Saturday, December 10, 2016

Best book review of the year?

I laughed out loud at this proposed review of my latest novel, 'Stoke The Flames Higher', by my buddy in meatspace and cyberspace, aepilot_jim.

I've composed a review for this book and would like to run it past you before I put it up on Amazon. It goes as follows:

5 stars.
I have not read this book yet but based upon the front cover I can tell you that the character development was spot on and truly believable. The story arc from the first line of, "They call me Ishmael" to the denouement of the captain and the whale tied together in that brutal symbolic marriage had me engrossed and unable to put the front cover down till I'd finished it. I did find the sensitivity of the sand worms to vibrations to be a bit contrived at times though. And the unrequited sexual tension between Han and Lando Calrissian added just the right amount of levity to an otherwise hard boiled detective thriller. All in all I would definitely recommend this front cover to all my friends and enemies.

I've told him that if Amazon gave a 'Review of the Year' award, he might win it!


Moving day at the White House - a complex procedure

I had no idea how precisely choreographed the changeover at the White House has to be.

The president elect can't move in a minute before Inauguration Day, which is January 20. "We have to operate virtually from an off-site location and organise all the logistics there," said Bradley Blakeman in a recent interview with Elle Decor. Blakeman was former President George W. Bush's deputy assistant, and helped organise his move into the White House. "It's organised and they've got it done to a science. It's like a military manoeuver."

. . .

The Inauguration Day move-in starts when the sitting President and the First Lady have a traditional morning tea with the President-elect and his wife before heading over to Capitol Hill for the swearing-in.

Once they leave, the 93-person staff shifts into high gear. For security and privacy purposes, no outside help is hired, so the White House operations personnel and housekeeping department handles the move.

A chief usher coordinates the process, giving the White House staff floor plans and photos that show where each items goes (these are logistical issues the president-elect discusses with the chief usher beforehand), according to

The operations personnel does the heavy lifting while a housekeeping detail helps prepare the bedrooms, curators make sure the furnishings and décor are just so, florists worry about bouquet arrangements, and the chefs prepare the post-Inauguration dinner.

At the same time, the staff is also moving the ex-president out. Items get loaded into boxes, which get loaded into vans and then military cargo planes that carry everything to the former president's new residence.

. . .

Bradley Blakeman says that in the span of about six hours, the private residence rooms on the second level of the White House will be stripped of whatever belonged to the Obama family. Where necessary, they will be repainted, and the Trumps' belongings and furniture will be installed.

The plan involves an organisation of labour so precise that no job overlaps and no time is wasted. Staff is divided into who is carrying furniture in, who is carrying it out, who unpacks the incoming boxes and puts things away, and who takes the already-packed boxes out. Gary Walters said there are specific teams assigned to each of two elevators because otherwise things could get backed up.

There's much more at the link, including many photographs of White House decor past and present.  It makes interesting reading.

I wonder if I could borrow that changeover team to help with our next move?  (At taxpayer expense, of course!)  Just six hours to empty a room, repaint it and bring in all-new furniture and belongings?  That'd take me more like six days!


Remembering Greg Lake

A seminal, towering figure in the history of progressive rock has died of cancer at the age of 69.  Greg Lake was a founding member, first of King Crimson, then of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, two of the most important groups (founding members, if you will) in that genre of music.  His vocals, arrangements and production established him as one of the most important influences in rock music, right up there with other greats such as Ian Anderson, Robert Plant and Roger Waters.

I'm sure most of my readers need no introduction to Greg's music.  For those who may have missed it (!), here are a few brief musical sketches.  First, from King Crimson's 1969 debut album 'In The Court Of The Crimson King', the title track.  This song was rated #1 in the history of the entire progressive rock genre by Sean Murphy a few years ago.  He said of it:

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

. . .

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

This is a live performance, to better capture the visual imagery of the group, and Greg's vocals.

Next, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1970 eponymous debut album, here's 'Lucky Man'.  Greg Lake wrote this when he was just 12 years old, and offered it when the band needed one last track to fill up their first album.  He later said of it:

We had just formed ELP and went right into the studio to do the first album. It was back in the days of vinyl and you needed exactly 21 minutes per side. On one side, we only had less than 18 minutes and this guy from the label said, " Hey, you need another song..." and we looked at each other and then at him and said, " Well, we don't have any more songs. We recorded everything we know...". And he just said we had one more day in the studio and told us to come up with something. So, we all sat around and looked at each other and we asked each other if we had any other songs. No one had anything, and then I mentioned that I actually had this little folk song I wrote when I was 12 years old. So, I pulled out an acoustic guitar and I played "Lucky Man" for them, which was actually the first song I ever wrote. Anyway, the other guys thought I was mad, because we had never done any acoustic music up to that point. But, I kept playing it and I laid down a guitar and vocal track. And then Carl put some percussion over it, and it sounded better. And then we did some more over dubs and it sounded even better. And then, it Keith went in and did the moog solo, which, by the way, he laid down in one take. Finally, we had the final track and it sounded OK, so we kept it. As it turned out, it was the band's biggest hit.

Here's a live version from 1974.

Finally, in more whimsical mode and appropriate to the season, here's a much older Greg Lake performing his 1975 hit 'I Believe In Father Christmas'.  This was recorded at St. Bride's Church in Fleet Street, London, a few years ago, with Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull fame) playing the flute.

There's so much more of Greg Lake's music out there, I couldn't even begin to summarize it all in a simple blog post.  He was one of the greats of his time.  I feel older at the thought of his passing . . . intimations of mortality, and all that sort of thing.  My teenage years were filled with his music.  It's sad to think there will be no more of it.

Thanks for the music, Greg.  You will be missed.  May you rest in peace.


Friday, December 9, 2016

OK, this is too cute!

Christmas penguins at the Matsue Vogel Park in Japan.

I liked the woman walking behind them with a pooper-scooper.  Some things don't change, even in the festive season!


"Fidel's Colonial Massacre"

That's the title of an article at The Daily Wire.  I've already commented on Fidel Castro's death, so I found it an interesting sidelight on the issue.  Here's an excerpt.

The Stalinist MPLA party has ruled Angola with an iron-fist since 1975, when Fidel Castro plotted with a departing Portuguese colonial official, a pro-Communist viceroy named Rosa Coutinho, to bring thousands of Cuban military personnel and tons of equipment to the Angolan capital of Luanda. With this assistance, the MPLA seized control. Rosa Coutinho then canceled the election Angola's three independence armies had agreed to — sparking a civil war that left a million Angolans dead and drew the neighboring countries and the superpowers into the conflict.

On May 27, 1977, a hard-line black nationalist faction of the MPLA attempted a coup against then MPLA leader and President Agostinho Neto. Thanks to the Cubans, the coup failed and the plotters were executed. But the killing didn't stop there.

What commenced next was a systematic campaign of terror that is the subject of Lara Pawson's book In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre. This book, published in 2014, is the only in-depth study of the rampage launched by the Cubans and MPLA with a speech by Neto declaring "There will be no contemplations ... Certainly we will not waste time with trials. We will be as quick as possible." They were to kill their enemies in the name of the People.

Angolans began to disappear. Not just those suspected of black nationalist sympathies, but their families — as well as anyone who would dissent from the Party. Cuban tanks were brought in to level houses in poor neighborhoods, and one Cuban doctor remembers being brought to witness a mass execution and then handed pre-written death certificates to sign, "In every case, the stated cause of death was acidente de viacao — road accident." A new term entered Angolan vocabulary, "To be sent to Cuba," which could mean literally (as thousands of Angolans were sent there to be brainwashed or trained as killers), but it also became slang for "To be sent to death."

There's more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

Fidel Castro was a murdering monster, a callous caricature of a human being.  His death leaves this planet a somewhat better place.  When his brother Raoul joins him in the grave, it'll be even more improved.


Talk about opening a can of worms!

I note that a black lawyer has made a startling suggestion.

African-Americans live in a world where the police can murder us and get away with it. Walter Scott proved that, for anybody who still had a lingering doubt. There is no justice for black people. And yet violently revolting against the system will get us nowhere.

Maybe it’s time for black people to use the same tool white people have been using to defy a system they do not consent to: jury nullification. White juries regularly refuse to convict or indict cops for murder. White juries refuse to convict vigilantes who murder black children. White juries refuse to convict other white people for property crimes. White juries act like the law is just a guideline and their personal morality (or lack thereof) should be controlling.

Maybe it’s time minorities got in the game?

Black people lucky enough to get on a jury could use that power to acquit any person charged with a crime against white men and white male institutions. It’s not about the race of the defendant, but if the alleged victim is a white guy, or his bank, or his position, or his authority: we could acquit. Assault? Acquit. Burglary? Acquit. Insider trading? Acquit.

. . .

This is something that intellectual black people with legal training talk about. Honestly, what the hell do you expect us to do? How do white people think we’re supposed to react when we watch cops murder us and get away with it, over and over and over again? We’re just supposed to take it? Wait for America to produce nicer white people? The options for black America in the face of this state-sponsored injustice seem pretty limited.

Jury nullification at least has the benefit of being non-violent. Understand, when cops — when the armed forces of the state — can shoot me for no reason and get away with it, I am no longer living in a civil society. I’m living in the state of nature, and I have a natural right to defend myself by any means necessary. But I’m not here advocating a violent response to systematic injustice (because we’d lose). Violence has a tendency to be indiscriminate, anyway. Instead, jury nullification is more of a surgical strike on an illegitimate justice system that has failed us. And it can be accomplished without the protection of the Second Amendment (which is denied to black people anyway).

. . .

We can bitch and we can march and we can refuse to stay in Trump hotels. But until the system stops giving white people something they want — the orderly procession of justice — then they will not be motivated to change the system. I WANT CHAOS IN THE PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE. And you can’t accomplish that with a bomb or a gun.

But you can with an acquittal. Lots of acquittals. All the acquittals. There are counties in this country where the justice system would grind to a halt if prosecutors couldn’t find black and brown people willing to convict or indict. NOBODY CARES if they can’t get an indictment against a police officer whose only crime was the murder of an African-American. But let’s see how Preet Bharara likes it when he can’t get an indictment for political corruption (defendant accused of taking advantage of the system? Acquit.). Let’s see what happens in Brooklyn when they can’t evict anybody ever again (refusing to pay rent to a white man? Acquit.). Let’s see what happens in Hollywood when you can’t bring a case against pirates (stealing the white man’s movies? Acquit.).

. . .

White juries are using jury nullification to protect cops. But the door swings both ways. It’s time for us to push back. Civil disobedience, when used in a targeted fashion, is a powerful force.

There's more at the link.

Irrespective of the merits (or otherwise) of his views on the criminal justice system (and his completely erroneous claim about Second Amendment protections being unavailable to blacks), I fear the author ignores two stark realities.

  1. He's advocating the deliberate acceptance of crime, in order to accomplish a political purpose.  If crime is never to be punished, for reasons having nothing to do with the crime itself, how can law and order survive in any form at all?  The breakdown will almost certainly be irretrievable.
  2. If non-black Americans become convinced that the criminal justice system will not, in fact, deliver justice to black criminals, then they will take the law into their own hands.  You'll find that more and more black criminals are found dead at the scene of their crimes.  "Honest, officer, he tried to grab my gun!" or "He tried to escape, and put my wife at risk as she stood at the corner of the house!" or "He was shouting to his friend to get the gun from the car, so I had to shoot both of them!"  Think that won't happen?  You're living in cloud cuckoo land.  It will.  I've seen it happen in South Africa, when racial considerations colored (you should pardon the expression) the enforcement and administration of law and order - first on the white side under apartheid, then on the black side post-apartheid.  The consequences were disastrous, and they plague the people of that benighted land to this day.

I think this is a dangerously naive, short-sighted and ideologically unbalanced suggestion.  If it's adopted, expect chaos to follow.


New post at Mad Genius Club

Today's my regular day to post at Mad Genius Club, a shared author blog where we discuss books, writing, publishing and everything in between.

Today I'm discussing my latest novel, 'Stoke The Flames Higher', and the process that led to its writing and publication.  If you enjoy my books, you might find it interesting.  Click over there to read it.

More blog articles will follow here shortly, as usual.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Doofus Of The Day #938

Today's winner is a hapless thief in Brazil.

A suspect accused of robbing a jewellery shop didn't want to hang around waiting for his day in court and decided to try and make a run from his cell.

But his attempt spectacularly failed when he stripped down to just his pants in a bizarre bid to escape through the tiny food hatch.

. . .

He was eventually freed when firemen cut him out with power tools.

The man still faces court for the original theft although it is not clear whether the attempted escape has been added to his charge list.

There's more at the link.

His antics - or, rather, their aftermath - were captured on video.

I've worked in places like that.  Those hatches are made deliberately small, to prevent that sort of thing.  I'm surprised he made it as far out as he did.  Either he's a very small man, or Brazilian prison door hatches are larger than those I've seen here.

Oh, well . . . look on the bright side.  He'll have plenty of time to hatch another escape plan now!


This ought to give you a very, VERY merry Christmas!

Courtesy of a link at Joel's place, we learn George Washington's recipe for eggnog.

One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate [a dozen] yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

I think I should make that this Christmas.  I daresay Lawdog, PhlegmmyOld NFO, Miss D., aepilot_jim and others will help me drink it.  Of course, after imbibing it, we may not remember very much about Christmas 2016 . . . but by George (literally!), it should be worth it!

Does that explain his rosy cheeks, perhaps?


I'd never heard of a 'Feather Star' before . . .

. . . but I've got to admit, it's a lovely critter.  They're scientifically known as crinoids.  This one was filmed swimming off the coast of Thailand. Watch the video in full-screen mode for best results.

Pretty thing, isn't it?  I guess it proves Shakespeare was right - in the natural world, at least.


Trump and the generals - a good or a bad thing?

There seems to be growing concern over Donald Trump's proposed appointments of three former generals to senior positions in his Administration:
  • Retired Army Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn as National Security Adviser;
  • Retired Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense;  and
  • Retired Marine General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security.

I'll mention two critical articles first, then give my own views.  First, the Wall Street Journal opines:

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday turned to a third retired military officer to help him run the country when he takes office in January, a move that represents an unusual level of military influence in the executive branch.

. . .

In so doing, Mr. Trump is plumbing the global expertise and experience that comes with a life in the U.S. military, but he has also aroused concerns that his reliance on retired officers to lead security agencies ignores an important constitutional tenet of civilian oversight of the government.

“I can’t honestly recall an administration with as many flag officers” in top roles, said Thomas Alan Schwartz, a history professor at Vanderbilt University. “I think this is probably somewhat unprecedented.”

. . .

Critics of Mr. Trump ... believe the choices threaten the constitutional fire wall between the civilian government and the military. “This is not normal,” said Stephen Miles, director of the antiwar Win Without War coalition. “As the saying goes, if all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail.”

. . .

Mr. Trump hasn’t discussed the reasoning behind his choices, and they may reflect his desire for results-oriented individuals who approach problems pragmatically, not necessarily ideologically, as experts say military officers tend to do.

“These nominations and appointments of former military leaders do make a break from the GOP establishment, the traditional think tankers and former government officials of previous Republican administrations—a break which the candidate promised, if elected,” said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

It may also be Mr. Trump’s reaction to the Obama presidency. The Obama White House is widely seen as being leery of the Pentagon’s power and the agendas of its generals ever since the decision to “surge” troops into Afghanistan in 2009. That move came after Mr. Obama and his national security advisers felt boxed in after the plans were leaked.

There's more at the link.

Next, the Washington Post weighs in on the subject.

“I’m concerned,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Each of these individuals may have great merit in their own right, but what we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes.”

. . .

Trump’s heavy reliance on military leaders marks a departure from the previous three presidents, who tapped a few generals for the highest jobs with mixed success and relied mostly on people who had spent decades in civilian service, as politicians or academics or lawyers.

“Trump is clearly operating out of a particular model,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Almost all of his Cabinet will be made up of people from the military or people from a corporate background, and what they have in common is strong leadership and executive ­decision-making.”

. . .

Daniel Benjamin, the former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department in the Obama administration and now a professor at Dartmouth College, said having too many generals in what are traditionally civilian positions is “a matter of deep concern.”

“Generals as a rule believe in hierarchies and taking orders, and if the president gives them an order you have to wonder how likely they are to push back against it,” Benjamin said. “Generals have one set of skills, and diplomacy is not in the top drawer of that tool kit.”

On social media Wednesday, there was some snarky commentary about Trump’s emerging Cabinet resembling “a military junta.” Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump transition team official, defended Trump’s selections on Twitter: “Decorated American Generals aren’t warmongers — they’re among the most intelligent, disciplined & patriotic people our country has to offer!”

Most military officers have spent their entire careers within structured organizations with large staffs and clear chains of command. Sometimes they struggle in the more freewheeling world of politics and policy — to say nothing of what is expected to be the Trump White House’s unpredictable environment.

“Great generals don’t always make great Cabinet officials,” said Phil Carter, an Iraq War veteran and senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Again, more at the link.

My responses are mixed.  I think the critics are partly right, but partly wrong.  Let's start with an area of agreement.

I regard an overly authoritarian emphasis in any administration as potentially dangerous.  For example, I agree that Senator Jeff Sessions is technically well qualified for the post of Attorney-General of the United States, for which Mr. Trump has nominated him.  Nevertheless, I'm worried by several of the positions he's taken as a Senator, where he's supported infringements on personal privacy in the name of electronic security, and restricted the long overdue reform of a clearly broken criminal justice system.  If he uses the authority of the Attorney-General's office to pursue his personal agendas in those issues, that will be as egregious an overreach as was the conduct of Eric Holder (e.g. in racial and voting rights issues) and Loretta Lynch (e.g. in stonewalling investigations into IRS misconduct and the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal) in misusing that office for their own partisan political agendas.  If we (rightly, IMHO) condemn both of the latter cases, we certainly need to be on our guard against the former.

I think having former Generals in positions of executive authority in a political administration may - I say again, may, not necessarily will - risk a similar problem.  Whether or not it does depends on the generals concerned, and on the President, who must supervise and control them.  Generals are used to saying "Frog!" and seeing people jump in response.  (Or, as a former Navy SEAL once put it, "If I say 'S***!', you just ask how much and what color.")  Having been in situations where such discipline was entirely appropriate and absolutely necessary, I can't disagree with it under such conditions.  However, it probably won't work in a largely civilian administration.  I think critics are right to be cautious about the potential for such conflicting approaches . . . but again I emphasize, that's potential, not necessarily actual.  Only time will tell whether or not it happens.

Despite these risks, there are some very real potential upsides as well.  One of them is that generals are accustomed to getting things done, and holding accountable subordinates who don't get them done.  When the WSJ says that their appointments "reflect [Mr. Trump's] desire for results-oriented individuals who approach problems pragmatically, not necessarily ideologically", I think that's exactly correct - and very appropriate, too.

The Federal bureaucracy is legendary for its entrenched stubbornness and recalcitrance.  Lifelong bureaucrats, who know they can't be fired without a long, involved, elaborate process that requires jumping through all sorts of hoops that they themselves have erected in order to protect themselves, are notorious for doing as they see fit, irrespective of the policies of the administration of the time.  Examples:  the EPA conniving with pressure groups to deliberately lose court fights in order to enact measures that would be politically unacceptable, or the IRS targeting conservative and/or right-wing groups and using tax audits as a weapon against critics of the Obama administration.  There is no evidence that any of these incidents or patterns of behavior were undertaken on the orders of the President;  they appear, instead, to be the knee-jerk, reflexive reaction of senior members of those departments and agencies, to support and defend policies and politicians of which they approved.

If anyone is in a position to do something about such entrenched resistance, I suggest that former generals are probably among the best people available.  They aren't about to put up with that sort of nonsense, and I think they're more than capable of bypassing it, leaving the individuals and departments involved to 'wither on the vine', and implementing more direct solutions to the problem.  When it comes to obstructionist bureaucrats, I suspect that even if they can't be fired, they can be transferred to another job where their resistance will be less effective.  (For example, how about the left-wing, progressive lawyers hired since Obama took office to staff the Voting Rights Division of the Department of Justice?  It may be hard to fire them altogether . . . but there's nothing in civil service rules to stop them being transferred to another job, if their old one is 'reorganized' out from under them.  I'm sure they'd enjoy the bracing breezes of Nebraska, where agricultural investigative and enforcement inspectors are hard at work - and what a contrast to the Beltway that would be!)

As for fears that the appointment of three retired generals will "threaten the constitutional fire wall between the civilian government and the military", I think critics are ignoring three realities:
  1. President Trump will be a civilian.
  2. The vast majority of his senior appointments will be civilians.
  3. Retired Generals are, by strict legal definition, now civilians, too.
I think that settles that one.

Finally, there's the problem of simply getting things organized and moving.  There's far too much red tape and obfuscation in Washington.  The Trump administration will have to cut away an awful lot of deadwood that's built up there, particularly the stifling web of regulations and administrative rulings that Congress has never passed, but delegated to government departments (who promptly used the opportunity to entrench themselves and their own power, at the expense of the constitutional separation of powers).  Generals are used to dealing with such obstructions.  They may not be able to use artillery or close air support in Washington (which may or may not be a pity), but they are probably better suited than most career civil servants or politicians to applying judicious pressure at appropriate points to get things done.

At least, I sincerely hope so.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A five-minute higher education?

According to Father Guido Sarducci, yes indeed.


So much for Time magazine . . .

Received via e-mail, origin unknown:

So much for media objectivity!  Maybe they should make that the subject of their next cover . . .


'Stoke The Flames Higher' - progress report

Thank you very much to all of you who bought, or borrowed (through Kindle Unlimited), my new novel, 'Stoke The Flames Higher'.

Within 24 hours of launch, it had reached the top 10 in Amazon's 'Hot New Releases' lists for both military science fiction and space opera.  It's slipped a little since then, but it's still on the front page of both lists, which is great.  That helps new readers to find it more easily.  Its highest sales rank so far has been 1,019 in the Kindle Store, which is also excellent.  (That rank fluctuates from day to day, even from hour to hour, so don't pay too much attention to a 'snapshot' number.)  The book's received 14 reviews at the time of writing, 13 5-star and 1 4-star.  Thank you so much to everyone who's reviewed it!

If you have a blog, or (a) social media account(s), I'd be very grateful if you'd please spread the word about the new book's availability.  Independent authors like myself depend almost entirely on word of mouth to publicize their books.  I couldn't do this without all of you!

I'm going to be preparing a 'lessons learned' post about this book launch, since it has some unique features.  Look for it at Mad Genius Club this Friday.  I'll post a link to it once it's up.

Thanks again!


Animal welfare vs. food production: a problem only the rich can afford

There's a brouhaha brewing in Massachusetts over a new law that prescribes minimum standards for keeping some farm animals.

All hogs in Massachusetts will be able to stretch their legs and turn around in their crates and all hens will be able to spread their wings under a law passed in November by voters in the state.

Laws like this one, which strictly regulate how farm animals are confined, are becoming more common across the U.S., as large-scale farming replaces family farms and consumers learn more about what happens behind barn doors. Massachusetts is the 12th state to ban the use of some livestock- and poultry-raising cages or crates, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves or battery cages for chickens, which critics say abusively restrict the animals’ movement.

The restrictive laws have taken hold so far in states that have relatively small agriculture industries for animals and animal products and fewer large-scale farming operations. But producers in big farming states see the writing on the wall. Backed by state farm bureaus, large-scale industrial farmers are pushing for changes that would make it harder for states to further regulate the way they do business.

. . .

Farmers acknowledge that some people who do not spend much time on farms may object to some of their practices. But they say that they do not abuse animals and that their practices are the most efficient and safest way to keep up with demand for food. And, they say, complying with restrictions on raising poultry and livestock like those approved in Massachusetts are costly for them and for consumers.

. . .

But consumer expectations already are forcing producers to change how they operate, said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the U.S. Demand for free-range eggs and grass-fed beef is growing, pushing large companies to change their standards. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s recently committed to using only suppliers that raise cage-free hens by 2025.

Market demands will force producers to change their practices or be left behind, Balk said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that to meet demand, the industry will have to convert over half its egg production to cage-free systems by 2025, up from the current rate of 10 percent.

. . .

When animal welfare groups started about a decade ago to pay their employees to take jobs on farms to expose practices, the industry responded by pushing for what animal welfare advocates call ag-gag laws. Some of the laws made it a crime to take photos or videos of private farm property without the owner’s permission, while others made it a crime for an employee of an animal welfare organization to lie about where they worked when they applied for a job on a farm.

There's more at the link.  Informative and recommended reading.

I can see both sides of the problem, but my perspective is colored by experience in the Third World.  Let's face it:  animal welfare is basically a First World concern.  Outside Western Europe, the USA and Canada, there's very little concern about animal welfare and how farmers treat their food animals.  They're seen as there to be exploited, bred for food at the lowest possible production cost and killed as soon as it's profitable to do so.  In the process they're grazed on over-exploited land, leading to soil erosion and desertification;  they're not treated for common diseases;  they often have no shelter against the elements, and when they do, it's usually overcrowded;  and they're badly treated by human owners and handlers.  In tribal societies, it's often the number of animals owned that determines wealth or confers status.  That leads to very large quantities of poorly fed, poor-condition, pretty miserable animals, rather than a smaller herd of better-fed, more healthy, happier creatures.

Here in the USA, pressure groups have the luxury of being able to argue for better treatment of animals.  I can't disagree.  From my perspective as a retired pastor, when humanity was given "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth", that includes the implicit responsibility to treat those creatures with as much respect as possible.  'Dominion' is not a license to be cruel.  I believe that, just as deliberate cruelty to animals is (and should be, IMHO) harshly punished, so negligent or neglectful treatment of animals should be forbidden, and punished when it's encountered.

However, farmers also have a point when they protest that they can't afford to raise animals according to standards currently considered 'humane'.  Let's face it:  consumers are generally not prepared to pay the higher prices that would be required to compensate farmers for the additional costs involved.  The farmers, quite reasonably, ask, "Well, if consumers won't pay enough, who is going to pay?"  So far, animal welfare groups haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory or practical answer to that question.  Government subsidies aren't the answer, IMHO - that just means that all taxpayers are on the hook for the costs involved, whether or not they buy the meat or other products of the animals involved.

There's also the question of what, precisely, constitutes 'cruelty'.  I think many humane societies and animal welfare groups lose sight of the fact that in nature, an animal's life has only a few possible endings, and all of them are just plain nasty.  The critter will grow old and weak.  That means it'll be more susceptible to injury, crippling it and preventing it from feeding, so that it starves to death;  or it'll be easier prey for predators.  Either way, it's most likely going to end up being eaten.  There are no happy endings to life in nature.  There are a large number of videos on YouTube showing predators eating living prey, biting great chunks off it while it's still alive.  Welcome to Nature, folks - 'red in tooth and claw', indeed!  Compared to that, most domestic and farm animals have a much easier life, even when treated relatively poorly by the standards of animal welfare pressure groups.

Finally, there's the reality that some animal welfare pressure groups are deliberately doing everything they can to make it impossibly expensive to raise animals for food purposes.  They want the world to be vegetarian, and this is one way they think they can achieve that.  I've got no time for such dishonesty.  If they can't persuade people to become vegetarians on the merits of that diet alone, they've got no right to try and force us to change willy-nilly.  (They don't see it that way, of course.  It's amazing how unethical and immoral pressure groups can be in support of their cause[s].  'The end justifies the means' is, sadly, a very common philosophy among them.)

I don't have answers for these conundrums (conundrii?).  All I know is, I enjoy eating meat, and I'm not about to stop.  I'll gladly pay a higher price for ethically raised and humanely slaughtered meat, but I can afford to.  I have every sympathy for those who can't.  What to do?  Your guess is as good as mine.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The "laws of war"? Don't make me laugh

I found an article in the Sydney Morning Herald to be quasi-nauseating.

The survey of 17,000 people in 16 countries, published by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday, found that while most people still believe war should have rules, faith in the Geneva Convention is fading and there is growing acceptance of torture and civilian casualties.

It is prompting the Red Cross, the respected organisation that works in the world's most dangerous places, to call for a renewed effort to promote the virtues of rules in warfare.

"We were heartened by the fact the majority [of people] globally still believe the laws of war matter," said Helen Durham, the Red Cross's director of law and policy.

"But it does disturb us when you drill down into the statistics you … see some more cynicism and the sense that it's pretty tough out there and so we might have to do things we're not comfortable with."

. . .

Globally, the proportion of people who think the Geneva Convention makes any difference has fallen from 52 per cent in 1999 to 38 per cent today. The proportion who believe it is wrong to carrying out military operations knowing there will be significant civilian casualties fell from 68 per cent to 59 per cent.

The survey conspicuously revealed that a cavalier attitude towards the laws of war are more prevalent in peaceful countries than those beset by conflict. Often those who championed laws in war most firmly were militaries themselves, Dr Durham said.

There's more at the link.

Let's face it:  outside the major powers, the so-called 'laws of war' are honored far more in the breach than in the observance.  Basically, they're a joke.  In almost any Third World war you care to mention, they're disregarded almost entirely.  As for so-called 'liberation movements' or 'terrorists' (pick whichever word applies according to your political perspective), they don't know the meaning of such 'rules' and wouldn't be interested if they did.  They operate on the principle that terrorizing people means they'll obey.  If you don't terrorize them, they won't.

Human rights as a whole have a dismal record in the Third World.  Armed conflict merely worsens the situation.  To take just one example, why do you think Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds, possibly thousands of Nigerian schoolgirls?  Because their fighters wanted women, and couldn't get them any other way.  They kidnapped them with the express intention of turning them into, first sex slaves, then their wives (whether they wanted to get married or not).  Now the survivors of those girls - some already mothers, others pregnant - are finding that even their rescuers regard them as 'whores' and 'collaborators'.  Some have even been raped by the troops that rescued them, because that's all they're good for now, in terms of the so-called 'culture' of the area.  To put it as bluntly and as honestly as possible (I apologize if this offends some readers, but the truth often does), in typical West African society, these girls no longer have any status or value as human beings, except for what's between their legs.  That's all they're considered to be good for.  No amount of protesting, or diplomatic intervention, or messages on Twitter, will change that.

I could cite many more examples, including several from my own experience (such as this one).  I won't bother, because it isn't worth it.  Just take my word for it:  human rights and the so-called 'laws of war' are honored more in the breach than in the observance across most of the world.   First World militaries aren't much better.  Go look up how many civilians have been killed in the so-called 'War On Terror'.  Their number far exceeds the number of terrorists killed, and the number of First World troops, too - but they're all considered to be 'collateral damage'.  Their lives don't count.  The 'laws of war' did damn-all to protect them;  in fact, they tacitly permitted and tolerated their deaths by casting a pallor of legality over them.  They've done that for years.  Even gross violations of the 'laws of war' such as My Lai, or countless failures by UN peacekeepers to protect those entrusted to their care, haven't done anything to change that reality . . . because most people don't care.  It's too far away from them to worry them.  Out of sight, out of mind.

War has no laws.  It only has agreements between opponents willing to make them . . . and only for for as long as it suits them.  Anyone who believes otherwise is way out there in cloud cuckoo land.


Slip slidin' away . . .

I now live in northern Texas, where we're currently experiencing our coldest temperatures of the 2016/17 winter thus far.  It's down to all of 42°F outside.  I know, you folks in the snow-and-ice belt are unspeakably sorry for us about that . . .

Nevertheless, I did feel sorry for the good people of Montreal, Canada, who were caught up in this.  Watch the video in full-screen mode for best results.

I'm sure the nice policeman was less than amused at becoming part of the problem, rather than the solution . . .


Er . . . oops?

It seems a Russian S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missile had a slight . . . er . . . problem on launch the other day.  Its tube fired it right out, but the main rocket motor failed to ignite.  That's when it showed the real problem with a vertical-launch system . . . namely, that what goes up must come down.  Watch in full-screen mode for best results.

I hope there weren't any operators in the launch vehicle at the time!

This also illustrates the difference between 'cold' and 'hot' launch methods.  The Russian technique is to 'blow' the missile out of its vertical launch tube by means of an auxiliary system, usually compressed air.  The missile's motor fires only after ejection.  This is known as a 'cold launch' system.  It has the advantage that, if the main rocket motor fails to fire, it can eject the missile anyway;  but if the missile tube is pointed straight up, you get the result seen above.  The USA uses a 'hot launch' system, where the missile's own motor fires inside the tube and shoots it out.  If the motor fails, the missile doesn't launch at all.  This forces a labor- and time-intensive extraction procedure afterwards, but at least the missile can't fall back on its launcher!