The Russians Aren't Coming!"

Why did most of the world react to the USSR's boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympiad as if it were a catastrophe, while South Africa hadn't even been permitted to compete in the Olympics for two decades?

Uncommon Commentary #17: Asteroid Asininity

The reason for the dinosaurs' extinction is not known and probably never will be; the explanation most in vogue nowadays, however, is the one that I consider the least plausible of all, viz., that our prehistoric friends died out because an asteroid or meteoroid (not "meteor" or "meteorite") or comet or something struck Earth. Many scientists have a disagreeable penchant for speaking on matters of conjecture as if all the facts were known (at least to them), and this habit is never more irritating than when they and others behave as if the cosmic-collision conceit had won universal acceptance. Proponents never address what I consider to be the obvious objection (to this and to most other alleged causes of "mass extinction"): Why would this putative cataclysm have caused the extinction of all archosaurs (dinosaurs and their reptilian relatives) except for the crocodilian lineage, along with toothed birds and the nautilus-like ammonoids, but not of the many species that survived into our time, the Cainozoic Era?
Some concrete evidence has actually been put forth in favor of the supposition that I'm doubting, although, notably, the supposition came first. This evidence is that "The PT Boundry [sic] contains large amounts of iridium--unnatural to the usual earth composition…" (http://periodic.lanl.gov/elements/77.html) This inadequate statement refers to 1) the Permian-Triassic Boundary, which marks the onset of the archosaur-dominated Mesozoic Era, and 2) an element often found in asteroids. Since the demise of the dinosaurs took place at the end of the Mesozoic, it had nothing to do with the event suggested by that unusual abundance of iridium, but perhaps it resulted from the same sort of occurrence (even though no similar discovery has been made concerning the strata laid down when the dinosaurs went extinct, which happened 65 million years ago, give or take a few weeks). Such speculation does not, however, answer the question that I've raised as to how this catastrophe could have been selective. A disaster that poisoned the atmosphere, for instance, would have effected the disappearance of air-breathing animals, but not of fish and other creatures that extract oxygen from the water; it's inconceivable that any kind of condition would leave the crocodylians unscathed but lead to the perishing of their closest relations. There may be key information that I am missing, but, if so, defenders of the theory are at fault for not providing it. Really the whole issue is a bogus one, since, after all, extinction is normal, and survival for many millions of years is not; that's why the term "living fossil" applies to an exception to this rule. Too many scientists, unfortunately, suffer from an intellectual hubris that won't permit them to concede that there's anything they don't know. Tempting as it might be to declare that iridium has solved the mystery, it's hard to avoid concluding that the asteroid-impact is a palæontological deus ex machina, serving not to quash ignorance but to disguise it.

01 August 2008

Uncommon Commentary #16

I certainly have no opposition to voluntary consumption of nothing but vegetables, but it's different when vegetarians portray themselves as morally superior to those of us who also eat meat. In addition to being egoistic, their position is hypocritical; after all, plants may not move around like animals, but they are fellow living things nonetheless.

Uncommon Commentary #15: I Slam Islam?

Well, do I? The question is too complex to be answered with either "Yes" or "No." Despite the flippant wordplay in the title, this article is a serious examination of one of the critical issues of today.
I believe that Christ is (as He told us) the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and so I take issue with the Moslem tenet that He is not the Savior but merely one in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed. Although Islam doesn't have the whole truth, however, it also certainly is not completely wrong. Muslims, after all, worship the same god as do Christians and Jews; they just have some curious beliefs about Him, such as the notion that we please Him by murdering instead of converting unbelievers. Practitioners of Islam are required to pray to Allah (which is not the personal name of the Deity, but simply means "God"; it's related to the Hebrew "Elohim") several times each day and to give alms to the poor, among other good works. In accepting this monotheistic faith, the people of the Arabian Peninsula took a considerable stride forward, for they had previously been idolaters. Moslems join true (i.e., pro-life) Christians in opposing (induced) abortion, which is the worst evil that the world has ever seen. In the first half of the Seventh Century AD, the East Roman or "Byzantine" Empire inflicted a decisive defeat upon the Sassanid Empire, ending centuries of conflicts between the Christian Greeks and the Zoroastrian Persians; Mohammedan historians deemed it a victory for Truth versus falsehood.
Why, then, is militant Islam a threat to the entire world? How can Moslems say that theirs is a religion of peace, while raising their children to become suicide-bombers? In their avoidance of answering these questions boldly, whether this stems from an innately ineffectual temperament or from a desire not to antagonize any large number of their constituents, politicians like John Kerry accuse Islamist religious leaders (as he did a few months ago) of "misrepresenting a legitimate religion." The Senator's statement, alas, is itself a misrepresentation. The Qur'an (Koran), indeed, ostensibly prohibits violence, but it also, in five suras (chapters), enjoins that Moslems "wage war upon all those who do not accept the doctrines of Islam." (Jihad, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition) I don't begrudge Moslems their willingness to fight for their faith—I wish that most Christians took their nominal religion as seriously as do most Mohammedans—but the importance of the "jihad" concept goes beyond the mere fact that it's a doctrine of holy war. When some of Mohammed's earliest adherents carried out something that was much like a modern terrorist attack, namely, the massacre of a caravan of infidels, they had to deal with the paradox presented in the second sentence of this paragraph; fortunately for the assuaging of their consciences, this atrocity occurred during the lifetime of the man whom they considered a prophet, who reassured them that "It was not you who slew them, but Allah who slew them." (Rand McNally Historical Atlas of the World, p. 41) Along with this exculpation for what the faithful of other major religions would simply deem a war crime, there is a provision for automatic moral exoneration: "In the belief of Moslems every one of their number slain in a jihad is taken straight to paradise." (Jihad, ibid.) The implication is an extremely dangerous one, i.e., anyone who dies during a holy war, regardless of which or how many sins he's committed, is immediately absolved of them. One can therefore do evil throughout one's life, and then, while shouting something like "Allah akbar!" (God is great), close out that life with another act of evil, such as crashing an airplane into a building full of civilians, without ever feeling the slightest pang of guilt.
To me, what's worst about the current excesses of Islam is the prospect that they will bring discredit upon all religion. Finally, the answer to my question in the title of this commentary is that, regarding how to treat with the Moslems, nothing has really changed since the days of the Crusades and of the Caliphate; we must simply side with them when they do right, and oppose them when they do wrong.