Burn, burn

Disclaimer. Contains a picture that some people might find disturbing. Forewarned is forearmed!

One of my workers comes into the sales office this morning. I’m sitting with my feet up staring into space waiting for the caffeine to start infusing itself into my system and halfheartedly stuffing a second ‘Vetkoek*’ into my mouth. He has this dirty bandage on his wrist. It briefly reminds me of a dressing one might find in a zombie apocalypse movie. I give him an arched eyebrow. ‘Bra Jo’ he says in greeting. He seems quite cheerful. ‘I wanted to ask you, do you think I need to go to the hospital?’

*a Vetkoek… is a South Africa institution. Its… well… its basically a big lump of dough that has been fried in oil (of questionable hygienic quality with a carcinogenic factor of 10x) in our case bought from a vendor at the side of the road. These are probably twice the size of a krispy kreme doughnut…  and cost a whopping R2 each. Which at the current exchange rate is about $0.13 per serving of happiness. Friday is usually Vetkoek-friday and I sponsor breakfast for everyone…

I take another sip of coffee. ‘Why whats wrong with you I say?’ He unfurls the bandage and I suck air through clenched teeth. Ahhhh…

Continue reading “Burn, burn”

Blitz ethics

I love applied ethics and am (generally) less appreciative of the theoretical and ‘academic’ stuff. But I find practical real life examples of tough moral choices really interesting. Especially when they are made by people that I like…. enter stage right Winston Churchill…


On the 14 November 1940, 515 German bombers left mainland Europe on a bombing run. Their target was the West Midlands town of Coventry. The first wave of bombers targeted infrastructure, cratering roads and destroying the telephone lines as well as the gas and water mains. This would make it difficult for the fire department to reach affected areas and difficult to co-ordinate damage control, especially with no water. The bombers that followed dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs, as well as air mines which exploded overhead and damaged roofs which would allow the fire bombs easier access to the internal and presumably more flammable parts of the buildings.

Interestingly, in terms of defense, Coventry had 24, 3.7mm inch AA guns and twelve 40mm guns. Each guns could fire about 10 rounds a minute and the raid lasted 10hrs in which the Royal Artillery fire 6,700 rounds with only one out of  the 515 bombers (some of whom were flying multiple sorties) was shot down.

During the course of the night and early morning 4,300 homes were destroyed and about two thirds of the buildings in the city center were damaged. Casualties were estimated at 568 killed, with 863 badly injured and 393 sustaining lesser injuries. These causality rates are actually surprisingly low considering the ferocity of the bombing raid, likely attributable to the great air-raid shelters and that most of the townspeople actually evacuated the city at night and slept in the countryside.

In any event, in 1974 it was revealed, and confirmed by other sources within the intelligence community at the time, that Winston Churchill had advanced warning of the attack on Coventry. The mathematicians and cryptographers at Bletchley Park had already deciphered the Enigma code that was being used by the Germans (although a senior member at Bletchley park refutes the claim that Winston Churchill knew that Coventry was the intended target)

Winston Churchill apparently decided to let the Blitz on Coventry go a head, so as not to tip off the Germans that they had cracked the enigma code. If he reinforced the air defenses on the city, the Germans might have become suspicious. The death of hundreds of innocent civilians was weighed up against the massive strategic advantage of being able to read the ‘secure’ communications of the enemy.

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to Winston Churchill that the decision to let Coventry burn ‘took twenty years off my life’.

Dying for an idea

Tribe by Sebastian Junger is one of my favorite books. A couple of years ago Mr. Junger was on the podcast circuit as a guest, an interviewee I devoured. It was during one of these, I think they were discussing fatalism (its been a while and my memory these days is mostly shot) that Mr. Junger posits the following question, ‘What would you die for, what ideas would you die for?’

On the surface (I think) everyone can rattle off a couple of things they can imagine they could or would die for. Family, close friends, maybe. Whether this is true or not, it’s difficult to judge intent until faced with circumstances in which you are forced to act. Interestingly, I seem to remember the discussion… or maybe this is in the book (or maybe I’m completely misattributing this, I’m too lazy to go look it up right now) about a statistical happenstance that occurs when people fall (or get pushed) onto subway tracks and that people that jump onto the tracks to save them, in cases where they are saved, the rescuer is almost always a young male. (something crazy like 99%)Subway.jpgIn any event, I can think my way through saving actual, individual people with faces. That part of the question never really bothered me, since I could imagine myself dying to save my children for example. Thats an easy one because I feel some deep mammalian instinct there.

Where it becomes murkier, for me at least, is the ideas part. What idea would you be willing to give up your life for?

On the surface of it we are taught (or at least I was) that the American civil war was about the economics of slavery. I’m not going to go into the minutiae of it (and indeed the conspiracy theory aspect). For the sake of my post let us assume this to be true and the only concept. People on the North were against it and the south was for it. A war over an idea as it were.

Only it turned out, that northerners we less inclined to die for this idea (on some muddy field in Virginia) than originally anticipated. Sure some of them were, but the government for lack of enough volunteers to fight for their ideology had to implement a draft (and so forced people to die for this idea).

It’s generally at this point that my libertarian-ness gets all hot and bothered, ie that a government can implement a law that can force you to go off and fight and die for something. Otherwise people with guns will come and arrest you, deprive you of your liberty and if your actions are found treasonable enough, kill you. Just because you don’t want to do something.

Also, as an interesting aside, Theodore Roosevelts father, a wealthy New York businessman didn’t want go off and line up on a field to invite musket balls and grapeshot into his personage. His wife was also a hardcore southern belle whose family were wealthy slave owning Georgians. Theodore Senior hired a ‘body-double’ to fight on his behalf, something wealthy people could afford to do and wasn’t necessarily frowned upon by the upper class elites. Theodore Jr, the later president, took huge umbrage that his father had been (in his mind) so cowardly. It is theorised that this episode influenced Teddy to take on above average risk and adventurism with which to prove his personal honor and valor.

Would I die to oppose slavery somewhere far away? Or fascism? Lots of people fought, died or were injured for that relatively recently. Including my relatives who were on the wrong side of that particular conflict.

The truth is I don’t really know. And I’m finding myself leaning towards probably not. Dying for an idea I mean. Can’t we oppose things we find onerous with facebook activism and blogposts? Maybe product boycotts?

I mean suicide bombers die for ideas that they find troublesome after all… although maybe we need to consider intent there, people going off to fight a war might die, but I imagine that is not their intention, where as suicide bombers mean to die. And therein lies the rub I suppose. Might die in the process versus definitely dying.

For some reason this makes me think of Idmon, the seer that joined Jason and his Argonauts on the voyage for the golden fleece. Being a seer, he knew ‘stuff’ about the future and it was revealed to him that he would die relatively early on in the journey. (I think he was either the first or second casualty) Tough when your party loose their seer early on. I think he got gored to death by a boar… in any event, even armed with this knowledge he was still an eager participant and volunteer because it was revealed that his name would never be forgotten.

Maybe this is the sort of death I can get behind.

Honor bound

‘Dishonor is like a scar on a tree, which with time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge’ – Bushido maxim


Truth be told I am a fetishist when it comes to scar tissue. I’m inclined to believe that they are indicative of either a life well lived, or challenging circumstances that has been overcome (since you are still here). Both are worthy of respect and admiration and I’m drawn to damaged dermis and cracked people in a very profound and liminal way. The proverbial moth towards the flame. Although, now that I think about it, doesn’t the moth die in this analogy? (explains a lot of my relationships actually) In any event, I often find they are the best sort. Those with the rent skin I mean, not the Lepidoptera. And are (for the most part) pure, unadulterated sex appeal.

Although this particular maxim isn’t about physicality, it’s about the things we do alone (in the dark) when nobody is watching. Which is an entirely different kettle of fish.

I suppose I should say that I find most discussions about honor to be problematic. Isn’t honor one of those concepts that is supposed to be exhibited through action and deed, as opposed to discourse and confabulation? (Trying to remember the Paladin entry in my Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook) Any person claiming to be honorable, after all, is almost undoubtedly met with, at best skepticism, but more likely, derision. (Unless they’re super scary looking in which case you might be better off rolling your eyes in secret… and then only slandering them once you’ve put some measure of safe distance between you and your overly principled adversary)

If you do think you are the honorable sort, best to keep that sort of thing to yourself, lest you grind up against the benchmark of your fellows. They are unlikely to appreciate your keen sense of… eh… moral and ethical superiority. 

Sometimes, of course,  I like to pretend to be some sort of upright, deciduous broad-leaf… but I am likely one of the more knobbly, gnarled and crooked conifers in the forest.

I tend to think of myself as having lots of non-negotiable statues in my life… which I constantly seem to be breaking. Of course I keep these failings strictly to myself, but moralize and gossip over others failing my own rule set.

‘that mother fucker, driving like a maniac down my quiet suburban street’. Of course when I’m in a foul mood and do it, it’s totally fine. Justifiable even.

-Insert further examples of hypocrisy here-

Maybe honor is a percentile game? Given the choice between an ‘honorable’ and the ‘dishonorable’ action you take the achievement award if you choose correctly 51% of the time? (I basically passed my degree like this).

I feel the spirit of the game is more akin to a single instance of wavering on any of the non-negotiables equals immediate disqualification. No take backs, quick saves or starting over.

That is quite serious.

Fortunately the Japanese have another concept I find potentially more appealing than samurai aphorisms. That of Wabi-sabi.

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

I’m sure it probably only applies to physical objects… but I’m going to pretend that it doesn’t. This makes my barky exterior much more cheerful.


Burn it down…

A trolley problem is usually defined as a thought experiment in ethics. Although it doesn’t necessarily have to involve a runaway trolley car. There are no perfect outcomes, or indeed right or wrong answers and there are usually persuasive arguments that can be made for either hypothetical decision.


Scenario #1

A building is on fire, there is a child on the second floor. Without thinking you rush into the inferno firmly intent on rescuing the child. Half way up the stairs you notice a priceless Rembrandt hanging on the wall. Do you can carry on, rescue the child or… do you save the irreplaceable masterpiece?

Scenario #2

A building is on fire, there are two children in the building.Without thinking you rush into the inferno firmly intent on rescuing the children. Half way up the stairs you realise the fire is out of control and you will only be able to rescue one child… armed with perfect knowledge you know that one child has an IQ of 140. The other sub 80. Which child do you save?

Scenario #3

A building is on fire, there are two children in the building.Without thinking you rush into the inferno firmly intent on rescuing the children. Half way up the stairs you realise the fire is out of control and you will only be able to rescue one child… armed with perfect knowledge you know that one child will one day cure cancer. The other child is your best friends kid. Which child do you save?

It doesn’t really matter what you answer. Unless you’re a sociopath its likely you are likely to be bothered by whatever choice you make….

I can’t overstate how much I love trolley problems. I’m especially fascinated by programmers who are going to have to teach self-driving cars the algorithms required to make life or death decisions. Does your self-driving car sacrifice you by smashing itself into a brick wall… or does it mow down the child that broke free from its mothers grasp and ran into the road?

Decisions, decisions… decided in 0.05 seconds.

What a great time to be alive that we can mull over such things 🙂


I spend a lot (probably an inordinate amount) of time thinking about forgiveness. And by association restorative justice and how we as society mete out punishments for actions that are deemed ‘unacceptable’ behavior.

Enter stage right… Shamima Begum


‘I fucked up. And I want to come home’… is what she should have said.

And had she said that, I likely would have been more sympathetic towards her plight… instead she just came off as extremely unlikable and unrepentant.

But maybe we need to give her props for not lying about how she feels. *shrugs*

In the pros column

  1. Her parents are clearly fuckups eh… not moderates.
  2. Runs away from home at 16
  3. Three years of further indoctrination and brain washing in the balmy Syrian desert
  4. Plus two child deaths and the added PTSD of being bombed (probably fairly regularly) does not make for a great psychological stew.

In the cons…

  1. ISIS. Probably only one needed.

After all joining ISIS is not like saying something stupid on Twitter and then apologizing for it.

*makes a gurgling noise*

But… she has a new born… that… (through the fates) got saddled with that as a mother.

Also a non-combatant (as far as I can tell). I would however be reticent to have her as my neighbor. And if I don’t want her… why should anyone else have to? What are the realistic chances of rehabilitation and societal integration? (probably not high… but probably not 0% either)

But… there are people more compassionate than me. That likely would demonstrate some sort of humanism towards her and demonstrate that Western society(tm) can be merciful and benevolent. You know… all that righteous stuff we claim to stand for.

But on a cost to the taxpayer versus some perceived benefit that demonstrates benevolence and… cultural superiority (when measured against the culture of ISIS)…  actually have no idea what I would do.

Saint Helena has an airport now. Maybe Britain could just exile her there. That particular rock in the Atlantic has after all worked out in the past for troublesome guests likely to cause a hullabaloo in the future. And if that doesn’t work out… there’s always Australia *cough* *cough*

Of course Shamima Begum could just kill herself. Fall on her sword as it were and save us all this mental and ethical mathematics. Her child would undoubtedly be relocated to Britain as a result of her demise… which as far as I can tell seems to be her main concern. Everyone wins. Shamima’s sacrifice will undoubtedly be rewarded in the afterlife and the new born’s infant gets a shot at life… plus we don’t have to have divisive augments on social media about what is right.

Of course the whole Seppuku thing seems to be out of vogue these days. And while people talk a good game about abdication (in this case in a very final kind of way) for the greater good… there is rarely follow through.

I would… *sigh* likely vote for her to be allowed back. If these sorts of things were decided by committee or democracy or even just by me.

I’d likely spend the rest of life wondering if I made the right decision.


Punchable features

One immutable truth I’ve realized during my tenure on this planet is that when you punch people in the face… they often want to punch you back. This rarely results in a meeting of the minds post event. In a physical bout between Reza Aslan… and the sixteen year old kid in the stupid MAGA cap… my money’s on the kid.


Of course… some people avoided the (pesky) escalation of violence that fisticuffs could lead to and called immediately for a more permanent solution in the form of the ol’ wood-chipper… I see there was a nod towards an expedient death however, insofar as they should go in head first, saving them the indignity (and potentially the awkwardness that might result in a blockage of the mechanism) of being fed feet first. In any event what a nightmare to clean up, I’m pretty sure Jack Morrissey didn’t think this one through. When in a genocidal frame of mind, I think gas chambers and ovens have been proven to be the most effective and efficient manner to expedite mass murder of this kind… but weirdly no one jokes about these as a means to an end anymore. That would be… eh… distasteful.

In any event. My personal opinion is that likely everyone involved is an asshole  (both left and right), although I’m inclined to give the kids in the video a pass. Being an asshole when you’re sixteen is par-for-the-course. I’m pretty sure I was an asshole until the tender age of 32. Now I’m more of a curmudgeon… at least this what I tell myself, I’m sure there are MANY who would disagree. Ha ha.

Other things I’ve learnt or wondered about from this…

  1. Fact checking by supposedly reputable journalists, news organizations and blue ticked influencers… does it ever happen? Or was this the exception to an otherwise pretty well adhered to rule?
  2. I felt well disposed to people that apologized when they decided that they got it wrong. But found myself feeling less well disposed to those that doubled-down… especially when their initial reactions had been quite virulent.
  3. Where are the peace loving hippies on the left? And why are they not being more vocal about clearly unacceptable behavior in among their own ranks? I’m convinced most people think calling on people (especially children) to be doxed is a really BAD, BAD thing.
  4. The ability to edit something so succinctly and generate such strong emotional reactions in people in such a short amount of time on such a global scale is truly staggering.