Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Comfort of Having a Spare

The Galloping Beaver blog pointed me to an interesting article on the Ottawa Citizen.

The pilots of Canada CF-18 fighter planes have had to turn off one of their engines and get home on the other over 200 times since 1988. If they had no second engine, things could have turned very bad for both pilot and plane. The F-35, which is the intended replacement for the CF-18, however, has no second engine to bring them back home. That fact should have excluded it from consideration.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Haka! Haka!

It interests me how the descendants of British colonizers here in BC (where the totem pole is common and native artist Bill Reid, in particular, is celebrated on the $20 bill) honour the culture of the original peoples. The same has happened in New Zealand, but even more so. The haka, Maori dances that are meant to honour distinguished guests, express strong feelings, strengthen group identity, and intimidate the heck out of enemies, have been adopted by non Maori as a sign of a specifically New Zealand culture. So, for example, the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks, have performed a haka before matches for the past 105 years, led by their team captains. To my ears, the best of these was the leather-lunged Taine Randell.

That particular haka is called the "Ka Mate," composed around 1820 by Te Rauparaha "as a celebration of life over death." Rights to its use belong to the Ngati Toa tribe, which has agreed to let the All Blacks use it.

Because the All Blacks are the best team in international Rugby, the Ka Mate is the most famous haka, to the extent that some people have a little fun with it. (Controversially, I may add. New Zealanders as a whole take the haka very seriously).

Since 2005, the All Blacks sometimes perform a new haka that was written specifically for them, the Kapa o Pango. It refers to "warriors in black" and "the silver fern," a symbol for New Zealand sports. It includes touching the earth to draw strength from it and a motion to draw strength from the ancestors into the lungs. People who thought this was a "throat-slitting" gesture criticized the All Blacks for it.

Haka are not just for men, though. Here is a haka from a Maori Studies university class. I love the expressions on the women's faces!

Each branch of the NZ Armed Forces, individual units, the police, all have their own hakas. Here is a good one from an army reserve unit.

Here is one for a sad occasion: A member of the 2/1 RNZIR Battalion, killed in Afghanistan, is being honoured with his unit's haka at the funeral.


Finally, the haka is not unique. Many Polynesian islands had similar dances. On the occasion below, before the All Blacks' haka is the Tongan equivalent, the Sipi Tau.

The Samoan dance is below.

Other teams must wish they had something similar. Well, Wales had a pretty good response to the haka in 2008. (Sorry for the poor quality).

The Irish tried something a little different in 1989.

But the best answer of all, in my opinion, was this Scottish ad, doubtless inspired by the film Braveheart.

You know it's not real because not even the Scots would play rugby in kilts!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Internet Archive News Programs, MusOpen Project Mark 2

From Slashdot, the Internet Archive is storing up TV news programs from twenty channels going back to 2009 and making them available through a service called "TV News Search and Borrow." You can search for a story using keywords and year; the Archive uses the subtitles to find the relevant stories. Here's the page of the Internet Archive Blog that announces the service.

Here is a little more information from
The new service allows you to search and view the clips online or to "borrow" the clips for up to thirty days. The current price is pretty outrageous - $50 per clip, not including shipping and handling etc. But that might come down if the service gets more use. Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, says the service is based on the Vanderbilt Television News archive, which has been making television news broadcasts available since 1968.
This service is not only good for journalists and news junkies, but for researchers that are interested in analyzing trends in news reports and speeches by government officials. Public information like this made available for future generations is an important step forward in democracy, transparency, and accountability.
The plan is to include earlier news broadcasts, back to the beginning of television, if possible. This would make a nice companion to the availability of newsreels of the same event. (We cannot forget the British newsreels, like these, though). The Archive awes me sometimes.

Also, I received an e-mail from Aaron Dunn at Musopen that reads, in part,
We have some exciting news to share. We recently completed a Kickstarter project which has added a tremendous amount of music to our library. ... In a few weeks we will be annoucing a second project which we hope will add even more great music. In the meantime, the engineers behind Musopen are raising funds to open-source a great bug tracking app we use to work on called: BugKick.
 I've enjoyed the symphony and chamber music recordings that resulted from the Kickstarter project and have wondered if Aaron had the energy to try for a second round. Apparently so!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Well, Here's a Twist! A Proposal to Buy Updated Avro Arrows instead of F-35's

The Avro Arrow is an symbol, to many Canadians, of Canadian potential being sold downriver by a Canadian government under American pressure. It might not have been cancelled only because of American pressure, but I'm sure that interpretation is the reason that I can still buy a model of the plane in almost any hobby store.

Avro Arrow

F-35 Lightning II

Bourdeau Industries has suggested that a patriotic way out of the F-35 fighter jet purchase (and accompanying scandal) is to blow the dust off the Arrow blueprints, update them, and make our own fighter jets. They have one prominent believer, General Lewis MacKenzie, who took the proposal to government ministers about a year ago.

Lest one laugh too hard--after all, the Arrow was cancelled in 1959--there may be something to this idea. From the same article:
The proposal, which was updated in 2012, suggested the plane could fly 20,000 feet higher than the F-35, soar twice as fast and would cost less.
For example, the proposal said that the total cost of the Arrow program would be $11.73 billion, compared to the $16 billion the federal government says the F-35 program will cost.
The $16 billion, by the way, is a gross undervaluing of the costs. We will know how much of a lowball figure it is when the accounting firm KPMG finishes its audit, part of the government reaction to the scandal.

Now, the Arrow was intended to be an interceptor, not a ground attack plane. It was to fly high and fast and intercept Russian bombers over the Canadian North.  If Canada were to put northern defence at the top of its list of requirements, rather than ground attack, then something like this would be an interesting made-in-Canada solution.

Most public reactions to the idea, as published by the CBC, seem to be negative. Others say the idea was axed too soon. I have no idea whether the updating is practical, if it would just mean strapping a couple of new engines to the back and and a new radar to the front or if it would have to be a complete redesign. For comparison, though, here is the 1959 Arrow versus the F-35 in a few characteristics.

Avro Arrow F-35 A
Length 23.71 m 15.67 m
Wingspan 15.24 m 10.7 m
Height 6.25 m 4.33 m
Combat Radius 660 km 1,082 km
Maximum Speed Mach 1.98 Mach 1.6+
Service Ceiling 16,150 m 18,288 m

Some stealth characteristics, such as internal weapons bays More stealthy design

Update: I checked to see how the engines in the Arrow compared to those in a modern fighter, the Typhoon. The answer was surprising. The Arrow had two Pratt and Whitney J75s with a dry thrust of 55 kN each and, with afterburner, 104.53 kN each. The Typhoon has two Eurojet EJ200 engines. The dry thrust is 60 kN each and the thrust with afterburner is 89 kN each. What I get from that is that the Arrow's old powerplant isn't outclassed by this modern jet's: it's a bit behind on dry thrust and considerably ahead with the afterburner on.

You know, if it were given a chance, it could work!


In the interest of this Blog's purpose, "My Continuing Education," I am going to follow up on the intriguing idea of the Avro Arrow update. Is it possible? Is it affordable? Does it make any kind of sense? Let's see what I can find.

First, here's a transcription of the episode of the tv show "West Block" that broke the story. General Lewis MacKenzie makes the case. He makes an interesting point about stealth airplanes, that they aren't stealthy from above. So, if we could have a plane sitting much higher than, say, an F-35 can fly and looking down...

Global News is negative on the idea. It quotes Philippe Lagasse, a University of Ottawa defence procurement expert, who says it can't be done. "Is it feasible to think that a small Canadian upstart, in a decade's time, will be able to compete with one of the largest aerospace manufacturers in the world in terms of information technologies and systems?" He is not speaking of the airframe, which he is sure that Bourdeau Industries could provide, but the other systems, "weaponry, payload and information systems that will eventually hamper this Canadian effort," said Lagasse. The article adds that Bourdeau Industries was looking for only a one-year grant to perfect the design and present a manufacturing plan. Another source tells me the one-year grant would cost $50 million.

Gee, with that little an investment to find out what the design could offer, couldn't we start a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money?

Incidentally, if the Swedes could create a modern and competitive fighter, with American parts for the brains, why couldn't Canada? We have over three times the population and a larger aerospace industry.

Matt Gurney at the National Post states that the plane isn't the problem,
"It could fly fast and high, at long ranges. And it wouldn’t take much to tweak the Arrow’s design to permit it to fire modern missiles. The idea of sending a 60-year old design out to patrol Canadian skies or bomb the odd rogue nation isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds, so long as the aircraft themselves are new enough to avoid issues of metal fatigue and parts wear-down."
The problem, he says, is the same as it was in Diefenbaker's day, is the high cost. When only a few need to be made, the cost per unit is high. So I guess he's disputing the Bourdeau cost estimates.

An article in the Star quotes another defence analyst, Martin Shadwick of York University, who goes farther than Lagasse, saying
"the half century that has passed since its first flight would dictate a complete – and costly redesign.
'Everything would change except the name of the airplane because you’d have to go back and re-engineer the entire thing,' Shadwick said." He added, "It would virtually be a clean sheet piece of paper kind of design. That would cost an astronomical amount of money."
I suppose that it would be useful to hear from an engineer instead of a "defence analyst." The article "A little more on resurrecting the Arrow" quotes Palmiro Campagna, an engineer at the Department of National Defence. He has written books on the Arrow, incorporating previously classified documents, and wrote a report on the difficulties of recreating one. He says, "The fact is, the design would have to be redone from scratch. This is not a simple task and never has been." He continues,
"It would not matter if all the original drawings existed. Those drawings were based on engineering calculations and computations and thousands of hours of testing for the characteristics of the existing materials of the day."

Merely changing the material used in the 1950s for more modern goods would render the original plans obsolete and demand new drawings, Campagna wrote.

"Everything would have to be recalculated and re-tested from scratch. Centre of gravity, weight, drag and thermal coefficients and load and stress factors would all change, to name a few."
So, again, it comes down to money. Politicians in the governing party, however, prefer to call it impossible. Another Global News report gives information on why the Government rejected the plan.
Julian Fantino, at the time the minister in charge of the fighter jet replacement program, wrote back to say the proposal "does not satisfactorily address these mandatory requirements."
One of those requirements, mentioned three times in the June 29 letter to MacKenzie, is stealth capabilities -- a quality the F-35 is purported to have, but that many experts have questioned.
Nevertheless, the article adds a few fun facts about the hypothetical updated Arrow:
The Avro Arrow vs. the F-35

Speed: The Arrow would fly twice as fast as the F-35 -- 3,887 km/h, or Mach 3.5, compared to the F-35's 1,854 km/h, or Mach 1.67.

Distance: The Arrow can fly as far as 3,000 kilometres before refueling. The F-35 flies 2,200 kilometres before doing the same.

Costs: The 20-year lifecycle cost for 100 Arrows would come in at $12 billion. That's less than half the price Canada is expected to pay for 65 F-35s.

Conditions: The Arrow is tailor-made to Canada's unique geography, with an eject pod that would help pilots survive in arctic conditions. The F-35 has a one-size-fits-all model for missions in countries across the globe.

Source: Bourdeau Industries
These characteristics are very different from anything that's flying today. It would be, if as advertised, faster than the F-22 Raptor (which flies at Mach 2.25 or thereabouts), fly longer than the Raptor (which has a range of 2,960 km with two external fuel tanks), and, at 38,000 m, fly higher than the Raptor (which has a theoretical service ceiling of 19,812 m).

 It's actually more similar to what the legendary SR-71 Blackbird could do. That was Mach 3.3 in speed, 5,400 km in range, and a service ceiling of 25,900 m. It's interesting that there was once an intention to turn the Blackbird into a high-speed interceptor, the YF-12 for "defense of the continental US."

It loses out in comparison to the Raptor in stealth and extreme manoeverability. As I said, the new Arrow would be a plane for patrolling Arctic skies (asserting sovereignty, checking out visitors, showing off unwelcome visitors, escorting welcome ones) and extending the reach of Norad in the North.

The NDP, by the way, are willing to listen to the proponents of the plan this week.

On that note, I'm going to give the conclusion to a post by Kevin Kitura reacting to an article in the Sun. It gives some historical context to the question of whether an updated Arrow would fit into the modern world.
The only reason you would want a fighter jet that could fly mach 3 and 90,000 feet is if you were trying to intercept mach 3 bomber like the US Air Forces cancelled XB-70. All the fighter jets that were designed for high speed high altitude interception such as the Mig-25, YF-12, the CF-105 got cancelled or in case of the Mig-25 were kept around as a propaganda device. The Mig-25 would later get reengineered in to some thing a little more useful in the way of the Mig-31.

The F-35 on the other hand is an entirely different beast from these high speed quarter horses. Speed wise the F-35 is optimized to cruise in the transonic range because much like a modern jet liner that is where you get the best combination of speed and range which is what you need for flying attack missions. While optimized for the transonic speed range the F-35 can still reach speeds of Mach 1.62 when required for high speed intercepts. As history and experience has shown most fighter jets rarely break the sound barrier when armed for battle and usually only reach their max speeds during test flights when they are unarmed.

If look at the 1970's generation fighters like the F-14, F-15, F-16 & F-111 one of the requirements that the US Air Force wanted was the ability for the airplanes to hit Mach 2 at altitude. Starting with the F-18 it was realized that a plane that could hit Mach 1.8 was more then fast enough for flying intercept missions and it allowed the manufacter to use aluminum alloys and carbon composites which made for lighter more manoeuvrabile airplane with a better thrust to weight ratio with out having to use high temperture alloys that flying above Mach 2 required due to supersonic heating. This is why the maximum speed of the F-22 is capped at Mach 1.8 even though it has the thrust to go faster the computer retard the throttles to prevent the pilot from over heating the airframe.
If I understand properly, interceptors are different than air superiority fighters and ground attack fighters, although many planes have some ability in all three roles. The Arrow would probably not be much good as a close-range dogfighter because it is not optimized for manoeuvrability. If it were to be used against other fighters, it would have to specialize in "Beyond Visual Range" attacks, and use superior speed and height for safety. As far as ground attack goes, well, that's a big plane that could probably fit in a few bombs, and it has big wings that could probably support a few missiles. It isn't the job the plane was designed for, though. It is the job that the F-35 is designed for. And since I believe the unspoken priority is that Canada be able to do what it did in the First Gulf War and in the Libya operation...area denial and ground attack in some foreign adventure...the F-35 will be bought.

Faith in Reason? Well, Reasonable Faith.

I've been accused, in some comments on a posting, of believing that "a simple trust in reason will trump instinct and the problem of short term thinking." Well, Guy, let me stop you there. The truth is not so simple.

Thought emerges from deeper levels that are largely unknown. There is the legacy of evolution that writes the definition of the human species in our genome; there are the biases and passions that wash our mind in sudden waves and slow tides of hormones; there are layers of belief deposited by our experiences, our culture, our society, our family. If you believe that quantum-level events are involved in thought, then add that to the complexity. But do not fall for the reductionism that says that thought is nothing but genetics, experiences, and quantum events. Instead, thought emerges from them, here and there - now and then - to this one and that one. (So I've heard). And reason emerges from thought with a similar frustrating lack of consistency.

In other words, thought is an emergent property of mind, and reason an emergent property of thought.

People are sometimes reasonable. They can even display forethought. In a war or other emergency, for example, the Swiss can depend on having well-stocked shelters, and even underground hospitals, sufficient for 114% of their population. Similarly, as I have pointed out, Canada maintains enough antiviral doses to administer to the entire population in case of a flu pandemic. Making adequate preparations for an emergency seems like good reasoning to me.

Of course, people sometimes fail to show such reasoning ability. For example, the corrupt culture of banking is likely to curb the bankers' freedom of action in numerous ways. The golden goose has been plucked, is naked and shivering in the public gaze, and may yet find itself partially cooked. Still, the lack of reason in one group of people does not negate its presence in another.

The specific case I made in the article you responded to was that politicians should make the military place a higher priority on their preparations for natural disasters. Merely a "higher priority": There are no opposites of "reason" and "unreason" to talk about here, but just a matter of how much gets allocated here, how much there.

We have problems in our culture, our economy, and our governance. It was ever so. In 1960, in Virginia, I would have gone to jail for having married a non-white, and faced other charges if they could prove that we made love. In the 50's and 60's the FBI operated like the STASI, keeping files on the great and the good among the public, and the CIA ran illegal experiments in mind control. In the 30's, the economic problems were worse than now and the United States faced a fascist coup. I know enough of the past to not believe that our problems are worse. I've seen the apartheid regime dismantled in South Africa by a truly great man, I've seen another preside over the dismantling of the Soviet Union, which had seemed eternal. I won't make the mistake of thinking that our present problems are invulnerable to change.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Eastern and Western Approaches to Medicine

As seen by modern eyes, both the Eastern and Western traditions of medicine were ludicrously wrong. Both were hampered by a prohibition of actually cutting up a body to see its internal structure, so both made guesses that, in the end, proved untrue. However, Eastern physicians seemed satisfied to make mental models of how the body functioned, while Western ones, from time to time, took up a knife on criminals, corpses, or cattle. The difference seems to be a different attitude towards one question: can you heal the sickness by observing a functioning body, or do you need to understand its parts? Can you understand health and sickness through observation and metaphor, or do you need to cut and experiment? The two points of view can be illustrated by considering something a little simpler than a human being, an old-fashioned TV.
A Vacuum-Tube TV with a Rabbit Ears Antenna (from the movie "The Twonky")
These days, a television with a “rabbit ears” antenna is a rare sight. When I was young, however, adjusting the height and angle of the two wires to get the best picture was simply a fact of life. A change of channel or a change of weather might require fiddling with the antenna.

Sometimes, especially when the signal was weak, the person adjusting the antenna would become part of it. The TV picture would remain clear as long as he held onto the antenna in a certain way, or stood near it in a certain place. For whatever reason, some people seemed to have an instinct for finding the right place to hold or stand to get the clearest, healthiest picture.

However, at times, the screen would go black, or fill with a blizzard of white spots called “snow,” or jagged waves, or have its picture race horizontally or vertically across the screen over and over again. At such times, the laying on of hands and supplications to the gods of the airways would not be enough. One would have to understand the cause of the problem to fix it.

Inside the TV was a set of differently-sized and shaped vacuum tubes, like a miniature oriental city with the minarets and domes done in glowing glass. If any of these structures failed, the picture died in some unique way. A technician could see the error on the screen and know what tube had gone bad; he would replace the tube, and the problem would disappear.
An Oriental City in Glowing Glass (
Non-technicians like me could do the same, with a little help in the form of a small cardboard square with a cardboard circle pinned to its centre so that it could rotate. The cardboard circle had two holes in it. As the circle turned, one hole showed pictures of TV screens malfunctioning in specific ways; the other showed what tube caused the malfunction. The back of the cardboard square had a map of the TV’s interior to show where where the replacement tube would go to cure the problem. This little guide let us work like a TV technician without actually becoming one.

The reason for describing this ancient technology and its problems is that the two approaches to fixing a television are, surprise, the two approaches to healing a body. In ancient times, in both East and West, the predominant approach was experimental but noninvasive. Physicians did the equivalent of adjusting the antennae to get a better picture. As they worked from experience and observation, they often obtained results, though any deep understanding of the body was little more than coincidence. Modern medicine, as it developed in the West and spread worldwide, was fundamentally invasive. The back came off the tv, the tubes were identified, and each tube became identified with a specific dysfunction of the picture. In the end, this approach allowed more cures and better theory.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Celestial Matters (Book)

This is a book recommendation, as opposed to a review. I haven't read this book for a number of years, but I cannot forget it, either. That puts it in some pretty select company.

To appreciate it, let's first accept that Aristotelian Physics and Ptolomeic Astronomy accurately describe the universe. So does Chinese Alchemy and Yin-Yang Theory. Within the constraints set by these "scientific theories," the story is a detailed account of the first attempt to enter the Empyrean Circle of the Heavens to capture sunfire. The stimulus of this "big science" project was, naturally, war. The West (under Spartan and Athenian leadership) wanted a superweapon to destroy the cities of the East and bring an end to a millenium-long war with a Chinese Empire, though not the one our world has known. In a way, then, this is a hard science fiction novel, but the science is not what we learn in school.

The book also counts as alternative history. The war between East and West began with Alexander the Great reaching the borders of China and being thrust back. (You are correct. This never happened in our world). The war never ended because it is a clash of civilizations, neither understanding the other. The hero-worshipping, individualistic West could not comprehend the collectivist, bureaucratic East any more than its Aristotelian Physics could accommodate Chinese Alchemy.

There are spies and betrayal complicating the search for the superweapon. There are comments on the ultimate causes of war. There is a very 1960's musing on endless war against an implacable superpower enemy with an incomprehensible ideology. There is a clear analogy to the nuclear standoff in the Cold War. There is also a 1960's-style optimism in the end about individuals forcing nations to change their homicidal (and suicidal) policies.

Richard Garfinkle published Celestial Matters in 1996, which was probably close to the time I read it. The book is unique, and worth a read. If you don't believe me, then check the comments on Amazon.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

An Army's Job is Fighting Disasters. (Of which War is only One).

"The Moral Equivalent of War" is the title of the last public speech of William James, a philosopher and psychologist, in 1906. He begins by stating why it will not be easy to bring an end to war.
The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade. There is something highly paradoxical in the modern man's relation to war. Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now (were such a thing possible) to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present time substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes. Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out. Yet ask those same people whether they would be willing, in cold blood, to start another civil war now to gain another similar possession, and not one man or woman would vote for the proposition. In modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.
...Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.
 James suggests that the solution is to have collective efforts that require as much strength as war, provide experiences that are as extreme, and even require extraordinary expenses and the taxes needed pay for them. However, ideally, these collective efforts would not destroy the lives or property of the innocent nor transform a large percentage of the young men in war into lovers of murder and rape, nor, as an alternative, amoral robots whose nature escapes corruption because they simply follow orders from above. "War is a racket" writes Smedley D. Butler, and he should know. He was a Marine Corps Major General and two-time Medal of Honor recipient. Is it possible to have war that is enobling more than it is brutalizing? Is it possible to have war that is not a racket?

I think we saw a half-hearted prototype of a moral equivalent to war during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations competed, fiercely and openly. The effect of Sputnik I on the United States was fast and far-reaching. (From Wikipedia):
The depth of concern, and breadth of impact upon the American society and the West cannot be overstated. One of the many books which suddenly appeared for the lay-audience noted 7 points of "impact" upon the nation. Those points of impact were, Western Leadership, Western Strategy and Tactics, Missile Production, Applied Research, Basic Research, Education, and Democratic Culture. The USA soon had a number of successful satellites, including Explorer 1, Project SCORE, and Courier 1B. However, public reaction to the Sputnik crisis led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA in 1972), NASA, and an increase in U.S. government spending on scientific research and education. Not only did the launch of Sputnik spur America to action in the space race, it also led directly to the creation of N.A.S.A. through the space act bill. Sputnik also contributed directly to advancement in science and technology. This came about when President Eisenhower enacted a bill called the National Defense Education Act. This bill encouraged students to go to college and study math and science. The students' tuition fees would be paid for. This led to a new emphasis on science and technology in American schools. Sputnik also created building blocks which probably led to the general establishment of the way science is conducted in the United States today.
This effort was big enough to be noticeable in the U.S. Federal Budget. Even NASA alone was big enough: Between 1964 and 1966 "Roughly 4% of the total federal budget was being devoted to the space program." (From the Wikipedia article on The Budget of NASA). In comparison, "At its height, operations in Iraq cost around 1 percent of GDP."

There were speeches about the Space Race bringing out the noble character of the nation, such as John Kennedy's in 1962:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
We had heroes come out of it, too: John Glenn and the crew of Apollo 13 and Neil Armstrong among them. We had casualties and martyrs to the cause: the crew of Apollo 1, killed in a fire on the ground, and the crews of the Space Shuttles  Challenger, (killed during launch) and  Columbia, (killed during re-entry).  The effort even entered popular culture in a thousand ways, including music. There was the hit tune Telstar, named after a satellite, Elton John's "Rocket Man," David Bowie's "Space Oddity," and more. (By the way, "Space Oddity" was turned into a very well-illustrated children's book by an Ontario illustrator, Andrew Kolb. It used to be available as a PDF on his web site, where it became a "viral hit," but is no more. Still, you can see the illustrations here and here. You can see it as an animated music video here).

It has been hard to find other examples of a moral equivalent of war, though some have tried. President Carter suggested that the effort to cut the United States' dependence on imports of oil could provide such a moral equivalent, but it lacks a few of war's necessary attributes. Even though taxes might go toward it, heroes and martyrs would be scarce. The defence industries would derive no benefits. Nor would David Bowie be likely to pen a song on the effect of wind farms on Major Tom's psyche. It would be the moral equivalent of a war on the scale of the invasion of Grenada, but of no more substantial one.

Perhaps we need to add an element of danger to our moral effort. There are natural disasters that are as damaging as a major war. Preparing for them would take as much expense and commitment as we put into preparing for war. If nations of the world chose to convince their populations of these dangers in the same way that they prepare them for a war, then we could mobilize the military-industrial complex to make the world a better place. Even better, every nation could be an ally in the same fight

Here are three such disasters, selected from memory, to show the scale of the dangers we should prepare for.
  1. A Carrington Event

    In 1859, a five-minute flare on the sun that was observed by Richard C. Carrington created Northern Lights even in the tropics; in some places, they were bright enough to read by. It disrupted the world-wide telgraph system. Operators were shocked by the sparks that flew out of their equipment. Telegraph paper caught fire.

    If a similar flare occurred now, satellite systems, including telecommunications and GPS, would be fried. Astronauts in space would die. Power grids would go down for extended periods, plunging large areas into darkness. There would be no cell phones, no internet, no banking machines operating, no electronic cash registers working.

    We are not prepared for another Carrington Event, even though it would do as much damage to our systems of civilization as a world war. Its cost to the world's economy could be one to two trillion dollars.

    On the other hand, preparing for it would cost a lot of money, take a lot of time, require expensive research and development, make the military-industrial complex very happy, and leave the world a safer place. Here is a discussion on Slashdot about how to protect computer data from a Carrington Event. Preparing for the Event would be an excellent replacement, or supplement, for war. Information on the Carrington Event can be found here, here, and here.

    If you're interested about the effects of a loss of technology on people's lives, try watching episode 1 of James Burke's series Connections. Here's the first part of it.

    Be sure to watch the entire episode. It shows that the fall of civilization would not happen all at once but, once the process had started, there would be no easy way back.
  2. A Tunguska Event or Dinosaur-Killer

    On June 30, 1908, something exploded in the air above Tunguska in Siberia. The Wikipedia page on it helpfully illustrates the strength of the explosion with a few comparisons:
    Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 to as high as 30 megatons of TNT (21–130 PJ), with 10–15 megatons of TNT (42–63 PJ) the most likely—roughly equal to the United States' Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb tested on March 1, 1954; about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan; and about one-third the power of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. The explosion knocked an estimated 80 million trees down over an area covering 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi). It is estimated that the shock wave from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area.
    Not simply capable. If it had entered the earth's atmosphere a few hours later, the object would have exploded over the city of St. Petersburg. The explosion's cause is unknown. The most common speculations are that it was a comet or asteroid. To avoid a repeat, we first have to know what is coming our way. Very little money is spent on this, though the Germans (bless them) have a project called NEOShield that is looking at it. We must then have a way to destroy or, at least, deflect the incoming object. At present, we have only a few ideas. Hollywood's favourite idea is blowing it up with nuclear bombs.
    (from Meteor, 1979)

    (from Armageddon, 1998)

    However, that won't work.

    The bigger the object, the worse the damage will be. The worst scenario might be an asteroid like the one that hit near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico about 65 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub Crater, which is over 180 km across. It also is at least partially responsible for killing off the dinosaurs as well as many other species. It would be nice to be able to head off something like that from happening again.
    (from Deep Impact, 1998)
  3. The Return of Spanish Flu

    Every now and then you read about a government purchasing drugs to have on hand during a flu outbreak. In Canada, the preparation includes the National Antivirus Stockpile, which has enough doses of antiviral drug to treat every person in Canada. Apparently, "The NAS is a provincially/territorially administered supply of antiviral drugs held across the country on a per capita basis in secure temperature-controlled facilities." The federal government maintains another stockpile, the National Emergency Stockpile System (NESS), with another 14 million doses for use in a pandemic or for chickens in an Avian Flu outbreak. Private stockpiles exist for some provinces and government departments. It takes about three months to create a vaccine to treat a specific strain of flu, but the federal government has contracted with Shire Biologics so that, in the case of a pandemic, the work of creating the vaccine would start at once.

    Does any of this sound like stockpiling weapons, essential resources, and fuel for the military? Has our government already committed itself to a moral equivalent of war? In a way, yes. They remember what happened in 1918 when a strain of flu called the Spanish Flu spread through the world. It eventually infected about 27% of the world's population. Between 50 and 130 million of the infected people died. In comparison, World War I, one of the deadliest wars in history, killed 37 million people.

    Governments are understandably concerned that some new variation of human H1N1 virus or bird flu or swine flu or an unholy combination of them all (like the one that killed 18,000 people in 2009) would replicate the deadliness of the Spanish Flu. They prepare for it as they would for a war because it would be a war in every respect except the nature of the enemy.

    If the governments of the world coordinated their response so that drugs were stockpiled for the entire population of the world and transportation was available to transport them and administer them in time, that would be a moral equivalent to a major war.
This is becoming a long posting, so I should will put aside discussion of the disaster represented by a sea-level rise, caused by climate change. That deserves a posting of its own.

However, I think I have established that some natural disasters pose as great a threat as major wars. Nations find that they must turn to their militaries during such disasters. I believe we should, therefore, give the militaries the responsibility to prepare for these disasters as much or more than they prepare for war. Given that Canada is more likely to suffer a natural disaster than an invasion of its territory, perhaps this should be our military's dominant preoccupation.

The ability to respond effectively in times of war need not suffer from this preoccupation, since many resources and capabilities needed to respond to a disaster (move people long distances on short notice, have prepared stocks of food, shelter, and munitions, be able to distribute them at need) are useful in any disaster, including a war.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Science Fiction Radio Programs (on-line)

The Web Site of "Sci-Fi London" has collections of old-time radio programs that can be streamed or downloaded. There's the Robert A. Heinlein Collection, the Bradbury Collection, and the Frederic Pohl/Isaac Asimov Collection. In addition, it features various authors in "Dimension X" and "Exploring Tomorrow" radio shows. I have just finished listening to Kurt Vonnegut's "Report on the Barnhouse Effect."

The group adds,
And whilst we are talking about cool stuff to listen to, why not try ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL ROBOTS. We updated the script and presented a rehearsed reading at the British Library earlier in 2011.
For those who do not know it, this play by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek introduced the word "robot" to the world back in 1921.

Sci-Fi London does not have the epic (eight-hour!) BBC adaptation of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, though. For that, you'd have to go to While you're there, you might enjoy watching some episodes of a science fiction tv show from the 1950's, "Tales from Tomorrow." It includes classic stories like "The Crystal Egg" by H.G. Wells, "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley (starring Lon Chaney!), and "The Little Black Bag" by C.M. Kornbluth.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Paradoxical Days of Miracle and Wonder

Here's a segment of Philip José Farmer's story "Riders of the Purple Wage" that I have been unable to forget.
"Another Renaissance has come, a fruition of the arts comparable to that of Pericles’ Athens and the city-states of Michelangelo’s Italy or Shakespeare’s England. Paradox. More illiterates than ever before in the world’s history. But also more literates. Speakers of classical Latin outnumber those of Caesar’s day. The world of aesthetics bears a fabulous fruit. And, of course, fruits."
It is prophetic. On the other hand, Paul Simon put the thought a bit more succinctly in his song "The Boy in the Bubble":
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry
Update (19 July 2013). Joe Schlesinger on the CBC web site has come up with an essay on the same subject as my quotations above: "You do know, right, the world is getting better." 

Two TED talks by Hans Rosling contribute to this train of thought. One is on the economic rise of non-European and non-North American nations.
The other is on whether the world can afford the current rates of population growth.
We cannot become complacent, but in my own life I've seen the peaceful end of the world's second power, the USSR, the democratization of the nations that were under its control, the reunification of Germany, the entry of China into the world political and economic community and, most recently, the creation of the first democratic states in the Arab world. Those are achievements that can stand next to quite a pile of bad news (such as a global depression caused by a thoroughly corrupt banking system) without being overshadowed by it.

Diefenbaker on Communism, "Unthinkable" (movie)

John Diefenbaker was a real conservative, in the traditional Canadian style. He was for the old flag, not the Maple Leaf, for instance, and he was for the monarchy. You'd expect him to be a rabid Cold Warrior, saving Canadians from subversive Communist ideas (and ideals). Well, let him speak to that himself:
I frankly state that in 1948 my own party came out in favour of outlawing communism. I was the only one to oppose it. I received a very unusual lack of welcome. The Conservative party was going to sweep Canada with that policy. I said, 'You cannot do it. You cannot deny an individual the right to think as he will. The offence is not in being wrong, the offence is in doing wrong. Whenever communism has been outlawed it has operated underground. When it has come out, it has been stronger than ever.
He said that in the House of Commons on October 16, 1970. (Source). Although, in many ways, I am not a conservative, I would feel comfortable having a man like that in office.

The problem we now have is finding such a man. Compare his attitude to the many laws and practices that the United States now has to pursue its "wars" on drugs and terror: state-sponsored kidnapping, spying on one's own nationals without judicial warrant (though it is officially denied), star chambers, indefinite detention, torture, assassination, murder, and the use of civilians in combat (CIA and "security firms"), contrary to the usages of war and the Geneva Conventions. George Bush approved some of these, but Barack Obama has signed more violations of human rights into law, and no-one expects that Mitt Romney, if elected, would do anything except weaken legal protections even more.

If our current consensus that liberties should be sacrificed for security bothers you, if the erosion of the protection of the law makes you uncomfortable, I have a movie for you to see that will put the issues, pro and con, very clearly. It is Unthinkable, starring Samuel L. Jackson. You probably haven't seen it; it was released direct to video in 2010. Write down your thoughts, watch the movie, then go back to what you've written and see if your opinions have changed. If they have, I cannot predict how.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Dejeuner sur l'herbe, and Harper au naturel

It was common practice to paint a nude woman surrounded by clothed men. All one needed was a Classical or even a Biblical excuse for the picture. This explains the popularity of paintings of Susannah and the Elders, like this one, although the story's moral lessons are, at the least, unclear. It seems to say even completely innocent people need good lawyers.

In 1863, Edouard Manet painted a variation on the theme called Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. In it, the men were dressed in contemporary clothes and the woman was looking brassily at the viewer. It seems to tell us that even a cat can look at a king, and a voyeur be scrutinized in the act. The reaction was loud and continuing controversy.

In 2011, mild controversy also followed a nude painting of Prime Minister Steven Harper, for which I assume Mr. Harper did not sit. The painter, Maggie Sutherland, called it Emperor Haute Couture. It shows Mr. Harper surrounded by people in business clothes, with a dog, and with a cup of Tim Horton's coffee being handed him.

Here are some changes from the norm. First, the nude person is male, which probably makes some viewers, more accustomed to gazing at the female form, uncomfortable. Second, he is recognizable, even famous. Even worse, if he is conservative by nature as well as profession, the painting might make him feel a little exposed.

The Emperor's "High Fashion" new clothes not only make a political statement, they set a tone for tongue-in-cheek responses. I particularly liked the comment by David Morelli, a spokesman for Tim Horton's, "“We were pretty upset when we saw the painting. We'd never flip the tab on a hot coffee before serving a naked customer. Obvious safety hazard.” Andrew MacDougal, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications chimed in through Twitter, “We're not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person.” (These and more quotes are from a Toronto Sun article whose title I will not repeat). Best of all, an unnamed government department offered to buy it.

Nevertheless, what the painting made me think of was an episode of The Simpsons called "Brush with Greatness." In it, Marge Simpson paints a nude of Mr. Burns warts and all.

People were aghast when it was shown for the first time, but the artist explained that, when she accidentally saw him nude in all his age and frailty, she realized that this cruel, selfish man was also one of God's creatures. People then saw new meaning in the painting:

Dr. Hibbert: Provocative, but powerful.
Mrs. Hoover: He's bad, but he'll die. So I like it.

I'm not saying that Mr. Harper resembles Mr. Burns in any way, mind you. For example, he is a much younger man.

French Words and Phrases in English

Here's a posting from my old web site. I started it in 1999 and last updated it in 2001.


French has influenced English in several ways. First, some French-speaking people conquered England in 1066 A.D. and ruled it. From that period, we get many words that we think of as English now (e.g. "royal" and "pork"). Second, France had its renaissance earlier than England and was a wealthier country than England for many centuries, so England borrowed many words and phrases for cooking, fashion, and the arts from France. Third, French became the official language of diplomacy, so that many words and phrases for law, war, and travel came into English. These days, French has lost status because the United Nations has five official languages, not just one: English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.


"To God." Means "good-bye."
à la
"In the style of." E.g. a food that is in the Greek style is "à la Greque" and pie with ice cream on top is in the fashionable style, or "à la mode."
à propos
"With reference to." I said something à propos of nothing.
au gratin
Covered with melted cheese.
au naturel
Covered with nothing. Nude.
A "vanguard" (the English equivalent) was the part of an army that marched in front. Now it means anything that is very new in fashion.
bête noire
"Black beast." Anything that you fear and hate is your bête noire.
bon appétit
"Good appetite!" Say this before eating.
As a noun, it means "middle class." As an adjective, it means "conventional, materialistic, and boring."
In French, it just means "buttonhole." In English, it is the flower in the lapel of a man's jacket.
A coffeehouse or small, cheap, restaurant.
cause célèbre
A "famous case"; it is something that everyone is talking about.
The belief that members of your group are better than anyone else. (Nicolas Chauvin was one of Napoleon's supporters). In French, it is spelled "chauvinisme."
In French, it is a piece of clothing that covers the chest. In English, it is a flower on a woman's dress or jacket. It is the custom for a man to present his date with a corsage to wear on an important evening out, such as a graduation ceremony.
coup d'état
"Attack on the state." A "coup" (as it is sometimes abbreviated) is where the army suddenly replaces the government of its country.
coup de grâce
"Stroke of kindness." Originally, this meant cutting the throat of a wounded enemy to stop their suffering. Now it means the final action that defeats someone else. "I was already better than him at school. Beating him in the tennis game, too, was just the coup de grâce."
"Bottom of the bag." A street that goes nowhere, but just stops.
A low-cut lady's neckline, exposing some of the breast. Alternatively, it is the portion of the breast exposed by a low neckline. Although this is from the French verb "décolleter," "décolletage" is not often used in French. (We borrow from French, but that does not mean that we borrow accurately!)
de rigeur
Required or necessary. "A suit and tie are de rigeur at a wedding."
double entendre
"To hear twice." If a statement can be interpreted as innocent or as sexual then it is a double entendre. (Another phrase used in English more than in French).
enfant terrible
"Terrible child." A talented, embarassing, energetic young person, such as Mozart. English doesn't seem to have a word for this, so we also borrowed the German word for the same thing: "Wunderkind."
déjà vu
"Already seen." This is the feeling that people sometimes get, when they go somewhere for the first time, that they have been there before.
esprit de corps
"Spirit of the group." If the members of a group are proud to belong to it, and work hard to improve it, then that group has esprit de corps.
fait accompli
"A finished action." If someone was going to stop you from doing something, but you've already finished doing it, then you have given them a fait accompli.
faux pas
"False step." An action which is not socially acceptable. For example, telling jokes about blind people when a blind person can hear you, or to the friends or family of blind people, is a faux pas. Don't do it.
femme fatale
"Deadly woman." A very attractive single woman who breaks many men's hearts.
A woman who is to be married.
film noir
"Black movie." A type of cynical movie that was popular in the 1930's and 40's. An example would be The Maltese Falcon. (Watch it if you can!) A modern equivalent would be the film Bladerunner.
fin de siècle
"End of the century." The decadent period at the end of the 19th century.
"Fineness." Doing something extremely well and delicately.
folie à deux
"Craziness shared by two people."
Literally, this is the "strong" section of a sword blade, near the hilt. This is used in English to mean something that a person does better than anything else. "Learning languages is not my forte."
"Left." Means "rude or socially wrong." For example, if someone eats peas with a knife, say "Don't be gauche!"
Someone who knows and loves good food.
Somone who loves food, good or not, and eats lots of it.
hors de combat
"Out of the fight." Someone who has been hurt badly and has given up. "Has Ralph started dating again?" "No, he's still hors de combat."
"Outside of the work." A snack you eat before the meal.
je ne sais quoi
"I don't know what." If you like something, but don't know why, you say that it has a je ne sais quoi.
joie de vivre
"Joy of life." Some people are always happy. They have joie de vivre.
"Let it be." An adjective describing a policy of not interfering with something. Often used to describe government economic policies, for example. To quote a song by the Canadian group Moxie Früvous "It's laissez-faire. I don't even give a care."
Someone who gives unreasonably strict orders. (Jean Martinet was a French military officer in the 17th century).
"Born." You can say a woman's married and maiden names together if you call her, for example "Mrs. Christine Lee, née Lu."
noblesse oblige
"My nobility makes me." Why did you give your sandwich to that poor person? "Noblesse oblige."
nom de plume
"Pen name." This is the name that a writer puts on his books, if he doesn't want to use his real name.
nouveau riche
"Newly rich." People who have earned a lot of money recently, and don't have the taste or education to know the proper way to use it. For example, Elvis Presley's house, Graceland, is famous for being very large, very expensive, and very, very ugly. He was obviously nouveau riche.
pièce de résistance
The best part of something. "The Science Fair was excellent, but Calvin's project was the pièce de résistance."
Risky. Sexy.
"Répondez s'il vous plaît" means "Please respond." If you get an invitation to a party, the letters RSVP at the bottom mean that you should let the host know if you will be coming.
"Head to head." A quiet conversation by two people about serious or intimate things is a tête-à-tête.
"Touched." In fencing (sword fighting) you say this as the other person's sword touches you. In conversation, you might say it if the other person pokes a hole in what you've said. "I hate to spend money." "You spent $50 in the restaurant just last night!" "Touché." The English equivalent is "You got me."

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Andy McKee's Guitar

This is remarkable.

At the Olympic Performance Stage (A Satire, I Hope)

We join our program in progress...
I'm standing by the performing stage with the prima ballerina of Canada's Olympic team, Roberta Kandinski. Roberta, this is the first time that ballet has been in the Olympics. How do you feel about being here?
I'm incredibly proud, Phil. The Canadian Amateur Ballet Association, with its counterparts in other countries, has worked very hard to make this happen.
Does it bother you that it is only a demonstration sport?
Not at all, Phil. Many other sports have been introduced as demonstration sports and gone on to become part of the Olympic experience. Look at snowboarding!
As you know, Roberta, ballet has traditionally been considered more of an art than a sport. What would you say to people who say that it has no place in the Olympics?
That's just ridiculous, Phil. Ballet is one of many sports where grace and timing count as much as speed and strength. Look at rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming: it's the same thing. The Winter Olympics already have a form of ballet, figure skating, and it's time for the Summer Olympics to catch up.
What does getting here mean for the future of ballet, Roberta?
It's very important for us, Phil. The only way that the sport can get the respect it deserves is to escape from the Arts section of the papers into the Sports section. That's where the money is.
And how do you see your team's chances?
We've been working hard on the compulsories, especially the pas de deux and the jetées. We've got a brilliant original short piece that should impress the judges. I think our chances for a medal are good.
Thank you, Roberta. This is Phillip Sycoph at the performance stage. Back to you, Bob, at the Chess finals.
I wrote this and had it up on my former website in 2000. I intended it to be satire. Since then, ballroom dancing has changed its name to "Dance Sport" and has made efforts to become an Olympic sport. It succeeded.

I now understand how Tom Lehrer, the great musical satirist, felt when he commented that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. How can we satirize anything when the world outdoes our satires?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Canadian Navy may buy German ship designs, say CBC sources

A story on the CBC news web site has the title, "Canadian shipbuilders fear navy will buy German vessels." The headline is misleading. Sources tell the CBC that the navy's replenishment ships may be replaced using a German design, the Berlin class, even though the construction would be done at Canadian shipyards. The contract is worth $3 billion. According to the story, "in recent years, the German industry has lobbied the Canadian government to supply designs for frigates, destroyers and new submarines."

If the Germans succeed, then they might offer the new F125 class frigates, which are about the size of destroyers (7,200 tonnes) and noticeably bigger than Canada's present destroyers.  Germany will commission its F125's between 2016 and 2018.

The submarine design offered might be the Type 212 (1,830 tonnes, submerged), which displaces a little less than the current Victoria class submarines (2,455 tonnes), has about the same sized crew, but is 13 m shorter. Since the current boats will be thirty years old in 2020, Canada might put the replacement out to tender in 2015 or so.

Correction: the export version of the Type 212 is the Type 214.


Update (28 June 2013): In fact, the rumours were at least partially right. The Berlin Class design will, in fact, be Canada's new "Joint Support Ship."

I think that the frigate or destroyer design is more likely to be one that is original to Canada, as the existing frigates are, than a German (or British, or French). That is not to say that they will be primarily designed in Canada, considering how much of the design work is being outsourced to Denmark and the United States.

As for the submarine fleet, well, we'll just have to see. If we hadn't bought the British boats, we very possibly wouldn't have any submarines at all. On the other hand, if Harper is still the PM in 2015, he'll still be dragging around a poor reputation for military procurement and might not want to open another can of that type of worm.

Nuclear-powered submarines, by the way, are still the only sensible ones for a nation that wants to send them into the frozen north. The debate about getting them will reopen when parliament starts to talk about submarines again, but I have no hope that Canada will buy a quartet of Virginia or Astute or Barracuda class nuclear submarines. Despite Mr. Harper's efforts to get Canadians thinking of themselves as warriors, they have no stomach for rearmament during peacetime.

So, in short, if we do order new submarines, the German Type 214 is probably going to be in the short list of candidates.

The Palace, by Rudyard Kipling

I wonder if the sense of time that Kipling possessed prepared me, in some way, to study archaeology, or if his writings of other cultures prepared me for anthropology. I can't say, but this poem has been a favourite of mine since I was a boy.

The Palace
When I was a King and a Mason--a Master proven and skilled--
I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently, under the silt,
I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built.

There was no worth in the fashion--there was no wit in the plan--
Hither and thither, aimless, the ruined footings ran--
Masonry, brute, mishandled, but carven on every stone:
"After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known."

Swift to my use in my trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread;
Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.

Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder's heart.
As he had risen and pleaded, so did I understand
The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.

            *   *   *   *   *

When I was a King and a Mason--in the open noon of my pride,
They sent me a Word from the Darkness. They whispered and called me aside.
They said--"The end is forbidden." They said--"Thy use is fulfilled.
"Thy Palace shall stand as that other's--the spoil of a King who shall build."

I called my men from my trenches, my quarries, my wharves, and my sheers.
All I had wrought I abandoned to the faith of the faithless years.
Only I cut on the timber--only I carved on the stone:
"After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known!"
  1. "When I was a King and a Mason -- a Master proven and skilled -- ": Kipling was a Freemason for four years. He attained the ranks of a Mark Master and a Royal Ark Mariner. Freemasons form a society that uses metaphors relating to masonry to understand God and what he has built, the universe. The poem can, therefore, be read as either about a real king who was a real mason building a real palace or as a Freemason with the rank of Master involved in a spiritual endeavour.
  2. "I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.": this line implies that the palace will be fit for a king, but it also implies that kings should build. That is their function.
  3. "Presently under the silt": the old palace had been covered by soil deposited by a river during floods. That implies a cycle of building and ruin, flood, and rebuilding. The King initially believes in the European idea of progress: his plans and workmanship are simply better than earlier ones. He abandons this for the Hindu concept that everything cycles. Hindus teach, for example, that a man is born over and over, and the universe itself goes through grand cycles called yugas. This poem shows Kipling's doubts about progress. In this, it is similar to his poem "Recessional," in which he foresaw a time when the British Empire would become "one with Nineveh and Tyre," taking its place in a cycle of building and destruction.
  4. "There was no worth in the fashion--there was no wit in the plan--": It is easy for someone to disregard the efforts of his predecessors and believe that his own efforts are unique. The poem is about unlearning this attitude. He learns that he is not a climax to history but "After me cometh a Builder."
  5. "I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars": A quoin is a large stone or brick at the corner of a wall, a corner-stone. An ashlar is a square-hewn stone used to construct a wall or masonry made of such stones. It may cover brick-work or rubble.
  6. "Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it, slacked it, and spread": Lime is a powder formed by burning limestone (or marble) which is then mixed with water ("slacked" or "slaked") and spread over a wall to form a smooth, white surface.
  7. "Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.": This line has great meaning for me. Whenever we use words, objects, concepts, writings, or other aspects of culture, this is what we are doing. It is humbling and appropriate to remember that we are using what others made, which is why he "despised not nor gloried."
  8. "so did I understand/The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.": The builder learned to understand his predecessor from his works because both belonged to the same craft, faced the same problems, and were parts of one tradition.
  9. "*   *   *   *   *": Time passes.
  10. "They sent me a Word from the Darkness.": Who are "they"? Death is an "it" and God a "He." Are these the spirits of previous builders?
  11. By carving the same message as his predecessor, the King accepts the same fate, to provide physical and spiritual raw materials for his successor.
Notes on the poem by the Kipling Society are here.