Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hurricanes Do Not Negotiate

Here in Houston it is raining. It’s been doing that pretty much ever since Dolly made landfall yesterday, a hurricane at that time. Lots of water but not much else here, so we’re pretty relieved. The projections were pretty the last two days before Dolly arrived, but if you go back and look at Katrina in 2005, you may notice that Katrina made some unexpected moves. That’s one reason why so many people were surprised by Katrina; while everyone knew the track it took was possible, it was not what people expected it to do. One of the lessons learned from Katrina, is that you pay attention to what the storm could do, and not just what you think it will do. Because you can’t argue with a hurricane, it will go where it will go, and you’d better be ready.

Too many people today think that everything is relative, everything can be negotiated or controlled. Hurricanes are just one reminder that such thinking is not only naïve, it can be very dangerous.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Car Names

I was thinking about car names yesterday. And I wondered what you folks thought were the best and worst car names, not only ever but also right now. Because it seems to me that we have not seen a really good new car name in quite a while. I mean, I love the Honda Accord and plan to keep mine for a long time yet to come, but ‘Accord’? Isn’t that like calling a car the Honda ‘Agreement’, or the Honda ‘Negotiation’? Yaaawwwwn. Toyota isn’t any better, though. What is a ‘Camry’ supposed to be, anyway? Other companies just make up names, like the Kia ‘Optima’ or ‘Sportage’, the Nissan ‘Maxima’, the Toyota ‘Prius’, or the Saturn ‘Vue’? Other companies just gave up with names completely and assigned what seem to be random number-letter series, like ‘350SL’, or ‘CR-V’, or ‘A4’. What happened to using real names?

Maybe cars in the past were less fuel-efficient, less agile, and so on, but they had style, and they had real names, like ‘Charger’, ‘Thunderbird’, ‘Mustang’, and ‘Corvette’. The names conveyed a sense of power, of purpose, of identity. Of course, we also saw some real losers, like the AMC ‘Gremlin’ or the Ford ‘Pinto’. Some cars were plain mis-named, like the weak and unimpressive Ford ‘Maverick’. But in the main, cars in the past had names that resonated with drivers, not the putrid stuff we see today.

All-Time Best Car Names
Plymouth Barracuda
AC Shelby Cobra
Chevrolet Corvette
Lamborghini Diablo
Ford Explorer
Mercury Marauder
Kallista Panther
Buick Park Avenue
Rolls-Royce Phantom
Dodge Ram
Jeep Renegade
Land Rover
Dodge Shadow
Volkswagen Thing
Dodge Viper

All-Time Lousiest Car Names
Oldsmobile Alero
Chevrolet Lumina
Chevrolet Luv (truck)
Pontiac Aztek
Oldsmobile Achieva
Pontiac Astre
Pontiac Fiero
Saturn Vue
(anything by Kia)
Ford Probe
Toyota Prius

Cool Names Used for Concept Cars but not Production
Black Widow

Good New Car Names
… OK, I’m stumped. Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dune: A Socio-Political Critique

I just finished re-reading Frank Herbert’s most famous work, Dune. A bit of a guilty pleasure that, since I am supposed to be working on a case for my International Accounting class, having to due with currency exchange translation causing a profitable enterprise to become a losing one, but I tell myself that the diversion makes my mind fresh for the academic work. Which I will do … later.

Anyway, I am a bit more of a critical reader now than I was in years past, which is to say that when an author does something I think is a mistake I am far more likely to say something about it. In the case of Dune, it became obvious to me the first time I read Dune and its sequels that Mr. Herbert figured to make his name as a “great” writer, by that meaning that he wants his stories to be not just popular but “important”. This is why the man stuck what in these post-Rathergate days I may call “fake but accurate” documents, fictional accounts meant to support the underlying structure of Dune’s plot and social community. The thing is, even a cursory examination proves the façade to be thin indeed.

Dune is most famous as a political novel concerning ecology, politics, religion, and human emotion. Maybe it’s because of the Chrichton novels since then, but it seems to me that Dune is essentially barren of real technology in its plot, even the ecological lessons it tries to teach. Rhetoric, yes, but no real science behind it. Similar contradictions showed up everywhere throughout the novel. The rulers of the so-called Great Houses are supposed to be politically brilliant, yet they constantly blunder into huge mistakes, errors they do not notice and which they make no effective attempt to correct. The same mistakes were apparent with regard to religion. The Fremen of Dune are loosely identified as some sort of Muslim, a variant of Shiites obsessed with finding the Kwitzach Haderach, also known as their Mahdi. Yet these Fremen are never seen in practice of Islam; in the whole book there is only one reference to the muzzein, and while the word ‘sharia’ is used, there is no reference to it in practice. Most of all, the prophet Mohammed is never once mentioned, nor does any of the Fremen quote the Quran! Christianity fares no better with Herbert. The reader is introduced to the “Orange Catholic” Bible, a nonsense word for anyone familiar with William of Orange and the causes of the Reformation. No one claims to be Christian in the story, nor are their any ministers or priests, although the mystic ‘Bene Gesserits’ call their leaders ‘Reverend Mother’ in a way suggestive of nunnery’s Mother Superior. Characters throw out quotes from time to time which suggest badly recalled (or deliberately misquoted) Bible and Quranic verses, apparently suggesting that this world of the future did not care enough of Scripture to keep it true – a common lie we hear today from people who find their own opinion better than the Word from God. Various characters exhibit zenlike meditation and philosophical contemplation, but again there is no mention of the boddhavista. Herbert was clearly atheist in his preferred worldview, or should I say he was more a Humanist-Gnostic with pagan leanings. Just something to keep in mind, that Herbert had not one of his heroes call on a higher power or person; they worshipped themselves unless they were – quite literally – praying to another human as their lord.

Returning to politics, though, it struck as bizarre that a future social structure should be based on the assumption of a monarchy. Paul Atreides, the hero of the story, is scion of the “Great House” Atreides, and he is the son of the “Duke”, Leto. The Atreides are in constant war against the House Harkonnen, which is led by a Baron. The known universe is controlled by a triumvirate of powers consisting of a Guild of space pilots and shippers, a “Landsraad” of essentially feudal noble houses, and the Emporer. One would think that 15-century machinations would be out of place in, say, the 30th century Common Era, but there is not even the pretense of democracy or populism. Even the Fremen in the book defer to Paul Atreides simply because he waves around a ring showing he is the Duke. I could say this comes from too much devotion to tokenism by Herbert, but in actual fact I think Herbert just could not resist trying to work some Macchivellianism into his plot, and herbert fell into the medeival worldview without thinking it through. To see why this is a critical flaw in the story, imagine the many professional positions which held no status at all in Herbert’s world, how little a meritocracy fared with him. Even ancient China and Egypt were marked by a class of professionals, especially in government and the military, where a person’s worth was marked by his work and skill. Herbert made a big mistake there.

And then there is the military scope. Herbert makes it clear that the most feared military force in the known universe is the Emporer’s “Sardaukar”, which are trained on his prison planet at Salusa Secondus. Yet even the Sardaukar are no match for the Fremen, especially Paul Atreides’ “Fedaykin” (a vulgarization of ‘fedayeen’). The explanation given by Herbert, is the notion that extreme deprivation and hardship are effective tools at building a high-performance military force. For the purpose of Herbert’s story, he gets away with it as long as no one thinks that one through, but in the real world the concept is laughable on its face. For example, if you want, say, your pet dog to be fast and strong, would you give him a poor diet and beat him regularly? That would actually be about the worst thing you could do, actually. If you want a strong, agile, fast, devoted dog, you have to make sure of the opposite – feed him well, be clear in your instruction and praise him for success, never abusing him or mistreating him. Discipline must exist, but it must be constructive, not punitive. Look at human military units; the best do not come, frankly, from remote and desolate areas, where the food is poor and the water meager, where merely surviving is difficult. No, the most elite units are well-fed and carefully trained, their medical needs are immediately tended to, and they are constantly made aware of not only standards, but rewards for success. If a people existed like the Fremen on Arrakis, they would be weak, disorganized, chaotic, and ill-equipped. Herbert got that part of his story very, very wrong.

I will be the first to say that Frank Herbert’s story was an enjoyable read, but I have to say that taking it as anything but fiction (as various groups have done over the years) would be a very bad mistake. The image of a thing, the delivery of it and the style of it, does not create one iota of real substance, yet this is a caution some people allow themselves to ignore.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The White House Standard

Sophia Nelson at the Washington Post thinks Michelle Obama is under attack simply for being an intelligent black woman. The article is the usual leftist bilge about how unfair Life has been to the Obamas, and continues to be. In the first place, the kid-glove treatment given by the media to the Obamas relative to the McCains makes Nelson’s hypocrisy laughable, but the real truth that I believe Ms. Nelson misses is this – running for President of the United States is a grueling course of tests and examinations, for the family as well as the candidate. And when a candidate fails such tests, especially by whining that he and his family should not have to face such tests, he proves something to the American people, something vital missing from his character and skill set. Like it or not, if Barack Obama intends to become President of the United States, his wife Michelle will have to pass similar tests of character and integrity.

Nelson is quick to point to the parody portrait on the New Yorker magazine, shrilly claiming it to be an attack on all black women, saying “welcome to our world”. The fact that Michelle Obama did make comments which have been taken to mean she is hostile to the nominal American culture is not addressed; the fact that Michelle Obama has repeatedly displayed attitudes of radical political posturing is ignored; the fact that Michelle Obama wrote a thesis at Princeton wherein she argued that “assimilation into a white cultural and social structure will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society” is dismissed as old news, rejected in spite of its evidence of deep resentment of the society she hopes to help lead.

If Michelle Obama were considered someone with little influence on her candidate husband, such views might be more easily discounted, but in fact no potential First Lady is ever inconsequential, and so the views and statements of the wife of a candidate are, in fact, important signals as to the character and mindset of the candidate. The refusal by the Obama campaign to address valid questions brought up by Michelle Obama’s statements and political postures, will be seen by many undecided voters as evasive behavior. This does not mean that Obama would lose the election because of his wife, nor even that her behavior would necessarily mean voters would choose McCain. McCain, after all, has his own baggage and political past to address, and while Cindy McCain has so far avoided damaging her husband’s campaign the way Michelle Obama has made Barack’s campaign more turbulent, she also must face the tests set up to challenge those who would aspire to high office. While the public largely rejects the “co-president” role claimed by Hillary Clinton in 1993, it nonetheless expects certain assurances of the First Lady’s mind and character. This is nothing new, though. So much abuse has been heaped upon George W. Bush, that it is forgotten how Laura Bush was depicted early on. The difference is, Laura passed her test so well, that the jackals in the media found her an unproductive target. The press also challenged Hillary Clinton when her husband Bill was President, sometimes for things she said and did, and sometimes as a way to get at the President. The press challenged Barbara Bush (and came out the worse for it – remember Connie Chung?), and went after Nancy Reagan in a big way. The press had tests for Rosalynn Carter, and for Pat Nixon – not too many people noticed (or cared) what the Watergate scandal did to Mrs. Nixon. While different First Ladies and wives of candidates have seen differing levels of scrutiny from the media, all have faced the gauntlet, and no one can claim exemption from the challenge.

Ms. Nelson and people like her just don’t get it. Michelle Obama is not being challenged because she and Barack are black, or because she’s a woman, or because she and her husband have enjoyed success. The campaign to win the White House is an extremely serious set of tests, and she – like her husband – must face these tests precisely because she is being taken seriously. The answers and tone we Americans receive from Michelle Obama will tell us how seriously she takes that responsibility in her own turn.