Hamilton

No, this has nothing to do with the play which I have not seen and really have no interest in seeing.

My education in American History is, I’m ashamed to admit, thinner than it ought to be,  I had the requisite classes in grade school and junior high.  I had “Virginia History” in 4th grade way back in the day.  To a large extent it was “Rah rah” (that being in Virginia) but that’s okay.  Pride in one’s country and state and their accomplishments is a good thing.  Recognizing the flaws and endeavoring to make them better is also a good thing.  In my experience, however, if you start with the pride aspects, it’s not too difficult to teach the flaws as aberrations or just “the way things used to be before we learned better” and move on to making things better.  If, however, you start with the flaws it’s the devil’s own time trying to teach pride later.  In seventh grade we did Ohio History (we’d moved between those two times–actually it was quite a bit more complicated than that but let “we moved” suffice).  In eighth US history.  And I thank whatever gods there may be that all this was before Zinn’s “People’s History” had corrupted the Education-Industrial complex.  Still, these were all brief overview type courses and a long time ago.

My reading since then has been a bit more focused–the Federalist Papers, de Toqueville’s “Democracy in America”, a bit here, a bit there, covering “high points” as I saw them.  I didn’t really get into the people and the events as more than broad strokes.  My various “On This Day” posts here are part of an attempt to remedy that lack.  In addition, I’ve been taking a biographical approach to studying history, starting with John Adams (who has largely become a personal hero of mine–flawed, to be sure, as witness the Alien and Sedition acts, but on balance very much “the right man in the right place at the right time” whose integrity and outspokenness to a large extent made America happen).  Patrick Henry is next up when I finish the Adams biography.

However it’s not about Adams I wish to write today.  Instead, I have come, through that biography, to get a bit of a glimpse of Alexander Hamilton that I had never had before.  I knew that he’d been one of the “Founding Fathers”.  I knew that he was the first Secretary of the Treasury but I didn’t know much about the actual policies he’d pushed–certainly not well enough to judge those policies.  And, of course, I knew about his duel with Aaron Burr.  Once I read The Federalist Papers, I learned a bit more.  I learned that he and Madison were complete, unmitigated idiots!  Okay, that’s not entirely fair.  But I kept seeing them write, in TFP that “it would be ridiculous that anybody would…” followed by something that history has shows us actually has happened.  One could, perhaps, forgive them for failing to take into account how succeeding generations would twist the Constitution and deliberately misconstrue it any place they could get away with it in the interests of their own power and authority.  Except, of course, they did think of these things or they wouldn’t have been able to bring them up.  They just claimed that no one would actually do them.

Now, The Federalist Papers were written to sell the Constitution, to encourage the various States to ratify it.  So it’s entirely possible that instead of believing that no one would do those things, they merely hoped to convince others and simply not worry about the truth of the matter.  Cupidity of venality.  That is the question.  Given what I have since learned about Hamilton, I have my suspicions.

It’s not my intent to write a biography here.  But let me give one bit.

After Hamilton resigned as Secretary of Treasury he returned to his law firm.  During the military build-up to the Quasi-war in France, Congress was taking steps toward building up an army and a navy.  The decision was to make George Washington commander of that army but some question remained about who would be the chief officers under him.  Hamilton used his influence with Washington to get him to insist that Hamilton be made his second in command.  Since, given Washington’s age, Washington was unlikely to actually take command in the field this would leave Hamilton as the actual field commander–an opportunity, should the war go “live”, to obtain martial glory.  Indeed, he urged that the army be used to conquer Spanish holdings in the Americas, Spain being an ally of France.  That the US was then at peace with Spain did not seem to factor in.  This ambitious proposal for conquest invited comparisons with those of General Bonaparte of the French First Republic–a comparison that perhaps should make us grateful that these plans never came to pass.  Instead, Adams combination of an insistence on a strong defense (chiefly Naval, echoing back to the “Wooden walls” of Athens) and a commitment to peace so long as it could be obtained honorably, undercut any inclinations to military adventurism that Hamilton harbored.

Hamilton got his revenge, after a fashion, in the 1800 election, working not only against Thomas Jefferson but also against John Adams.  In the end, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 electoral votes each (Adams received 65).  This threw the race to the House and, after further deal making by Hamilton behind the scenes arranging for several Federalist representative to abstain so that their States could instead go to Jefferson.

And that, pretty much was that for the Federalist party.  they never again won the Presidency.  They never again held the majority in the House, and they never again held majority in the Senate.

Hamilton sabotaged not merely his “rival” John Adams, but his entire party.

And, so, I find myself in remarkable sympathy with Aaron Burr.

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On This Day: The “Discovery” of Vulcan

As some folk may recall from their grade school science classes, irregularities in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune.  Again, according to those long ago science classes, Neptune was considered to not quite explain the irregularities in the orbit of Uranus and, further, seemed to have irregularities of its own which led, after nearly a century, to the discovery of Pluto.

Well, that tale is not entirely accurate.

Meanwhile, there were irregularities in the orbit of Mercury.  Specifically, the “perihelion precession” did not match that predicted by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation and his three laws of motion.

To understand what this means, planets orbit around the sun* very close to elipses. (There are complications which we need not worry about here.)  The nearest approach is the perihelion.  The farthest point is the aphelion.  You can draw a line from the perihelion, through the Sun to the aphelion.  However, what actually happens is that every orbit this line shifts slightly as in the following picture (both the shift and the eccentricity of the orbit are greatly exaggerated for clarity):

perihelionprecession

The shift in perihelion from orbit to orbit wasn’t quite what Newton’s laws said it should be.  The difference was extremely small–43 arcseconds (0.0119 degrees) per century–but it was enough to show that Mercury’s orbit did not match what Newton’s Laws said it should.  Something was going on.

The presumption soon was made that a previously undiscovered planet, inside that of the orbit of Mercury, was affecting the orbit of Mercury and could explain the discrepancy.  This hypothetical planet was named “Vulcan” after the Roman blacksmith of the gods.  On March 29, 1959, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault described in a letter to French Mathematician Urbain Le Verrier seeing in transit across the sun an object that could be the new planet.  Le verrier became convinced that Lescarbault saw the supposed and previously undiscovered planet.  On January 2, 1860, he announced the discovery of the planet Vulcan.

There were, of course, doubts about the reality of Lescarbault’s observations.  Other’s, however, reported their own observations of this supposed planet.  And while controversy remained, there certainly had to be something out there as, after all, Mercury’s orbit continued to fail to match what Newton’s Laws predicted for it and Newton’s Laws were far and away the most thoroughly tested and validated laws in all of science.  Had they not successfully led to the discovery of Neptune (1846, 14 years before the “discovery” of Vulcan)?  It was “settled science.”

It was not until 1915 when a Swiss Patent Clerk (oh, you know where this is going, don’t you?) expanded on his previous work in Special Relativity which resolved the observation that the speed of light is constant no matter what the relative motion of the source and the observer and the effects that had on time and distance.  This new General Relativity led to a new theory of gravity related to a curvature in space-time.  And when the perihelion precession of Mercury was calculated in this new theory it was found to match within the limits of measurement precision (and remains so to this day).

The lessons from this tale are many, but I’d like to point out two:

  1. The science is never settled.
  2. Expectations can drive observations.  Often we see what we expect to see, which may, or may not, be what is.

 

Visit with Oleg Volk

In the days immediately after Christmas, my daughter Athena and I made a short visit down to the redoubtable Oleg Volk’s place in Nashville.  Oleg is a truly exceptional photographer and very much a “gun rights” person (makes me look like a gun grabber). I’ve heard him self-describe as an “escaped Russian Jew” who, like many of our best immigrants tends to out-American Americans.

While we were there, some top level competitors also visited, including Kaitlin Benthin who, at 12, is the 2018 Rimfire Youth World Champion. She and Athena took some pictures together which included Kaitlin giving Athena some coaching on improving her shooting:

Yep.  That’s a lot of pictures.

I also did a few for new candidate “author photos” for me:

And that’s all for today.

 

Feeding the Active Writer: Standing Rib Roast

I do standing rib roast every Christmas.  This time I made it a bit differently from previous efforts.  This one worked out really well.

Ingredients

  • 1 2 rib Standing Rib Roast (about 4.5-5.5 lbs)
  • 1 lb butter
  • 1/4 cup finely minced garlic
  • 5 tbsp dried parsley
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp thyme
  • 1/2 tbsp pepper
  • 1-2 tbsp “liquid smoke”

About 1 week in advance:

Rinse off the rib roast and pat dry.  Set it aside.

Soften the butter, very soft but not completely melted.  It should be easy to stir but not liquid.  Mix in the seasonings.  Those are just suggestions.  Adjust as desired for your own particular tastes.  Mix well.

Using a rubber spatula, spread the butter over the rib roast.  Completely cover it so that none of the meat shows through.

Place the meat, bone side down, on a rack in a baking pan.  Refrigerate for about a week.

When ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 225 F. Place the backing pan with the butter-covered roast into the oven.  Roast for 2-3 hours or until the internal temperature indicates desired doneness.  I went with an internal temperature of 130, giving a doneness between medium rare and medium.  Even with that low cooking temperature the outer surface browns nicely so I don’t consider there to be any need to sear it.  Let rest 15-20 minutes before carving.

The result is remarkably tender and juicy slices of roast that are practically bursting with flavor.

If I were to do anything different in the future, it would be to cook longer at a lower temperature to get a more even internal doneness.

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Restitution, Instruction, and Retribution

First off, my apologies for missing the past few days.  I was out of town and didn’t have posts lined up in advance.  Today’s post expands a bit on a conversation I had with someone while I was away.

This post is about the concept of punishment whether legal, familial or otherwise.

Generally speaking, punishment serves some combination of three functions.  It can offer restitution to one person or group for harm done to them by another person or group.  It can be used as instruction for desirable behavior by coupling undesirable behavior with undesirable results. It can also be simple retribution–a person did something bad so they are “deserving” of having something bad done to them in return.

Note that there’s quite a bit of overlap in the three functions.  And any given punishment situation usually involves elements of all three.  For purposes here, I’m going to use “instruction” to specifically mean where the goal is for the person or group involved to learn not to engage in a particular behavior because they experience unpleasant consequences from doing so.  “Pour encourager les autres” is somewhat different.

Restitution is a fairly simple concept and to a large extent that’s what civil suits in law consist of.  One person’s actions impose an unjust cost on someone else–it can be a financial cost, physical injury, or simple inconvenience.  The court then decides if the cost was unjustly imposed, how much cost was, and orders the injurer to pay those costs to the injured party.  Note, that the “cost” isn’t just the dollar value of whatever the injured had taken but also the time, trouble, and aggravation of the whole thing.  “Pain and suffering” is also a cost (and generally the largest part of suits in which pain and suffering are factors).  But while it’s often not easy to determine what the cost actually is, the concept itself is straightforward.  You inflict a cost on someone; you reimburse them for that cost.

Instruction is also relatively simple in concept but a bit more complex in application.  Anyone who’s ever tried to raise children is familiar with the idea.  The children behave in undesirable ways, you inflict a punishment on them to discourage them from continuing that behavior.  Now, I’m not saying you have to beat your kids–punishments can take many forms and what works well for one child may be excessive for another and insufficient for a third.  But, particularly with younger children, simply explaining using logic and reason (never mind the dreaded “because I say so”) isn’t sufficient to change the behavior of most children.  Yes, Timmy knows that pain hurts and other people don’t like to be hit, but punching cousin Billy is so fun… But if Timmy learns that punching cousin Billy leads to consequences that Timmy doesn’t like (which could be that Billy punches back, or it could involve adult intervention) then there’s a reasonable chance that Timmy learns not to punch Billy.  Later, we can work on concepts like empathy and the moral issues involved once the immediate problem of Billy’s black eyes is resolved.

Then there’s retribution.  Consider, one person, call him George, kills another, call him Ed, and that this killing was what we, as a society, would call unjust (so not, a valid case of self-defense, for example).  The reasons George had to kill Ed were very specific.  They applied only to Ed and would not apply to anyone else such that George is no more likely to kill anyone else than a random person on the street would be.  What punishment, if any would be appropriate for George and why.  We can eliminate restitution as a justification (mostly; I’ll get to that in a moment).  There is no way to “pay back” the life that’s gone.  Taking George’s life doesn’t give Ed’s back (note:  I’m not arguing against capital punishment here, but against restitution as punishment in this case.) Likewise, “instruction” is not at play.  We’ve stipulated that George is no more likely to kill anyone else than some random person on the street and, so, we have no more reason to “teach” better future behavior to George via punishment than we would any random person on the street.

Does this mean that George should walk away unpunished?  We can’t “teach him a lesson” since there’s no lesson to be taught to him.  He can’t “pay” because there’s no way to give back what was taken.

(NB:  An interesting concept I have seen from time to time is indenturing or enslaving a killer to make up at least the financial loss that the killed individual represents.  So there can be a small element of restitution but it’s such a small part of the total loss involved that I’ll still proceed with the idea that restitution is not possible in such a case.)

Nearly, if not every, society throughout history would say “no” to that.  George should be punished simply for committing the crime, whether he can make restitution or whether he can or will learn a “lesson” from it or not.  The crime itself calls for penalty.

Now part of that is that the lesson can be taken by other people.  George’s punishment may discourage Frank from going down the same road. “Pour encourager les autres.”

The concept can be fine (and, indeed, its very universality or near universality suggests that alternatives simply do not work well enough to have made much impact on history) but, like anything it can be overdone.  Extreme punishments for the most minor infractions at least in Western society are considered barbaric.  This is the reason for the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution–a quick look at actual punishments considered acceptable at the time should make it clear that it did not bar severe punishments.  It bared disproportionately severe punishments:  death by slow torture for the 8 year old orphan who stole a loaf of bread.

So, restitution, instruction, and even retribution are all valid components of the concept of punishment.  Which take precedence will depend on the details and circumstances of the behavior being punished.

And this is the main problem I have with most concepts of “divine punishment.” Restitution is not usually a factor.  There’s nothing being “paid back”, returned to someone else.  Instruction?  “Divine punishment” is usually applied after any opportunities for learning better and changing behavior going forward (particularly in cases where the punishment is forever where there is no “afterward” in which to behave better).  So we’re left with retribution.  And that’s where “disproportionate” comes in.  Humans are finite creatures, with finite lifespans and finite ability to do harm to others.  We as a society have decided that for most “bad things” people do there is a point where the punishment is enough.  Sometimes that “enough” is ending the malefactor’s life, but still, at some point the punishment for the given crime is enough and going beyond that stops being justice and becomes sadism.

And that, right there, is the problem.  In most concepts of “divine punishment” it never stops.  Ever.  Let’s go back to George.  Suppose we could inflict on George all the pain and suffering that Ed experienced, plus that of everyone who knew Ed and now are deprived of that, plus generations down deprived of the memory of Ed or the benefits of things Ed would have done, or descendants that Ed will never have now (being dead) might do.  Eventually, There will be a sum total of all that.  It may have to wait for the sun going off the main sequence and rendering Earth uninhabitable or even the heat death of the Universe (if we manage to get off this rock in a big way) to get a final tally but there will be some amount that aggregates the total harm George has done.  Would inflicting that amount of pain and suffering on George (or his shade) be sufficient?  If not, how about a hundred times that?  A thousand times?  A million times?  A trillion? Whatever value you come up with, sooner or later it must be “enough” and, sooner or later when “forever” is the scale, you’ll reach that amount.

And if “forever” is the time frame than “sooner or later it’s enough” is the same whether we’re talking about one “Ed” killed or a hundred million Chinese dissidents “persecuted to death.” At some point any retribution must be enough or it stops being justice and turns into torture for its own sake.

And so, if there is some form of deity out there, and if that deity is in any way just (let alone “loving” and “merciful”) than any place of divine punishment must eventually be empty.