Sunday 02 February 2003

Nothing inappropriate

What an extraordinary juxtaposition of viewpoints in the comments on Oh No, Burningbird’s first post on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia:

“the space program is an inherently risky money drain… astronauts are heroic and selfless… without the space programme we might be richer as a people, but poorer as a race… it’s a risky job, and safer statistically than lots of other jobs that pay crap and don’t have great benefits… [space exploration is] an act of adoration to God and His creation… the astronauts did risk what most of us will never risk—they faced the risk of dying alone and in space… the U.S. has a very poor track record when it comes to “exploration” of anything”

To that last (anonymous) comment, Burningbird replied:

Not one simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things. I’ve had it.

At first glance, it seems a “simple expression of sadness” is exactly what’s required. Not arguments about whether they were “heroes” or whether money spent on exploring space would be better spent elsewhere. Not eagerly latching on to a tragic accident and using it as an excuse to lambast America.

On the news tonight I saw a brief interview with the mother of one of the astronauts. She said that her son had told her that only the takeoff and landing were truly dangerous, that once you were in space there was very little risk. So we knew, she added, that he wasn’t safe until he’d actually landed. She appeared remarkably stoic, as though she’d accepted a long time ago the possibility that her son might not return.

There was video footage, shot perhaps by an “amateur” through a tangle of tree branches, of the Columbia plummeting towards earth trailing smoke, that made me think of Auden’s poem, Museé de Beaux Arts:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The video footage was accompanied by a voiceover describing how the families and friends had gathered to welcome the astronauts home, only to witness the disaster that engulfed their loved ones.

So I empathized with Burningbird’s exasperation: her “Enough!”, her “I’ve had it!”. While at the same time wondering whether the supposed weakness of weblog comments—that we give a voice to the “inappropriate”—might be one of their greatest strengths. Instead of the usual carefully controlled, mediated, and sanitized version of events presented by “media professionals,” we get an unrestrained, messy, and often “unseemly” series of responses. And it’s these unprogrammed observations—the kind we’d only hear or voice in unguarded moments—that force us to consider what such an event might truly mean. In this sense, it’s not that those who comment get it “right” or “wrong” but rather that their comments place me in a situation where I need to think and feel for myself, rather than swallow predigested media pap.

For me, it was that mother’s astonishing fortitude, the fact that as much as she may have wanted to protect her son from danger, she (and, I assume, his father) had instilled in him the curiosity and courage to risk his life in pursuit of an ideal.

Auden’s poem and some of the comments on Burningbird’s post dramatize the ease with which the remarkable is met by indifference. But indifference is a choice, as is engagement. Burningbird’s demand for the “simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things” is one that we ignore at the risk of losing, not our lives, but our souls.

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Tuesday 04 February 2003

lang=”ja” and the attribute selector

Following up on a comment Sean Conner made on my post Archive organization re-viewed, I stumbled upon a fascinating post titled I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so, which deals with how certain browsers treat the lang attribute:

JeffK mentioned that over the past few days, when he views The Boston Diaries his browser asks if he wants to download and install Japanese language support.

Sean traced the “problem” to an entry he’d written that included the Japanese words, dojinshi and manga, which—rather than simply slapping some <i> tags around them—he’d treated semantically:

The <SPAN LANG="ja" TITLE="fan art">dojinshi</SPAN> market .... <SPAN LANG="ja" TITLE="comic book">Manga</SPAN> publishers ...

I’ve followed a similar practice, though not as elegantly as Sean. For example, my recent entry, Tansu, includes:

A <i xml:lang="ja" lang="ja">tansu</i> is a Japanese chest of drawers or a cabinet with deep drawers at the bottom.

Note that I’ve added the lang attribute to the <i> tag, whereas Sean includes it in a <span> tag wrapped around each Japanese word.

He neatly explains the browser’s request to install Japanese language support:

Since I seem to already have the Japanese language support installed I didn’t notice anything odd when I loaded the page to proof read the entry. But it seems that other browsers that don’t have the Japanese language support saw the language attribute for “Japanese,” realized they weren’t installed, so decided to ask the user if it was okay to install Japanese language support. But I’m using an Anglicized spelling for a Japanese word so there’s no real need to download Japanese language support for what I used, so how do I get around that?

Sean figured out a workaround: “fudging it… by using lang="x-ja" which is allowed (any language code starting with “x” is for private use).”

I also have Japanese language support enabled on all my computers so I wouldn’t have noticed a request to install it when I checked my post in a browser. I’m wondering if anyone who read that post encountered a similar request to install Japanese language support. Or is my inclusion of the xml:lang="ja" element acting as an auxiliary fudge.

But that’s not all. In Sean’s original post, the words dojinshi and manga appear italicized, yet there’s no class attribute within the <span> tag—though this is how I would italicize the text, as in:

<span class="lang-attr" lang="ja" title="fan art">dojinshi</span>


.lang-attr {font-style: italic;}

Instead, Sean’s stylesheet contains the following declaration:

span[lang] { font-style: italic;}

Sean Conner is using an attribute selector! How cool is that? I’d never even heard of attribute selectors but there they are in Eric Meyer’s Cascading Style Sheets 2.0: Programmer’s Reference:

X[attr]  Selects any element X with the attribute attr.

X[attr="val"]  Selects any element X whose attribute attr has the value val.

X[attr~="val"]  Selects any element X whose attribute attr contains a space-separated list of values which includes val.

X[attr|="val"]  Selectes any element X whose attribute attr has a value which is a hyphen-separated list that begins with val.

I can see myself putting attribute selectors to good use from now on, thanks to Sean. And I’m still curious about whether I can trigger a request by your browser to install Japanese language support by mentioning kimono, sushi, geisha, haiku, and anime.

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Wednesday 05 February 2003

Can I CITE you on that?

I didn’t realize, when I asked in my previous post about how to correctly cite Japanese words written in romaji, that I was setting myself up for a thorough dousing in the complexities of markup and the semantic Web.

It has been my custom to wrap Japanese words such as nejimakidori in an <i> tag with xml:lang="ja" and lang="ja" attributes. I noted Sean Conner’s use of a <span> tag with lang="ja" plus a title="wind-up bird" to provide the meaning; except that this prompted various browsers to ask to install Japanese language support so he fudged it with lang="x-ja".

Bertilo pointed out that writing 'lang="x-jp"’ is no solution, since "x-jp" does not mean “Japanese”, and suggested using only xml:lang="ja" (if your pages are XHTML). Joe Clark said we should be using <cite lang="ja">. Adam Rice disagreed, saying that’s not a canonical use of <cite>. Language Hat asked: “What’s wrong with italics?” Spoutnik suggested using <dfn>. Kris agreed with Joe on the use of <cite> and also emailed me, suggesting that it might be worth trying UTF-8 character encoding instead of ISO-8859-1.

In the unlikely event that I’m ever asked to join a Web standards committee, I already have my answer formulated. You can easily guess what it is.

The entry for <cite> in the O’Reilly HTML Reference included with Dreamweaver MX reads:

The CITE element is one of a large group of elements that the HTML 4.0 recommendation calls phrase elements. Such elements assign structural meaning to a designated portion of the document. A CITE element is one that contains a citation or reference to some other source material. This is not an active link but simply notation indicating what the element content is. Search engines and other HTML document parsers may use this information for other purposes (assembling a bibliography of a document, for example).

Browsers have free rein to determine how (or whether) to distinguish CITE element content from the rest of the BODY element. Both Navigator and Internet Explorer elect to italicize the text. This can be overridden with a style sheet as you see fit.

<P>Trouthe is the hyest thing that many may kepe.<BR>
(Chaucer, <CITE>The Franklin's Tale</CITE>)</P>

It seems to me that this bears out Adam Rice’s assertion that <cite> is not the appropriate element to use with foreign words, particularly since I use Japanese words for quite a different reason than that suggested by both the O’Reilly and Adam’s examples—not to quote from a book or a speech but because there is no accurate English equivalent for the Japanese word or because I wish to include fragments of Japanese as a stylistic device.

For now I’m sticking to my original method but I’d love to get both these issues sorted out:

  • Which element should I use to quote Japanese words in romaji?
  • How can I stop the browsers asking to install Japanese language support for such words?

Further suggestions enthusiastically welcomed but, please, no invitations to join either a CITE or romaji subcommittee of any W3C standards body.

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Thursday 06 February 2003

No easy way out

“Like most Australians,” writes Paul Sheehan in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “I’m against the Bush Administration’s war, but that doesn’t mean that we in the majority can congratulate ourselves about our moral superiority.”

Sheehan’s opinion piece is worth reading in full, since it lays out with uncomfortable clarity the dilemma that any intelligent person faces when trying to formulate a position on how to deal with Saddam Hussein. I’ve already argued against Australia’s participation in a war against Iraq—but only against a war conducted without UN sanction—because I fear the consequences of allowing the United States to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not an acceptable government and because I agree with Robert Manne that legitimizing the preemptive strike casts us back to the law of the jungle.

Sheehan asks why Australia should support a US administration that:

  • Appears willing to use nuclear weapons as a first-strike option.
  • “Botched the endgame against al-Quaeda” in Afghanistan.
  • Makes no connection between its Iraq policy and its blank-cheque support for Israel.

But then comes the sting in the tail:

The moral virgins in this debate who pronounce themselves “against war”, and who rail against American arrogance, need to at least acknowledge the impact that inertia and appeasement have had on the continuing murders and torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, the genocide against the Kurds and the Madans, the invasions of Kuwait and Iran, the missile attacks on Israeli civilians, the use of chemical weapons, the degradation of the environment and the general malevolence of a kleptocracy run by Saddam and his Caligula-like son, Uday, and their vast apparatus of suppression.

Had this regime not been decisively and violently checked by US power 12 years ago, it would now control the vast oil resources of Kuwait as well as its own, would have used this economic power to build an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, would have sought nuclear weapons, and would probably be untouchable. All thanks to prudent, peace-loving people who are against military interventions and American imperialism.

It’s clear that the revulsion Australians feel towards Saddam Hussein is balanced by a deep distrust of both the Bush administration’s motives and those of our own government. The end result is an overwhelming insistence that our participation be sanctioned by the UN.

Sheehan suggests that, in offering Australian support for the attack on Iraq, with or without UN sanction, Prime Minister John Howard is paying an insurance premium against the time when Muslim Indonesia implodes on our doorstep. Then, the argument goes, our alliance with the US would be the only thing that could save us. (How George W. Bush can guarantee the actions of a future US government is not explained.)

If that is the case, and I suspect it probably is, then it’s impossible for the Prime Minister to admit his true motive without causing a massive diplomatic row with the Indonesian government. As Sheehan concludes: “There is no easy way out for the Prime Minister. Or for the rest of us.”

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Friday 07 February 2003

Meaningless Archiving meets Numerology

Without actually mentioning my rant about weekly archives, gord from Poetic Geek takes me to task in the nicest possible way over the form of my individual archives:

Let’s take Jonathon Delacour for example, he’s both an excellent writer and seems to care about semantics. His most recent post is archived at What does this URL tell you about the piece it points to? Almost nothing, only that it is stored in the archives and there are 832 previous pieces. Imagine the URL looked like this: cite_you_on_that.html. What does this tell us about the post: It was posted on February 5th, 2003 and is entitled “can I cite you on that”. This is much more informative. It would also allow people to construct URL’s based on information they have on the date the post was made. This cannot be accomplished with the previous method.

Burningbird commented:

Good points. Unfortunately, if we’ve had the weblogs for a while and have been linked to, it makes it difficult to change. That can be a lot of redirects to manage.

That would have been my response too. When I switched to Movable Type, I think I decided on the simple numbered archive format because:

  • The dated folder structure seemed unnecessarily complex (Radio UserLand does it that way too).
  • I thought the file name based on the entry title looked ugly.
  • And therefore I ignored my usual MarkUp Mentor, Mark Pilgrim, and followed the example of Burningbird and Phil Ringnalda instead (not that I’m blaming Bb or Phil—I liked the numbered format).

But if I’d read gord’s post first, I would almost certainly have followed his advice—and not because he ends it with:

Whichever method you use, it will most certainly be more helpful than the padded entry ID. Jonathon is by no means the only person doing this, he’s just by far the cutest.

In any case, it’s clearly not too late, since I could follow gord’s suggestion to:

leave your current pages as they are so that no one’s links are broken and then just have it generate all new pages that way.

That’s yet another of the nice things about MT—it just leaves the old archive pages in place. So, unless someone offers a compelling argument that I should leave things as they are, I may well implement gord’s archive system. Although there is one important issue: given that numbers have great significance for me, at which post number do I switch from one system to the other? (For example, I’ve just realized that this entry will be #835, which is a good number because 8=3+5. But I’ll want to post some other entries while I’m waiting for counter-opinions. So the turnover point might have to be #844. We’ll see.)

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Saturday 08 February 2003

LANG? Enough already!

A couple of posts (lang=”ja” and the attribute selector and Can I CITE you on that?) and lots of comments later, we’re still no closer to resolving how to properly mark up Japanese words written in Romaji (Japanese transliterated using Roman characters).

I started marking up Japanese words—pretty much the only foreign words I include with any regularity—while implementing Mark Pilgrim’s Dive Into Accessibility tips:

Day 7: Identifying your language

You know what language you’re writing in, so tell your readers… and their software.

Who benefits?

  1. Jackie benefits. Her screen reader software (JAWS) needs to know what language your pages are written in, so it can pronounce your words properly when it reads them aloud. If you don’t identify your language, JAWS will try to guess what language you’re using, and it can guess incorrectly, especially if you quote source code or include other non-language content in your pages.
  2. Google benefits, even if you are writing in English, but especially if you are writing in some other language. According to the Google Zeitgeist, 50% of Google users search in languages other than English, and many of these users specify in their Google preferences to only search for pages in specific languages. Google’s language auto-detection algorithms are better than most, but why make Google’s job more difficult?

Except that, as the JAWS information page explains:

JAWS installs with an enhanced, multi-lingual software speech synthesizer, “Eloquence for JAWS”. Languages include: American English, British English, Castilian Spanish, Latin American Spanish, French, French Canadian, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Finnish.

No Japanese. Similarly, my copy of IBM Home Page Reader supports the following languages: German, Spanish, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Suomi (Finnish), British English, and American English but not Japanese.

Even if Japanese were included, it’s doubtful how useful the “correct” pronunciation would be since Japanese is frequently transliterated without the macrons that indicate long vowel sounds i.e. taiheiyo senso instead of taiheiyō sensō (or as taiheiyou sensou, which is even worse).

If I set my Google preferences to search only for pages written in Japanese and do a search for “taiheiyo senso”, then apart from pages in which the phrase appears as a file or directory name, the result list only includes pages with taiheiyo senso written in Romaji.

But if I search for Japanese script for taiheiyo senso (Pacific War), the result list only includes pages in which taiheiyō sensō is written in Japanese script.

Thus, since anyone searching for a Romanized Japanese word will almost certainly want to see results in any language other than Japanese, it’s difficult to see how Google benefits from the inclusion of either lang="ja" or xml:lang="ja".

Bertil Wennergren provided further confirmation by taking the matter to “the high court” (comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html) but, as he noted in his comment, “no solution to the actual problem emerged.” Jukka Korpela summed it up:

This is depressing, but thanks for pointing this out. I think many of have not met this problem yet, either because we have Japanese support installed or because we haven’t visited pages where Romanized Japanese has language markup. The observation reminds us that we should not write language markup in too much detail, until the definitions and implementations have matured. (For an entire document, or for a block quotation, and for a book title, for example, language markup is surely recommendable, and not much work. But even for them, maybe it’s better to suppress the lang markup, if the text is transliterated or transcribed.)

So that’s it for me. From now on I’ll wrap Romanized Japanese words in a span tag, use CSS to italicize them, and—where the meaning isn’t immediately clear from the context—add a title tag to provide it. As in, taiheiyō sensō:

<span class="romaji" title="Pacific War">taiheiy&#333; sens&#333;</span>

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Sunday 09 February 2003

Only a matter of time

I’d pretty much resolved to retool my individual archives using the anders/gord dirified file naming system when Michael from i·me·michael tossed a spanner into the works (in the form of a first-rate piece of expository writing masquerading as a comment:

While I think gord has an interesting point, and one with merit, I don’t believe it has any more merit than the current system of archiving. The analogy of the generic filing system, where memos are indexed with a seemingly meaningless number, fails to acknowledge the more realistic scenario where “Joanne” probably has a indexing key which unlocks the numerical meaning attached to the memos. Any good filing/archiving system has a method for filing, and a method of retrieval. The default method of sequential numbering is neither better nor worse than a system where archived pages have names that are in some way tied to the content contained within.

Back to square one, I thought to myself, just before I clicked on the email notification of Phil Ringnalda’s comment (since I read most of the comments on my posts in SpamKiller, I’d read Michael’s ahead of Phil’s).

I’m not going to push my approach either, even if it bears fruit, having already twice inspired you to do things that I’d rather not be doing myself (entry ids and .php), but I will note that a .htaccess file using mod_rewrite on my 499 entries doesn’t seem to cause any major server stress. That I’ve noticed. In light testing.

Phil shouldn’t feel defensive since I’ve already made it clear that I was perfectly happy with entry_id archiving until gord pointed out its shortcomings and, following Burningbird’s advice, I’m only using PHP on my index page—all my archives are .html pages (though I may introduce other PHP pages for special purposes).

Then Bill Humphries responded to John’s LazyWeb request with a hybrid mod_rewrite/PHP solution:

What if you have several hundred, or several thousand entries?

You don’t want to use mod_rewrite. This is because in the case of .htaccess, Apache has to read that file for every request. And even if you put the rules in httpd.conf, that becomes a large ruleset that uses memory and processor. The set of mod_rewrite rules should be small.

An intermediate step would be to write a PHP script that handles the redirection for us.

But wait, there’s more! Jay Allen “just recently made the switch to smarter URLs away from the numerical form.” He explains how in a comment on Burningbird’s post, Don’t Touch That Button (in which she explained how to make the switch by creating a hashed database of redirects stored directly in the file system).

I don’t know how or when it will happen (I can’t use Alex’s method because my host doesn’t allow me to play with httpd.conf and I am drawn to Burningbird’s method because I like the idea of a “hashed database”), but I’m pretty sure I will make the switch to smarter URLs, despite Michael’s conclusion:

As I said in the beginning, gord’s point has merit, and it is neither better nor worse than the archiving schemes already in use, but I don’t personally see the value in switching to it.

Why switch in the face of a logical, persuasive argument? In some strange way, discovering that Phil is using dirified individual archive names may well be the clincher, in much the same way that I’m now holding off buying a Macintosh until Phil buys one. Even though he appears to be reluctant, Phil posts Mac-related entries often enough to suggest that he, like me, is teetering on the brink. (Assuming Phil does succumb, I’ll have to ask him to immediately email me the exact time and date he placed his order so that I can place mine 3.14159 days after.)

Because ultimately decisions like this are best made by balancing logic with emotion, intuition, and superstition.

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Monday 10 February 2003

Comment cookie cockup

It appears that my comments are not working properly. In a P-to-P email, Michael from i·me·michael wrote:

Your comments pages required setting one cookie for my info, and since your individual archive pages don’t seem to recognize this cookie, I had to fill out the same info and have another cookie set my info when commenting from an individual page. Seems a little redundant, and there may just be something set improperly. One cookie should cover the whole thing. You might want to look into it.

Indeed I might. Allan Moult alerted me to this problem a while ago and I found that I also had to fill in my info on the individual archive pages even though it appeared properly in the popup comment window. But when I upgraded to Movable Type 2.51 and installed the latest templates, everything worked properly for me so I assumed that the changes had fixed whatever was going wrong. (I can’t recall whether or not I made a comment from both the popup window and an individual archive page.)

This thread on the Movable Type Support forum describes the opposite problem (cookie info being remembered on the archive pages but not in the popup window) but the person in question was running two different blogs with different subdomain names and was storing his individual archive pages in category-based directories.

My copy of Mozilla is storing two sets of cookies.

  • domain:, path: /cgi-bin/
  • domain:, path: /archives/

The cookie code in the individual archive entry template is identical to that in the comment listing template.

I’m curious as to whether anyone else has struck this problem when leaving a comment from an individual archive page. Naturally I’d like to fix it and would be grateful for any suggestions. If it is happening to other commenters, I’ll at least have some “evidence” to take to the MT Support Forum.


Scott Hanson suggested in a comment that I should modify the cookie setting and deleting functions so that the cookies are written to the root directory i.e. change

setCookie('mtcmtauth',, now, '', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmtmail',, now, '', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmthome', f.url.value, now, '', HOST, '');


setCookie('mtcmtauth',, now, '/', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmtmail',, now, '/', HOST, '');
setCookie('mtcmthome', f.url.value, now, '/', HOST, '');

That did the trick! And it worked for Michael Hanscom too. Sincere thanks to Scott.

Given the fact that I’m running a bog-standard MT installation, I’m now wondering why Scott’s “fix” isn’t the default.

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Just make sure you spell it incorrectly

I’d completely forgotten there were different romanization systems for Japanese until Bertil Wennergren mentioned it in a comment. As a foreigner, I’m familiar with the Hepburn/Hyōjun system though I’ve always tried as much as possible to avoid rōmaji, believing that relying on transliterated Japanese makes it more difficult to read the actual language. Even so, since all my kanji dictionaries contain rōmaji, it’s impossible to avoid.

The entry on rōmaji in my Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan notes that the first romanization system, based on Portuguese, was developed by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. The Hepburn system, named after a Philadelphia medical missionary who arrived in Japan in 1859 was later modified and expanded into the Hepburn/Hyōjun system while the main alternative still in current use, the Kunrei system, has its origins in the Nippon system developed by Tanakadate Aikitsu, a physicist and professor at Tokyo University. The encyclopedia entry explains:

The Kunrei system remains in use for grade school textbooks and the National Diet [parliament] Library, among others, while the Foreign Ministry and most Japanese-English dictionaries continue to use the Hyōjun system.

The differences between the systems are shown in the illustration below:

Hepburn/Hyojun, Kunrei, and Nippon Romanization Systems for Japanese

A Google search on “rōmaji” turned up a fascinating article by Andrew Horvat titled The Romaji Conundrum in which he points out that although until recently the differing romanization systems were only of interest to educators, “these days, however, the party most concerned with Japan’s romaji chaos is the International Standards Organization which has put Japan on notice to come up with a single, rational, unified system.”

Why? Email addresses.

Horvat uses the example of a Japanese man whose given name would be transliterated as “Jun’ichi” (using the Hepburn/Hyōjun system). The Kunrei system would render the same name as “Zyun’iti” but the computer engineers who assigned his email address mixed up the two systems and assigned him the name “Jyunichi”. As he told Horvat, “if you don’t spell my name incorrectly you won’t be able to reach me.”

If past precedent is any guide, neither the ISO nor anyone else should hold their breaths. Anarchy is likely to reign for a long time to come. Instead, it might be an idea for those with an abiding interest in Japan to learn that “rōmaji” (the use of Latin letters to write Japanese) can be spelled as “roumaji,” “roomazi,” “roomadi” and any number of other variations.

Needless to say, the Japanese bureaucrats charged with deciding on a uniform standard are said to favor the Kunrei system even though young Japanese—those most likely to own computers and have email addresses—feel more at home with the Hepburn system.

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Tuesday 11 February 2003

HindenBook revisited?

Uh, oh! This is not a good omen for someone about to dip his toes back into the River Macintosh. Eric Snowdeal’s iBook is chronically unreliable:

the ibook is back in the shop. again.

congratulations, apple. you now have the dubious distinction of producing the most unreliable piece of hardware i’ve ever owned. ever. you should be proud. this is not meant to be an unfounded flame. it’s an objective fact.

i’ve owned loads and loads of hardware and yours is the worst. and i will note for the record that two friends have also returned and replaced their ibooks due to a variety of problems, so it’s not like i’m a freakish anomaly.

Eric’s iBook reminds me of the PowerBook 5300 (the HindenBook) that has the dubious distinction of being the most unreliable piece of hardware I’ve ever tried to use. Luckily I didn’t own it—within a three month period the LCD screen, motherboard, keyboard, and a serial port all had to be replaced (though, to be fair, my battery didn’t burst into flames).

Suddenly the Fujitsu LifeBook that Dan Lyke recommended is starting to look attractive again.

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Saturday 15 February 2003

Pyle and Bush

The US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, has made a habit of ruffling Australian feathers by pointedly ignoring the accepted custom that diplomats do not comment on a host country’s internal politics. This week, in an interview published in the weekly newsmagazine, The Bulletin, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the Labor party’s policy that Australian troops not be committed to a war Iraq without UN approval—although he made no direct comment on Labor front-bencher Mark Latham’s characterization of George W. Bush as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.”

I suspect that much of what Mr Schieffer describes as anti-Americanism in Australia is simply anti-Bush sentiment. As Alan Ramsay wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning:

It is Bush who appals many Australians. The man, not the country he leads.

This wee, strutting caricature of an American president, with his cowboy boots and cowboy language, his persistent appeals to God in defence of “freedom-loving people” - rhetoric the rest of us ridiculed when the Soviets and China forever spouted it during the worst of the Cold War in the ’50s and ’60s - is, without doubt, the most frightening US leader any of us have experienced. So, too, the two most influential figures in his administration: Vice-President Cheney and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Both are wealthy Republican retreads from the Nixon White House of almost 30 years ago. Both are the real powers in George jnr’s Washington 29 years after the disgraced Nixon was driven from office.

All three scare the pants off most of us.

Even Colin (pronounced colon) Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, previously widely considered the only restraining influence in the Bush Administration, now eats from the same table. He has, as a former Australian minister of great wit describes him, become semi-colon.

Film director Phil Noyce struck a similar note when, in a Salon interview with Jean Tang, he compared George W. Bush to Alden Pyle, the CIA operative in Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American:

Alden Pyle is a bit of a dunderhead. He’s just a complete big bumbling idiot who’s really not aware of any of the implications of what he’s doing…

George Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle! He’s hardly been out of the country, he’s steeped in good intentions, believes he has the answer, is very naive, ultimately not that bright, and extremely dangerous.

I first encountered Phil Noyce in the early 70’s at a screening at the Filmmaker’s Cooperative, above Bob Gould’s old bookshop in Goulburn Street. Every Sunday night we’d gather to watch 16mm movies and on this occasion Phil showed ten minutes of color footage of his father burning leaves in the back garden of his house in Wahroonga, an upper-class suburb on Sydney’s North Shore.

“I don’t have a soundtrack so I’ve organized a smelltrack,” Phil told us as he emptied dead grass, twigs, and leaves onto a sheet of corrugated iron he’d laid on the floor next to the projector. He took a box of matches from his shirt pocket, used two or three to set the garden refuse alight, and signalled the projectionist to roll the film. The smell of burning leaves—intensely nostalgic for many of us—filled the cramped space above the bookshop as Phil ran up and down the aisle grasping the corrugated iron in one hand and fanning the flames with the other.

A few years later I shot stills for a feature on which Phil was second or third assistant director, then for a couple of documentaries he directed. His infectious enthusiasm and unflappable nature made him a pleasure to work with. He went on to direct one of the truly great Australian features, Newsfront, before heading off to Hollywood. Although I never much cared for the action pictures he made—such as Patriot Games or Clear and Present Dangerhis adaptation of The Quiet American is close to perfect.

Anyone who has traveled in South-East Asia will immediately recognize the precision with which Noyce and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, have captured not just the mood and character of the cities and countryside but the emotional undertone of the relationships between Vietnamese and Caucasians (British, French, and American).

No doubt assisted by Doyle’s firsthand experience, Noyce gets the tone of the liaison between Fowler (Michael Caine) and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) exactly right—a kind of world-weary acceptance of an imperfect situation that the American Pyle (Brendan Fraser) finds incomprehensible.

Though I haven’t read Greene’s novel—it’s on my list—it’s a tribute to Noyce’s direction that I only realized a couple of days after I’d seen the film how crude the central metaphor actually is: innocent young girl (Vietnam) trapped in an exploitative relationship with a corrupt and cynical journalist (France) can only be rescued by a decent, honest medical operative (America). Except that the American turns out to be a CIA agent who is directly or indirectly responsible (depending on your viewpoint) for a terrorist attack on a Saigon city square that results in the death and maiming of dozens of innocent civilians.

It’s also clear how well qualified Phil Noyce was to make The Quiet American. He, as I did, missed out on a “winning ticket” in the National Service lottery that would have sent us to fight in Vietnam. And Noyce’s father “was in the Australian equivalent of the OSS” (the precursor to the CIA):

He was a spy. He was in the Zed force doing exactly the same thing, training operatives to go behind enemy lines. He didn’t go, he just trained them on an island off the east coast of Australia. This was in 1945. And he told me the story of one guy called Minh who said to him, “I don’t care about the Japanese, I’m just here to learn how to defeat the French.” And at the time, there was no such place as Vietnam, there was just Indochina, and [my dad] realized of course that he was training a Vietnamese operative.

Similarly, all the characters in The Quiet American—Fowler, Phuong, Pyle, Hinh (Fowler’s assistant)—are pragmatic, in their own ways, but Pyle is the most dangerous because his willingness to do whatever it takes (“to destroy the village in order to save it”) is buttressed by naivety, overweening certainty, and a lack of historical awareness. Not unlike George W. Bush.

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Sunday 16 February 2003

Against war?

Natsuko called this morning to ask if I’d reconsider my decision not to attend the anti-war march.

“You should come,” she said, “everybody should be against war. The more the merrier.”

“I’m not against war,” I replied. “I’m against unilateral military action, tyranny, and fundamentalism.”

“John Pilger will be speaking,” she added gratuitously.

I thought about telling Natsuko that Pilger’s reflexive anti-American stance is just a different kind of fundamentalism, no different—in essence—from Muslim, Christian, or Zionist fundamentalism. But instead I told her to be careful and to call me when she was safely home, so I’d know she hadn’t come to any harm or been arrested.

It’s not that I didn’t consider attending the anti-war rally in Sydney today. If it had been a No War on Iraq Without UN Sanction rally, I’d have been there in an instant; but that was not the rally that was planned and advertised nor the rally that was held. There was no space at the table for someone for whom being “against war” makes no more sense than to be “against salt water” or “against sexual attraction.”

I can understand someone’s being “against war except as a means of last resort” or “against a particular side in a specific war,” but to be against war per se is to deny that, under certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to war. I’ve written before about my objection to the “anti-war” argument in these terms:

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)

I’ve also stated in various posts my misgivings about the real motives of the US, British, and Australian governments in preparing an unsanctioned attack on Iraq. Today, after reading a long essay titled Real Reasons for the Upcoming War with Iraq (via a comment by Paul Hughes on Joi Ito’s post My position on warblogging), I’m even more skeptical about the Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq.

The essay argues that Saddam Hussein’s decision late 2000 to transact Iraq’s oil sales in Euros instead of dollars (and his subsequent conversion of Iraq’s $10 billion reserve fund at the UN to Euros) poses a substantial threat to the US economy—initially by establishing the Euro “as an alternative oil transaction currency” then subsequently by encouraging OPEC to follow suit.

<update>Stavros pointed out in a comment that the oil currency article, by W. Clark, originally appeared at, which also provides a link to a related article by Peter Dale Scott, Bush’s Deep Reasons For War on Iraq: Oil, Petrodollars, and the OPEC Euro Question.</update>

(Aside: anyone who believes that the French and German governments are motivated by altruism or a commitment to world peace must be drinking cocktails mixed from equal portions of naivety and idealism.)

So what’s my solution? To force the Americans and Europeans to thrash out a compromise that will neutralize the extremists in the Bush administration, discourage the legitimization of unilateral military action, and leave the “authority” of the UN intact. A UN-sanctioned campaign against Saddam Hussein offers the best chance of liberating the Iraqi people, constraining the US government’s Middle East ambitions, and establishing a balance of power between the US and Europe.

Tonight on the TV news I saw various anti-war figures speak out against any war on Iraq, stressing that it would result in the death and suffering of thousands of women, children, and soldiers. Yet not one of them had anything to say about the death and suffering that Saddam Hussein has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Ten days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan quoted from a portrait of Iraq by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker of November 25:

“Abu Ghraib is the biggest prison in the country [Iraq]. Until recently, it housed maybe 50,000 men, although to my knowledge there are no official figures on this… Over the years human rights organisations have reported that mass executions took place regularly… every Wednesday was execution day at the prison. An old-fashioned Indian hanging machine had been used for a while, but a problem arose with noise. There was a terrific banging sound every time the machine dropped and people living near the prison had been begun keeping track of the executions by counting the bangs,” the Iraqi exile said.

“The old gallows was replaced by a quiet modern device, but the locals still knew when executions were taking place because the condemned men ululated as they went to their deaths. In our culture, this is something that only women do, when they are happy. But the men in Abu Ghraib make the sound because they are so relieved that they are finally going to die.”

What, if you are “against war,” is the solution to this?

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Monday 17 February 2003

Now don’t you be dishrespectful

Sometimes, when you live in a time zone far removed from many of your blogging pals, you get the feeling that you’re missing out on important stuff—even though, as in my case, I’m currently anywhere between 16 and 19 hours ahead of my American colleagues (so things should happen to me before they happen to them).

I awoke this morning to learn of two critical developments in blogging:

I’d have thought that being “respectful” would confer the kiss of death on any weblog but I never went to an Ivy League university—and, had I wanted to go, Harvard would almost certainly rejected an application from someone variously described as “half-witted” or “a three-quarter wit, and a little change to spare” (unless his parents had “change” in the order of ten or twenty million dollars to spare).

As for Google’s buying Pyra, I’m largely indifferent—at least until the reasons for the purchase become clear. I am pleased, however, that Blog*Spot users can look forward to more reliable hosting.

Even though, as AKMA suggests, one should “never presume to correct the Tutor,” I’m not at all indifferent to seeing my picture of the Dishmatique used without permission or attribution on the Wealth Bondage site (changing the file name from dishmatique.gif to dishmatique2.gif fools no-one, Candidia). And Tutor, you can tell Dick Minim to check every page on this site, but I can save him the time—he won’t find a Creative Commons logo anywhere.

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Tuesday 18 February 2003


Burningbird wrote:

Tell me your justifications for war and display for me past examples where good triumphed over evil in a necessary war. For every act of rightous war you bring into the light, I’ll show you a ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity stretching back into the darkness behind it.

Although it is difficult to locate exactly when in prewar Japan the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to the Pacific War began, we could pick the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, given its resonances with what is happening all around us now.

Sponsored by Hiranuma Kiichirō and his followers in the Ministry of Justice, and enacted on 12 May 1925, the Peace Preservation Law was—according to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan—the “central pillar of the system of ideological control established in the prewar period and served as the framework for the creation of special techniques for handling “thought criminals.” (shisōhan).

The main thrust of the law was presented in article 1, which read: “Anyone who has formed an association with the objective of altering the kokutai or the system of private property, and anyone who has joined such an association with full knowledge of its object, shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labor for a term not exceeding ten years.” By the use of the highly enigmatic and emotional term kokutai—the political system, regarded as unique to Japan, embodied in the imperial line and the institutions supporting it—the Hiranuma clique blended politics and ethics in a traditional manner, turning dissent into a moral as well as a legal issue and undermining the liberal interpretation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.

After the Manchurian Incident of 1931 (in which the Kwantung Army fabricated a Chinese attack on a Japanese railway post as a pretext for starting their conquest and pacification of Manchuria), “dissent was tolerated less and officials demanded greater conformity and harmony.” Those judged to be “thought criminals” were subjected to a process of conversion (tenkō), consisting of various forms of physical and psychological coercion.

By 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war commenced, the Japanese were living in a police state no less repressive than that of Nazi Germany. Although one must be careful not to forget that the Japanese militarists enjoyed popular support, particularly in the months following the Navy’s successful attack on Pearl Harbor and the Army’s stunning victories in South East Asia, it is equally true that any dissent was ruthlessly suppressed.

However, the issue for me is not the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to this situation since I’ve already rejected the belief that “foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.” Rather I accept Thomas Sowell’s view that the evils of the world derive from “the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” In other words, folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity will inevitably arise wherever there are people present.

Therefore I cannot agree with William Godwin’s assertion—quoted by Sowell in The Vision of the Anointed—that “the way for a country to avoid war… is to behave with ‘inoffensiveness and neutrality’ towards other countries and to avoid the kind of ‘misunderstanding’ that leads to war.” I’m halfway through reading John Keegan’s A History of Warfare and, unfortunately, nothing I’ve encountered so far gives me cause to reject John Jay’s statement in The Federalist Papers that “nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”

Let me make it clear that I’m not in favor of war—and I agree that it is always preferable to try to minimize or eliminate the folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity that lead to armed conflict—it’s just that I’m not against war under any and all circumstances. And I’m deeply ambivalent about the proposed war against Iraq for exactly the reasons Joseph Duemer articulated yesterday:

If I had any faith that this government was the least bit interested in the long-term welfare of ordinary Americans like me, I could be persuaded that military action was necessary to remove Saddam; unfortunately, perhaps, I cannot assent to be governed by this illegitimate cabal. This might seem to be splitting ethical hairs, picking ethical nits; but in fact it has everything to do with the current political situation: The budget that Bush just sent to Congress contains no line item for rebuilding Afghanistan. Not a farthing, not a pfennig, not a red cent.That’s commitment, that’s follow through, that’s support for the wretched of the earth. These guys really don’t give a flying fuck.

My objection to the coming war has less to do with Saddam than it does with the current resident of the White House & his handlers.

That I’m not implacably opposed to this war, or to war per se, is partly explained by a story told by novelist Charles McCarry in an essay called A Strip of Exposed Film (based on a talk given at the New York Public Library and published in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel). I read McCarry’s essay many years ago, before I became interested in the firebombing of Tokyo. Since then I’ve read dozens of books in English about the B-29 campaign against Japan from every possible perspective: the bombing victims, the B-29 aircrew, the scientists who designed the incendiary bombs… now my focus is on improving my Japanese reading skills to the point where I can access the original Japanese sources. Yet, out of all my reading, McCarry’s story offers a singular and extraordinary perspective.

Charles McCarry had been climbing in the Japan Alps when he and his wife were invited to visit the head man of a village called Nodaira.

His name was Toyomi Yamagishi. The same twenty families had been living in this very remote village since the twelfth century; the first road had been built only thirty years earlier. Before that everything that went into the village and came out of the village went in or came out on the back of a human being.

The visit took place at ten in the morning, “the usual Japanese hour for such affairs. They all sat around the kotatsu, a table with a blanket draped over it and a charcoal brazier underneath, “so that your lower body was warm enough and you warmed your upper body by drinking whiskey and sake at ten in the morning.” After they had eaten and been served green tea, Yamagishi began to speak.

He spoke in a recitative style, somewhat like the narration of a Noh play or a Bunraku puppet theater performance, except that he was speaking modern Japanese so that we could understand what he was saying.

He said he had invited us to his house because he had never met an American and had wanted to ever since World War II. We chatted a little about the history of the village and about the life that he and the other villagers had led before the war. He said it had been a life of ceaseless toil. As a child he had only rarely seen the faces of his parents because they worked every day from dark to dark, leaving the hut before he woke and returning after he was asleep. He had had no children of his own because he wanted to avoid this sadness in his own life. I remarked that I had grown up on a farm and knew how hard that life could be. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you do not know. Human beings are not beasts of burden in America.”

B-29 over Osaka, 01 June 45Yamagishi then told us about his life during the war. He had been drafted in 1944, at the age of forty, and sent to Osaka to guard the emperor’s forest. Then the Americans took Saipan and the B-29s came. “The Americans burned the forest with incendiary bombs, so it was not necessary to guard it any longer,” he said. “I became a firefighter. The Americans would drop incendiary bombs to set the city on fire, and when we went to fight the fires they would wait until we were very busy and then they would come over with other B-29s and drop antipersonnel bombs and kill the firemen. I thought, ‘The Americans are very clever.’ Then, after the whole city had been destroyed, a single B-29 flew over Osaka and dropped not bombs but hundreds of little parachutes. When these parachutes landed we saw that a gift was tied to each—a mirror, a harmonica, a fountain pen. The Japanese people had lost nearly everything in the bombing and they were very glad to have these gifts from the Americans. They ran to get them, and when they touched them they exploded in their hands, blowing off fingers and blinding people. I thought, ‘The Americans are not only clever; they are ruthless. We have lost the war.’”

Bombs falling on OsakaYamagishi said, “Your ships came and shelled us. The bombers kept on also, every day. I was assigned to train people to fight the Americans when they invaded. We showed women and children how to make spears from bamboo. Every Japanese was prepared to die defending the homeland. Then the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The emperor’s voice came over loudspeakers in the streets. He told us we must surrender. No one had ever heard his voice before, and to us it was the voice of God. But our commanding officer said, ‘No! We must kill the Americans! He is no true emperor if he tells the Japanese to surrender.’ Nevertheless we obeyed the emperor, and I came back to this village. All the younger sons of every family—all twenty families—had been killed in the war. Only old men and women were left to do the work. I thought we would starve to death. But as you see, we did not.

“Now,” the old Japanese said, “I will tell you why I invited you here. It is because I have something to say to you, and to all Americans.” He was out of breath and his face was full of color from the whiskey he had drunk, and I thought, “Well, here it comes.”

Yamagishi said, “Thank you. Thank you for defeating Japan. If you Americans had not done so, this village would be as it always was. The militarists would never have let us have democracy. But the Americans built the road; my nephews and nieces have cars and television sets, and they see their children every day. And because they have eaten American things like milk and vegetables and fruit, instead of the millet and pickles we had to eat, they are tall and beautiful like Americans instead of short and homely like me and my wife.” He bowed and said, “Thank you.” I realized, to my surprise, and in spite of everything I believed about the morality of bombing civilians, that the U.S. Air Force had won Yamagishi’s heart and mind by pitilessly destroying Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In one of my novels a political idealist asks Paul Christopher what he believes in. Christopher replies, “I believe in consequences.” In the novel, as in politics and in life itself, you can’t know what the consequences of any act will be until you come to the end.

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Thursday 20 February 2003

Ladies, lock & load

Disgusted that the Peloponnesian War has dragged on for years with no end in sight, Lysistrata convinced the women of Athens to go on a sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta. Echoing the theme of Aristophane’s play, Tara Sue Grubb wrote:

Peace on earth is possible. Ladies, We must stop raising assholes, or at least stop having sex with them.

A sufficiently provocative soundbite to warrant a link in Scripting News—though, given that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC, not a startlingly original idea. The core of Tara Sue Grubb’s post is devoted to a conviction that probably predates the Peloponnesian War and which remains one of the most strongly held and deeply cherished beliefs of the women’s movement: that a world dominated by women would be more peaceful than the world we live in—dominated as it is by men.

My friend Ross and I have a lot in common. We both come from military families—his cousin and uncle serve and my brothers are soldiers. We were both raised by our father. And we share many ideas in business and politics. But there is plenty of room to disagree. Today we argued about war. I spoke with his wife and said, “If we replaced every man in power with a woman, there would be less war.” I don’t care for any speculation on the matter. We’ve never experienced mass matriarchy on this planet. There is no room for discussion—only proof. We will make peace in this world only after peace has been brought to our home. There are too many females pushing the testosterone bandwagon. I read an article today by a “chick” who thinks war is the “grown-up” thing to do. She went so far as too chide the protestors as though they are just simple minded youngsters, left-overs from the sixities who are just not “grown up” enough to make a choice for peace, but those who are grown up should know to support the war. Well, sister, even morons grow up.

Ross says I have this dreamy idea of peace on earth. “It’s not going to happen Tara!” I don’t believe him. I know how to turn the cheek and swing a punch. As long as this world is dominated by men and the women who want to have what they have, we will remain in a state of advanced destruction and decay while an entire portion of the human species denies its own duty.

Tara Sue Grubb’s assertion that there would be fewer wars under a matriarchal system is borne out by John Keegan’s argument in A History of Warfare:

Half of human nature—the female half—is in any case highly ambivalent about warmaking. Women may be both the cause or pretext of warmaking—wife-stealing is a principal source of conflict in primitive societies—and can be the instigators of violence in an extreme form: Lady Macbeth is a type who strikes a universal chord of recognition; they can also be remarkably hard-hearted mothers of warriors, some apparently preferring the pain of bereavement to the shame of accepting the homeward return of a coward. Women can, moreover, make positively messianic war leaders, evoking through the interaction of the complex chemistry of femininity with masculine responses a degree of loyalty and self-sacrifice from their male followers which a man might well fail to call forth. Warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger, and bitterly reproach them when they fail as defenders. Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the fields and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and laboured in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.

And yet, other ideas that Keegan expresses equally forcefully, suggest that advances in weapons technology may be reducing women’s aversion to taking part in war.

It’s important to understand that Keegan’s book is a cultural history of war, based on his belief that “war is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself.” Accordingly, he relies on psychology, metallurgy, genetics, logistics, archeology, politics and many other disciplines to illuminate his subject: the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of the weapons, strategy, and tactics used by warriors—from prehistory to the present day.

Keegan’s discussion of how man the hunter was transformed into man the warrior hinges on two crucial weapons: the bow and the horse. Describing primitive man’s relationship with the animal world, he stresses that “man the hunter was brave and skilful”, quoting the prehistorians Breuil and Lautier to suggest that there was

[no] great abyss separating [him] from the animal. The bonds between them were not yet broken, and man still felt near the beasts that lived around him, that killed and fed like him … From them he still retained all the faculties that civilisation has blunted—rapid action and highly trained senses of sight, hearing and smell, physical toughness in an extreme degree, a detailed, precise knowledge of the qualities and habits of game, and great skill in using with the greatest effect the rudimentary weapons available.

Keegan then drily adds that

these, of course, are the qualities of the warrior across the ages, which modern military training-schools of Special Forces seek to re-implant in their pupils at the cost of much time and money.

Man’s relationship with other animals changed with the introduction of the bow, which he characterizes as “the first machine”

…since it employed moving parts and translated muscular into mechanical energy. How the men of the New Stone Age hit upon it we cannot guess, though it spread very rapidly once invented; why they did so has most probably to do with the progressive retreat of the last ice-sheets. The warming of the temperate zones completely changed the movement and migration patterns of the hunters’ prey, abolishing the old pelagic areas where game was predictably found, and, by liberating animals to roam and feed further and more widely, forced the hunter and the hunting-party to find a means of bringing down a more fleeting target over longer ranges.

The simple bow, as the original is called, is a piece of homogeneous wood, typically a length of sapling, and it lacks the opposed properties of elasticity and compression that gave the later composite and long bows, made of both sapwood and heartwood, their greater carrying and penetrative power. Even in its simple form, however, the bow transformed the relationship of man with the animal world. He no longer had to close to arm’s length to dispatch his prey, pitting at the last moment flesh against flesh, life against life. Henceforth he could kill at a distance. In that departure ethologists like Lorenz and Ardrey perceive the opening of a new moral dimension in man’s relations with the rest of creation but also with his own kind. Was man the archer also man the first warrior?

Later in the book, Keegan extends this idea in his discussion of the impact of the horse—first employed in war by the nomadic people who inhabited the steppe—and the composite bow, a far more sophisticated weapon than either the simple bow used by prehistoric hunters or the long bow employed by European archers. The composite bow shot a lighter arrow than the long bow “but could still carry to 300 yards with great accuracy… and penetrate armor at a hundred yards.”

A mounted warrior, equipped with the composite bow, transformed the practice of warfare, which had been up until then fought mainly at close quarters by soldiers equipped with swords, shields, and other relatively primitive weapons.

The horse-riding peoples, like the charioteers before them, brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot. As protectors of their flocks and herds against predators, they also preserved the spirit of the hunter, lost to agriculturalists except of the lordly class; in their management of animals they showed a matter-of-factness—in mustering, droving, culling, slaughter for food—that taught direct lessons about how masses of people on foot, even inferior cavalrymen, could be harried, outflanked, cornered and eventually killed without risk. These were practices that primitive hunters, with their empathetic relationship with their quarry and mystic respect for the stricken prey, would have found intrinsically alien. To the horse peoples, equipped with their principal weapon, the composite bow, itself a product of the animal tissues which supported their way of life, killing at a distance—of emotional detachment as well as physical space—was second nature.

I have no idea what Tara Sue Grubb might think of women in the military—whether she sees female soldiers as part of that group of women she criticizes for wanting “to have what [men] have.” Yet, given that one of the key goals of feminism has been to dismantle the political and cultural barriers to women’s participation in every field of human activity, it’s inevitable that women—or, at least, some women—would wish to participate in John Keegan’s “entirely masculine activity”: combat.

When we consider the major psychological transformations precipitated by weapons and tactics that allowed man to kill at a distance in an emotionally detached manner, it is hardly coincidental that women are integrated into combat units in the US Navy and Air Force—where they would not be expected to engage directly with an enemy—but are excluded from combat in the US Army where the chance of face-to-face contact is significantly higher.

Thus, in 1998, during Operation Desert Storm, Navy Lt. Kendra Williams became the first female fighter pilot to deliver a payload of missiles and laser-guided bombs while flying an F/A-18 mission over Iraq while First Lt. Cheryl Lamoureux was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the US Air Force when she was a crew member on a B-52 that fired Cruise missiles at Iraqi targets.

US Army units, on the other hand, are classified as either “P-2” (open to women) or “P-1” (closed to women). In May last year, the Pentagon removed eight female soldiers from ground reconnaissance units that are part of the Army’s fast-deploying combat brigades by reclassifying those units as P-1. The ruling was supposedly made to comply with a 1994 Defense Department policy that prohibits women from serving in units that perform direct ground combat roles but, as the Washington Post story makes clear, this was a political/cultural decision made by the Bush administration since Clinton political employees “did not view the newly created squadrons as direct combat units when the brigades were created in 1999 and developed in 2000.”

However, now that the barrier to women participating in air force and navy combat units has been removed, it seems only a matter of time—as in the period required for a further cultural shift to occur, or for the government to change, or both—before American women will be deployed in US Army combat units. Though I wonder whether Tara Sue Grubb would agree that their skills might eventually be useful in enforcing matriarchal rule.

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Monday 24 February 2003

Another boy meets form

It’s as though I’m all over the place, a thousand topics to write about and no idea where to start. There’s a thread connecting these thousand topics though, one to another; or rather, hundreds of threads, which must be why I’m writing—or attempting to write—hypertext, since the book I’ve dreamed about writing remains resolutely unwritten.

Ray Davis—“unable to finish new fiction”, “unable to finish new essays”, “unable to start new reviews”, and unwilling to resign himself to commercial writing—describes how he broke through:

In ten years of confusion, backtracking, and intermittent clarity, I’d gained ability and access, but my capability stayed stubbornly put. In 1999 as in 1989, the writing was motivated by dialogue, you-gotta-see-this enthusiasm, problem solving, and the mesmerizing glitter of verbal artifacts-cum-artifacts; it remained mulishly unspurred by ambition but turned into Red Hot Ryder’s mighty Sliver whenever it whiffed a digression — “Whoa, horsey! Aw, come on, horsey, won’t you please whoa?” —; and it arrived as opaque fragment or self-undermining rant or pseudo-conversational speech.

Boy meets form. “For good or for bad,” as one mildly disapproving friend said.

Three-and-a-half-years in, the compeers swarm and I grow ever more grateful to the form. Which is saying something, since it started pretty much saving my life from the get go.

Discovering Ray’s post a couple of weeks ago was a revelation, like reading my own history, my own dilemma, lived out and solved by someone else. It’s been slowly working its magic since then. I have no idea what Ray looks like but it felt like I was in Ray’s body looking in a mirror at my own face: Ray’s hand grasping the mirror, my face reflected back. Or the other way round.

Boy meets form. Yup. Pretty much saved my life from the get go too.

And, of course, there aren’t really a thousand different topics. Just one, seen from a thousand different angles: the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945. For good or bad.

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Tuesday 25 February 2003

A man set under authority

Since I sense I’ve been testing AKMA’s patience with my recent posts on the politics and ethics of warfare, I read with interest his Friday Sermon and its afterthought, Luther, [Just] War, and Preaching. In the latter AKMA wrote:

First, war is never right. There is a prevailing school of Christian ethical reflection—one from which I dissent—that teaches that disciples of Jesus may participate in warfare in defense of a just cause, on behalf of innocents, when every other means of bringing about the desired end has failed; such a situation makes participation in a war “just,” though it does not make the war itself a positive option. (My own Anglican tradition affirms in its Articles of Religion that “It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars,” though the Latin version of that article stipulates “et iusta bella administrare.”)

I accept, and I can only trust that AKMA does too, that—given the disparity between our respective positions—I’m not sure we’ll be able to find agreement—although I can feel myself inching my way slowly in the direction of AKMA’s position (I am particularly drawn to his belief that one’s truest identity is found in “respecting a primary allegiance to statelessness”).

But, at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, I’ll quote from John Keegan’s A History of Warfare once again, since Keegan frames his argument in similar terms to AKMA’s, although obviously he reaches a very different conclusion. In his opening chapter, titled War in Human History, Keegan writes:

The bounds of civilised warfare are defined by two antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’. The lawful bearer of arms has always been respected, if only because he has the means to make himself so; the pacifist has come to be valued in the two thousand years of the Christian era. Their mutuality is caught in the dialogue between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier who had asked for his healing word to cure a servant. ‘I also am a man set under authority,’ the centurion explained. Christ exclaimed at the centurion’s belief in the power of virtue, which the soldier saw as the complement to the force of law which he personified. May we guess that Christ was conceding the moral position of the lawful bearer of arms, who must surrender his life at the demand of authority, and therefore bears comparison with the pacifist who will surrender his life rather than violate the authority of his own creed? It is a complicated thought, but not one which Western culture finds difficult to accommodate. Within it the professional soldier and the committed pacifist find room to co-exist—sometimes cheek-by-jowl: in 3 Commando, one of Britain’s toughest Second World War units, the stretcher-bearers were all pacifists but were held by the commanding officer in the highest regard for their bravery and readiness for self-sacrifice. Western culture would, indeed, not be what it is unless it could respect both the lawful bearer of arms and the person who holds the bearing of arms intrinsically unlawful. Our culture looks for compromises and the compromise at which it has arrived over the issue of public violence is to deprecate its manifestation but to legitimise its use. Pacifism has been elevated as an ideal; the lawful bearing of arms—under a strict code of military justice and within a corpus of humanitarian law—has been accepted as a practical necessity.

The dialogue to which Keegan refers, between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier, is described in Luke 7: 1-10.

1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.
2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.
3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.
4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:
5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.
6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:
7 Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.
8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

AKMA absolutely rejects Keegan’s argument that the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable:

while soldiers may be humble, altruistic, and noble, theirs is emphatically not the greatest sacrifice one can make. There’s a tremendous difference between risking one’s life in warfare, armed with automatic weapons, missiles, grenades, bombs, and so on (on one hand) and risking one’s life in service to others unarmed, from the conviction that helping those in need is one’s fundamental obligation (on the other hand).

In one sense, it would seem that the CO of 3 Commando agreed with AKMA’s conviction—and who would be better qualified to judge than a man who had under his command representatives of both Keegan’s “antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’”?

Though it won’t come as any surprise that I believe the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable, my instinctive response is to have a greater degree of respect for the pacifist stretcher bearer than for the pacifist anti-war protester, since the latter’s moral position is so frequently held at no personal cost—and while sheltering under the protection afforded by professional soldiers.

My strongest interest lies, however, in how AKMA—or anyone with Christian convictions—would interpret the exchange between Christ and the Roman centurion.

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Thursday 27 February 2003

Apple Sautee

An email from Norm Jenson alerted me to the fact that Chris Locke bought a new PowerBook:

Everyone is doing it
Your turn.

“Wow,” I thought, “if Chris Locke has switched, maybe it is my turn.” Then I read the fine print in the Rage Boy’s post:

The only real problems I’m having with the Powerbook so far is that, due the incredible temperatures generated by its awesome processing power, it’s slow-cooking my hands as they rest on its sleek anodized aluminum shell. Sort of like sauteing your palms in an elegant and hugely expensive frying pan.

Maybe the new PowerBooks should come bundled with a couple of pork chops, sachets of herbs, spices, and Apple sauce, plus a recipe card (since the sauteeing time will depend on the CPU).

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour