Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Airplanes and birds My youngest received a model airplane for Christmas: one of those you pump up and let the compressed air run a piston that drives the propeller. We took it to a nearby park and flew it (usually into the ground, but that's part of the fun) until a gentleman showed up with a remote control plane of his own and a large black dog. As we left (my youngest does not like dogs), the second flight of the remote control plane with bird-shaped wings nosed down not far from us--at which point a red-tailed hawk flew out of the nearby trees, and hovered over the downed plane for a few seconds before deciding it was inedible and flying away. Beautiful.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Christmas Dinner

And so we celebrated the birth of the most famous Jew of all time with a ham dinner. I think next year we'll try something maybe a little more fitting...

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Late Neanderthals 'like us'

The BBC has a science report asserting that the later Neanderthals were more gracile and structurally like modern men. It says a great deal about how little we know about them that a single find has people jumping to dramatic new conclusions: Interbreeding with modern humans or evolving in the same direction . . . The old rule of thumb says that if two critters have fertile offspring, they're the same species--which would mean that Neander and Sapiens (semi-sapiens?) were the same species. Without salvageable DNA, there's no way to test that hypothesis, though.

Evolving/breeding in the same direction . . . does that mean that the environment was less harsh, or that technology meant that you didn't need to be The Incredible Hulk to survive, and so might actually survive to adulthood? I wonder how much of the bone size difference is due to environment... The skulls are legitimately different and the baby Neanders are alleged to also have thicker bones than Sapiens, so obviously not all the difference is response to environmental stress. Someone claimed serious iodine deficiency might be responsible for making a Sapiens look Neader, but that doesn't match what little I've seen in the pictures of various deficiencies. But iodine deficiency in a Neander might look rather dramatic--and a number of the Neander sites are in areas without a lot of fish. Maybe the gracile Neander is normal and the Hulk isn't?

Theories are a dime a dozen when you don't have much data...

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Failure of nerve

The site Sci Tech pointed me to this article at the Ayn Rand Institute in which David Harriman combines a legitimate skepticism about 26-dimensional string theory with a spectacular ignorance of fairly elementary experiments in the field. Sorry, Mr. Harriman, but the sub-atomic world is rather weird, and if you assume that a photon takes only one path through the two slits you wind up with the wrong answer. I hold no brief for the multiple universe stuff, but the case for dark matter is getting quite strong--go look up what's happening with Einstein lensing of remote galaxies.

I originally followed the link without checking where it lead. Somehow it seems fitting that it turned out to be the Ayn Rand Institute. Rand seems to be popular in blogland, but I find her theories marvelously simple, untainted by reference to messy reality.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

A science conference

I can tell that this fellow, quoted in Wired, has been to a few conferences...

Brian Alexander, in his recent book Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion, aptly describes the ennui potentially engendered by scientific sessions:

"The talks almost always take place in the dark," he writes. "During the first 10 minutes, the scientist-presenter fumbles with a bulky laptop computer in an effort to get the PowerPoint program to work. During the next 30 minutes, the scientist, who has never been trained in the art of public speaking, explains, often through a very thick Chinese, German, French or Italian accent, why the mass of pinkish cells on the right is the surprising and highly significant result of the procedure performed on the almost identical mass of pinkish cells on the left. Line graphs are shown.

"The final five minutes is taken up by a question period. Colleagues stand at a microphone in the middle of the aisle and, using the polite code phrases of science, ask the presenter if he has considered the possibility that his head has unaccountably become entangled in his ass."

We don't look at cells in physics, but we do look at interminable plots of histograms comparing data and monte carlo--frequently not very similar . . .

Mbeki supports Mugabe

The BBC reports Mbeki as saying that 'a lack of international support for Zimbabwe made forcible land seizures "perhaps inevitable".' Since I presume Mbeki is already familiar with the history (Mugabe's cronies stole the money Britain gave to buy out the white farmers, and the biggest drop in international support has come since, not before, Mugabe started the violent seizures by fake war veterans) I have to conclude that Mbeki is a liar. And why lie? Because he gets popular support in South Africa when he makes racist claims about the villainy of white "imperialists."

I wish this sort of evil were less common, but 'the yellow peril' sells newspapers. Real enemies exist, and it is a piece of cake for politicians to fan up minor grudges into bit hatreds in the name of defense. I'm a bit more familiar with American history (waving the bloody flag, anyone?), but I see the same story everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, fantasies about peaceful pre-Columbian Indians to the contrary.

Of course around the University I find people hypersensitive to bloody-flag-waving by Americans, to the point of denying that there are real enemies; and inattentive to the same thing by foreign leaders, to the point of serious dishonesty.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Cage revisited

In an earlier post I said I hadn't heard his 4:33 piece on the radio. But, I forgot ZENPR from Alex's Restaurant.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Debka: oops

Debka is a well-known Israeli news site, specializing in cutting edge rumors, some of which turn out to be major scoops and some of which are sheer hot air. It isn't often that I see such a contradiction as in this one, though, in which the writer claims that Saddam was kept as a prisoner by captors looking for the reward, who kept him without means of committing suicide. Umm. He had two guns, as another part of the story mentions, and not much room for food or water. Doesn't Debka have an editor?

Sunday, December 14, 2003


So Saddam is caught. Now we find out how much of the fighting centered around him, and how much was imported. I suspect that he's been mostly a figurehead for the past few months as the net closed tighter around him--hard to be involved in day-to-day management and keep your head down at the same time.

Lord of the Rings

I've seen that some theaters are offering the trilogy all at once, which has got to be at least 10 hours long, or more if they use the extended versions. This sounds like a job for the suit Dave Barry advertised which has pockets and fittings for everything. For dedicated fans only, I guess.

I haven't seen the extended versions yet. I looked at my $ supply and decided not to buy them, and then looked at how often I had a 4 hour block of time to watch a video, and decided not to rent them.

Opus, by Breathed The State Journal picked up the comic strip Opus last month. It gets twice the area as the next largest strip, and 4 times the area of some of the others. I don't think the Journal is getting their money's worth; it seems Breathed has forgotten his old skills. Opus isn't funny.

The State Journal put a "Who is Paris Hilton" story on the front of their Daybreak section last week, sparking a little argument around the kitchen table. My eldest daughter thought her ugly and stupid-looking, with phony style.

I think she'll be an attractive lady when she grows up. (If she grows up.)

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Powerpoint Poisoning

The NYTimes quotes Edward Tufte saying that Powerpoint limits presentations to such minimal information as to distort them. You can't easily put much text on a slide, or easily show connections between points--and the bullet model isn't the most appropriate for all presentations.

Amen. It may be OK for trying to decide between "tastes great" and "less filling," but it (and OpenOffice's equivalent) is painful to use when describing an analysis.

I know that you can only put so much info on the screen and expect people to be able to read it (focus!--and don't get me started on remote video: it's like trying to read through jello). The discipline of paring down your speech to the important points is hard to acquire, and Powerpoint helps with that. But when you share details--and lots of them--with people who care about the details, Powerpoint is a mess.

FWIW, our solution is to provide all presentations on the net, so that remote sites (like mine) or laptop users can read the details in a PostScript or PDF file.

What's that again?

Headline in the classified section:

Year-end blowout on used cars!

Makes me want to take one out for a spin!

Is it music?

John Cage "wrote" a famous piece: 4:33 which was 4 minutes and 33 seconds of a pianist not playing the piano (in 3 movements). But is it really music? When was the last time you hear this played on the radio? Hmmm? (Peter Sinclair's ZENPR in Alex's Restaurant doesn't count.)

Saturday, December 06, 2003

The Transformation of American Religion, How We Actually Live our Faith, by Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe's claims that religions in America have been changed at least as much by the culture as the culture has been changed by religion. He makes a pretty good case for it, too. We talk a lot about God, but on inspection we don't actually say a great deal.

When you're too close to a mountain, you don't see it very well. It may seem a small thing to say that our culture loves novelty, but the pervasive quest for novelty has profound effects on everything from the economy to religion. Set aside brand-new do-it-yourself religions like Wicca: religions appeal to timeless tradition--perhaps newly revealed to some Smith or another, but nevertheless reflecting the ancient/eternal plans of God (or karma, or whatever). "Gimme that old time religion" is its traditional appeal--after all, ultimate reality shouldn't change.

But Americans don't respect tradition and authority. Americans enjoy/suffer the most hyper-individualistic culture I know of, with very little reference to duty or sacrifice. Churches, synagogues, and Muslim groups all make accommodations to these cultural traits; by downplaying the elements of sacrifice, focusing on "consumer-oriented" service, and very often minimizing doctrine in favor of affirming personal experience.

The result: churches which differ less and less; making fewer and fewer claims to truth; and trying to appeal to members who may have once been Catholic, Pentecostal, and Methodist--or at least members of churches with those names. Even nominal faith-based social projects tend to rely almost exclusively on the same social and economic principles as secular programs. God

"is a God of love, comfort, order, and security. Gone is the God of judgment, wrath, justice, mystery and punishment. Gone are concerns about the forces of evil." America's God has been domesticated, there to offer solace and to engage in dialog with the understanding that, except that under the most unusual circumstances, he will listen and commiserate. In a world governed by this more accessible God, sin still exists and atonement is still possible. But the sins are less numerous, less serious, and more forgivable. The wrongs that people do are the sorts of things that can be set right by pleading to God's good side, not his commanding presence.

I firmly agree that the church must constantly translate its message into the language of the then-current culture. Unfortunately there are irreducible complexities--statements about the nature of God and man that aren't part of everyday experience. We easily slide from the precise to the fuzzy to the wrong. Because guilt generally makes you feel guilty, feeling guilty is a good sign of guilt. So we talk about feeling guilty (part of everyday experience). But not all guilty feelings are important, and so we wind up talking about feelings and psychology rather than moral guilt.

Wolfe looks at the impact of culture on religion in worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, morality, sin, witness, and identity. (And he skewers The Prayer of Jabez gratifyingly.)

I find it hard to pick out a single section from his chapter on tradition, but he details the curious interplay between Jewish denominations in their reaction for or against the traditions--including a Conservative kaddish which event which has the aura of tradition while changing just about everything about it.

Sin seems to vanish into psychology and non-judgmentalism--for some reason people don't like to hear that they are sinners, and often don't come to churches that talk about sin. They want uplift (a good thing), and somehow the subject of sin doesn't come up so much.


Wolfe covers many topics here. Though fundamentalists often speak of the submission of wives to husbands, in practice this is heavily modified and indeed many women resemble what he (after Carol Gilligan) calls "difference feminists," holding that "women's morality tends to be more caring and cooperative." Mormonism "is all but creedless and stands completely without exegesis." And Islam in prisons . . .
Although Islam in many ways resists the culture of the prison, in other ways it copies it. "We have to deal with discipline in the ranks of the masjid [mosque]," as one life-term Sunni Muslim comments. To do so, Muslims, he points out, judge their own, and when mild punishment fails, "other methods can be invoked. In certain instances people have been severely beaten up or stabbed, depending on the severity of the transgression and the threat it presents to security of the Muslim community."
And he looks at the famous study in which 150 students were told that some of their exams were graded in error--some over and some under by a point. (All were a point too high.) "The teacher wanted to know whether students who were more religious would be less likely to cheat that those who were less religious. And that is exactly what he found. ... the faithful, on every single measure of religiosity, were the ones more likely to say so. ... The true importance of this little study lies in the fact that, given a chance to cheat, the overwhelming majority of students, religious or not, in fact took it."


It is no secret that evangelicals, despite the name, rarely evangelize. Instead of the often reviled Bible-thumping proselytizing, you find extreme sensitivity (to the point of shyness) to the feelings of others and a heavy reliance on "lifestyle evangelism," in which you try to be a good person and hope non-believers notice.

In traditional evangelism, the church, standing in for God, is the savior and the sinner is the penitent; believing themselves to be in possession of a truth that will set others free, evangelicals seek to bring the power they possess to those whose empty spiritual lives render them weak. Lacking either downtown locations that bring them in contact with strangers or public places in which they can reach out to passersby, evangelical megachurches, by contrast, have little choice but to offer incentives that will bring people to their doors. That process inevitably transforms the balance of power between institution and individual. The unchurched and the newly churched know that they have something the megachurches want--their potential or continuing membership--and they are willing to drive a hard bargain before they offer it up.

Evangelicals have tried to use contemporary music as a vehicle for evangelism. But

one has to pay careful attention before the coded religious messages of Heart in Motion can be detected. . . . There is always a price to be paid by those who cross over into the mainstream, and for evangelicals, the price is self-effacement.


For Muslims in a non-Muslim America the mosque has taken on a number of the roles that governments or community organizations performed back in their Muslim homelands--and so the mosque takes on a prominence that it lacked back home. In fact, "in the United States, mosques inevitably come to resemble churches," with well-defined congregations, with formal instruction, and with opportunities for socialization.

In East Dearborn, Michigan, the largest Muslim community in the United States, "the Sunday service--or any service, for that matter--is a time to meet with friends," writes an anthropologist who lived in and studied the community. "This is very much the case for young unmarried men, who cluster in corners of the building. Not always welcome in the homes of one another's parents because of the unmarried sisters who may be present and because they are often perceived as a general nuisance, the mosque is a safe haven for them. Unless they have pretensions to religious sophistication . . . enlightenment by the sheiks is probably not their primary concern."
(It had not occurred to me before that the sequestering of women would have the effect of creating a pool of discontented young men hanging out in a place quite likely to offer radicalizing instruction.)

My take

Go read this one for yourself. I cannot do the book justice here--he covers too many aspects of the transformations for any neat summary.

Are the transformations good? As I read my history, each era has its characteristic virtues and vices--and likewise the church in each era. If you "go with the flow"--we know where the broad road leads. I believe that only by maintaining the tension between the ideal and the available can churches stay honest. Preach uplift if you like, but don't forget about sin. The same Jesus who said "My yoke is easy" also said "count the cost."

Thursday, December 04, 2003

What was that again? Department

Not far from here is Temple Gardens, whose sign proclaims "Chinese Restaurant, Noodles of the East." Under that new sign you can clearly see in the unfaded blue paint where a previous sign read "Frozen Custard, Burgers, & Blues."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

You are what you eat

This article from BBC about helpful parasites seems slightly horrifying. Why would hookworms be helpful? Perhaps for the same reason that leaches are still useful for draining blood from congested areas, or perhaps there's some handy chemical the hookworms use to suppress the body's reaction that we might be able to isolate. I'd prefer that, myself. After all, hookworms do cause some damage.

I'm not an expert, but what I've read seems to fit a "bored army" model for some immune disorders. The immune system is supposed to be sensitive, and if you don't give it enough to do it can become hair trigger sensitive, and start going after our "slightly odd" (but necessary) cells. Or to describe it another way--every part of our bodies needs exercise to keep from deteriorating, though not so much exercise as to destroy us. Running is good, shin splints are bad. A mild cold doesn't hurt too much, malaria is bad news.

If that model is correct, then we need a little exposure to dirt to keep us "in fighting trim," but not so much that we damage ourselves. I have no prescription for how to do that. Having kids play outside and maintaining basic waste sanitation (our own wastes are more likely to infect us than those of other creatures) seems like a nice rough and ready set of rules. (Yes, I know about river blindness, but I live in Wisconsin.)

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Practical Science

I see that Leeds University is doing its best to benefit humanity. Although perhaps folks might want just a tad more butter on the toast in Milwaukee than in Yorkshire... This is in the grand tradition of discovering that cheese flavors are different with different thicknesses, or how to dunk a cookie in tea (a "biscuit" to the islanders) or how best to mop up gravy. OK, maybe we snicker a bit, but there's value in checking that the received wisdom is actually right--sometimes it isn't.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

New fountains at the Capitol

The State Journal says that new fountains are planned to replace the old ones on the capitol square. It's a shame--the old ones were distinctive, and reflected Wisconsin's Dairyland fame: they looked like cow pies.

Greater Jihad

I'm told that most flavors of Islam recognize a lesser and a greater jihad, where the lesser is the physical war against infidels and the greater is the struggle for self-mastery. Does that mean the greater jihad is about inner booty?

Monday, November 10, 2003

Simile is not Causality

I find posters tacked up around the department today. "Carol Adams draws the parallels between women and animals, sexism and meat in The Sexual Politics of Meat Slideshow," sponsored by, among others, the Campus Women's Center and the Hindu Student's Council. The underexposed illustrations are of a cow showing the cuts of meat and a naked woman similarly outlined.

Pretending that metaphors are reality appears to be Adams' stock-in trade.

That pornography often objectifies the object of desire to be a mere body with automatic stereotypical reactions is clear, and bad; and that our arts and culture are being "pornographied" as porn becomes mainstream is also clear, and bad. But an sexually objectified body isn't meat, but skin and meat and reactions. A hamburger will just lie there; a pork chop never says "Do it again!" Even simple nude pictures have an implicit narrative of welcome.

I say nothing about comparisons with S/M and torture pornography, partly because I know little about it, but mostly because it doesn't form the majority of the market. You can't honestly take an extreme as typical.

So is her claim dishonesty or self-deception? I appeal to common experience: the constellation of feelings in erotic desire don't map into the sensations of desire for a chili-dog. To be self-deceived about something so obvious demands that she be horribly emotionally crippled. I think she's dishonest.

I think the Hindu sponsorship is telling. The claim that animals are equivalent to people is not supported by science--it is essentially a religious claim. If science could make any such statement (it can't) it would be more along the lines of "life forms are not all equivalent to each other."

The latest bombing in Riyadh

I've heard claims that al Qaeda had bad intelligence, or they wouldn't have attacked the compound they did. After all, there weren't any Americans there. I wish I were confident that this was a mistake.

It's no secret that Saudi controlled Arabia has internal problems, and some analysts have gone so far as to say it is unstable. We know that 'al Qaeda' is very popular in some parts of Arabia, and a crackdown by the royals might spark a civil war.

How does radical Wahhabi/al Qaeda benefit from a civil war in Arabia?

  • They might win, of course, though that may be a long shot.
  • They hurt the evil royals, who are on their enemies list. The price might seem a bit high for the rank-and-file, but the bigshots care more about their money pipelines--which I'd think would get pinched.
  • A civil war anywhere in Arabia would have to impact the price, and probably supply, of oil from there. Saudi controlled Arabia being pivotal in oil price stability, we'd have to see prices shoot up around the world. And if there are significant interruptions, Western (read "Crusader") economies get hurt badly.

    And if Western powers bring armies in to Arabia to help protect the supplies, it ticks off hundreds of millions more Muslims. Up goes recruitment and influence for 'al Qaeda.'

Is it worth to 'al Qaeda' to lose some supporters in Arabia to hurt the evil Crusaders so badly? Probably. They don't get the satisfaction of killing the infidels themselves, but they do get to watch Europe's economy and influence tank, and maybe replace their Saudi support with even more popular support from around the world. Donald Sensing disagrees in this piece from 2 months ago, but his analysis is predicated on Osama's stated policies. I don't think Osama is still alive.

By the way, I write 'al Qaeda' in quotes to include affiliated groups, splinters, and name changes.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Did I read that right?

On a hill near Reiner road is a pile of rubble--concrete, sheets of grimy metal and a nest of rebar. Beside it stands a sign declaring in huge letters BOMKAMP, and the site certainly looks like somebody planted a bomb there. The first thought through my mind was "I knew Madison was ultra-leftist, but I didn't know they were hosting Palestinian training camps.." Of course, the fine print on the sign says "Excavating" . . .

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

A walk around the main ring

I've been working at Fermilab off and on for 25 years, and I've never taken the popular walk around the main ring. Last Thursday afternoon was warm and breezy, so after shift I decided to finally try it, and started out on the bike path. The clouds thickened, and the wind shook the praire grass, and it seemed a pleasant enough walk--until I noticed that the path seemed to quit at the D0 site, and the only path out of there went to the power transmission towers (which crackled nicely in the moist air).

Ah--light dawns--the path is on the inside of the ring! And so it proved: take the access road over the berm and there is main ring road, running around just inside the berm. It was getting pretty dim by this time, and flock after flock of geese came honking overhead to bed down on the cooling ponds.

It seemed a kind of anti-Mordor. On one side of the road are gravel parking lots next to blue or red buildings full of alien hummings, high tech gadgets and huge cabinets seen in the garish fluorescent light. On the other side--4 foot high prairie grass, with geese swimming in the cooling channel beyond; and beyond that more grass hissing in the wind with more waterfowl gently honking on further hidden ponds.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq is furious. Why is the West so blind, refusing to see Islam as it really is? Why is the Moslem world unwilling to look at the fraud perpetrated on them?

And so he wrote this book to summarize as much of the scholarship about and against Islam as he could. Some is quite valuable, and some much less so. He quotes Smirnov summarizing Morozov's assertion that Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) did not exist--not noticing that a Soviet religious scholar in 1930 was not free to say anything else--his job was to denigrate all religions, by any means.

I wish I were more confident of Warraq's sources. The claim that Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) borrowed (and corrupted) a great deal from the Jewish Midrash stories is quite interesting. Clumsy transitions in the Koran's story of Cain and Abel or of Joseph compare unfavorably with the clearer (exactly parallel) stories in the older Midrash--pretty clear evidence of borrowing.

Warraq seems to have shoveled all the sources he could find together without sorting through them carefully. He quotes Crone approvingly in a claim that the Koran was written late (2 centuries late), not noticing that the Shi'ite split was early, and would inevitably have meant different scriptures if the canon were not already firm.

To make matters worse, Warraq is an atheist (he calls himself a humanist), and he proceeds to trot out all the tired old chestnuts to prove that there is no God and therefore Islam is false. He seems to have not idea how badly this weakens his attack.

The Koran claims that the Christian trinity includes Mary--which was never true; and implies that the mother of Jesus was the sister of Moses, and similar nonsense. It is taken to repudiate itself internally as later pronouncements supercede the earlier eternal pronouncements. There are even the "Satanic verses." The Hadiths can stand even less scrutiny--they are known to be largely bogus, and Warraq claims that Hadith-writing industries appeared during the Umayyads and lasted through the Abhasids, fueled largely by political disputes.

After shredding the Koran, Warraq addresses himself to the character of Muhammad (MTLHMOHS), who doesn't shine with a very holy glow. Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) seems to have become more skillful at discovering convenient revelations to suit his interest as time went on, as shown by the stories of the early Moslem hagiographers themselves. His cruelty was perhaps in keeping with his culture, but then how is he a model for the ages?

He goes on to document how "tolerant" Islam has had heretic hunts. Everybody knows of the Shi'ites; but the Mu'tazilites led one such heretic-hunt, only to be hunted away in their turn. You can hear very bitter quarrels to this day, with various schools anathamizing each other, in places like Pakistan.

Islam's vaunted tolerance for others (about which see Bat Ye'or) developed its rules in an era when Moslems were both conquerors and a minority. (My observation, not his.) Life wasn't pleasant for the conquored, and as Moslems became the majority, the need for tolerance evaporated, leaving behind only fitfully applied rules.

Moslems apologists love to boast of the glorious flowering of arts and sciences in the Persia, but Warraq and others note that the arts were inherited from Zoroastrian Persia, and the whole business dried up about the time that the gates of ijtihad were closed and sharia was fixed. (Maybe a coincidence--I seem to recall a political/military decline; but my references are 150 miles away.)

Warraq illustrates that Islam is inherently totalitarian and deeply oppressive of women. The quotes are fairly damning.

For the honor of truth, I should point out that the theory and practice can differ amazingly. It is, or was until the Saudis starting throwing Wahabism around the world, quite possible to find Africans who called themselves Muslim whose practice was much more like their animist neighbors than anything in Arabia.

His answer to me would undoubtedly be that the seeds of the "pure form" are there, and can easily be brought to fruition by purist reformers. And he would be correct. Islam has always had a violent tendancy--unavoidably, given the way it started.

In sum, you'll find a lot of useful references in here, but there's a lot of less reliable material. Use salt.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Global warming

I've heard conflicting explanations of the causes, but I also keep hearing news reports about melting ice in important areas.

For the moment, never mind the causes. Short term there's not much to be done anyway--if ice packs are warming just stopping CO2 emissions won't do much beyond changing the slope of the warming curve. If this is a warming trend, we're stuck with it for at least a decade or so.

Given that, what is at risk in the short term?

I see three general types of risk:

  • Rising sea levels due to melting Antarctic ice. (Arctic ice is already floating, and won't change sea levels if/when it melts.)
  • Melting Arctic ice change the ocean currents in the north, and the nutrient flows, with possible damage to fishing.
  • Changing ocean currents change the air weather patterns in unpredictable ways. Some regions might get better growing weather, but even if agriculture is easier in some regions we have to deliberately adapt to it. If the wheat belt gets too dry we could have a new dust-bowl/desert if we keep on trying to grow wheat there.

What regions are susceptible to rising sea levels?

I think we ought to write off New Orleans, global warming or no--we're fighting a losing battle there. Plan a 20-year evacuation, with a new Mississippi course (and watch the notoriously corrupt Louisiana politicos swoop on this trough) as a test case. It is the biggest single city-drowning problem I know of in this country: Venice on the Gulf.

There'll be lots of problems, and things that don't work; but

  • It just gets harder the longer we wait
  • The political and legal and engineering lessons we'll learn apply to the partial city drownings elsewhere (and flood plain cities, too; and cities next to active volcanoes)

Moving a city takes bucks, and a lot of political will. There's a lot of voters in N.O. who don't want to move unless somebody can guarantee they'll be better off afterwards. The only really big club the Feds and state have is the Army Corps of Engineers and a new route for the Mississippi. Given that the Mississippi is going to pick a new route on its own in a few decades and kill a lot of people when it does, it makes good public policy sense to try to point it into a convenient channel. And that dries up New Orleans trade.

There'll still be a rump city hanging out to the bitter end, trying to run the pumps and repair the levees on its own, but if we make it clear that insurance companies don't have to insure property in the flood area after 2030 I think most people will get the message.

I wonder if something like the Abu Simbel project might get the ball rolling: condemn the whole French Quarter and move it to 'Newest Orleans.' I'd predict lots of storm and fury, lawsuits, sabotage, and very powerful people making sure they wind up with lots of bucks. And at the end, if it moved successfully, the tourist promoters would make a virtue of necessity and offer combination packages. We might have to move the cemetary too...

Now that I think about it, the collapse in the fishing industry is starting already. A sudden change in ocean currents might be a good thing if it started up a new rich region we didn't find out about for a few years.

The changes in local climate we can prepare for, if we've a mind to. What we need are variants of old crops and new crops with farming procedures to get them growing efficiently in new places.

That's nice and vague. For example, suppose that the Great Plains become substantially drier. We then can't tap the aquafer enough to sustain wheat. (Not that we can do that sustainably now anyway...) So, we give up on wheat there. What instead? (For the sake of argument, we'll assume we can still grow crops of some kind, and don't have to plant grass and pray for rain.) Amaranth? I've never tried it myself, but I understand it is a nice dry weather crop, though not a lot of yield. OK, three problems: nobody knows how to eat it (and people can be very stupid about unfamiliar foods), the yield isn't great, and we don't have any procedures for growing it or tools for harvesting it on a large scale.

Trying to get people to eat new foods isn't something the government is very good at, unless its World War II and everything is in short supply. Waiting for private enterprises to see a need, develop means, and advertise the heck out of the product sounds like a nice, adaptable approach. Unfortunately, the time scale for developing new crops and tools is more like decades than quarters; and very few businesses I know of think that far ahead. So we need federal research funding for new crops--crops for a dry Midwest, for a wet Midwest; for a cooler South, for a hotter South; and so on.

And we try to increase yields slightly. We could breed for greater yields if we could assume a particular climate. I think a shotgun approach works better, though--try a little of everything and hope something works.

No matter what the causes of the ice melting are, these are things that need addressing.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Unread books

OK, I have to admit it. I have plowed through some pretty formidable tomes over the years; tombstone-heavy books that mated dull material with clumsy style. But I haven't been able to finish the incomparable Koran. Maybe the small print and Sale's older English make it worse.

I started at the back, with the short suras, and tried to work my way forward. The earlier suras are supposed to be shorter, more lyrical, and more benign; the compilers were the ones who decided to include them in order of descending length.

It doesn't help. I read a little while, wonder what in blazes he means with some particular turn of phrase; stop to look up what some obscure item refers to--and then I hit some jarring thing like "I swear by the declining day." Ummm--God is supposed to be saying that? And what's this about blowing on knots?

I'll try again--I want to deal with original sources as often as I can--but . . .

Yes, I'm still trying to learn Arabic, and no, I haven't made much progress.

On a related note, I never finished the Book of Mormon either. I gratefully gave up on that ghastly forgery when I heard that it wasn't relevant to Mormon doctrines, (which apparently derive more from a different book and a collection of nominal revelations.) For those unfamiliar with the book, Joseph Smith claimed an angel gave him some gold sheets and the magical ability to translate them into what turned out to be a book in form quite parallel to the Bible, but shorter and written in ungrammatical King James-style English. It purports to be a history of various tribes of Israel which emigrated to North America and proceeded to undergo a series of wars and disregarded prophets; their only legacy being a lot of mounds.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Convoy Bombing

The NYTimes says that "Palestinian police arrested three members of a small militant group Thursday in connection with a deadly attach on a U.S. diplomatic convoy". (The link may be temporary.) I'm actually a little surprised.

Given the huge strategic importance to Arafat of US pressure on Israel, it doesn't make good sense to start openly attacking us. The key word there is openly. I have no doubt that little is done without Arafat's knowledge or direction, and the attack was meant as a warning.

The surprise lies in that the captured suspects are still alive. Live people sometimes talk. Talking it over with my eldest last night, I predicted that the PA would provide several corpses to the FBI.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Universe a Dodecahedron?

Everybody has seen the story by now that the universe may be finite and wrap around itself, with the dodecahedron shape suggested as a model (though I'm still not sure why).

OK, look at the story, and in particular look at the the critical plot of data vs theory. The data fits the theory well except at a single point--the left-most point. The plot doesn't give the error estimates, which is deeply unfortunate, but from the way nearby points deviate from the curve I have to guess that the systematic error is substantial. Without that point the data is quite in line with the "infinite universe" theory, and even with it we aren't given an adequate estimate for how much the data differs from theory.

The soccer-ball universe hoopla is a bit overinflated, given the data I've been shown.

Sunday, October 12, 2003


I suspect Rush would rather die than try cocaine, but Oxycontin doesn't seem so horrible. And it's probably true that fewer people die per dollar supporting the Oxycontin trade than the cocaine trade, so maybe in that sense its a more benign addiction.

I don't think I'll bother starting to listen to him, though.

I only saw his show once, and that perhaps demands a little explanation. At work I cannot concentrate properly with people chattering on the radio, so I either tune in the classical music station or leave the radio off altogether. (I can't stand pledge drives.) He had a TV show, but we watch virtually no TV (we can't even pick up the Cubs games very well!).

So my first introduction to him came when I was on shift at Fermilab, staying in one of the dorms. His show opened with a rather tasteless shot of him standing on a rotating pedestal, and then he started lighting into the New York Superintendant of Schools. Rush blasted him, then played a tiny snippet of the Superintendant's speech, then blasted him again. Next on the list was some Western militant semi-military lesbian shock group, and then something I don't recall.

On the basis of other sources I already considered the NY School Super to be intellectually and morally unfit for his job, and I hold no brief for lesbian shock theater. But to my horror, I found that after listening to Limbaugh for 10 minutes I was starting to be defensive on their behalf! Although Limbaugh's ultimate conclusions were correct, the way he defended his conclusions (and arrived at them?) was so wrong that I was becoming sympathetic to the NY School Super.

I left the common room and have never bothered with anything of Rush's since.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

ET and God

"Could earthly religions survive the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe?", an article in the Atlantic, has to be one of the most idiotic collections of unexamined assumptions I've ever seen. C.S. Lewis addressed the bulk of these issues years ago (The World's Last Night and Other Essays).

If alien life exists, this neither confirms nor denies that God created it. (My personal take on this is that God has been so creative with life on Earth that He is probably equally creative elsewhere.) There's no fear that finding alien bacteria on Mars will somehow disprove Christianity. (Davis found a proof-text from the Koran to suggest that Islam wouldn't have a problem with extraterrestrial life, though it pretty clearly refers to angels.)

Nowhere is it cast in stone that we will be even able to communicate with aliens, supposing we ever found any. Star Trek and Dr. Who may have dressed up humans in rubber masks and had them use sound to communicate (mostly), but how would you communicate with someone who lived in a pool of liquid methane and thought at a speed of 2 words a month?

In particular, we can't say a priori if an alien species needs salvation or not. If it doesn't, then the history of God's actions on our planet will not doubt be of joyful interest to them, but not essential to their wellbeing. If they do need salvation, then the questions start. But until we find that out, we're just asking "What if God weren't good?" questions, and spinning our wheels in the same old way: How many angels can dance on a pin head? Is it as many as God wants or as many as the world God created allows?

This isn't to say that Christianity isn't falsifiable. It is. If Jesus didn't return to life, ashcan the whole thing and look elsewhere for the truth. If you can demonstrate that God created a people only to damn them without help or hope, then we have some serious issues with Christianity. But that's a very long way from worrying about bacteria on Mars.

FWIW, Davis mentions the possibility of seeding Mars with Earthly bacteria thanks to meteor impacts. It is possible, but quite hard. Since the trip is uphill all the way through the Sun's gravitational field, the effective escape velocity is very high. To get a kick like that you need to be close to the impact point, and the closer you are to the impact the more likely you are to be damaged by the heat and shock of impact.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

California Governor

So Arnold won, and by quite a large margin. What difference does it make?

The ugly mess California is in can't be blamed wholly on the old governor--the suck-up bills Davis was merrily signing in his last days didn't appear there by magic: the Legislature passed them. It won't change.

The whole recall business struck me as a feel-good exercise designed to vent steam without making any significant changes. If the Californians were serious about a recall they'd have recalled the whole barge-load: not just the governor but the legislators, and anybody else they could lay a vote on. Call it a popular vote of no confidence. Of course it wouldn't touch the bureaucrats, but you can't have everything.

I predict that next year will find no significant changes in California's budget crisis and rate of loss of businesses. Neither will the year after. I'm not sure Mr. S. will do worse than Davis, but I don't see how he can do better.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Street Sweeper's Blues

This morning southbound on Wright street I noticed the characteristic marks left by the streetsweeper--which at one point carefully swerved around a dead skunk. You'd think that collecting such debris was part of the sweeper's job, but think of driving around all day with a dead skunk in the rubbish bin right behing you; never driving fast enough for the breeze to keep the smell away...

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

NASA? Or AnyLab after enough time?

If you haven't seen the comments of NASA folk on the Columbia accident report, have a look. Quite a few comments are anonymous and frank; and some situations sound vaguely familiar.

The Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield

I'm reluctant to try to give a synopsis, since the twists and turns are part of the fun. Plutarch mentions a war between Athens and Amazons, and Pressfield took that ball and ran with it. He invented a culture for the Amazons, basing it partly on other nomadic tribes and partly on the mythic image of the female Amazon warrior. This time he doesn't forget the centrality of religion and custom, and once again (as in Gates of Fire) shows how an alien and sometimes horrible culture has a human core. His theme isn't courage so much as freedom, in its several guises.

The story is set in Theseus's Athens (pre-Trojan war!), and begins with a family who count among their servants Selene, a captive Amazon kept as a tutor for their daughters. She teaches them more than the father suspects (of course) and after King Theseus (who had married the Amazon Antiope) comes by with a message she considers the oath binding her to stay fulfilled. She makes mincemeat of the other slaves on the farm who try to stop her flight.

When the elder daughter takes off to try to join her the next night, family honor demands an expedition for the recovery of them both. Even with a sturdy crew of soldiers, they run into difficulties. And then we hear the story of the earlier conflict as seen by Damon and by Selene. (I guess Pressfield likes to have somebody narrate his stories.)

For some reason I had a little trouble getting into the story at first: Selene seemed a bit unreal; but once the expedition sets out with the reluctant younger daughter (tied so she doesn't run off too), the story picks up. I'll not summarize--suffice it to say that once Damon and Selene started telling their stories I didn't want to put the book down.

The violence is graphic and extreme, so be warned. Some details don't quite work: nobody could survive the underground battle, the coastline is unreasonably heavily populated, etc. But the book works well, and I recommend it.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Frankie Valli

This Frazz cartoon was in our paper this morning. I commented that Frankie was one of those men who wanted to be a soprano. My better half replied "But he didn't make the cut."

Friday, September 19, 2003


I am informed that today is Talk Like A Pirate Day. This catches me unprepared, so you'll have to be satisfied with this.

Friday, September 12, 2003

The United Burger States of America by Peter Biddlecombe

Up till this book I would have unhesitatingly recommended Peter Biddlecomb, on the strength of the other four books of his I've read (Travels With My Briefcase, French Lessons in Africa, A Nice Time Being Had By All, and Very Funny, Now Change Me Back Again). He writes of his travels, and as a representative of a British commercial bank he has had to work in a great many different cities. He claims that the true traveler is the business traveler. The vacationer can pick and chose, but the business traveler has to immerse himself in the local culture enough to communicate and deal with the local businessmen. Marco Polo was, after all, a business traveler, not an adventurer.

In the earlier books Peter wrote of his own experiences, often exaggerating or combining events for a better story. And they are good travel stories. By all means go read one of them.

But Burger States isn't mainly about his adventures, but is mostly his impressions and tall tales, with the occasional bitter screed tucked in here and there. The tailor should stick to his last, and Biddlecombe should tell his own stories.

He tried to classify the various states by food, with salad states and cheese states and burger states, etc; which is a nice idea but not well developed.

I could not finish the book. When Franklin wrote to his European audience of the grand spectacle of whales leaping up Niagara, he thought it was a hoot; but it has always struck me as too dumb to be funny. Likewise this book... Maybe Biddlecombe was trying to be a new Dave Barry? If so, he missed badly.

There are a few good spots and a few accurate lines. When visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani (Peter says he is a Thomas Merton fan!) he writes "I've never known so many Americans keep so quiet for so long." (For those not familiar, the Abbey is Trappist, and Trappist monks keep a vow of silence.) But in the end I didn't think it worth my time to finish the book, and I doubt you will either. A pity. Go read one of his others.

Thursday, September 11, 2003


I'm not the best person to write a tribute or a memorial: I wasn't there and I didn't know anybody who was.

My life didn't change much, beyond starting to read Bernard Lewis. A few years before a man lit a pail of gasoline in one of the city buses, and I've been watchful since then in ways 9-11 didn't increase.

One change galls me, though. My hope is to point people to heaven, not hurry them to hell. Yet I find I must spend energy trying to remind people that we have to fight the war, and not miss the forest for the leaves. A stunning number of people can't conceive that the Iraq campaign is just one more campaign in a world-wide war.

The blindness isn't just a University-town effect. Most of the Democratic candidates for president seem to have no clue at all that we're in a major struggle, and several seem to think that we should retreat. I'd thought better of Gore, but his pronouncements on Iraq were ludicrous.

I see the war to come as one with pauses, where we make deals with Beelzebub to attack Lucifer (Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example). We'll try to make peaceable relations with Iraq and Iran (both absolutely critical), and hope that Pakistan and Egypt can manage to reject their jihadists. In the meantime the Saudis will keep funding the jihadist schools churning out terrorist supporters, trying to subvert the entire Islamic world to their Wahhabist party line. We try to win hearts and minds from the outside, as infidels; and they try to win from the inside. The jihadists will keep striking wherever they can, and with the collusion of some governments (Pakistan?), use disease and poison weapons. One day Arabia will be partitioned into the Shi'ite oil fields, the Jordanian holy places, and the Saudi desert; but we'll still see decades pass before the damage done by the unholy madrassas is undone.

With this in mind, I see blindness in other quarters as well. Winning the war isn't a matter of "Do A, do B, send the Marines to C." We can lose. We almost certainly will lose at least a city during the war. And unless we have something more than mere secularism to offer, we aren't going to win enough hearts and minds to matter.

I don't fault Bush for dealing with the Saudis--we can't attack them directly and everybody knows it. But why not tell us we're going to have to make some sacrifices? Where is the drive to address the philosophical/religious issues that inspire our enemies? (Ad campaigns about how nice life is for Muslims in the US won't cut it.) Is anybody going to pay attention to the recruiting in our prisons or quit cowering when CAIR glowers? And we're going to need a lot more soldiers... not just National Guard.

And so I find myself having to call for war when I want to call for peace.

Siloam tunnel

BBC reports researchers have radio-dated Hezekiah's tunnel to 700 BC, in accordance with other estimates, though "though some have contended it is much younger."

Understand something about scientists: They dream about making a big break-through; with something new nobody expected before. They live under pressure to discover. In fields where there is no easy means of disproving a theory--where experiments are hard or impossible--you'll find that contrarians are quite common, and theories a dime a dozen. I think we have an instance of that here. Ancient records say Hezekiah ordered a tunnel dug, and there's the tunnel. Ockham's rule suggests that Hezekiah actually did order the tunnel. You can be open to the possibility that it was an enlargement of an older structure, or that someone later enlarged or repaired it, but I can't see why you would contend that someone else built it, absent any other substantial evidence.

Scientists also want recognition, which is why any conspiracy theory that requires scientists to keep secrets about 200 mpg cars is laughable. The temptation to publish would be too great.

"The Siloam Tunnel itself remains a wonder of ancient engineering, excavated by two teams of diggers starting at opposite ends and meeting somehow - no-one knows how - in the middle." They didn't have good mirrors, but mirrors they did have. I'd think of surveying-in a pipe with a mirror to reflect skylight down the tunnel. If the mine supervisor finds that the day's digging dims the light to one side, he could correct that in the next day's digging. Or you could try making a surface line from one spot to the other, and have people pound on the rock above; or perhaps at two spots equidistant from the line and let the supervisor try to figure which was closer.

UPDATE 9-Feb-2004: I'm told the tunnel had lots of jags, and someone mentioned occasional vertical shafts (for air or alignment?) Hmm.
Sorry about the re-posting

Blogger won't let me edit posts beyond a certain age, so I have to republish the index posts periodically.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003


It is a myth that men think of sex all the time. In fact, as any husband knows, there's a simple test that applies: If the sky isn't falling, surely there's time to make love? If the sky is falling, then this is our last chance. (I know, nothing about sex is simple.)


Observations, mostly about Christianity:


Things that stirred my curiosity. Updated 28-Feb-2004

Culture, Music, Humor, Misc

Updated 18-Jul-2004

Statement about privacy in this blog.


I like to read. I ride the bus. A natural fit... (Who has time to read at home?) Conversations with great and not-so-great minds of the past and present . . . Updated 28-Feb-2004


Everybody else already put their oars in, so I guess it is my turn.
Updated 28-Feb-2004
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!

Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

The Worst Believer is Better than the Best UnBeliever

I hear very few Muslim voices unconditionally condemning Al Qaeda. Even when somebody ventures a rebuke, it always seems hedged about with complaints and excuses--usually involving the Palestinians.

Part of this is no doubt that everybody likes rooting for David against Goliath, and its no skin off their noses if we get bruised.

Part is systematic. The worst believer is better than the best nonbeliever.

It is an article of faith that even the most wicked believer is in a different and better relationship to God than the most virtuous unbeliever. Here understand unbeliever as one who has rejected the revealed truth. The merely ignorant are in a rather different class. Because your relationship with God is infinitely more important than your relationship to anyone or anything else, if follows that even a wicked believer is better before God than the most virtuous person who rejects God. Note that there is a slight difference between my statement and the title.

While a Christian might object that you can't hate your visible brother and still love the invisible God, Christians also hold that believers are better before God than rejectionist unbelievers.

There is no point in trying to challenge this doctrine. That a supernatural relationship is established between God and His worshipers is central to Islam, and to Christianity, and a number of other revealed religions as well. While several Christian denominations deny this, close examination shows that they have departed from orthodoxy in many other particulars as well and do not reflect traditional Christianity.

Who is competent to judge who is a believer and who is not? Christianity and Islam nominally provide different answers to this question--after all, Jesus warned that not everyone who called Him Lord was one of His; while anyone who pronounces the formula is Muslim. In practice when clerics dominate we tend to see the same sort of assumptions in both--either you see an inclusionist "If you do the basics you are a real zzz" or you see a heretic-hunting "If you don't do the details you're not a real zzz." In either case the clerics feel competent to judge, and everyone else can follow their lead. This attitude isn't quite as unjustifiable as it might appear, since the proper relationship with God ought to properly order the rest of one's life (sooner or later), and this can be dramatic. We can easily distinguish between Mother Theresa and John Wayne Gacy.

Still, this judgment can look like a usurpation of God's prerogative.

What are the practical consequences of the attitude that a believer is better before God than an unbeliever? First notice that if I am competent to judge who is a true believer and who is not, then I can safely say that a believer is better than a unbeliever. Second, the more tightly coupled all aspects of the law are, the larger will be the differences between believer and unbeliever. Commonly a believer's testimony carries more weight than an unbeliever's, who already shows a disregard for the Truth. It just gets worse from there, with greater and greater disabilities applied to the unbeliever. Sharia notoriously couples all aspects of law, but the lack of divine authority to oppress unbelievers hasn't always hobbled Christians either. (Of course in Hinduism, where it is impossible to change your religious status, the restrictions on non-Brahmans enforce a permanent and particularly noxious caste system.)

We have a secular society for a number of reasons, including the rise of atheism/secularism, the ascendancy of philosophies that despair of finding absolute truth, a history of bitter experience of religious wars, and a little sentence of Jesus' about giving Caesar what was his and God what was His. The secular society shows some great advantages, even though it has some shortcomings. In fact our society is very aggressively materialist and anti-religious, unless those religions are willing to become materialist and un-dogmatic. This doesn't seem to endear us to Muslims.

I take it as given that a materialist or un-dogmatic religion isn't worth the water to flush it. Attempts to make Islam un-dogmatic I believe must fail at the best, and backfire at the worst. Orthodox Islam is always going to hold that a believer is in a special relationship to God.

At the other end of the chain we find that Islam so tightly couples all aspects of law under divine authority that it seems inevitable that unbelievers must be treated worse than believers.

I think the weakest link in this chain is the assumption that a human can judge if another person is a true believer. If you lie while pronouncing the Muslim formula, are you really a Muslim? Is rebellion against the laws of God kin to apostasy?

These subtle points are not useless speculation. We want Muslims to despise evil-doers who injure infidels just as they despise evil-doers who injure Muslims. The more they blindly hang together against the infidel (us), the more cover and scope the bin Ladens have. They should not usurp God's prerogative of final judgment, and restrict themselves to what a human can judge. A little uncertainty about who is honestly Muslim seems compatible with some of the hadiths I've seen.

We need to persuade them that this is Islamic and pious.

We would like Muslims to have the benefits of a secular society (preferably without the evils). They won't accept it unless a secular law is a logical consequence of Islam, or at least not in conflict with it.

We need to encourage them to find the way.

Where can we find scholars willing to study Islam and its expressions who are unafraid to challenge foolish implementations? Perhaps we can't find enough left in the West, but maybe there are some bold souls within Islam willing to ask the loyal but hard questions.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Bad Pun Time

America's Dairyland is a state of superlatives. Whatever you want to see, we're muy.

Monday, September 01, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 1 by Moore and O'Neill

I heard the movie was a turkey, but the "graphic novels" it was based on were supposed to be pretty good. The premise sounded amusing: collect a disparate crew of heroes from popular novels of the nineteenth century and give them some common task.

It took a while for the library copy to get around to me, hence the lateness of this review. (Yes, I'm a cheapskate.)

In brief: lots of detail (good), lots of attention to detail (very good), lots of references to literature (amusing), lots of plot twists, and only about half of the characters are satisfactorily rendered (the Invisible Man, for one). I suppose some of the failures in rendering are inevitable--some of the characterizations in the books rely on the texture of the original author's prose. But I'm afraid I just don't believe their Nemo.

The (text) back story at the end, apparently intended to explain how Quartermain wound up an addict, is unreadable. While not the worst fan fiction I've ever run across ... well, I couldn't finish it. I skimmed a passage here and there. Why Lovecraft?

I'll only recommend this for fans of the genre. The rest of us can continue to live joyful and contented lives without reading it. (No, it is not for kids.)

Harley Time!

If there are this many Harleys in Madison, what must it be like in Milwaukee? I heard that all the hotels and campsites were full in Milwaukee, so aficionados were sleeping as far away as Madison and commuting to the events.

I dunno what the police thought, but all the riders I ran across were courteous.

Motorcycles aren't high on my wish list: maybe because of all those years of riding on dirt roads. I learned that when another car approached you had to roll up the windows quickly to keep crud from hitting you in the face. I like windshields. And you can't carry very many bags of groceries on a cycle. Still, if I ever found I needed one I'd look at a Harley first. True, it sounds like the motor is coughing up phlegm, but its almost a human sound compared to the other sounds of the road, and I see why people like it.


Four of us went to campus to try to see Mars Wednesday night. The line for the observatory was easily a block and a half long, and I found out the next day that they only took the first 200 and turned back at least 300. Luckily I remembered the old observatory on top of Sterling.

I called from my office to say where we were going, and yep, the light was on in the dome. Up to the roof, where a stiff breeze was making the youngest daughter bitterly regret her summer outfit. Alas, the grad student manning the refractor hadn't used it before, and was yanking it this way and that staring through the main scope. Someone more experienced suggested that using the spotter scope was a good idea, as was putting eyepieces in the various scopes. (Yes, he had taken the lens cap off.) Still no joy. I was close to offering my services when a researcher took pity on us and offered to let us look through his scope in a nearby dome. His was a much more compact reflector, but with twice the diameter.

He tried to show our little group of 17 a globular cluster first, but my youngest son was first in line, couldn't see well, and grabbed the scope for balance. Sic transit globular cluster. The dome rotated smoothly around as the long-suffering researcher looked for Mars. He spent most of his time punching buttons on some kind of special calculator, which I guess must translate coordinates and time into a direction for the scope.

The magnification was no bigger than on our little scope at home, but it was far brighter, and the colors weren't those of the rainbow. Mars was clear and beautiful--wobbling a bit because of the wind shaking the building. We all looked a couple of times, thanked our host, and trekked our separate ways.

And, of course, what better treat to end an outing with than ice cream?

Monday, August 25, 2003

Glass box purse

Last week a woman boarded the bus carrying a purse which was a glass box--perfectly clear. I could count how many bus tickets she had left, see whether there were hairs in her brush, estimate how fat her wallet was and try to guess where she was planning to go for lunch from the coupons. I did none of these things, but she seemed to invite them. When I mentioned this to a friend from church I learned that some high schools require transparent backpacks! (I leave as an exercise to the reader describing 3 ways of transporting weapons in a transparent backpack, with extra credit for approaches that won't set off metal detectors.)

Transparency is supposed to be a good thing, but I think this exceeds the bounds of courtesy. What next? Transparent clothing? (If you start getting excited, think pot bellies and appendicitis scars.) Surely her job doesn't require this, does it?

Perhaps the lady has an exhibitionist streak, and wanted the world to see what color her comb was and whether she used pads or tampons. I don't think I need to know these details, though.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's short stories are often gems, and put to shame most of the unimaginative triple-decker tomes that litter the bookstores. In The Martian Chronicles he assembled a number of his short stories about Mars, added a little connective work, and let fly; not worrying that the various stories weren't very consistent with each other.

Unfortunately he worries about consistency here. I almost didn't finish the book, which would have been a shame, since there are a few fine moments in it. He built it around his Elliot family, with the lonely and oddly unempathetic mind-rider Cecy and the normal boy Timothy living among and longing to be one of the creatures of the night. Bradbury's strength lies in moods, and he undercuts this when he tries to explain too much, or gets preachy--as he does sometimes here. I wish he could have done the collaboration with Charles Adams he mentions in the afterwards--I think they would have fed each other's ideas and made a much better book.