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  • Design exercize: Peaches, an 11 foot catboat

    by John MacBeath Watkins


    The boat is stitch and glue, with two panels a side, and I've managed to get the panels to develop with fairly low stress. In fact, there's less stress in the panel that forms the bottom and the catboat bow than there is in the side panels. Still, you'd best build with 4 mm okume plywood, which is light, fairly flexible, and comes from sustainable plantations. One problem is that the boat is too wide to fit into my 1997 Nissan's bed, so I'd have to cartop it. All-up weight is going to be around 100 lb., and you only have to lift one end at a time, so that shouldn't be too bad. Cost of construction with the sail should be less than $1,000.

    Now, I just need free time (I work six days a week), a space to build it, and a bit of cash to make the thing...well, they say man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a metaphor?

    Update: On the advice of Tom Price, I've raised the freeboard, and I think that makes the boat better:

  • The charity of crows

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    My good friend John McCartney had an elderly cat who could eat only the softest of soft cat food, and didn't finish what he was served, so John would put the rest outside to be eaten by crows.

    The crows were appreciative. John would put the bowl out, light a cigarette, and contemplate the crows at their dinner, a very soothing activity.

    Then, the cat died. He achieved great age for a cat, and had a good life, so it was a fond farewell. It was the crows who really suffered, because there were no longer cat food leftovers to feed them. But crows adapt and survive, and they found food.

    But they never forgot John's kindness to them, and still tended to hang around when he went out for a smoke.

    One day, a crow walked up to him holding a worm in its mouth, and dropped it at his feet.

    Now, there are different ways to interpret this. Perhaps the crow meant, "See? Food. Remember food? Why are't you feeding us?"

    But I prefer a more anthropomorphic explanation. I prefer to think the crow was, in effect, saying:

    "You know, we remember how generous you were to us when you had lots of food. We realize that you've fallen on hard times and no longer have dishes of extra meat to share, and well, me and the flock, we had a bit of a whip-'round, and, well, long story short -- here's a worm."

    It's a bit like the story of the ravens feeding the prophet Elijah.
    1 Kings, 17:6
    And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.But was it the flesh of worms?



  • A design to make sailing more popular

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I've been thinking about what would be needed to make sailing more popular, and I think one problem is the perception of it being expensive. What we need is a design that can be built for less than $1,500 including the rig with a professionally made sail.

    It should have good performance, or at least the feel of good performance. It should be self-draining in case of a capsize. And it should have a big, friendly cockpit for when people want to sail with friends.

    My approach would be to design it around the Laser practice sail, which costs around $150, about a third of what a sail this size normally costs. The boat would be stitch and glue, so it could be built quickly with a minimum of tools and skill. The panels should require no more than one scarf, which means the boat will be around 15 ft. I'd give it a full-length cockpit with a deck sloped to encourage water to leave through the stern.

    Here's what I'm got so far:


    With semi-skilled volunteer labor and somebody's garage, it should be possible to build four or five of these for the price of a new Laser. They wouldn't be quite as fast as a Laser, but they'd be as fast as each other.

    Dimensions:

    LOA  15'
    Beam  4'9"
    waterline beam at max load 3'3"
    Displacement at which stem and transom touch the waterline: 490

    I've rethought the rudder since I made the first illustration, substituting a lower-aspect version with more area, so that it will really crank the stern around when put over with authority. Built in 1/4 inch plywood, the boat should be able to carry four pre-teens, three slender teens, a trim couple, or one big galoot. The idea is a boat that could be built for about 1,200 in materials, including a professionally made sail, so that a yacht club, scout troop, or non-profit, could build about four boats for the cost of one new Laser. It won't be quite as fact as the Laser, but should keep the crew drier and allow for a more social sailing experience.


  • Ending the culture of police impunity: A modest proposal

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Police have got to lose their feeling that they can hurt people with impunity, and the way to do that is to change how they are paid.

    Any time armed men think they can break the law with impunity, they are a threat to civilization. It's my belief that a small number of police are resulting in huge settlements for their employers, and police departments are remarkably inept at rooting them out.

    The city of Chicago has agreed to pay out $5.5 million because a group of police allegedly routinely tortured prisoners -- mainly poor black ones -- in the 1970s and '80s. The city of Baltimore has paid out even more over the last few years for police brutality settlements. We need to give police incentives that will change their behavior.

    The police unions do their best to make sure the officers involved in most cases of police brutality, even those that prove expensive for the cities that employ them, are not fired. Police officers often try to cover up the behavior of their fellow cops.

    We need to change the incentives. The Chicago police department's alleged torture happened between 1972 and 1991. It could not happen for nearly two decades without the knowledge police outside of the "midnight crew" said to have done this.

    Cops cover for each other. We know this. In the Tamir Rice case, two cops were in the car that responded to the call, one of them shot almost immediately, and before they found out there was video of the incident, they told a story about the incident that did not match the vid that finally surfaced.

    Now a prosecutor who works closely with the police must decide whether one of the cops committed a crime in shooting Rice, and whether the other committed a crime covering for him. The prosecutor has got to feel conflicted.

    On the whole, things are stacked in favor of the cops in these events, which is why the midnight crew got away with torture for nearly two decades. The ubiquity of cell phone videos has revealed much about how police behave that we would not have known in the past. What should we do about it?

    Punishment is one option, and when police commit crimes, they should be subject to the law like anyone else. But until we can make real changes in police culture, we're not going to fix the problem.

    I suggest an incentive system that would change the way police behave. Establish a compensation fund, and what doesn't get paid out in settlements for police brutality can be released as a stipend to police. Anyone whose behavior causes a settlement or who covers up behavior that causes a settlement loses the stipend. The amount of everyone's stipend is reduced when the fund is run down by a settlement.

    I think cops know who the bad apples are. There are social pressures to cover for them, an us-against-them attitude to all non-police, in most departments. Police unions have no incentive to try to weed them out, because they have no skin in the game when it comes to settlements. Their members misbehave, someone else pays. In the future, police contracts need to give the cops and their union some skin in the game.

    Once, I interviewed a Native man who had been a bonded deputy of Island County. He put up a bond, I don't recall how large, and he'd lose it if he did something that resulted in the county having to pay out because of his behavior. I don't know what happened to this custom, but it seems to me that it was a good one.

    One consequence of the ubiquity of video is that more cases are going to go against the police, and cities are going to have to pay out more money. It is quite reasonable to make police pay depend, in part, on whether they break the law and on whether they behave in ways that are expensive for their employers.


  • On the political movement to create inequality: How an alliance based on money, race, and religion wrecked the middle class

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    By now, I suppose we've all seen the graph that demonstrates the decoupling of productivity and median income growth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-class_squeeze

    It looks even worse expressed as hourly wage growth:

  • Bullshit as myth

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Why do people believe things that are demonstrably untrue?

    President Obama being sworn in using Lincoln's Bible.I was thinking about that in terms of some apparently intelligent people I've run into who insist that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. What purpose does it serve to advertise such an absurd notion?

    The answer is that like many myths, it serves to define the person who holds the belief as part of a group, and defines people who don't hold it as not part of the group. In addition, it defines President Obama as the Other, one who can never be part of the group.

    An interesting aspect of myths is that they do not need to be objectively true. The information they carry is not about objective truth. It is more likely to be about values, identity, belonging, and desires.

    Racism is no longer socially acceptable through most of our society, so saying you object to President Obama because he is black is not acceptable speech. Calling him a Muslim defines him as the Other without using racial rhetoric. In politics, this is known as a 'dog whistle,' a mode of speech that will be understood by its intended audience to say something the rest of society condemns, and not be understood in the same way by society at large.

    But I don't think the people who profess this belief are necessarily insincere, though surely some are. Perhaps it is better to understand this in terms of what Harry G. Frankfurt was talking about in his brief book, On Bullshit. The problem he addresses is that of the person who  "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

    But in a sense, this is what myth has always done. In terms of maintaining a distinct society, the question is not whether the dietary rules in Leviticus or the Ten Commandments came from God, what matters is that you get people to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that define the group. Like bullshit, the question of truth does not arise with myth.

    J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that there are things only myths can teach us, things reason cannot convey. But while reason may not be able to convey a sense of belonging to the group and excluding others from it, reason can at least understand what myth is conveying.

    One interesting aspect of this is that we sometimes don't recognize a myth as such. For example, those both inside the group and outside the group that claim President Obama is a Muslim claim the 'debate' is about truth, when in fact those within the group claiming he is a Muslim are not persuadable by any proof.

    This leads to a discussion that is not about the real meaning of the myth. Treating a myth as if it were part of a rational debate is a bit like treating a dog whistle as music. The point is not how it sounds, the point is who can hear it.

    In some ways, the truth we know alone is less powerful than the lies we believe together. Shared beliefs are a form of identity, and can motivate the desired social action without being true. Consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to describe a Jewish plan to take over the world by subverting the morals of gentiles, taking over the banking system in order to control the world economy, taking over the press, and bringing down civilization. You can still hear the echos of this in the paranoid rantings of the extreme right.

    No matter that it had nothing to do with actual Jewish activities, it motivated people to act toward 'those people' as the authors intended. It appears to have first been published in Russia in 1902, and by 1905 it had been proved to be a hoax.

    But it served its purpose. Those who appear to have manufactured the hoax were also involved in inciting the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906, which cost thousands of Jews their lives and caused many more to flee Russia.

    The exposure of the hoax did not prevent it from spreading. Henry Ford paid for the publication of 500,000 copies in English in 1920. By 1921, The Times of London had exposed the hoax for readers of the English edition, but it was not until 1927 that Ford apologized for this and other anti-Semitic publications. The first translation by a Muslim Arab came in 1951, three years after the foundation of Israel.

    The anti-Semitic agenda was about tribalism expressed as religion, about controlling "those people," anyone who did not belong to the dominant group. There was no rational basis for pogroms or for antisemitism at all. This was not an issue of reason, it was an issue of emotion, of paranoia about those who are not part of the ruling group.

    One way to become a leader is to organize the march, then position yourself at the front of it. Those who manufactured The Protocols were not just expressing their hatred, they were also using that hatred to achieve prominence.

    And the themes of The Protocols are still in use. A quick online search reveals that a wide variety of conservative yakkers are pushing the idea that President Obama is trying to destroy America, or capitalism, or Israel. If they can make people afraid, they can motivate action, and be seen as leaders.

    Fear is a great emotion for overcoming the restraints of reason. One reason it has not worked terribly well against our rather quiet, cerebral president is that nothing about him seems ominous, and he's good at getting people to stop and think.

    Thinking is the enemy of both myth and bullshit. So, think about it.


  • An Improved Meerkat!

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The mast has to be farther forward to make the rig balance with the short hull, so if the boat has a foredeck the mast will step through it. I'm thinking the boat can be built lighter by omitting the air tanks and relying on flotation bags.

    Although the new Meerkat is a foot longer, it's still designed to fit in the back of my little Nissan pickup truck, so it's only 4 feet wide.

    I might also switch to a daggerboard to save weight, although I must say, the combination of a barn-door rudder on a skeg and a centerboard is quite nice for working off a beach.

    The boat still has a flat bottom and slack bilges, based on the same faceted midsection I used on the original, but the run is straighter and the deflection angle of the bilge panels is less, so this one could be prompted to plane with a light crew and a good wind.

    I think this design would be better for the novice sailor, relying more on initial stability than on crew reactions as in the original.

  • Empathy vs. Identity: The clash within civilizations

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Why do some people kill in the name of religion?

    I believe that the answer to this question is bound up in what makes us human, the empathy that gives us our moral sense and the culture that gives us our identity.

    Religion gives us a sense of how the world works and of who we are. We define our identity in part by what is included and what is excluded. And while we have an identity as individuals, we are most importantly social creatures. Our identity is bound up in the group we belong to, and is defined, in part, on the groups we exclude.

    A psychologist once told me that people need three things to be happy: Someone or something to love, someone or something to hate, and something to belong to. Sometimes this manifests itself in being a fan of a football team and beating up people who are fans of the other team. And perhaps we should feel grateful for such petty concerns, because when the thing you belong to is a religion, the battles can get larger.

    Religion, for most of the Evangelical Christians I know, is about their relationship with God. But consider the weird world of white supremacists, in which the Christian Identity movement added a whole mythology about race that does not exist in the Bible. They teach that whites are descended from Adam, and that Eve had sex with Satan and conceived Cain. The Bible says nothing about the race of the brothers, and it gives no indication that Eve ever had sex with Satan or conceived a child by him. All the Christians I've known have assumed that they were both fathered by Adam and were obviously of the same race.

    Yet the mythology of the Christian Identity Church asserts many things that are not in the Bible, but reinforce their belief in themselves as a tribe of the pure, as being better because they are white, even if they are failures as people. Timothy McVeigh, who killed a lot of people when he bombed the Oklahoma City Federal building, was heavily influenced by the Christian Identity movement. It allowed him to think of his victims as somehow less than human, not worthy of his empathy. Their pain and their deaths meant nothing to him.

    But we could not be social creatures if we did not have a strong instinctive aversion to killing each other.
    Human beings have certain safeguards built into them. It's really rather difficult for most people to kill someone, for example. People drive around in powerful wheeled missiles every day, yet most of them manage to get through their day without killing anyone, despite how easy it would be, showing just how kind, considerate and careful people really are.

    Our moral sense is based on empathy, our ability to know how others are feeling. We can understand the importance of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated, because we have the ability to feel the pain we ourselves inflict. This is why psychopaths are so disturbing -- they don't feel the pain they inflict. For most of us, conditioning a person to kill involves a major psychological shift. We have to stop thinking of the person we are killing as human. The means to do this are well established in many cultures. You give the enemy a name -- the Hun, the Commie, the Fuzzy-Wuzzy -- that defines them as different from your group, not quite human. You portray your own side as being on the side of the angels, and pray to God for victory.

    Because this is about tribalism, it need not include religion. Portrayals of Germans as "the Hun" in Great War propaganda are as relevant to tribalism as are the Islamic State and Al Qaeda calling American troops "crusaders."

    Islamic State's propaganda magazine, Dabiq, put it this way: There is "no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahideen everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia."

    I suppose some in the Arab world are still fighting the Crusades just as some in the American South are still fighting the Civil War. For them, it didn't end with the defeat of the crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, there was pretty much continuous warfare between Arab and Christian empires for hundreds more years. When the Turks lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, their opponents didn't call themselves crusaders, but they did call themselves the Holy League. When the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at the Battle of Vienna, it was the culmination of a 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks. While the Reformation resulted in the rise of secular states in the West, the Ottoman Empire continued to dominate the Arab world until it was dissolved in 1922, and the impetus for its dissolution came from the West.

    This makes it easier to understand why George Washington's administration negotiated a treaty with the Bey of Algiers that stated that America is not a Christian nation and has no argument with Muslims. (The language, found in Article 11 of the treaty negotiated under Washington and approved unanimously by the senate and signed by President John Adams was as follows: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.")

    It may have seemed quaint at the time that the Bey was still worried about whether America was a Christian nation, and a potential source of crusaders, but we now have people both in Muslim countries and in America making exactly the claim that George Washington, John Adams, and the entire U.S. Senate near the founding of our country rejected -- that America is a Christian nation.

    Osama bin Laden's second fatwa, in 1998, referred to its four signors as the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," and concerned itself mainly with American activities in the Middle East, including its support for Israel. Osama bin Laden clearly thought America was a Christian nation, and opposed its presence in Saudi Arabia for that reason.

    For bin Laden, all Christians were Crusaders, and although secular states allow people to follow their own religious conscience, only states that do not do this -- states that dictate only Islam is the true religion -- are legitimate. He was worried about the Muslim world being seduced by Western ways. For him, religion was not just a personal relationship with God, it defined who were true people, and who were false people. Religion for him was a tribal marker, not personal salvation.

    The problem was how to convince people in his own world of this. He hoped to accomplish this by coordinating a horrendous act -- attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the (failed) attack on the nation's capital -- in hopes of provoking a response that would put American troops in Arab nations, and start a war between those nations and America.

    This is not too different from Timothy McVeigh's notion that blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring another 880, he could start the sort of race war depicted in The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of the National Alliance, a white nationalist organization. The book, which McVeigh sold at gun shows and sometimes gave away, depicted the overthrow of the U.S. government and ultimately the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, non-whites, and others the author deemed impure.

    The objectification of government workers as the enemy enabled McVeigh to suspend any empathy he may have possessed and kill them in large numbers. For bin Laden, the issue was not even that some of the people working in the World Trade Center were Muslim, their association with a global system of commerce dominated by the "crusaders" of the western nations made them less then human, things that could be sacrificed to the goal of a conflict between the groups as he defined them.

    The lesson I take from this is to make sure we do not suspend our empathy, or make objects of those we must deal with. In World War II, military planners were distressed to find that only about 20% of our troops were actually engaged in shooting at the enemy during battles. By Viet Nam, pretty much all the troops involved were shooting at the enemy, in part because of changes we made in training.

    But consider this. After the battle of Gettysburg, 85% if the rifles found were loaded, and 30,000 muskets -- that's 40% -- contained multiple loads. Given the usual cycle of firing a musket, very little of the time would one be loaded, and very seldom would someone put more than one load in by mistake. But if you were in a line of infantry with muzzle loaders, everyone could tell if you were loading, but when the guns went off, who could tell if you were firing? Furthermore, who could tell if you were firing high? And when you compare the number of people killed in battles between lines of infantry to the results of lines of infantry firing against non-human targets, it becomes evident that many must have deliberately aimed not to hit their targets.

    One would think that such desertions in place would make an army ineffective. But German WW I veterans advised the next generation fighting in WW II to "do your duty and surrender to the first American you see," as Kevin Grossman noted in his fine book, On Killing. And U.S. Grant's troops may have hesitated to kill their opponents, but he took more prisoners than any other general in the war. Part of this is because he preferred to cut off the enemy rather than annihilate them, but part of this is because the prospective prisoners were more likely to surrender to an army that thought of them as human.

    We should also not allow ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Those in my country who wish to define us as a "Christian nation" may not realize it, but they are dupes acting just as the radical Islamists want them to. We do not win by adopting this tribal view of religion as identity, because those are not the values on which this country was founded, and they are not the difference we have from past civilizations. The difference is that we allow freedom, so that people can worship as they wish without the law dictating their faith to them. We win when we recognize other human beings as human beings.

  • California to fill Death Valley with water


    by John MacBeath Watkins

    April 1, 2015, Sacramento, California -- Gov. Jerry Brown announced today that California will pipe water from the Pacific Ocean to fill Death Valley with water.

    "The snow pack we rely upon for our summer water is at 5%," the governor said, "we've got to get more water where it will evaporate and fall as rain."

    That, he explained, is why the state has been preparing an environmental statement in absolute secrecy to
    File picture of a desert somewhere.build a pipeline to move water to the  valley, which at its deepest point is 282 feet below sea level. The project has been so secret, pizza delivery drivers who arrive expecting to get a tip and leave have been forced to remain and become technical writers on the EIS, for fear they might reveal something about the project if they are allowed to leave. Gov. Brown was forced to reveal the project after a pizza delivery driver escaped.

    Scientists estimate that the phase change of evaporating water will lower temperatures in the vicinity of Death Valley, and evaporating water will provide rain that might supplant as much as 2% of the water lost to the current drought.

    Brown said the resulting man-made lake will kick start a new real estate boom in waterfront property, provide recreational opportunities to Californians, and rid the state of its greatest pest, the desert pupfish.

    The pupfish, which can shut down its mitochondria and survive by metabolizing without oxygen, generates alcohol when it does this. The resulting cocktail found in desert waters is costing the state and estimated $87 billion in lost liquor taxes.

    State Fish and Game officials believe these fish will be eaten by Tuna who will be pumped in with the water, creating a new inland fishery for drunk tuna.

    Conservationist Willard Trembler said he would fight the pipeline.

    "The pupfish will not be crucified on a cross of gold while I can draw a breath," the hirsute, sandal wearing Trembler proclaimed. He then hiccuped and sipped carefully from a cocktail glass with a small fish swimming in it.

  • Puny Earthlings, your planet is not worth invading

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    It seems Earth is a much less common sort of planet than we have supposed in the recent past. This means that any aliens who evolved in a more common sort of solar system would find our planet too cold and our atmosphere too thin to sustain life.

    You can blame Jupiter, which seems to have wiped out the early inner planetary system before retreating to
    The alien warlord is ready for his closeup (okay, it's a water bear.).the sidelines.

    We've discovered about 500 other solar systems with planets, and most solar systems don't resemble ours at all. They tend to have giant inner planets with atmospheres hundreds or thousands the pressure of earth's, closer to their suns than Mercury.

    They would probably be hot enough on the surface to melt lead.

    Our solar system was likely similar to this before Jupiter came into low orbit around the sun and destroyed such inner planets as had formed, until Saturn formed, and drew Jupiter out to a wider orbit.

    This would explain why the three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Earth, are younger than the outer planets. They would have formed from the debris left over from Jupiter's destructive juvenile period of acting like a wrecking ball in the inner solar system.

    Imagine an alien warlord from a more normal system, looking for new worlds to conquer.

    "Any habitable planets in this system, Lackey?" he would ask the science minion.

    "None of these planets could support life as we know it, sire," Lackey replies, "but there is something funny..."

    "Funny peculiar, or funny 'ha-ha?'" the warlord demands to know. Warlords like a laugh as much as anyone.

    "Well, sire, the third planet out is so cold that it has dihydrogen monoxide oceans covering most of the planet, and if you dropped lead into them it would become solid. The gravity is very low, and it retains only a wisp of an atmosphere, and the pH level is so alkaline that there is hardly any sulfuric acid in the rain. Yet there is a thin layer of life on it."

    "But not, of course, intelligent life?" the warlord inquires imperiously.

    "Well, there seem to be some large hives, and they are generating chemicals intended to make the planet hotter and put more acid in the rain, so it's possible they are trying to make their planet more habitable for life adapted to a normal atmosphere. However, they are so far from the sun and the gravity is so low, I doubt they will succeed."

    "Amazing! The poor, doomed creatures are trying to evolve into a decent life form, but there's no way their planet can be properly turned habitable by higher life forms," the warlord observed. "Put it down for further study, low priority. I've little use for pure science, but it might amuse my nerdy youngest son."

    And so, the alien warlord passes on, looking for decent planets to conquer.





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