Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Just Peace On My Plate, Please

Loving theories, whether they are true or not, broadly characterizes mathematicians like myself. That’s the theory, anyway. I don’t know; I just know I like theories and theoretical talk and theory-related stuff.

Take ethical and moral theorizing. What glorious fun it is to sit around all day out of the sun, in Seattle or in the shade, reading about “the aretaic turn.” It’s a wonderful thing. It’s not a theory but a whole turn of theories, like a flock of geese wheeling about in the sky preparing to migrate.

Any recent (last half century or so) theory to the effect that a moral philosophy should be based on seeking individual Virtue may be said to be part of “the aretaic turn.” There’s no end to the theories that’ll get you, and they’re all a hoot to a guy like me, even if all their proponents are deliberately full of themselves!

Another passel of theories I like (I wanted to say “passel”) is just war theories. In case you missed the Middle Ages, a just war theory is a theory used by theologians to fudge the Thou Shalt Not Murder commandment when advising kings on how to conduct wars and the odd pogrom. Some famous theologians came up with a particular (“the”) Just War Theory, and it’s still all the rage in theocircles. So much so that there are now multiple versions of it, all called Just War Theory. All as much fun as tort law. (Really: tort law is endlessly amusing.)

Let’s say you’re a Medieval King, “post-Fall of Rome,” and say you’re laying siege upon an enemy King’s city for Good Cause. Maybe he blasphemed the Holy Ghost or something. When is it OK to hurl rocks the size of outhouses OVER the walls, not into them, thus risking the lives and well-being of innocent women and children as well as killing defenders who deserve to die and burn in eternal hellfire, anyway?

The answer, says some proponents of certain Just War Theory, is it’s OK, PROVIDED that it induces the defenders to surrender, AND leads to only so much harm to innocents as might be expected to be commensurate with the wrong done, by the enemy King.

If, on the other hand, hurling the rocks toward innocents makes the defenders defend all the more furiously, so that your siege either fails altogether or the amount of death or agony you visit upon innocents outweighs the wrong done by your enemy, then you SHOULDN’T hurl the rocks. OR, if you calculate that the outcome would be acceptable in the sense just described, you SHOULD hurl more, or fewer, or bigger, or smaller, rocks, as your calculation may determine.

So applications of the Just War Theory require real-world calculations of effects of real-world actions. You have to anticipate consequences, and you are only as moral as you are accurate. The theory depends on knowing stuff that’s beyond the theory to know! It makes me feel so axiomatically unencumbered!

Example 1. How many Branch Davidians do you have to shoot or burn to get David Koresh to give up his weapons stash? If you don’t know, what do you do? In that case the theory (as applied here to pogroms) would say, figure out what number of dead and wounded Davidians would amount to a wrong still less than the wrong of hoarding illegal weapons to that degree. Then kill and wound that many, AND NO MORE.

Example 2. King W and his advisors want to know whether to nuke Iran or simply carpet-bomb parts of it, for possibly having a nuclear weapons program. To hurl, or not to hurl, and how much, is the question.

How wrong can it be for Iran to possibly have nuclear weapons, later, if you would use your own now to deprive her of them? However wrong that is, that’s how much wrongful killing of Iranians you’re allowed, goes the theory. Adjust your bombing accordingly.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Think of the Kittens

I think it’s time for another Homeless News You Can’t Use Roundup!

In this Eastertide season we have lots of Homeless News relating to Jesus and friends, and I must mention some of them.

In Albuquerque, Rev. Trey Hammond gave a couple of homeless men a camera to photograph scenes from their own lives that reminded them of stories from the last week of Christ’s life, because, you know, Jesus was homeless, too. I had to mention that because every time anyone says, “Jesus was homeless, too,” a kitten is born, and you all know we need more kittens all the time.

On Good Friday in Honolulu, a group of legislators marched barefoot dodging pebbles and broken glass along a 5-mile route as "a small way of acknowledging the suffering" of the poor on a day memorializing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They made 14 stops along the way, corresponding to the Stations of the Cross, to pray for and talk to homeless people, and made various donations.

Some of the marchers put duct tape on their feet. When it was suggested that this was cheating, because Jesus and his Apostles had no duct tape, State Rep. Michael Kahikina said, "But Jesus gave us wisdom!"

So in two thousand years Jesus gave us the wisdom to invent duct tape so we can march for the poor and homeless in an approximately barefoot state. There is no limit to what Jesus may give us the wisdom to do in another two thousand years. I want a levitator I can have surgically embedded under my corns, so I can walk on water in an approximately barefoot state. For the poor and homeless. That would be wise.

In a press release circulated for pay on Press Release Network by 55-year old Terry Coleman of Denver, CO, we learn that 55-year old Terry Coleman of Denver, CO, has sung hymns for 40 hours 17 minutes FOR THE HOMELESS, in order to “get into either the Guinness Book of World Records or The Book of Alternative Records.”

Depending on how you read the press release by 55-year old Terry Coleman of Denver, CO, the event of his singing of the hymns was held at Tabitha’s Restaurant either on Feb. 12 or next July. In any case Terry was 54 at the time, and he hoped to raise a lot of money for the homeless, including his homeless brother, but he didn’t. Also, the Guiness Book of World Records doesn’t choose to have an entry for longest hymn singing.

I am just thrilled to learn that I can inundate the world’s news outlets with my own press release for only a couple hundred dollars or so in the hopes of raising funds for the poor and the homeless. I’m thinking of announcing my learning of this fact. My press release will say: Dr. Wes Browning of Seattle, WA, has learned how to flood the world with press releases at a cost of only a couple hundred dollars or so FOR THE HOMELESS. Please make your checks out to Dr. Wes Browning, and put “FOR THE HOMELESS” on the comment line, so he knows how to spend your generous donation of any amount large or small.

Finally, in the non-religious Homeless News You Can’t Use category a 2-1 vote of a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down Los Angeles’ no-sitting ordinance because it violates the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

You can’t use that news because the court explicitly cited Seattle’s No-Sitting ordinance as one of many such laws around the country that they consider acceptable because the Seattle law is limited to certain hours of the day, and only applies in restricted zones.

Still, it’s nice to know that 2 out of 3 Ninth Circuit justices think homeless people should be able to sleep somewhere, sometime, without being arrested for it.

Maybe they were really thinking of the kittens.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Social Stupidology

I have always been obsessed with a certain something or class of things, for which I have never found a suitable name. Depending on my mood I call it, or them, the Exceptions, or the Weird, or the Fey. “They” are everywhere, they’re Strange, and I like them.

You’d think that a simple taste for the occasional Peculiar would just get me deemed Peculiar myself, but I’ve found out the hard way many times in my life that being a weirdnessphile can actually get you classed as evil in some circles.

It’s a fundamental principle of stupidology, which is to say the science of human stupidity. Humans are SO stupid, these scientists have learned, that when they don’t know what a thing is, they often reflexively assign negative qualities to it, partly out of fear of the object, and partly out of fear of what the object may reveal about themselves. “Don’t listen to the stranger, he lies about me.”

Let’s say for example you are an aficianado of the works of Pee Wee Herman. Be careful who you mention your fascination to, or they may be making the sign of the cross, and trying to round up a posse to help drag you behind a donkey to the county line and leave you to Fife. You will be most in danger from burly church-going men who claim to never touch themselves.

I mention Pee Wee Herman only for the sake of definiteness. Really, definiteness is alien to my subject. It’s the ignorance you have about the truly Weird which makes it so. It has to be not just any ignorance but a special kind of ignorance.

Think of the movie Alien. It simply wouldn’t have been so scary if they’d trotted the monster out for you to get a good look at her in a bright light in the first scene. She’d have still been a magnificent threat, but she wouldn’t have inspired terror.

“So Wes, what does all this have to do with all the usual stuff you dribble on about weekly?” Well, consider another example. The example that inspired me to write today is the example of a man known as Malua, the Wild Man of Samoa.

An archaeologist Joseph Kennedy (not JFK’s dad) discovered the grave of a man named Malua in an old cemetery near Pago Pago, Western Samoa. Because the name looks like it might be Samoan, and because Samoans didn’t usually bury their own people in cemeteries, Kennedy researched archives to find out who the grave’s occupant had been.

What he discovered was that Malua had been born in the 1800s in the Solomon Islands. He was Melanesian, not Samoan. He somehow ended up as a laborer, possibly against his will, in Eastern Samoan. He and a few fellow “employees” escaped Eastern Samoa by raft to Western Samoa, where they fled to the hills and lived off the land, sometime around 1880.

Eventually Malua’s companions were captured or died, leaving Malua to a solitary existence in the hills of the island of Tutuila. He was rarely seen by the Samoan natives, except in fleeting glimpses. From one captive, the Samoans learned Malua was a Solomon Islander, but beyond that they knew nothing about him or how he survived.

So it became possible to hang all sorts of fictions on Malua about how Malua lived. If a pig or chicken went missing, Malua ate them, probably alive. When some people disappeared it was assumed they too were eaten by Malua. He became known as the fearful Wild Man of Samoa. Protect your children!

Eventually, in 1923, Malua was captured. Once the Samoans could see him as a harmless white-haired bearded old man they took him in as a friend, and he lived happily ever after, until he died three months later of pneumonia, given to him by his new buddies.

The moral: You have less reason to be afraid of homeless people, than they have of you.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Intelligence is for SOCAs

Let’s talk about subversion!

“The Raging Grannies” is a worldwide subversive movement. It aims to undermine our (your!) civilization’s underpinnings and metaphoric undergarments. It takes our most underpinned, our elderly women, and uses them as weapons of mass instruction. Its MO consists of nothing less insidious than the wearing of silly clothes and the singing of horribly silly, but instructive, songs.

Who is really behind The Raging Grannies? Could it be the world’s grannies themselves? Could it be that our Mothers and our Mother’s Mothers have become subversives entirely on their own? Or are these unveiled, exhibitionistic women, who wear the silly hats and sing the silly songs, not the brainwashed dupes of Al-Qaeda?

Speaking for itself, members of the local chapter of The Raging Grannies were recently quoted singing, "Oh, we're a gaggle of grannies, urging you off of our fannies. We're raising our voice. We want a new choice. No -- more -- war." Clearly they are intent on ducking the question.

One member, and herself intent on ducking the question, indeed on ducking any and everything, is Anitra “Not an Italian Duck, But Ducky-ish” Freeman. Ms. Freeman, like the others, won’t admit to being a tool of Al-Qaeda, even to me. But regular readers of this column will know that I have spent many years in close association with Ms. Freeman, and they will correctly guess that I have thereby been afforded deep insights into her devious ways.

What I know about Freeman tells me that the evil masterminds behind The Raging Grannies are truly masterful, for if she is any indication, these hardened women aren’t going to give up their secrets to the prying eyes of mere amateurs.

Thank goodness the Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped in. America’s professional prying eyes have been surveilling the elderly female parodyists for a while now, and any day they will get the goods on them, revealing them for the threat they are. Or not. In either case we can sleep peacefully at night knowing that our trusted G-Men are on the job, protecting us from people who sing.

I wouldn’t have brought any of this up now if I hadn’t read the news from the other side of the Atlantic that Tony Blair is starting up an organization intended to be modeled on the FBI, to be named, and I swear on a stack of holy scriptures of all faiths true and false I am not making this up, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, or SOCA.

How can anything modeled on today’s FBI be called the Serious Organised Crime Agency? How about calling it the Silly Organised Crime Agency? That would fit. And since it won’t change the acronym to call it that, that’s what I’m going to call it. The acronym is perfect. SOCA to me, SOCA to you, yes.

The news stories say that about a third of the initial staffing for SOCA will come from British customs. Those are the twits who wear bowlers and carry bumbershoots and, if you’re a married man, dig through your suitcase during inspection until they find a pair of women’s lacy underpants, and hold it up where your wife can see and say, “What’s this now?” and she says, “Hey, those aren’t mine!” and you have to say to her, “Maybe they got in there by accident at the cleaners in Amsterdam” and she says, “As soon as we get home I’m filing for a divorce!” and you think, “Customs twit.”

It’s clearly better that Customs twits work in the Silly Organised Crime Agency than that they root through our suitcases. They will make excellent British equivalents of our G-Men. Blair is definitely on the right track.

That right track, of course, is the track to greater unity in our civilization, to be achieved by eliminating all traces of disunity, such as unapproved silliness and unaccounted-for undergarments, until we are all one great united government approved and accounted-for whole.