Archive for July, 2010

Memo to self

Posted in Uncategorized on July, 2010 by melendwyr

The phrase to remember is paidi├ístikos autokrat┼Źr .

Include this in the loci as soon as possible.


Posted in Useful Aphorisms with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

“Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.”
– John Naisbitt

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

“You can’t pick cherries with your back to the tree.”
– J.P. Morgan

“To lead a symphony, one must occasionally turn one’s back on the crowd.”
– Unknown

The Story

Posted in Fantasy, Politics and Society, Things You Should Read on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Long ago and far away, there was a mighty king. He was known far and wide for his cruelty, and took pride in his reputation. Even his name inspired terror, and people would speak of him only in whispers. Everyone viewed him with fear.

Then one day, his spies brought him news of an old man who had been heard saying that the king had no more power than any other man. Enraged, he ordered that this person be brought before him.

When his guards dragged the man before the throne, the king made him an offer.

“I possess more power than anyone before me. I send armies with a gesture. Cities can be blotted out at my word. The lives of everyone in my kingdom are subject to my least whim, and all the world lies at my feet. But I am not without mercy. Acknowledge my glory, and publicly recant your claim that I have no more power than any other man, and I will permit you to live. You may have some time to consider.”

Now, it was a warm day, and the windows of the palace stood open. A fly had entered through them and flew buzzing through the room. The old man stood for a while as though in thought, then spoke.

“O King, I find that I cannot concentrate because of the buzzing of that fly. Would you please command it to land on my finger and remain there until I have reached a decision?”

The king looked at the man in silence for a long time, then let him go in peace.

adapted from an Armenian folk tale

I no longer remember the name of this story, nor do I recall all its details. But the essence of it has never left me.

On occasion, I have read or heard something which caused my understanding of the world to fundamentally change. Sometimes it was because of a thing utterly new to my experience; sometimes, it caused unrelated thoughts floating through my mind to solidify and crystallize into a perspective I had not previously taken.

That folk tale, found in a children’s book on a low shelf in the back of a small and unassuming library, changed forever my understanding of power.


The king had no power over the man’s choices. At most, he could arrange the world so that the consequences of choosing against his preferences would be unpleasant. But what power did the king have to do so? If the king had called in a guard and told him to execute the man, how could he compel obedience if the guard refused? By threatening the guard’s life? Many, many people would obey the king’s orders, but at the heart of things the king had power only because those people granted him power. The king had no inherent ability to make anyone obey – man or fly. Deprived of people who chose to follow his commands, the king would have only ability to remake the world that any other person might have.

The king could kill, or have others kill for him. But he did not have the ability to compel even a fly to choose against its nature. He could kill the old man, but he could not make him choose one way or another.

As a child, I never understood the people who said “government does not rule without the consent of the governed”, because they always said it as a position or an ideal They didn’t see it as a simple, self-evident truth:

There is no power in the universe capable of overriding our own self-will.

Bujold-Edmonson Random Thought

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

If Bujold’s four-part series The Sharing Knife is ever made into a movie or miniseries, I hope they get Greg Edmonson to write the soundtrack.

(If that name isn’t familiar, he wrote the score for Firefly.)

The music in the series was generally excellent, but it was the key theme of the Reavers – found here at about 1:48 – that made me think of the malices. The first section is dread, gnawing at the belly, but the second is the music they play in Hell: a paean to pure, elemental violence.

River Dance

Posted in Music on July, 2010 by melendwyr

The original format is even better – as seemingly unrelated events come together in perfect harmony – but the music alone is still pretty good.

River’s Dance, from the Firefly Original Television Soundtrack:

Three Degress of Separation

Posted in Politics and Society on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Irony takes strange paths, sometimes.

Donna B., at Opining Online, posts a link to someone named The Assistant Village Idiot, who discusses an exciting new idea he overheard that could help solve our crushing sociopolitical problems.

What a concept!

Words, Words, Words

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Another frequently-misunderstood word: Anarchy.

It’s come to mean disorder and chaos:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” [Emphasis mine.]

And anarchists are supposed to be those who seek to overthrow all order and structure.

But the word comes from the Greek: an- is a prefix meaning ‘without’, and archon a word meaning ‘ruler’, ‘lord’, or ‘law-giver’; it was the title of the position of chief magistrate of the ancient city-states of Greece. It is the enforcer of law, the imposer of structure.

Anarchy really means “without leaders” or “without rulers”; it means the absence of the kind of law that is enforced from above, instead of rising from below.

Favorite Words, Et Cetera

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

I’m not really an ‘originalist’. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the first manifestation of a thing is necessarily better, purer, or more useful than the forms it may later take.

But I do often find that the original usages of words are frequently more illuminating than the meanings to which they have come to refer. Maybe this is because bad people find it in their interests to corrupt the expression of certain ideas, or maybe it’s just a coincidence of linguistic drift.

Nevertheless, I maintain a fondness for cosmopolitan, and the days when it meant more than Ten Exciting New Fashion Atrocities and Five Places Your Man Secretly Hopes You Won’t Put Your Tongue. And more than its formal, modern meaning of “belonging to no specific nation” or “drawn from the world as a whole rather than a nation”.

The suffix -politan comes from the Greek word polis, which means city or city-state, and thus means ‘citizen’. But cosmos is a more complex idea. It roughly translates as ‘universe’, but rather than having spatial or material associations, it refers to the entirety of the natural order; its companion-opposite is chaos, the unformed, undifferentiated, and unruled potentiality from which the world-as-we-know-it sprang.

Someone who is truly cosmopolitan isn’t just a citizen of the world, their allegiance flows to the deepest nature of reality. The degeneration of meaning which has reduced the word to a trashy sex mag for tasteless young women is utterly to be regretted.

Learning Styles

Posted in Uncategorized on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Just out of curiosity, I did a search on “Laurel’s Kitchen”, the book I briefly discuss in the preceding post.

I found the following results, both the post and the comments, to be quite entertaining: culiblog You may feel likewise.

Pulmonary Disease -> Ethics

Posted in Politics and Society, Reviews with tags , , , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

In one of Razib Khan’s Daily Data Dumps, he links to some research about African-American heritage and poor pulmonary function.

A commentor then points out that the hypothesis mentioned in Albion’s Seed, that the reason slavery never caught on in England’s more northern colonies was that tropically-derived slaves died too often, would seem to be reinforced by these findings.

It’s my general experience that people find ways of justifying actions and beliefs that are in their perceived self-interest. A similar principle holds for societies as a whole. Ignoring for a moment the question of whether the “right” answers our society tends to hold up on various issues, it seems clear to me that those positions only gained traction because they were workable – or perhaps more accurately, their primary alternatives were unworkable. Slavery came to be viewed as abominable in the North not because people there had any better views of blacks than Southerners – even cursory historical research shows that was frequently not the case – but because people had the economic liberty to form an opinion of slavery independent of their immediate gross economic interests.

I find that sort of short-sighted convenience to be a major factor in discussions I have with other people about their ethical positions. It’s not practicality, exactly. It’s not even hypocrisy. But they find ways to render the ideas and practices they use to make themselves comfortable ethically acceptable to themselves. People who “make a stand” on matters of principle, when in almost every sense they have something to lose and little to gain by doing so, seem to be very rare.

Quite a lot of people who take unpopular ethical stances on things seem to be trying to gain face or status within specific subcultures. I’ve just been reading Laurel’s Kitchen, a 1976 cookbook / vegetarian argument / incoherent sociopolitical manifesto, written by several women who used to live in Berkley, California. Their location may tell you a great deal about the style and content of their ideas. Their vegetarianism arises not from practical concerns, but from spiritual doctrines picked up from a Hindu meditation teacher and some confused ideas about world hunger. Much of the book consists of what appears to be (from my admittedly unfriendly perspective) demonstrations of how spiritually superior the role-model and inspiration of the book was, and suggestions that by emulating her lifestyle the readers can be awesome like her. Not explicitly, of course. It’s a matter of subtext and approach.

It’s something I’ve frequently encountered in books about vegetarianism and certain alternative lifestyles. Not always, and for the past thirty years or so not nearly so often. But there are subgroups of people who persist in the argument-from-righteousness, and their technique is reliably founded upon certain kinds of emotional appeals. Not even ‘good’ emotions.