Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Just So Stories

What are etiological histories? Better, what are etiological stories? These questions have to do with the function of history in societies, and, in particular, with the way the Bible has been read.

An etiological story explains the reason for some state of affairs. Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example, contains many examples of etiological stories, explaining that this or that creature acts or appears a certain way because of some mythyical event far in the past. One of the most famous collections of etiological stories is the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. (I have a copy from Weathervane Books, New York, reprinting the first edition, with 35 illustrations by the author.) I'm going to assume that all of us have read the Just So Stories, and you should read them if you have not yet done so.

There are twelve stories in the Just So Stories, and all but one of them ("The Butterflythat Stamped") are etiological stories. The titles are enough to tell you what is going on:

"How the Camel Got His Hump", "How the Leopard Got His Spots," "How the First Letter was Written," "How the Alphabet was Made," and "The Beginning of the Armadilloes," are stories which purport to explain the origins of things in the far-off past. There are a lot of stories of this sort in the legends, mythologies, and - I'm afraid - histories of various people.

I received for Christmas a rather nice book called How to Read the Bible. (James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York, The Free Press, 2007), xiv + 819 pages.) The givers knew that I had begun a project to read the entire Bible, which is continuing, so this book seemed an appropriate gift. I've only read about six chapters, so far, and I'm enjoying it very much. There will be more on this later, as Kugel contrasts the traditional interpretation of the Bible, which goes back to the fifth century BCE, or before, and was current until the middle of the 19th century, and modern biblical scholarship, which came to the fore in the 1850s.

The point I wished to adumbrate here is that, according to Kugel, there is general agreement among scholars that the Bible consists largely of etiological stories. Whereas the traditional interpretation brings in a number of meanings and makes a number of assumptions about how the Bible should be read, the original authors had it as their intention to explain things. How did the Earth and all that is in it come to exist? Why is childbirth so painful? Why do we have to work so hard? Why is this well called Beer Sheba? In particular, why are there so many different Semitic languages in the Middle East?

I'm not prepared to make a judgement on this point, or even to elaborate it much, but I think it is well to keep in mind while reading the Bible, that the stories were not necessarily written because they were true, as much as because they filled a human need to satisfy our curiosity.

Knight’s Reading List V: May 2007

Knight’s Reading List V: May 2007

In May 2007, I finished reading these works:

Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. 2005. xxii + 1107 pages, including Acknowledgements, List of Maps, Preface, Notes, Select Bibliography, Chronology, and an Index. The Great War for Civilisation is not misspelled; the author is British, and the publisher didn’t change the title for the American edition. Robert Fisk was for many years a reporter in various countries in the Middle East and North Africa, from Algeria to Afghanistan. There are fascinating stories here, and the book has the strength of quite detailed and colorful reporting on various wars and crises around the region. Its weakness is that Fisk, while based in Beirut and keeping his eye on things, tends to be focused on one conflict at a time, so that there is less continuity than one might wish. Fisk’s constant anti-Americanism is irritating. More of a problem, is that Fisk chooses to criticize every choice taken by the United States or Britain, without making clear in the least which alternative might have been less disastrous for either the great parties or the countries which have been subjected to their rough embrace.

Kirst, Hans Helmut. The Affairs of the Generals. 1978. 253 pages. Begun 28 April 2007, finished 8 May 2007. A novel which is not even a roman a clef, but which gives a detailed, if imaginative, account of the manner in which Adolf Hitler, Reichskanzler, drove some distinguished military leaders from office and, by so doing, asserted his control of the German military. A sordid and interesting story.

O’Brian, Patrick. Desolation Island. 1978. 325 pages. Begun 28 April 2007, finished 5 May 2007. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin return in a tale of love and intrigue in the far Southern Hemisphere.

PMI (Project Management Institute). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (The PMBOK Guide). 2004. viii + 390 pages, including an Index. Begun 24 March 2007, finished 14 May 2007. The PMBOK Guide is of some interest to those seeking professional certification in project management, but of no interest otherwise.

Rodger, N. A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1845. 2004. lxv + 907 pages, including List of Illustrations, Forword, A Note on Conventions, Maps, Introduction, Appendices, References, English Glossary, Foreign Glossary, Abbreviations, Bibliography, and Index. Begun 15 March 2007, finished 10 May 2007. Nick Rodger wrote The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649, and published it in 1997. This is the sequel, which I read just about two years after the first volume. This is serious history, with wonderful maps and accounts of several aspects of the development and use of the British Navy and its predecessor bodies.

Shveshnikov, Evgenny. The Sicilian Pelikan. 1989. 280 pages. Begun 12 May 2007, finished 22 May 2007. This is a book of instruction in a sub-sub-sub-genre. That is, there are books on games, within which category are books on chess, among which are books on the Sicilian Defense (1 e4 c5), some of which describe the Pelikan Variation (5 … e5).

Sachs, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. 1987. x + 243 pages. Begun 12 May 2007, finished 16 May 2007. Short, quick, fascinating, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by the author of Awakenings (movie version starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro), is about memory, consciousness, and how the brain actually functions. From my point of view, this book, along with several of the works of Daniel Dennett, does much to support the view that the “mind” is a product of the manner in which the brain functions, rather than an autonomous organ.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Global Warming: A "Complete Hoax"

I was listening to the radio the other day. I was in my car, driving home from the office, and I had tuned into Rush Limbaugh. I listen more commonly to either my local classical music station, or the NPR affiliate station based at Colorado College, but I had decided to try AM radio. (I will even admit that I sometimes find Rush Limbaugh entertaining. He's almost always wrong on the substance, but he's pretty acute on some of the political personalities around.)

On this particular program, a woman called in from Oklahoma, as I recall, and they talked about this and that. But the main thing I recall, and about which I wanted to comment, was that Rush asked this woman what she thought of global warming. He said it pretty much that way: "What do you think about global warming?"

"I think it's a complete hoax," she replied.

I found that interesting because, while I can see a lot of ways for people to differ in their opinions about climate change, to characterize global warming as a complete hoax strikes me as unjustifiable. I should probably note that I have heard Rush Limbaugh, himself, attack Al Gore over the use the former Vice President has made of the issue, perceived exaggerations, and so on, but I don't think I've ever heard that Limbaugh has asserted that global warming is a complete hoax.

The first problem I have with this characterization is that, as I understand the terms involved, a hoax is a deliberate attempt to mislead and deceive. There can be honest mistakes; there can be honest differences of opinion, but there cannot be honest hoaxes. A hoaxer knows that he is making untrue statements and misrepresentations of facts, usually in order to induce some particular response from his audience. The "missile gap," so prominent in the 1960 campaign, comes close to having been a hoax. Hoaxes such as the Piltdown Man have involved not only lying about the evidence, but creating or faking evidence.

In general, although there could be exceptions in terms of people trying to use misstatements about global warming for personal or political gain, I don't detect a lot of falsifying of evidence in the climate change area. As I stated in a post over at the Two Masters blog, there are a lot a ways to interpret such evidence as there is, that evidence is pretty scanty compared to the timeline on which climate changes unfold, and a lot of the computer models may be open to methodological questions, but the same is true of stock market predictions (remember Dow 36,000?), without all such predictions constituting frauds or hoaxes.

Second, while it is true that, as I said above, the evidence can be interpreted differently through the use of different models and assumptions, it is really hard to contend that there is no evidence of global warming. National Geographic magazine ran a long piece - actually, a couple of pieces, in the June 2007 issue on the subject. One of the pieces was called "The Big Thaw." A lot of other publications, popular and peer-reviewed, have documented shrinking glaciers, warmer average temperatures, thinner polar ice, and so on and so forth. I, myself, have observed some species of birds appearing around here some weeks earlier than was the norm years ago.

A lot of this evidence is anecdotal. A lot of it is spotty. In the nature of the thing, we don't have a very complete dataset for the past 18,000 years, let alone the entire Cenozoic period. Accurate thermometers and barometers are quite recent inventions. But to deny that such evidence exists is to deny brute facts.

So, setting aside the idea that some group of liberal scientists are faking evidence in order to force the government to nationalize the oil companies, or in order to obtain huge grants to study wind-generated electricity, or whatever you might think their motive could be, and setting aside the idea that the various reports are all faked or grossly mistaken, there seems to be little doubt that something by way of global warming is occurring.

What I see as the real issues here are these:

I. How long will this warming trend continue?

II. How much will conditions (e.g., sea levels) change before the trend stops or reverses itself?

III. What could we do to slow or reverse this trend sooner, or with fewer effects?

IV. What could we do to avoid or palliate the effects of the warming?

As John Miller points out in QBQ! (The Question Behind the Question), asking "who" or "why" questions is not terribly helpful. To ask who caused global warming is to put on the defensive people and institutions whose help may be vital if we are to limit the effects of climate change. To ask why U.S. consumers use so much energy is to forego public support for efforts to find alternatives to our present consumption patterns. Rather, we should be asking what we can do to alleviate the problems, and how can we contribute to minimizing the social and economic consequences of whatever climate change is going to occur.

Sure, there are interesting scientific questions about how much of this warming trend is due to human agency, but that isn't a useful question from the political point of view. To state that global warming is a "moral" and not a "political" problem, as Al Gore has done, is to ignore the fact that all (that would be ALL) of the potentially useful approaches to the problem require action by the government. Maybe it isn't a political problem, per se, but its solution raises political questions all over the place.

Which brings me back to where I started. Why would someone have the (mistaken) idea that global warming is a "complete hoax?" Because she has been gone from hearing people who want to use global warming as a reason for making unwelcome (to her) social and economic changes, to concluding that they are concocting the idea of global warming in order to promote such changes. To put it the other way around, if she can believe that global warming is a hoax, then she doesn't have to concur in any of the policies - many of which will cost her money - that may be proposed to deal with the problem.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Knight's Reading List IV: April 2007

During the month of April, 2007, I finished reading these books:

Robert Gates, From the Shadows, 1996. 604 pages. Begun March 13, 2007 and completed April 5, 2007.

This is Robert Gates’ memoir of his years with the CIA and the National Security staff that led to his becoming Director of Central Intelligence under President George H. W. Bush. Gates shows flashes of humor and a greater willingness to admit mistakes than I have found in the memoirs of many political leaders.

I discovered from this book that Gates and I were both in Algiers, Algeria, in early November of 1979. In fact, we may have met, though I do not recall meeting him, and I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me. Gates was then working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, and had accompanied Brzezinski to Algiers to represent the United States on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Algerian revolution. I was working at the American Embassy in Algiers, and went to the Aurassi Hotel, with several other embassy staffers, to meet Mr. Brzezinski.

I do not, at this remove, recall exactly why we went to see Brzezinski, but I have a recollection that I carried his tennis gear to the car, as he set off to play against our Ambassador, Ulrich Haynes. From comments Gates makes, I suspect that we in the embassy heard nothing of the results of the game because Bzrezinski won handily.

Of far more importance than my moment in the presence of the great and powerful, was that it was during the Algerian anniversary celebrations that a mob seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Because of the presence of both Mr. Brzezinski and high Iranian officials in Algiers, the Algerians provided some facilities for opening communications between the two sides. I understand that Algiers continued to play a role in the hostage drama until its end on January 20, 1981.

On January 20, 1981, I was with my three-year-old son on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where we watched the inaugural parade bearing Ronald Reagan to the Capitol to become the 40th President of the United States. Mr. Reagan’s victory was due in part to his predecessor’s failure to resolve the hostage crisis in a favorable sense.

Those events, and the way in which the participants, and their successors, view them, have continued to mark U.S.-Iranian relations. We continue to see the Iranians as violent extremists, in part because their action in attacking the Tehran Embassy was such a grave violation of international law and the principles that govern relations among nations. They continue to believe that our interference in their internal affairs, conducted from that same embassy, was both inimical and illegitimate. And each side has continued to try to manipulate the politics and policies of the other, mistaking at times parochial interests for universal principles.

Robert Jordan, The Conan Chronicles, 1995. 510 pages. Begun April 1 and finished April 12, 2007.
Conan the Invincible
Conan the Defender
Conan the Unconquered

Jordan collects several novels in the sub-sub-genre of the Conan pastiche.

John Kaufeld, Access 2002 for Dummies, (2001). xxii + 234 pages. Begun March 2, 2007 and completed April 9, 2007.

Good as long as you need answers to the questions Kaufeld asked.

John Katzenbach, The Analyst, 2002. 424 pages. Begun April 6 and completed April 28, 2007.

Quiet, retiring shrink becomes the target for revenge for a former patient. Death Wish by way of a 12-step program.

Jonathan Kellerman, Flesh and Blood, 2001. 371 pages. Begun April 6 and completed April 20, 2007.

This is another in the Alex Delaware, shrink-wrapped detective series. Past misdeeds always return to haunt us.

John G. Miller, QBQ! 2004. 115 pages. Begun April 17 and finished April 25, 2007.

Miller’s idea of getting to the Question Behind the Question makes for a pretty good example of the inspirational management book. The best thing about it may be that Miller doesn’t try to carry a huge tome on the back of his slender idea; this is a fast and easy read. The idea? Ask questions that begin with “what” or “how,” rather than with “who” or “why.” This is Miller’s way of saying that it is more important to fix the problem, provide the service, or satisfy the customer, than it is to assign blame.

That’s true enough, to a point. It is also true that, whatever you mean by the question, your listeners tend to become adopt a defensive posture as soon as they hear “Why?” It took me a long time to learn that my innocent “why” questions were often perceived as a form of attack. I would say, “Why was this report so late?” I would mean, “What was the chain of events that caused the report not to be finished until after the due date?” They would hear, “Who screwed up?” People do not give helpful answers to the question “Who screwed up?”

Miller also encourages a positive, forward-looking attitude. This is also usually good. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to look at the reasons for deficiencies and improve the processes, the inputs, or the personnel.

A New Year Begins

Today is the first day of 2008. January 1, 2008, begins the world’s new year, and it begins my new year as well. This is my birthday, the anniversary of my birth, and it is a time of both beginnings and continuations.

Yesterday, by way of a New Year’s Eve celebration, we spent an afternoon and evening in the Middle East. First, over at the Cinemark multiplex, we saw The Kite Runner. This is an amazing movie. The story is compelling, with some subtle hooks in the plot to keep things moving along. The tale of the descent of Afghanistan from the imperfect, and sometimes violent, conditions of 1978, to the Hell of Soviet occupation and Taliban vigilantism is scathing. Over the 22 years of the story, everything and everyone good in Afghanistan is driven away or killed, and everything evil rises to greater and greater prominence. Or so it appears to our not-so-heroic hero, Amir, who ends up making a harrowing journey back to Kabul to rescue the child of his childhood playmate and servant.

This is a very, very good movie. One of the engaging touches is the constant juxtaposition, via flashbacks, of America (in the San Francisco version) against Afghanistan. The lives of Afghan refugees in the United States are illustrated, in all their frustration and hope, leaving one to wonder how many might have returned to Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001. The story is complex enough to keep one interested, and tense enough to bring one to the edge of one’s seat. The characters, at least the main ones, are complex enough to come across as real people.

Despite the fact that much of the film was shot in China, the manners, the landscape, and the urban settings of the movie reminded both of us of our days in Turkey. In fact, much of the dialogue, which I gather was in Farsi, contained recognizable words, such as “teshekkur” for “thank you.”

Another movie bearing on Afghanistan is Charlie Wilson’s War. I have not seen it yet. What I find interesting is that, taken together, the two movies may provide a compelling justification for our interventions in Afghanistan, while, at the same time, showing what the terrible consequences of foreign interference in that country have been. It all reminds me of my frustrations with a big book on the Middle East, to be dealt with in my May 2007 review.

We followed our virtual trip to Afghanistan with dinner at the Caspian Cafe, which, despite the name, is pretty thoroughly Mediterranean. The appetizer of Feta cheese, black olives, flat bread (lavosh), dried apricots, and almonds lacked only a glass of chai to make a Turkish breakfast. I had red snapper and scallops over basmati rice; Helen had chicken with artichokes.

It was an altogether enjoyable afternoon and evening, recalling some of the more interesting moments of our past. Now, as the new year starts, let us look forward to the future!