Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Sea Dog, or The Ducking Fog

The ducking fog!
Flits on the shore,
The nub of the rose
Pains his trooping.

The ducking fog!
Locks his keg.
Disguised as mere duck,
Proud of stinging clench.

The ducking fog!
Marks at the boon,
Nicks his leathers,
Buckles his sum.

Plot A: A pirate smuggler comes ashore, struggles through a rose garden and a barnyard, leaves his rum, and cuts his hands to grab some treasure that he secretes in his coat and his belt.

Plot B: I really date my hog sometimes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Old Testament God of Peace?

This is rough-hewn for now but thoughts have been percolating for a while and I wrote some of them down earlier. I'd like to particularly thank Gary Holt and other friends from the Bible study group at work for leading me through some of the learning that's gone into these ideas.

A lot of people have pointed out at different times that "the Old Testament God is brutal and vengeful", and it's very easy to find evidence that may be used to support this. Several times in Judges "God" apparently orders the execution of entire populations; in Genesis God's angels mete this out to Sodom and Gomorrah; and in the flood story God himself decides to put all mankind to death. Every one of us would condemn anything like this as genocide today. This is in no way unusual among stories that have come down to us from the late bronze and iron ages - consider the Iliad, Mabinogion, Viking Sagas, most any national founding myths.

What I think is emphasized much too little is that this is only part of what we see of God in the writings that have come to form the Torah / Tanakh / Old Testament. We also see a tender and peaceful God, which in many ways is much more foundational.

The story of Jacob is particularly curious among national myths. He's a relatively normal guy who by faith, sheer hard work and a certain amount of hook-and-crook builds the best life he can for his family. Compare with Romulus, Theseus, King Arthur, George Washington? (Of course, this is one of the reasons why Benjamin Franklin is my favorite American hero of all time!)

The story of David is particularly curious among dynastic founding myths. Yes, he's a great military leader, but this is always a side issue compared with his joy in the Lord and what God has done for him. He is generous, magnanimous, conflict-avoiding and forgiving whenever he can be (and when he's not, in the story of Uriah, he's deeply shocked at himself and penitent). David is a very deliberate contrast with Saul, Gideon, Samson, and the other Judges - they are all jolly efficient at destroying their enemies, but there is a very clear message that David and David's line deserves the reader's loyalty because of his faith and his goodness from God that shines from within. His whole story even begins with everyone saying "it can't be this one, look at him!" and Samuel saying "you only see the outside, God sees within".

All Biblical scholars to my knowledge - Jewish, Christian, conservative, liberal, etc - at least agree that the most important parts of the canon were compiled and edited some centuries after the events depicted. The editors probably had to include the blood and guts and destruction of enemies because any national myth without blood and guts and destruction of enemies was unthinkable at the time. (It's still largely unthinkable today, look at all the monuments and movies we have about war leaders.) But among ancient founding stories, the editors were clearly not content with just this, victory in war is not the purpose of Deuteronomic histories, it's the shallow and often frowned-upon starting point.

So the editors of the canon clearly and deliberately chose to highlight the stories of people like Jacob and David. What do we think was so important for them to communicate?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Please contribute your favo[u]rite Americanisms here!

There's a challenge below - please post comments with words and phrases that, unlike rock'n'roll, haven't made it to Britain yet!

The BBC just produced a reader-contributed list of most noted Americanisms. Dismal stuff - "take away" is correct and "take out" makes me want to faint without a scrap of a reason, film is better than movie because it's the language of Beowulf, and "gotten", with its couple of dozen appearances in the King James Bible and at least a handful in Shakespeare, is a cringeworthy American neologism. The Economist, bless its heart, has already published a scholarly debunking of many of these Anti-Americanisms.

Come on, folks, let's do something more fun! Britain's done really well from the New World in terms of music, entertainment, and crazy oversized consumer goods. Calling a movie after the film that used to be in the projector, or shortening refrigerator to fridge, these things just don't upset us here in the New World, and if the folks back in Blightly decided to call a big-ass TV a big-arse TV or even a big-bum TV, well, that would make us smile not grimace. And every time American music gets exported to the British Isles, it comes back with interest - we could fill a book with the wealth of blues and rock'n'roll guitar licks that have become cornerstones of British popular culture and returned to America as big hits. We couldn't be happier to share, we benefit enormously, e pluribus unum and all that.

But if the blokes and blokesses back in Blighty think modern British English is complete enough for Chaucer so it's complete enough for anyone, we should help them out. Many many of my friends and nearly all of my family have one time or another lived on both sides of the Atlantic. We know that sometimes there's a perfect word for something in Britain and there just isn't in the New World, and sometimes it's the other way round.

So please, all you transatlantic travelers out there, lend a hand! Instead of listing 50 words and phrases we hate without reason, let's try to gather a list of words and phrases we enjoy in North America that they might enjoy back in Britain, if only they knew! Just post them as comments below for now, email me if you have trouble, and in the unlikely event that this gets popular I'll try to find a more sustainable structure.

I'll start with a few to get the ball rolling and will add more as I think of them. Please please, if you think of anything send it in!

Friday, April 29, 2011

On Becoming a US Citizen

I was asked to speak at the swearing in ceremony, on April 29th 2011 in PIttsburgh, Penssylvania, at which 51 of us became American Citizens. After thanking the judge, the attorney, and all who work for the court and the immigration service who had helped us along the way, this is what I said:

At Jewish Passovers, it is traditional for a young member of the family to ask “Why is this day special?”, whereupon one of the grandparents tells the moving story of a nation’s founding, a nation’s freedom. Every year on our own Independence Day (also my daughter Elinor’s birthday), I find myself wishing that we had the same tradition: amid the pleasures of a good meal, a cold beer, and the anticipation of fireworks, to stop and ask “Why is this day special?”

If you’re British in America, you have a special advantage here - every year on Independence Day you can’t avoid the question! And so it was for me, on my first Independence Day here, and every year: and it is a wonderful and moving journey. Schoolchildren in England are usually taught something about the French and Russian Revolutions, but not the American Revolution. It is never mentioned in political or social history, and in military history, American Independence is skated over in shuffling embarrassment, something of a hiccup in an otherwise clean slate from King Alfred to Francis Drake, to Nelson to Churchill. Coming to America, Britons have to learn afresh and question themselves.

The American Revolution was about much much more than whether people on one side of the Atlantic should govern people on another. The Revolution took the best of English and European traditions: Magna Carta, the Religious Settlement under Elizabeth, the French Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, and made something real, practical, resilient, sustainable, something we could implement as the cornerstone of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people: however imperfect we the people are, it is our way to the Creator’s endowment of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The American Revolution did not end in chaos or dictatorship. It cannot be placed in one period of history, the student can not finish the chapter and move on. It led to a new law, the Constitution, which governs each of us as individuals, but is itself governed by the people as a whole. It is part of a great campaign of the rights of humanity spanning centuries: that freedom cannot be restricted by religion or color, that voting cannot be restricted by wealth or gender. The Revolution spread, winning converts who made it their own. After two generations, in 1832, Britain passed its own reform act, so that, as in the USA, representation in government was based on population, not on ancient privilege. In 1867, Canada moved peacefully to its own democratic independence. People throughout every continent have thrown off old overlords and forge their own destinies: France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Japan, India, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, a daring, growing list that would have amazed our founding fathers. And with events in the Middle East, the reach of freedom may even be spreading further than any of us would have imagined only a few months ago.

Every nation is unique, every people brings its own insight and value to the world table. But we believe there is a unifying theme to all humanity: that we all share rights including Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These rights, though divinely endowed, are for many people today as distant as the dreams that must have sustained the American Revolutionaries through some of their bitter, doubtful winters. To this day, it is a hope for all people, a natural birthright, worth the devotion of a lifetime.

To this, I too dedicate myself. I am here today not because my story is inspiring: I am here because America’s story is inspiring. I am honored, I am grateful, to take part. Thank you all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Talked with the Governor of Pennsylvania!

Earlier today I got to have a good and very direct chat with Governor Corbett.

He was visiting Google Pittsburgh, there wasn't an organized "question and answer" session, but I hoped that if I positioned myself between the photo ops and the cafeteria he might just bump into me and say hello, which is precisely what happened.

We were very friendly and polite to each other, but nonetheless traded opinions on some tough issues. In particular, I wanted him to know that his statement "I don't think anyone here wants to pay any more in taxes" does not speak for me, and I know many other Googlers who it doesn't speak for. If more money in taxation is required for good schools for our children, then we'll pay it. People who work for Google are choosing between many options in many parts of the world, so if Pennsylvania is competing for tech talent (as the Governor emphasized), the state needs to be aware that we care about issues like education.

Of course, the Governor didn't say "Wow, you're right, I should change the budget proposals". But he did listen. We both agreed that Google employees are privileged and not-your-average-citizen. He did talk about longer term options for paying for schools and universities, voucher systems and choice. He recognizes that long-term, we need better education, it builds stronger communities, lower crime, more prosperous societies. And (something I haven't heard so much in the public speeches) he emphasized that the stop-gap budget he had to come out with in 6 weeks is not his long-term vision for Pennsylvania: longer term we need to have a much more strategic and visionary approach.

There is much we disagree on, and I'll still be surprised if we come to agree enough about his concrete proposals for me to vote for him next time. But we were both receptive and respectful, and I very much appreciated his taking the time to talk with me. He said "watch this space, we're not always going to be in crisis mode", and I will certainly watch it carefully, look at subsequent budget proposals, and consider his record and manifesto carefully if he stands for reelection.

I really appreciate opportunities like this. There might be a few jobs where you get to talk to your State Governor in person, but I bet I have one of the only jobs where you get to talk to your State Governor dressed in shorts and sandals and nobody thinks it's at all unusual!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Counting the Cost of Nuclear ... and Road Traffic Accidents

Massive gulf oil spill. Answer: Find a way to blame BP.

1.2 million road deaths in 2010. Answer: Subsidize the auto industry. Don't dream of stopping driving.

One bad nuclear accident (impact unknown). Answer: Remove this evil from the face of the planet!

Why? Because nuclear accidents are rare enough we feel we can get upset about them and solve the problem by changing others, not changing ourselves.


We're hearing a lot about the Fukishima nuclear power station at the moment - a recent BBC headline reads "Japanese police say 15,000 people may have died in one prefecture alone, as efforts to tackle the Fukushima nuclear crisis go on." One could be forgiven for reading that and thinking that the nuclear crisis has killed 15,000 people. But as far as we know, it hasn't killed any yet.

First of all, the most important thing is the tsunami disaster and survivors. There is a lot you can do to help: one of the many responsible organizations accepting donations and organizing relief efforts is Mercy Corps.

Secondly, it's still way too early to say "mission accomplished" on the reactors. Another BBC article says that the incident has been raised to a "level 5" by the Japanese authorities. This puts in on a par with the other two level 5's in history, Windscale 1957 (eventually causing an estimated 120 deaths) and Three Mile Island, 1979 (eventually causing an estimated 0 deaths). So even if the worst radioactive emissions are over, the reactors can be cooled, and the situation brought under control, there may be long term illnesses and even some deaths caused by the incident. We will need to monitor carefully and learn - an obvious lesson being "don't put a nuclear power station near a well-known fault line". This lesson appears to have already been learned in most of the USA, according to a map made by Rhiza Labs. (We're not quite sure why there are a couple in California, that doesn't seem too smart, and apparently one in Humboldt County, CA, was closed in the ’70s precisely because of seismic activity.) Europe (Northern Europe particularly) has a lot less earthquake activity in general.

Thirdly, and my main point: in spite of there being no confirmed deaths, there is a chorus of voices (including many good friends of mine) saying that enough is enough, we should altogether get rid of nuclear power. Enough of what? Enough injury and death and suffering caused by nuclear power?

Let's compare with road traffic accidents. According the the World Health Organization:

"Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in road crashes each year and as many as 50 million are injured. Projections indicate that these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years unless there is new commitment to prevention."

So every single year, 10,000 people die in road traffic accidents for every person killed as a result of the Windscale fire, which (according to the rankings) is a comparable incident to the Fukushima incident. To put in in context: I remember watching an hour's documentary about Windscale. To devote a similar attention-span-per-fatality to road traffic accidents in 2010 alone, I would have to spend 10,000 hours, which is over 1 year, watching documentaries about the accidents and the people killed.

An obvious question is "Hang on, what about Chernobyl?". Estimates for eventual fatalities from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 are hard to verify, ranging from about 100 to about 1 million, with a figure of 4,000 quoted in between. The 4,000 figure is disputed as too small by anti-nuclear and too big by pro-nuclear commentators. (This is a good example of how, most of the time, we don't weigh the evidence and choose our position accordingly, we choose our position first and then weigh the evidence accordingly.) If 4,000 is the correct number, then 300 people died in road accidents in 2010 alone for every person killed in the worst nuclear accident ever. Also, much has been learned from Chernobyl, and given the sort of funding required and precautions taken for each nuclear power station today, a incident from the declining nearly-bankrupt years of the USSR is not a typical case.

If we are so less likely to die of nuclear fallout than we are in road traffic accidents, why are people so eager to ban nuclear? I think the answer is not that we're really threatened, but quite the opposite. We're not really threatened. Nothing really bad has happened in quarter of a century. So when something bad might happen it makes it very easy to get hot under the collar, to get really worried about how terrible this is, because it's so unusual, and the unusual is newsworthy. And we could get rid of nuclear and feel much better about ourselves and how much we've done for the planet, without actually impacting our lives very much either way. Sure, there'd be more pressure on natural resources, the pro-drilling lobby would be thrilled, and we'd see some price rises in electricity. Perhaps we'd see more investment in renewables. But we wouldn't really have to behave differently on a day to day level, would we?

And the moral upside of getting rid of nuclear would feel huge. As Greenpeace puts it in describing the Chernobyl museum:

"These powerful images are a timely reminder that human lives are more than just numbers. For each statistic there is a person paying the ultimate price. Anyone who doubts the dangers of nuclear power should visit the exhibition and see for themselves one of the reasons why we oppose nuclear power. Twenty years on, every nuclear power plant bears the legacy of the nuclear industry's victims; and every nuclear power plant represents the threat of becoming the next Chernobyl."

Powerful stuff. So what if we replaced a suspected 4,000 deaths with a confirmed 1.2 million, and said "every new motor car bears the legacy of the auto industry's victims"? Ban cars now?

Friday, March 18, 2011

A quick response from me to Senator Toomey's statement on Guantanamo trials

Senator Toomey recently wrote “I am pleased President Obama has decided to resume trying detainees in military commissions at Guantanamo. I now look forward to hearing the president announce that murderous enemy combatants, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will go before military commissions instead of American civilian courts. Pennsylvanians do not want terrorists such as Mohammed being tried in their communities, and our citizens must be kept safe from the security threats that would arise from such high-profile trials,” (http://toomey.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=331724).

Here is my response, which I thought I would share:

Dear Sir,

I am not one of those you speak for when you say "Pennsylvanians do not want terrorists such as Mohammed being tried in their communities".

I believe in the rule of law, and have perfect faith that the authorities of the United States could both execute the rule of law and keep me and my family safe from an unarmed accused terrorist and any who would seek to help him.

The fear expressed by our leaders in this matter confuses "how wicked someone is" with "how much harm they can do". This is not fitting for the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Please be aware that at least some Pennsylvanians believe that our government should be competent to protect us from unarmed well-known bad guys in custody.

Yours faithfully,
Dominic Widdows

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sout Al Horeya Link and Lyrics

Sout Al Horeya is a wonderful song and music video has been going round the web. In case you're a Roman alphabet reader like me who wants to try to sing the Arabic lyrics, here they are transliterated into Roman type (with thanks to alielsokary).

To see the meaning translated into English, turn on the "CC" (closed caption) link in the YouTube video player.

Sout Al Horeya

nezlt w 'oolt ana mesh rageAA
we katabt bdamy fe kol shareAA
samAAna elly makansh sameAA
wetkasaret kol el mawaneAA
selahna kan ahlamnaaa
we bokra wadeh odamna
men zaman bnstanaa
bndawar mesh la'ieen makanaa
fe kol shareAA fe bladiiii Sout Al Horeya bynadi
fe kol shareAA fe bladiiii Sout Al Horeya bynadi
rafAAna rasna fe elsamaaa
we elgooAA maba'ash byhmnaa
aham haga ha'ienaa
we nkteb tarikhna bdamnaaa haaa haaa
lw kont wahed mnnaa
balash trghi we t'olinaaa
nemshi we nsiiiib helmnaa
w batal t'ool klmt anaa haaaa haaaaaa
fe kol shareAA fe bladiiii Sout Al Horeya bynadi
fe kol shareAA fe bladiiii Sout Al Horeya bynadi