Monday, May 30, 2016

For Biospheres, Size Matters

Quantity has a quality all its own.
-- Attributed to several Soviet leaders, including Stalin

One crucial quality that can be possessed by quantity is given by the Central Limit Theorem, which basically states that if you have N independent random samples taken from a sufficiently well-behaved probability distribution (which is the usual assumption), the average from the N sampled values will follow a bell curve, and the width of the bell curve is inversely proportional to the square root of N.  This is used, for example, in polling; if a poll of 1,000 people produces a margin of error of 4%, to produce a margin of error of 0.4% would require a poll of 100,000 people, which is too expensive for most purposes.

The Biosphere 2 structure has a footprint of 1.27 hectares, compared with the surface area of earth, which is 51.01 billion hectares, making the earth about 40 billion times as large as Biosphere 2.  Of course, the conditions at any location are affected by conditions like droughts, fires, hurricanes, insect hordes, etc., that affect fairly broad areas, so there are not 40 billion times as many independent samples on the earth as there are in Biosphere 2.  It is hard to say by how much that number should be reduced, but let's reduce it by a factor of 10,000, which seems reasonable enough.  That means that fluctuations in the average amount of carbon dioxide taken up by the plants or oxygen produced by them should be expected to be 2,000 times larger than similar fluctuations on earth, even if there were no mistakes with how Biosphere 2 was set up.  Such a large fluctuation is likely to "break" the system; some organisms may flourish and others will probably die, preventing the mixture of gases from being returned to near its desired stable point.  I suspect this was an important contribution to why the Biosphere 2 experiment failed.

As a result, I have little confidence in any human-scaled terrarium being a working solution for colonizing Mars.  The same would apply to greenhouses in space to which the human race retreats in the movie "Interstellar", or even to the ground-based greenhouses that would have been a more sensible solution.  I'll have to add this to my list of problems with that very disappointing movie.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Best Case Scenario

Clinton goes to jail for her carelessness with classified data, and Trump goes to jail for Trump University, and the office of President is left vacant after Obama.  Every bill is considered vetoed; if a bill can't overcome a veto, it's probably not one we need anyhow.  With no new president anxious for the "greatness" that comes of being a "war president", maybe we could avoid wars in which we are not directly attacked.  At any rate, it would lie with Congress to declare a war, you know, the way the Constitution says.

Of course, this won't happen.  Some numskull would consider it a "long national nightmare" and act to prevent it.  The real worry would be that Americans might find a government with no president preferable to one with a president.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ambiguous Uses of the Word "Capitalism"

"If a baby wants to eat, he should get a job like everyone else."  That is a sentiment held by no sane person, but it contradicts an idea that many people either pretend to hold or do actually hold, either through ignorance of its consequences or through cognitive dissonance:  the idea that we have obligations to a person not because of who or what the person is, but only on the basis of the person's utility in the exchange of goods or services.  This contradiction cannot be avoided, because even though the primary responsibility for the care of a baby lies with the baby's parents, morally sane people still acknowledge that orphans deserve care, and that this obligation is not contingent on the odds of both the adult and child surviving long enough for the child to pay back the debt.

So much, then, for the first use of the word "Capitalism" -- that is, as an all-encompassing moral philosophy, sufficient to determine right and wrong.  Generally speaking, articles written to "defend Capitalism" attempt to defend this particular meaning of "Capitalism", because it provides cover for neglecting inconvenient duties.  Of course, one may feed babies as a hobby, if he is wealthy enough and so inclined; alternatively, he may collect sports cars as a hobby.  "Capitalism" makes no distinction, because it ironically agrees with Marxism that the only really important thing in history is the economy, and the value of a human being is his value to the economy.

If I appear to find Capitalism as an ersatz religion infuriating, then in this case appearances are not deceiving.  This version of "Capitalism" holds that if an employer gives an honest day's wages for two honest days of work, it doesn't make him a thief or a scoundrel, it makes him worthy of admiration.  It also holds as admirable the executive who draws a year's salary for a week's work, regardless of how valuable or destructive he is to his company.  It eloquently presents the contract as something sacred, but when retired city workers apply for the benefits agreed to them in their contracts, it applauds the response of Darth Vader:  "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."  It boldly contradicts Scripture by insisting that the love of money is the root of all good.

Moving on, the second definition is, arguably, the proper definition:  Capitalism is an economic system characterized by the loaning of money at interest from one private person or business to another private person or business, as shown in the cartoon above.  That's pretty much it.  Capitalism is a means of "putting money to work" to make more money, and it has intrinsic to itself no other purpose.  It can be thought of as a machine like a car is a machine, and either can be put to good or to bad use.  For example, an automobile can be driven by a paramedic or by a terrorist, and Capitalist systems have proven very effective at producing weapons and selling them to "the good guys", "the bad guys", or in some cases, both.  Capitalist systems have given wealth and stability to governments that cherish individual freedoms and to governments that crush dissent.  Capitalism is a machine that does what its designed to do, but that only makes it good in a functional sense, not necessarily in an ethical sense.

One important thing to remember is that Capitalism, in the sense of this second definition, is a relatively recent invention.  For one thing, Capitalism requires (and to a large extent created) a very abstract concept of wealth, and this required time to develop.  For another, there was a developing consensus during the Middle Ages that the collecting of interest was unethical under most circumstances; see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia for details.  (Today it is difficult to get anyone to concede that it is ever unethical to collect interest.  The truth almost certainly lies between the two extremes.)  Finally, I suspect that Capitalism really requires a sufficiently large population and sufficiently fast communication to "work" properly.  At any rate, Capitalism really was born due to the massive trade involved in European colonization and the Industrial Revolution.

The third definition is used in a kind of bait-and-switch to fool the unwary into accepting the first definition.  The third definition of "Capitalism" is any way of life more characterized by private property than by state ownership.  This is a very Cold-War perspective that basically says whatever is not Communism or (possibly) Socialism must be Capitalism.  This is usually accompanied by a contrast between the USA and the USSR, typically with cartoonish (and unnecessary) exaggeration.

Of course, there is a strong argument that private property is a part of the natural law.  Likewise, there is a natural appeal to the whole picture of a Norman-Rockwell America, with a nuclear family living in its own home and perhaps owning a small business -- a butcher's shop or barber's shop, for example -- or perhaps a small farm.  It is in these two facts that the whole appeal lies, and it is my intention neither to deny nor to denounce that appeal.

However, as mentioned just above, genuine Capitalism has only existed for a few hundred years, whereas private property has existed for thousands of years.  In fact, it is even doubtful there has ever been a time when humans existed and private property did not.  American Indians, for example, may not have believed in private ownership of the land in the same way Europeans did, but they did at least believe that a man might own his shoes.  There have always been some who had more and some who had less, undoubtedly going back to our chimpanzee-like ancestors, and there have been trade networks going back long before written history.  I don't think it makes any sense to call Feudalism and other pre-modern economic systems "Capitalism" just because they were not Communism.

What is more, very few aspects of this Norman-Rockwell picture are actually goals of Capitalism.  Most of us like the idea of families owning their own homes and businesses, and that is possible within a Capitalist context, but Capitalism is not geared to encourage this outcome; at best it is a happy accident, like the spin-offs attributed to the Space Race.

If we really want materials for better consumer products, the best way to go about it is to develop materials with consumer products in mind, rather than to design materials for space exploration and hope that they will serendipitously have household uses as well; in the same way, if we want an economic system that will promote a Norman-Rockwell society, the biases and protections that will promote the desired end should be built into the system.  This, in essence, is what Distributism is:  an economic system based on private ownership that is designed to fit within Catholic social doctrine and promote the good of each member of society, as well as the common good.

Let us be completely honest:  no economic system exists in a vacuum.  The state determines taxes, tariffs, contract laws, and certification requirements; the state also builds roads and harbors and digs canals.  The state buys ships for its navy and food and weapons for its army.  All these things were as true of the Roman and Persian Empires as of the USA today or the USA of the nineteenth century; these are things a state simply must do, and of course these decisions create winners and losers in the market.  In addition, there are regulations that prohibit dumping and price gouging, that limit pollution, protect workers, restrict what drugs can be sold, set safety standards for food, regulate the training and equipment for commercial aviation, etc.; these regulations tend to be condemned by the most extreme ideologues of Capitalism (in sense #1), but the truth is that this sort of mixed economy helped prevent the USA from reacting against "pure Capitalism" into Communism.  So given the fact that we will have these kinds of regulations, it should not really be scandalous that Distributism asks that they be made to fit into a coherent ethical system that is ultimately about people, not about abstract wealth.

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Civil War Ancestors: Summary

There is something we all know which can only be rendered, in an appropriate language, as realpolitik. As a matter of fact, it is an almost insanely unreal politik. It is always stubbornly and stupidly repeating that men fight for material ends, without reflecting for a moment that the material ends are hardly ever material to the men who fight. In any case no man will die for practical politics, just as no man will die for pay. Nero could not hire a hundred Christians to be eaten by lions at a shilling an hour, for men will not be martyred for money. But the vision called up by real politik, or realistic politics, is beyond example crazy and incredible. Does anybody in the world believe that a soldier says, 'My leg is nearly dropping off, but I shall go on till it drops; for after all I shall enjoy all the advantages of my government obtaining a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland! Can anybody suppose that a clerk turned conscript says, 'If I am gassed I shall probably die in torments; but it is a comfort to reflect that should I ever decide to become a pearl-diver in the South Seas, that career is now open to me and my countrymen! Materialist history is the most madly incredible of all histories, or even of all romances. Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is something in the soul; that is something akin to religion.
-- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
As he does so often, Chesterton puts his finger right on the essence of the matter.

Relationship Name Rank Unit Outcome
great2 uncle Alford, Jasper Private 6th Florida Infantry, Company E (H?) Died in GA, 26 Sep 1862 (no details).
great3 grandfather Bradshaw, Samuel J. Private 8th Florida Infantry, Company B Died (of disease?) in VA, 19 Feb 1863.
great2 grandfather Conoley, James Wallace Corporal 2nd North Carolina Cavalry, Company D Wounded Sep 1863 in White Oak Swamp, VA. Survived War. Died 3 Jul 1922.
great3 grandfather Edmondson, David Private 7th Georgia Militia, District 660 Company Died May 1864 (no details).
great2 grandfather Edmondson, David Private 26th Georgia Infantry, Company I Wounded and disabled at Spotsylvania, VA 12 May 1864. Survived War; Died 1895.
great3 grandfather Hines, Charles Wesley Sergeant 29th Georgia Infantry, Company H Wounded 19 Sep 1863 at Chickamauga. Died of wounds 25 Sep 1863.
great3 grandfather Jenks, Wiley Sergeant 10th Confederate Cavalry, Company C Survived War; Died 1885.
great2 grandfather McDaniel, Benjamin Franklin Private 11th Florida Infantry, Company L On leave sick since 17 Sep 1864; Survived War; Died 3 Mar 1926.
great3 grandfather Miller, Mason Covington Private 10th Georgia Infantry, Company E Lost his right foot on 23 June 1864 near Petersburg, VA. Survived the War; Died 12 April 1903.
great2 uncle Pelt, Obadiah Private? 6th Florida Infantry, Company F Killed at Missionary Ridge 25 Nov 1863.
great2 uncle Pelt, Peter Private 2nd Florida US Cavalry, Company E Executed as deserter from 2nd Florida CSA Cavalry, Company G, and turncoat, March 7, 1865
great2 uncle Pelt, Robert Corporal 6th Florida Infantry, Company F Killed at Missionary Ridge 25 Nov 1863.
great3 grandfather Prevatt, Furney A. Private 18th North Carolina Infantry, Company D Wounded at Hanover Courthouse, VA. Captured and imprisoned in Elmra, NY. Survived War; Died 18 Mar 1921.
great3 grandfather Richards, Daniel Thomas Private 6th Florida Infantry, Company G Wounded at Chickamauga. Survived War; Died 1879
great4 grandfather Richards, John George Private 2nd Florida Cavalry, Company A Survived War; Died 1876.
great2 uncle Thomas, Edward Private 5th Florida Infantry, Company H Left sick at private house 20 Sep 1862. Died 8 Dec 1862.

No one in his right mind expects a soldier to go on until his leg drops off for a warm water port in the Gulf of Finland, but many people unthinkingly hold that Mason Covington Miller went on until his leg did fall off, just so that his wealthier neighbors could own slaves.  In fact, I have found no record of any of the men above owning slaves with the exception of David Edmondson, Sr.  Perhaps slavery was a sufficient motivation for him and for his son, but it fails to explain the others. [Update May 29, 2017:  Samuel Hines, the father of Charles Wesley Hines, had 8 slaves in 1840, as shown in the 1840 census.  Whether or not he had any at the time of the War is not clear.]

No, what divided the Union was not in its essence the issue of slavery, though perhaps that was the final straw.  What destroyed the Union was what has destroyed countless marriages:  a breakdown in mutual trust.

So let us imagine a married couple, whom we shall call Sam and Bonnie.  Sam and Bonnie both used to smoke, but a few years ago Sam switched from smoking to dipping snuff.  Many of the arguments between Sam and Bonnie have been about Bonnie's continued smoking and whether or not dipping snuff is more like or more unlike smoking.  Eventually Sam says he will cure her of her nasty habit, and Bonnie says if he tries she will leave him.  Sam responds that if she tries, he will chain her in the basement and beat her until she gives up her cigarettes.

Neither one is a paragon of virtue.  Both smoking and dipping are offensive and unhealthy, though smoking is somewhat more thoughtless than dipping regarding the harm it does to others.  Certainly it would be wrong to suggest that Bonnie leave Sam just so that she can continue an offensive habit!

Correct:  that is not the reason Bonnie should leave Sam.  However, she should leave him, and immediately, while she still has a chance!  She should leave him because he has made it clear that theirs has become an abusive relationship, and whatever sentimental feelings may linger, she can no longer trust him.

The point of my story is not to change your mind about who was right and who was wrong, but rather to make it clear that the Confederate viewpoint is morally comprehensible and does not deserve to be demonized -- a fact that even many, perhaps most, Union veterans acknowledged.

So why is the Confederate viewpoint consistently demonized today, and does it do any real harm to vilify that perspective?  After all, everyone who lived through the Civil War is now dead, and whether such a person is now in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, surely his happiness is unlikely to be much affected by whether statues of him are being erected or torn down or whether parks are being named for him or having his name removed, right?

Let me briefly dispense with that last question.  For a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, burying the dead is a corporal act of mercy, and it is considered appropriate to venerate the Saints, along with their images and relics.   To that can be added the Biblical importance of names (e.g. the Name of God, which was not to be spoken lightly, and changes of name, as with Abraham and Peter), the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers, and many other passages, perhaps most notably Romans 13:7, which says, "Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due: custom, to whom custom: fear, to whom fear: honour, to whom honour."  To a Christian people (which we were once, even though we may not be now) it is therefore fitting to honor deceased forebears and countrymen who have suffered for what they thought was right, particularly when their beliefs were morally defensible, and it is infuriating to have these forebears and countrymen casually dishonored.

Now back to the other questions.  My answer is that 
  • in general, Americans are very susceptible to two errors:  the idea that "might makes right" and the deification of the US government;
  • there are powerful forces which wish to expand their exploitation of these errors; and
  • anyone who considers the Confederate cause at least morally plausible is partially resistant to these errors, which is inconvenient to the powers that be.
"Might makes right" has been an appealing error in most times and places, particularly when some form of success was being experienced.  In more pious times, it might be expressed the way it was in the song "Just Before the Battle, Mother":
Now, may God protect us, mother,
As He ever does the right.
If God "ever does [protect] the right", whoever has won must have had God's protection and therefore must have been in "the right", so there is still an identity between winning and being in the right.  People back then were not quite so stupid, though, so the possibility that the man "in the right" might still "nobly perish" is explicitly acknowledged.  

Today's version of the error is phrased in terms of being "on the right side of history", forgetting what everyone once new:  that Fortune is a strumpet. What it boils down to, of course, is, "We're going to do such-and-such regardless of your objections, and there's nothing you can do to stop us.  Our triumph is inevitable!"  This is exactly what "might makes right" means, perhaps combined with the cliché about the winners writing history.  It actually goes beyond the already bad idea (found in the Medieval practice of trial by combat) that might reveals right; it is the ancient idea that might creates right.

In fact, the essential conflict of the current "culture war" is over whether human nature really exists at all and whether right and wrong have any stable meaning.  It is hard to overstate how important it is to find the correct answer these two related questions.  As with all the really important ideas, these questions must be confronted by each generation, regardless of which side "wins" in our generation.

The same applies for literal wars.  Just because previous generations have fought successfully to provide us with national independence, national unity, and personal liberties does not prevent us from losing these blessings now or in the future.  In that sense, the most important thing a man's military service can give his descendants (aside from survival itself, of course) is not wealth or power or prestige or liberty, but rather a good example.  That is quite a lot, though, and it is something for which we owe them gratitude.

To sum up a long and rambling post and, very likely, my series of posts about Confederate ancestors:
  • these men probably constituted a reasonably accurate cross-section of the Southern middle class;
  • at least for the most part, they had morally comprehensible reasons for fighting;
  • their defeat provides a counter-narrative to the widespread misconception that might makes right;
  • their willingness to fight and suffer for what they believed set an example for which we should be grateful.


Notes on the table:
  • A great-great uncle is the brother of either a great-great grandfather or great-great grandmother.
  • I have not made any serious attempt to find all the greatn uncles involved in the war.  Those listed here had sisters who were my ancestors, and their fathers did not fight in the Civil War.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bigfoot and Lice

This will be a quick post.  It occurred to me last night that since lice are very host-specific, so much so that they can be used to tell when humans started to wear clothes, if Bigfoot is a flesh-and-blood animal, it should have lice that belong only to it.  However the beast may avoid cameras, its lice would not have the same magical powers, and they should be found in "Bigfoot nests" -- if these are indeed Bigfoot nests.  If cryptozoologists cannot find a new species of ape, they should at least be able to find a new species of louse -- if there is anything to find.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Mysterious Teat Lineage

The confidence I have in the genealogical information I present varies widely, but there is an unusually large amount of doubt concerning the identity of my great-great-great grandfather Teat.

According to, the father of Robert V. Teat and the husband of Elizabeth "Betty" Scott Teat was an Alfred Robert Teat, who was born in Alabama around 1835.  This must come from an undocumented family tradition, because I have not found any evidence of a person by that name. 

The 1860 census refers to a single man named A. F. Teat born around 1835 in Alabama living in Jackson County, FL.  Likewise, there is record of A. F. Teat enlisting in Company H of the 5th Florida Infantry.  In fact, this is the only man named "Teat" of the right age recorded as living in Florida at the time.  Presumably Alfred Teat and A. F. Teat are the same person?

At first I thought so.  I noticed that the 5th Florida Infantry fought mostly in Virginia, and Elizabeth Scott was born in Virginia.  Maybe A. F. Teat met Betty while he was deployed to Virginia and married her after a whirlwind romance, resulting in the birth of Robert V. Teat in October 1862 just before the death of A. F. Teat on 3 July 1863 at Gettysburg.  As touching as that story might be, it is impossible for several reasons.  For one, Robert V. Teat was born in Florida, not Virginia, and the resource demands of the war would have severely limited civilian travel.  For another, the 5th Florida Infantry was not even organized until April 1862, which is only six months before the birth of Robert V. Teat.  Furthermore, the 1900 census shows Elizabeth Teat living with her daughter Ida and her son-in-law Charles Burke, and Ida was 28 at the time, meaning she had been born in 1872.  Finally, the 1910 census reports that Elizabeth Teat had been married 15 years before being widowed.  "A. F. Teat" could not have been the same person as "Alfred Robert Teat", and I have no information about the latter.

This is not the first time I have had trouble along this line.  For example, there seemed to be a contradiction between the records of the Alford Family Association, which shows Frances Elizabeth Alford marrying Tyne Teat and having Henry Vastine Teat as one of their sons, and all the other records, which show her marrying Robert V. Teat instead.  Eventually the obvious solution dawned on me:  Robert V. Teat's middle name was "Vastine" or "Vastyne", and "Tyne" was just a nickname.  As for the name "Vastine" itself, reports it to be a French version of the German name "Wetzstein", so it was probably a family name -- quite possibly the maiden name of Alfred Robert Teat's mother, though I have no way of being sure.