Monthly Archives: March 2011

Japanese Engineering and Society: “Function Exactly As Designed”

An expatriate working in Japan gives his estimate of Japan’s response to their tsunami/earthquake disaster combo, via Jerry Pournelle’s View:

“Let’s talk about trains for a second. Four of them were washed away by the tsunami. All of the rest — including ones travelling in excess of 150 miles per hour — made immediate emergency stops and no one died. There were no derailments. There were no collisions. There was no loss of control. The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.

“This was largely the story up and down Honshu. Planes stayed in the sky. Buildings stayed standing. Civil order continued uninterrupted.

“On the train line between Ogaki and Nagoya, one passes dozens of factories, including notably a beer distillery which holds beer in pressure tanks painted to look like gigantic beer bottles. Many of these factories have large amounts of extraordinarily dangerous chemicals maintained, at all times, in conditions which would resemble fuel-air bombs if they had a trigger attached to them. None of them blew up. There was a handful of very photogenic failures out east, which is an occupational hazard of dealing with large quantities of things that have a strongly adversarial response to materials like oxygen, water, and chemists. We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and its luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.

“The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

“That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization.

“…honestly, screw luck. Luck had absolutely nothing to do with it. Decades of good engineering, planning, and following the bloody checklist are why this was a serious disaster and not a nation-ending catastrophe like it would have been in many, many other places…

“Japan’s economy just got a serious monkey wrench thrown into it, but it will be back up to speed fairly quickly.”

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The search and rescue teams from Japan are leaving Christchurch, New Zealand. They thought they were just going to go home, but now they have to go search for their own countrymen.

So in an act of class, New Zealand is sending Japan a third of their own search-and-rescue teams to accompany the Japanese teams to the tsunami disaster areas. The mayor of Christchurch says it’s the least they can do, given how much help Japan sent to New Zealand.

I strongly suspect that NZ and Nippon will be much better friends in the next few years. There’s nothing like helping each other through mutual sufferings to create bonds.

Oh, and here’s a story about Japanese manners in a crisis. The other side of this is that a sincere heartfelt invitation to speak freely elicited sincere answers, as you see. This is why Japanese businesspeople go out drinking together so much — sincerity and informality create bonding. But obviously, in a society where people live close together, suss out each other’s feelings and speak by context, and feel debts and resentments keenly, you don’t really want to get intimate with everybody, ’cause you’re too intimate already. Younger people probably don’t feel this need for manners so much, because they are mostly only children who live in the suburbs and have a lot of anonymous online escape from family and community constraints.

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Recipe for a Documentary Film

Go to a somewhat dilapidated part of town, but not the side of town that’s actually poor or dangerous. Make sure you film it to look worse than it really is.

Find the weirdest people you can find to film, plus strippers. Get those two groups to do crazy stuff on camera. Everybody else is just lagniappe.

Make everybody’s self-deprecatory humor into some kind of deep meaningful statement that they are losers, unlike documentary filmmakers.

Play some kind of slow melancholy bluegrass tune as your soundtrack, so the film festival goers on the East and West Coast can continue to think that midwestern city life is somehow rural.

Film things from weird angles, so you can’t really see the street scene you’re looking at. If you can get long-time natives to scratch their heads and wonder why X place doesn’t look like X place, you’ve gotten it right.

Heh. Mind you, it might actually turn out to be a good documentary flick. But it does seem from the trailers like the filmmakers think they’re anthropologists, studying the feral Bangi-dangi tribe.

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Catholic Relief Services (CRS) link

They only spend 5% of donations on admin and overhead stuff, and the rest goes direct to people in need, either by them directly or their Caritas partner organizations — so they’re good folks to send money to!

Here’s their Japan fund. Just click on the big red “Donate Now” button.

Of course, if money is tight and you don’t have it to give (or much of anything else), you can always give prayers and penances, even little bitty ones. We have it on good authority that the poor have the Lord’s ear, so feel free to use your power….

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Airport Chaplains Article

Flying on a Wing and a Prayer” talks about what various kinds of chaplains at various airports get up to, and that they may be able to help you with non-spiritual problems also. (Makes sense, especially since they know everybody who works there….) Also includes a nice video about the Catholic priest currently assigned as a chaplain at JFK International Airport.

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Prayers and Alms for the Tsunami Victims

Earlier this month, the folks up in Marquette were asking for prayers and more-than-Lenten fasting today, to appeal for God’s favor on having the heroic virtue of their Bishop Baraga (the Snowshoe Priest) officially approved by the Vatican. But I think events have overtaken this, and it might be more to the point to implore the Servant of God Baraga’s intercession for the tsunami victims, instead…. (Though obviously, it’s not like God’s ever too busy to fulfill a prayer; it’s just naturally going to be way down our human lists.)

Let’s also pray that the rest of the Pacific Rim gets spared from the tsunamis, or at least from the worst of it. It’s a good thing we have warning systems these days, but there are plenty of remote places where people might not hear. (Good for Google and other sites putting up a warning message.)

I’m afraid there is going to be plenty of scope for penitential almsgiving to the poor and unfortunate this Lent, because that tsunami, and all the recent flooding in the US, and all the general economic badness aren’t going to vanish in a day. We need to love one another in a concrete way, when it comes to times like this.

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Civitas Pax Is Not a Good Name for a Strategic Point.

Beja, Portugal, formerly Paca of the Visigoths, formerly the city of Pax Julia, aka Pax Augusta, aka Civitas Pax (Peace City) and Civitas Pacensis (same thing), was fought over by:

Romans and Celts/Celtiberians
Various Muslim states nearby, which ended up reducing it to ruins
Various European powers
The French, who massacred everyone in town they could get

This goes to show that pretty names chosen by developers, featuring stuff that doesn’t actually exist anywhere around town, are not a modern phenomenon.

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St. Beatus and St. Aspringius Pacensis

At the beginning of his commentary, your man Beatus says it’s not really his writing so much as a compilation of various Fathers, including “Apringius”.


Apringius or Aspringius or Aprigio lived in the sixth century at a place that is today Beja, Portugal, but was then called Pax Julia, Pax Augusta, Civitas Pax, Civitas Pacensis, and (in Visigothic times) Paca. St. Aprigio of Paca was the first Visigothic bishop of Paca. He died in 530.

He is listed in St. Isidore of Seville‘s De Viris Illustribus, Chapter 30 (Migne, Vol. 83, Columns 1098-1099):

“Apringius, bishop of the church of Pax in Hispania, eloquent of tongue and erudite of knowledge. He interpreted the subtle sense of the Apocalypse of John, and by lucid words was seen to explain it better than older churchmen. He also wrote a few lesser that have reached our reading notice. He was famous in the time of the prince of Goths, Theudis.”

His commentary on Revelation, called Tractatus in Apocalypsin, was probably based on the lost commentary on Revelation by Tychonius. It was kicking around in Spain in a codex, labeled as being by Victorinus, until a guy named Ferotin recognized what it was in 1892. There’s a Spanish translation by Hernandez that came out in 1991 and some other Latin editions, according to Revelation Resources.

Anyway, what’s important for my purposes is that (from what I saw in some Brazilian guy’s thesis), the first chapter or so of Beatus is pretty much all drawn word-for-word from Aspringius. He wasn’t lying when he said Aspringius was one of his sources, nope nopers. But since Hernandez’ book has the Latin and the Spanish and is only 77 pages long, and Ferotin’s facsimile edition from 1900 is only 90 pages long, I think it’s safe to say that Beatus drew on other sources too. :)

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Digitizing One of the Beatus Mss

It’s not easy, digitizing a fragile and historic manuscript copy of a book.

If you don’t mind black and white pictures made solely for reference’ sake, an art scholar named John Williams put together a five-volume set of all the illuminations in all the Beatuses.

Way back in 1973, Umberto Eco apparently wrote the text for an art book about a Beatus commissioned by King Fernando and Queen Sancha of Castile. He apparently has some kind of love/hate relationship with St. Beatus of Liebana as a result, though these things are hard to divine from Google Books snippets. Needless to say, his book’s never been translated into English and Worldcat says there are no copies closer than Europe (outside of private collections), so I guess I’ll never know what’s his beef. However, I did find out that Beatus of Liebana’s book has a cameo in The Name of the Rose, which was why he sounded vaguely familiar.

There’s a two-volume symposium book all about Beatus, but I don’t think that’s got any copies around here, either.

Other than Mr. Williams and Mr. Eco, I get the uncomfortable feeling that nobody reads the text and that they’re all enthralled by the pictures instead. How can you study book illustrations while ignoring the text? Bizarre. To be fair, though, there doesn’t seem to be any translations available in any European language. Most of the Latin isn’t too bad (in the actual commentary bits), but the sentence structures get a bit hard (for my bad Latin, anyway) in the bits where Beatus was writing more freestyle stuff, like his book dedication. Eco seems to think there’s all sorts of crazy doomy gloomy stuff, but it hasn’t showed up yet as I read along. Shrug. Whatever. It’s probably a lot less doomy gloomy of a Revelation commentary than The Late Great Planet Earth was.

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Beatus of Liebana: A Famous Piece of Invective

The other reason Beatus of Liebana is famous is that he wrote a big book against the Adoptionist heresy, because a nearby Spanish bishop (Elipandus of Toledo) had dug that heresy out of the grave and made up his own version.

Adoptionism is basically a halfway point between “God can’t be born a human, because that’s icky”, and the orthodox opinion that Jesus (always existing as God the Son) became incarnate and was true Man and true God. Adoptionism basically feels that Jesus was a normal human who was adopted as a son by God at his baptism in the Jordan. I seem to remember that there were different flavors of opinion as to whether Jesus became a little g god, a person of big G God, or was just symbolically God’s son like any king or messiah. Elipandus’ flavor was apparently Nestorian-ish.

Anyway, given that Muslim belief is pretty Arian, except that they thought and think the perfect-man-but-still-only-Head-Creature was Mohammed instead of Jesus, and given that Spain’s previous lot of ruling invaders had been Arian until not long before the Islamic guys came in conquering, and given that Iberia had had a wide range of interesting heresies (mostly thought up by bishops) even while they were still fully part of the Roman Empire, you can see where an orthodox guy like Beatus wouldn’t have been best pleased.

So he wrote a big bunch of arguments against Adoptionism, interspersed (in the manner of a lot of Roman argument books) with colorful invective against Bishop Elipandus and his fellow Adoptionist, Bishop Felix of Urgell, just to show he was serious. Towards the end of the book, he called these guys “testiculi Antichristi”, which means exactly what you’d think. (Presumably because their Adoptionist teaching was the “seed” of heresy and Antichrist, but possibly also because insults involving cojones were already common in Spain.) Maybe he was not quite as creative as St. Jerome with insults, but that particular one must have left a mark! Spanish writers certainly seem to remember it. :)

Anyway, that fight against Adoptionism also influenced Beatus’ commentary on Revelation, because Revelation is very big on showing the cosmic and divine nature of Christ and how the divine plan is supposed to work out. It also influenced theology in the rest of Europe, because Alcuin of York (yeah, the Charlemagne guy) jumped in and wrote four books of A Treatise Against Elipandus, and Paulinus II of Aquileia also joined the anti-Elipandus party. Adoptionism was thoroughly squished by the weight of logic.

And now, with that piece of trivia told, we can move on towards sober Lent. :)


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You Know It Makes Sense.

Go and see this video. It will make you laugh like a loon.

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Julie D – Taking over the Worrrrrrld!

I forgot to link to A Free Mind, Julie D’s new column over at Patheos. A columnist! Sweet!

(There’s a book layout joke there somewhere, but I haven’t font it.)

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Smeagol and Deagol Are Not Elven Names.

I realize that this sort of thing isn’t obvious to everyone. But I actually read this on the page of a huge Tolkien fan, who not only couldn’t recognize the Old English stylings of Professor Tolkien, but was arguing for Smeagol and Deagol to be pronounced according to the norms of various sorts of Elvish tongues.

Argh. Argh. No.

Tolkien explicitly tells us that Smeagol, Deagol, etc. are Old English names. The conceit is that all names in LOTR and the Hobbit which are drawn from Old English and other Germanic tongues, are being used as translations from the “real” language of those remote days, Westron, or related tongues. I grant you that you have to work your way through the appendices to find this out; but a Tolkien fan who reads all the way through the pronunciation guides to Sindarin can certainly read his little eyes a little farther than that. (It’s a great section for trivia trick questions. Ask somebody the real name of X or Y character, and they’ll almost certainly get it wrong. Not very fair, mind you.)

(And no, this isn’t the sort of thing that causes me to swear eternal enmity or sit up nights worrying. It’s just a little sad. Everybody has one of these little blind spots, and this sort of thing makes me worry about my own.)


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This Is Why I Can’t Read These Books. Again.

I’m reading a steampunk book, and the author claims that, when the lecherous employer gets caught trying to do stuff to the governess, the employer will of course have the governess taken away in chains to appease his wife and prove his innocence to her.

I don’t care how alternate the universe is. That’s ridiculous. They would just fire you, not to giving you references. If they wanted to frame you, theft is easy to fake.

The author also seems to think that the only employment opportunities for slum girls in bad neighborhoods were going into service and prostitution, and that automation would soon lead to prostitution being the only option. Somehow, I don’t think the men of London were each supporting 50 or 100 prostitutes every night. No matter how alternate the universe is. If nothing else, the price would drop so low that no prostitute would be able to support herself, and they’d all need to find another trade. So either you’re stepping over bodies of starving homeless women, the parish workhouses and debtors’ prisons are full to the brim, or the vast majority of the women are going somewhere and finding a job to do.

(Yeah, this is early enough that there should still have been workhouses and debtors’ prisons. Did I mention that the author sets it early, and then has all this Edwardian stuff going on? Not to mention container shipping???)


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