Sunday, December 25, 2005


There's no time like the present.

There's no present like the time.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve in Wisconsin

Mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, juncos, goldfinches, purple finches, starlings (8 in a square foot patch of grass!), city sparrows, a downy woodpecker, and some kind of sparrow we didn’t recognize showed up at the bird feeders and the snow beneath this morning. We watched for a while, and then called Eldest Son, who walked a couple blocks over to see.

Of course, they were all gone when he arrived. He hung around a few minutes, and then left. 10 minutes later the crowd was back out front. Birds are still dripping out of the trees to the feeders this afternoon.

I took Youngest Daughter to buy a present for Eldest Son. She isn’t exactly swimming in cash, so her choices were a bit limited. I made suggestions, but she said “I want to buy him a Star Wars book.” “You don’t have enough money for that—look at the prices,” I replied. “Well, I’ll buy him a short story,” she answered.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple

Short version: Go read it.

Long version: This is a collection of essays by Dalrymple, in two related categories: Arts and Letters and Society and Politics. The purpose of the book is explained at the end of the preface:

Having spent a considerable portion of my professional career in Third World countries in which the implementation of abstract ideas and ideals has made bad situations incomparably worse, and the rest of my career among the very extensive British underclass, whose disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics, I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it.

The first essay is his famous The Frivolity of Evil. If you haven’t read anything else by him, read this essay, which is available on the web.

This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread in life's rich tapestry?

The work is rich with insights, such as

There is something to be said here abou the word “depression,” which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one’s state of mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a belief that must deprive human existance of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.

He does recognize true depression, but that isn’t the issue here.

A Taste for Danger speaks about war photography, the search for dangerous situations, and how we overestimate the importance of our feelings; ranking things as more important when our emotions are stronger. I think you know what Why Shakespeare is for all Time is about. He loves Shakespeare, and defends him against nonsense. He introduces Zweig and Turgenov and Gillray to the reader, and shreds Virginia Wolfe and D.H. Lawrence (“Lawrence’s prose manages the difficult feat of being leaden and overwrought at the same time.”)

He addresses the coarsening of the culture, and the utter lack of any sense of shame among the critics and “artists,” and sees how this trickles down to permeate the rest of the culture. “Culture” sounds vague and arbitrary, but culture is the way we think about each other and act towards each other. A coarsened culture is one with more rudeness and even exploitation, since we are taught to think of each other in animal terms rather than ethical or spiritual terms.

One “artist” canned his own excrement and called the result “art.” Galleries paid thousands of dollars for the cans (2/3 of which have since exploded), and his fame is immense. This is beyond parody. The saying “virtue is its own reward” has a flip side: some vices are their own punishment—these “aesthetes” have blinded themselves. And the culture that honors this sort of nonsense loses the capacity to see beauty. If you listen to teenagers, do you hear them talk about whether a woman is beautiful, or instead whether she is “hot” (sexually attractive)?

Dalrymple moves on to look at What We Have to Lose.

I saw the revolt against civilization and the restraints and frustrations it entails in many countries, but nowhere more starkly than in Liberia in the midst of the civil war there. I arrived in Monrovia when there was no longer any electricity or running water; no shops, no banks, no telephones, no post office, no schools, no transport, no clinics, no hospitals. Almost every building had been destroyed in whole or in part: and what had not been destroyed had been looted.

I inspected the remains of the public institutions. They had been destroyed with a thoroughness that could not have been the result of mere military conflict. Every last piece of equipment in the hospitals (which had long since been emptied of staff and patients) had been laboriously disassembled beyond hope of repair or use. Every wheel had been severed by metal cutters from every trolley, cut at the cost of what must have been a very considerable effort. It was as if a horde of people with terrible experiences of hospitals, doctors, and medicine had passed through to exact their revenge.

But this was not the explanation, because every other institution had undergone similar destruction. The books in the university library had been one and all—without exception—pulled from the shelves and piled into contumptuous heaps, many with pages torn from them or their spines deliberately broken. It was the revenge of barbarians upon civilization, and of the powerless upon the powerful, or at least upon what they perceived as the source of their power. Ignorance revolted against knowledge, for the same reasons that my brother and I smashed the radioi all those years before. Could there have been a clearer indication of hatred of the lower for the higher?

In fact there was—and not very far away, in a building called the Centennial Hall, where the inauguration ceremonies of the presidents of Liberia took place. The hall was empty now, except for the busts of former presidents, some of them overturned, around the walls—and a Steinway grand piano, probably the only instrument of its kind in the entire country, two-thirds of the way into the hall. The piano, however, was not intact: its legs had been sawn off (though they were by design removeable) and the body of the piano lay on the ground, like a stranded whale. Around it were disposed not only the sawed-off legs but little piles of human feces.


Appalled as I was by the scene in the Centennial Hall, I was yet more appalled by the reaction of two young British journalists, also visiting Monrovia, to whom I described it, assuming that they would want to see for themselves. But they could see nothing significant in the vandalizing of the piano—only an inanimate object, when all is said and done—in the context of a civil war in which scores of thousands of people had been killed and many more had been displaced from their homes. They saw no connection whatever between the impulse to destroy the piano and the impulse to kill, no connection between respect for human life and for the finer productions of human labor, no connection between civilization and the inhibition against the random killing of fellow beings, no connection between the book burnings in Nazi Germany and all the subsequent barbarities of that regime. …

If anything, they “understood” the destruction of the piano in the Centennial Hall and even sympathized with it. The “root cause” of Liberia’s civil war, they said, had been the long domination of an elite—in the same way, presumably, that poverty is often said to be the “root cause” of crime. The piano was an instrument, both musical and political, of that elite, and therefore its destruction was a step in the direction of democracy, an expression of the general will.

This way of thinking about culture and civilization—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies.

Other chapter titles: How to Read a Society (introducing Custine and his visit to Russia), Why Havana Had to Die, The Uses of Corruption (Italy vs Britain: “corruption is a strange sort of virtue, but so is honesty in the pursuit of useless or harmful ends”), The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations (Princess Diana), The Starving Criminal (self-inflicted malnutrition!), Don’t Legalize Drugs (a pragmatic answer to idealist idiots), All Sex, All the Time (“No one seems to have noticed , however, that a loss of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth.”), Who Killed Childhood?, A Horror Story (about an infamous pair of criminals), The Man Who Predicted the Race Riots (Honeyford and “multiculturalism’s problems and contradictions”), and When Islam Breaks Down (“the anger of Muslims . .. is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness … of Islam in the modern world”).

He ends with After Empire, about Zimbabwe. “The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their offical opportunities might provide.” The same social network that shelters you in time of trouble saps you and corrupts you if you have grand opportunities. Benign European ideas (how about a marketing board to buffer small farmers against bad years?) brought about disaster instead.

Go read it. I’ve got to return this to the library (its overdue), but I’m looking for my own copy.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Birds at CERN

I'd almost forgotten. My eldest asked me to keep an eye out for birds while I was in Switzerland. Since I spent most of my time indoors, this wasn't all that easy, but I heard (didn't see) something that had a quick "chirp chirp chirp" call (all one pitch), and saw some things that looked like large crows with a call like coughing up a hairball. Eldest son says they may be rooks.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What a wonderful phrase!

OK, it's lunch time. What's on offer? Roti de boeuf mince, poisson--the roti looks like Salisbury steak, so poisson. Now 2 veggies (I'm getting closer to the head of the line.) Let's see: mashed potatoes--that'd be pommes de terre something-or-other. I could just say pommes de terre, or just pommes--but I'm not in the mood for mashed potatoes. Carrots I recognize, and I can say that alright, but what's that mixed stuff? It has chickpeas in it, but I can't translate that. Maybe I should just call it a melange. So gear up the old tongue to list them off. But wait! Look at what the fellow in front of me just ordered!

"La meme chose."

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I don't have a narrative for this; just scattered observations.

The light switches are all rockers, with a tiny night light and operating backwards from ours. The French power sockets look terribly shocking: big round holes with a large ground plug sticking out at you. (Swiss ones are also recessed, and nobody else's plug fits them, but they're a pretty sensible design.) The roads wouldn't meet US driveway codes—too narrow and not quite sturdy enough. There aren't any water fountains to serve the public. All the plumbing, including the toilet tank, is behind the wall—you wonder how anything ever gets repaired. (The flush button is a large push pad on the wall.)

When the fog lifts you can see the clouds spilling over the Juras. I did get to see Mount Blanc for a few minutes, but most of the time it is shrouded in fog. The food at the cafeteria is quite good. Not terribly cheap—the cost of living is quite high here. Everybody is either drinking coffee or wine or bottled water. Some places stink of smoke, but you'll find a startling number are no-smoking buildings.

Meyrin is far grubbier than I remember—lots of identical concrete apartment blocks, some looking moderately well kept up but some with gang signs and cracked concrete and underwear hung out to dry in the damp and even a flag with a a sword between crescents on a green background, with white diagonal stripes on red beside it.

I see familiar faces from time to time: CMS has 2000 collaborators, and people come to it and Atlas from all over. I also hear lots of unhappy people, worrying that they won't make the deadline in 2007. And they're probably right; most detector groups won't be ready. But I saw some of the same thing at CDF years ago; and people took pride in their ability to make do. And were confident that the accelerator wouldn't start quite on time either. This is a bigger project, and there's a lot more national politics involved, so disaster is a bit easier to find. Some of the people I'm with delight in grousing, so maybe I hear too much bad news and too much reaction to bad news.

I have a bad feeling about this set of experiments. They're the biggest science projects in history (nobody knows the relative size of the old pre-Incan agricultural research work)--and so very visible at the level of line items in national budgets: and without any sort of obvious dollars and cents payback. This may be the last of the high energy experiments, and we'd better make it work. On the other hand, the Ice Cube project was approved, and that's neither cheap nor (as far as I know) very general: it is a lot of bucks for a handful of measurements.

The muon alignment meeting was 4 hours long. One of the speakers looked just like Agent Smith from The Matrix, though he didn't defend himself nearly so well. Just about everybody brings laptops to the meetings, and works on odds and ends during the dull spots. Me, I kept nodding off: it was about 3 in the morning my time.

Odd little curiosities in no particular order: The Airbus that brought us from Chicago to Paris had video screens in the back of each chair, and one of the features was a map with the airplane position and flight parameters. As we took off you could watch the airspeed and altitude numbers climb, though they left that feature off during the descent. (Three guesses why) The hotel bed is very low to the ground—why waste space under the bed, I suppose. Safety ads abound. The bus service is still very fine. I see almost no clocks on the walls at CERN.

I moved to the CERN hostel for the last couple of days. Smaller, a bit cheaper, a lot more convenient. I've been so busy I've not been shopping. I shot off all the film I had, but I don't know if anything will come out. The weather's been very mild; not really below freezing.

I'd the use of a rental Hyundai for a few days—a tiny stick shift. Running a stick came back to me, and I only ground the gears a couple of times, though I raced the motor a lot. I was never very good with manual transmissions. I made a point to keep to the speed limit, even with cars lining up behind me. I guess the locals know where the radar points are.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

My Father

My father died last week. He was 78.

Today is Thanksgiving, and it seems a good time to tell about him.

I can't give more than snapshots of parts of his life: we spent years continents apart, and a lot of what I saw was filtered through a child's "Isn't everybody's home like this?" Well, no; lots of families move from city to city, but not very many move to Africa as missionaries. Especially not when the team is a nurse and an accountant.

Some glimpses seem general: he loved music, and many times I found him sitting listening with his eyes closed, conducting to a symphony. I'm told that when he was in high school in New Orleans he would usher in order to get "usher seats" for performances he couldn't otherwise afford. Classical instrumental, African contemporary, and a lot in between filled his music collection.

He loved reading, and ranged from William Temple and Buber to Shaw and Haggard and H. Allan Smith. He didn't talk a lot about books with me, oddly enough, and I had to discover Charles Williams for myself. But books were everywhere, and evenings with everyone reading were perfectly normal. When he noticed I had started reading James Bond he gave his Ian Fleming collection away, but a couple of years later in a used book store he recommended Son of Rhubarb.

He wasn't a man for oratory or giving a commentary on what he was doing. He tried to figure out what needed to be done, and then went and did it without (in my hearing) griping.

And he didn't rush to judgement. Though he was mistaken from time to time, he always tried to be just, and understand the whole picture. And I don't remember him rendering judgement "for practice:" if the situation didn't require a judgement, he didn't always bother to develop one.

He didn't have the temperment of a hacker or an engineer. He wasn't interested in kludges; he wanted the job done precisely and professionally. Which is a good attitude for an accountant, and one he tried to instill in me. I remember him telling me several times to "go with quality," and to spend the time and money to maintain things correctly. On my own, as a poor college student, I had to temper this approach with fiscal constraints; but he was right. (Not that it helped at the time: when the car is broken and you have $12.97 you can't hire the mechanic or even buy the right tools, so you worry along with a screwdriver and pliers and hope your fix holds.)

He tried to do the right thing by his children. I remember him running a Christmas filmstrip and record every year in California, trying to make sure we had the real Christmas story as part of the rituals of the season. He bought books to help try to teach us the Great Books, though in the event we didn't use them. He made sure we had good schools, and took advantage of opportunities. When I signed up for my senior year's courses, I casually mentioned as we were driving away that I'd been offered a post as lab assistant for biology. He reversed the car back up the driveway and ordered me to go back in and take it. (He was right, as usual.) And if I had a question, he'd try to answer it, no matter how odd or taboo the subject might be.

He had patience for details, but only a limited amount for foolishness. The biggest explosion I ever heard from him came when he objected to some carelessness of mine by quoting Paul "When I became a man I put away childish things." I responded that "But I am a child!" Bad mistake.

This is a hopeless exercise. The picture of the man I want to make is a pointillist image of thousands of events, each small, but together making up a man who cared and worked hard and thought hard and cultivated a dry sense of humor. And he was my father, and I inherit both from his life and his body. Who I am is partly from him and from the life he tried to live.

Years ago my parents decided to disperse part of their library, and offered us kids our choice of books from a long list. I asked for quite a few, and from the books I can tell how wide-ranging was his curiosity, and from the positions of the bookmarks I can tell which he didn't get around to finishing. Me too: more projects and ideas than I have years to finish them in.

He persisted. (I get distracted more easily.)

I left home for college, and we lived thousands of miles apart for most of the next 20 years, and then half a thousand miles for the next 10. I wish we could have been closer, and talked more; but he had his obligations, and so do I.

In the last couple of years he slowly drifted away from us as the dementia progressed, but even at the nursing home the nurses admired his sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanour (which is hard to maintain when you have trouble with a fork). He lost his skills, but not his character.

The chapel at his church was not small. It was completely full at his funeral. And we are still hearing from his friends around the world. He was an accountant who did the boring work so that the more spectacular missionary work could go on, and he was a great man, and I love him.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Pooh Bear Childcare"

Would you trust your child to "a bear with very little brain?"

Real ER

From Annals of emergency Medicine via Chronicle of a Medical MadHouse: proposed Emergency Room reality shows.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Extreme Soft Diet

My father was in the hospital after a heart attack, and was on a mechanical soft diet: that is, everything was pureed. In the interests of a balanced diet, they served pureed tossed salad. The nurse could hardly bring herself to try to get him to eat it. Apparently it smelled like an ordinary tossed salad, but it was . . . mush.

New rules are going into effect, in which hospital dietitians are required to actually eat the food they serve patients.

Happy Hour Coffee?

As far as I can determine, Starbucks doesn't have a Happy Hour. Why not? Can't you see frat boys at the tables tossing back two-for-one specials, or ordering a couple of pitchers? Maybe "Happy Hour" is the wrong sort of name though: "Buzz Hour," or "Toasted Tonsils."

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The lighter side of dividing

After my mother-in-law's death, we sent our eldest son to house-sit (and gain some practical experience in living on his own). Tonight we gave the kids colored Post-Its to tag books or pictures or whatever they wanted. ("Tag what you want, and if several want it you can figure it out later.) So our youngest son went into his brother's room and tried to tag the money his brother had emptied out of his wallet.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dark Matter again

I went to the talk "Measuring Dark Matter at Colliders:" how could I not go? Dark matter and dark energy are all the rage at the moment--a quite embarrasing rage, since nobody knows what or why yet. (And some of us still wonder if the cosmologists got their models quite right.) And I'm a collider guy.

Dr. Birkedal started with a nice model-independent calculation, which looked interesting if a bit out of range.

Then he started in on the bulk of his talk, which used supersymmetry. Strike one: that's been a super-cemetery of career time, with nothing to show but limits. The annihilation cross-section (or creation cross-section) is largely independent of the mass. Very good! He went on to demonstrate that the dark matter particle candidates were most easily generated in e+ e- machines, such as the linear collider being bruited about. OK. But the best signature is a colinear photon plus missing energy, and the background rate of bogus colinear photons is incredible in electron machines. Strike two. Further, measurements of the creation rate depend on quite a few supersymmetric particle masses. Strike three--we've never seen even one. Measuring these masses can be made using angular distributions by looking close to the endpoint. Strike four--detector response smears these things out.

I think I can contain my enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Intelligent Design

A Voyage to Arcturus has been running a series on evolution and ID. You should have a look at it.

This debate is painful to watch. In a way both sides are right, and both completely wrong. They miss the point.

The official curriculum offers evolutionary biology as a description of the way biological systems operate and change. The unofficial curriculum provides the never-discussed claim that the physical description of a system tells you everything you need to know: that "how" is the only important question and that "why" is irrelevant.

The combination of these two features, the scientific analysis and the undebated philosophical principle, form a powerful argument against Christianity (or Islam, or ...): if you have a physical description and if the physical description is all that matters, you do not need the "hypothesis of God."

Rather than attack the underlying philosophical flaw, the ID folks want to offer design as a description of a process. That's a joke. Their motives seem good enough (to try to combat the atheist doctrines children are taught), but they miss the point entirely.

What I'd do (what I do with my own children) is explain that process and purpose aren't the same thing. (This wouldn't be a science class, but a short series of classes on philosophy.) You would use evolution as an example, or the baking of a birthday cake: just think of describing all the chemical processes involved--you can make cooking sound terribly deterministic.

It is perfectly true that philosophers don't agree about these sorts of things, but we never bother to explain to our youth that there even is a debate about meaning; we just feed them the reductionist line. (I decline to get into an argument about whether this is deliberate or not, I merely note the fact.)

Then all you need to do in science class (and history class, and ...) is remind the students of what they learned about meaning, and forge ahead with the usual class.

Singing Mice

So mice can sing. I've often wondered what you'd hear if you recorded ambient sounds and frequency-shifted them. What groans do buildings make, or trees? And what is that noise behind the baseboards? This also seems to solve a puzzle that's annoyed me for years. Remember the footage of a fox hopping through deep snow, stopping, and then rearing up to dive in and fetch up a mouse? The narrator would always say something like "the fox's sensitive hearing can distinguish the movements of a mouse under 6 inches of snow." I always thought that was a bit extreme: snow's a pretty good muffler. But if the mouse was singing . . .

Saturday, October 29, 2005

"What I really need"

On the lighter side of things: After the funeral service a couple of friends from church came up and asked if there was anything I needed. I told them what I really needed was about 12 hours of solid sleep. Both immediately volunteered to do it for me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Death in the Family

When the third recurrence of breast cancer landed in her bones we all knew it was very bad news. Still, the radiation and hormone treatments seemed to have knocked it out, though at the price of serious damage to her hips and spine. She lived close by, and with a live-in helper she could manage well enough. But there came a fourth recurrence, and this one wasn't treatable.

Hospice did a wonderful job with her. They had to regularly retune her pain medications, and their advice on other matters was very helpful. They even have someone who goes the rounds to help the patients take showers at home. You aren't admitted to hospice services unless your doctor expects that you have less than six months to live. She lived two years more.

I lost track of how many close calls she went through. Six or seven times she was close to dying, but she was made of tough stuff. She'd be at the hospice center for a couple of days, and then home again.

Illness changed her. All her life she'd worried if she was good enough, and sometimes worry had spawned irritability. But when she could not get around without a wheelchair, and when pain would come knocking, she began to stop worrying. She accepted that Jesus accepted her, and we began to see a calmness in her that she'd not had before.

The hospice nurse told my wife that she was seeing signs that the end was near. So, of course, the very next day my mother-in-law rousted herself and was up and riding out in the countryside to see the Wisconsin fall colors and have a steak dinner. A few days later she was staring at catalogs, trying to keep herself in focus. When my wife asked her what she was doing, she answered that she was doing her Christmas shopping. “But that's six weeks away!” “I've only got a week to do it.” So my wife circled the items she pointed out, and her mother went to bed content.

That must have been the last business she wanted to attend to. Her sleep for the next day or so was occasionally troubled with pain, and so my wife would push the button for her on the pain med dispenser, but the last day was peaceful and apparently pain-free. My older two daughters were able to go over to sing to her (they are beautiful singers), and a few hours later she died quietly.

We miss her.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Children at War by P.W. Singer

Don’t try to read this book if you don’t have a strong stomach. Recruiting children (as young as 8 or even 6) for war is a hideously brutal process. If you can imagine it, they’ve done it to the children, and compelled the children to do it to each other in a process designed to tear them away from all other attachments. The child soldiers are often drugged with cocaine or other substances to magnify the feeling of invincibility that youth often have. Modern weapons are lightweight and easy to use, so handling them isn’t an issue for the child soldiers. Fearless (see cocaine, above) and aggressive, they can and often do beat back regular adult forces.

The adults that govern them generally send them first against easy targets like villages, where they loot and rape (a child soldier may be killed for refusing to rape), and kill, leaving a few to escape to spread the news and taking the remaining few captive. Captive children they attempt to enlist; and the child soldiers are made to kill the adult captives as part of their conditioning.

Sick yet? This sort of thing was unthinkable a hundred years ago, and violates millennia of informal rules of war. But it is now expanding, and may be found around the world. The Tamil Tigers (as usual) pioneered some of the terror tactics expanded on by the Iranians and Palestinians: such as using children as suicide bombers. In Africa child soldiers made up a quarter of the factions fighting in Mozambique, form almost the entire force of the LRA, and were ubiquitous in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote dIvoire, Ethiopia, Burundi, and so on. Myanmar has them, the MILF have them in the Philippines, Pakistan has some, and many other places as well. In Columbia FARC aggressively recruits children. And we’ve run into them in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

He spends Chapter 7 on the use of children in terror attacks, and the toxic culture of Palestine.

Armies of children are easily assembled, and are always associated with terrorizing the population and almost never associated with serious ideological issues—the goals of the organizers are money and power.

What shall we do? The UN has made several pronouncements, and many countries signed onto the agreements, with no result: some of the signatories were and are violators.

Those who use child soldiers are, by definition, willing to ignore and transgress already long-standing ethical norms and will unlikely be swayed by new ones. Those who are willing to round up children, send them into battle, and often force them to commit rape and murder are simply unlikely to be persuaded by moral appeals. To put it another way; one cannot shame the shameless.

Of course, some of the lack of traction is due to political dynamics:

As an example, while it is a positive that an international coalition has been built, anti-American prejudices are too often allowed to misdirect its underlying mission to stop the use of children as soldiers.

For example, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has wasted its political capital by engaging in a long-drawn-out public relations war with the U.S. and British governments. If the group had been more strategic in its thinking, these global powers could have been among its leading supporters. The crux of the dispute was over the presence of a small number of seventeen-year-old recruits in their forces who had volunteered with parental permission (00.25 percent of the U.S. military). While this practice may not be agreeable to all the varied members of the coalition, all can agree that it is certainly not the same as the LRA abducting children and forcing them to slaughter their own families. Despite this, the group made it a focus of its lobbying efforts. Its annual report listed the two practices as equivalent abuses under the same heading.

OK, if people at least pay lip service to the idea that using child soldiers is a very bad thing: that’s a start. What else? The author suggests using the ICC and castigates US suspicions of the court as “unfounded,” despite his having noticed that anti-American prejudice was lively enough to derail a much simpler program. He proposes trying to criminalize the use of child soldiers, and pressuring the companies and governments that do business with the heads of those armies. He uses Taylor as an example, but it looks to me more like a counterexample. Firms from France, Belgium, China, Taiwan, and Turkey helped enrich Taylor. Much of their goods may have eventually wound up in the US, but does anybody seriously think that you can successfully pressure those aforementioned governments to pressure their companies to quit dealing with villains like Taylor? It has been tried already. As for trying to halt the flow of consumer goods from these companies: we’re dealing with pros here, and nests of shell companies are pretty trivial to arrange.

OK, maybe you can find some handle on the warlords’ business dealings. Sierra Leone diamonds could at least theoretically be distinguished from diamonds from other geologic sources, and you could require certificates that they came from legitimate sources. That assumes that you trust DeBeers, of course. I don’t advise you to. Or, for groups that rely on external sources of funding, you can try to dry up their sources. He gives an example the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) who get money from Tamils in Australia, Canada, France, India, Norway, and the UK. Good luck trying to get India to cooperate. He doesn’t give the example of Hamas, but that suffers from the same problem: they depend on foreign money, but there’s no way to dry it up.

Warlords that depend on states for aid or for staging regions (LRA in Sudan, RUF in Liberia, etc) might be vulnerable to pressure on the state to clean up its act. Once again, the examples are counterexamples. Even if Taylor had had the slightest interest in forcing out his pals in the RUF, the Liberia-Sierra Leone border is so porous that his efforts would have been mostly symbolic. Last time I checked, neither Liberia nor Sierra Leone controlled its own airspace.

At the end of the day, though, governments and activists must also acknowledge that these new programs may not be able to fully end the practice of using children as soldiers understatement!, certainly not in the short term. Even if successful, they will take time to mature to effectiveness. Moreover, the threat will likely remain, much as with chemical and biological weapons. Even when their use has been proscribed, there will remain the potential for groups to reassess the matter and use child soldier doctrine in the future. Therefore, militaries must still steel themselves for the hard choices that result from facing children in battle.

And we are ill-prepared. He writes “when U.S. Marines were deployed off Liberia, the epicenter of child soldiers, in August 2003, they had little intelligence on child soldiers and no instructions on how to respond if they came into contact with them (among other information, officers were then provided early drafts of this book).”

It isn’t easy to deal with child soldiers. We instill a warrior ethic in our fighters—most armies do. You don’t shoot children. Germany was asked to “send combat troops to the DRC as part of the refugee protection program in Operation Artemis. Because of the child soldier issue, it balked. It chose not to send any troops, so as to avoid having German soldiers having to face child soldiers.”

How do you prepare for a combat with child soldiers? First you need intelligence: who are you up against and how are they constituted? (Some child soldier units disintegrate in minutes if you can kill the adults. Some don’t.) You need new force protection measures: children must not mingle near checkpoints, for instance. You need to remind the troops that they are fighting people with no regard for their own life, who will take risks adults wouldn’t—and that some of them are veterans of years of brutal fighting. (Oh, and remind the troops never to surrender under any circumstances—though the author doesn’t mention that detail.) And sooner or later the troops are going to have to start killing children. This is demoralizing to the men, and is a wonderful opportunity for opposition news sources like Al Jazeera or CNN to use to sway public opinion against whatever the troops may be doing.

Third world armies are usually ill-trained, and tend to lose out against the wilder child soldiers because of it. If you have to be in a fixed location, “use trenches and wire to shape the battlefield, and stretch the opponent engagement zone (to the 300 meter and beyond distance)” is a simple way to better your odds. Using rolling barrages seems to help freak out some units, and helicopter gunships are especially intimidating (at least until someone learns how to set ambushes). Shock helps.

Singer then goes into a riff on non-lethal weapons, which he has great hopes for in such battles. This seems reasonable: I’d expect them to be more effective on children than on adults. Except that they’ve not been battle-tested even on adults, so . . .

And as he points out, “ forces deployed into such high-threat environments still face real threats and require the capability to ensure their own safety. The irony is that such needs often run counter to the direction many militaries have taken toward lighter and more sophisticated forces.” This is, of course, because of the choice of battlefields. Child soldiers aren’t deployed in tank battles, but in places where the entire brigade can melt back into the landscape—be it jungle or city. For those battles you need lots of boots on the ground. “Peacekeeping operations, which are among the most likely situations for Western forces to come into contact with child soldier-based forces, may be the most ill equipped of all to respond. They are often lightly armed, lacking in the type of heavy weapons that can ‘shock’ or quickly overwhelm foes.”

He suggests using radio/TV/loudspeakers/leaflets to remind warlords that using child soldiers will come back to haunt them at trial, to try to make child soldiers remember their families, and to remind people of the broken taboos and undue sufferings of the children. The warlords and recruiters won’t care particularly (catch me first!), the child soldiers are carefully severed from their families by crimes, and the local population doesn’t have much say when raiders come to town.

Which brings up a point he doesn’t deal with at all. The population as a whole is presumed to be completely defenseless against raiders. But a government could take steps to try to arm civilians, or make it easy for them to arm themselves. A village that can shoot back is a less pleasant target than one where people are armed with nothing more than knives, and recruiting would have to suffer accordingly.

Suggested Guidelines When Engaging Child Soldiers

  1. Intelligence: Be attuned to the specific makeup of the opposition force.
  2. Force Protection: All children are not threats, but may require the same scrutiny as adults.
  3. Engagement: Operate with awareness of the situation’s dynamic:
    • Fire for shock effect when possible
    • Shape the opposition by creating avenues for escape
    • Leader’s control is the center of gravity, so engage adult targets first if possible
  4. Aftermath: Units may require special post-conflict treatment (akin to what police receive after shooting incidents)
  5. Break the Cycle: Deployed units should support demobilization and rehabilitation efforts.

He emphasizes that it is important to welcome escapees and POWs (with an irrelevant riff on Abu Ghraib), since you want the child-soldier units to leak as much as possible. In the Philippines a child POW is supposed to be turned over to social workers within 24 hours. That’s nice. I’m not sure how useful that goal is when you’re dealing with large numbers of child soldiers and next to no social workers, such as in Liberia.

Chapter 10 is about “Turning a soldier back into a child.” This is an important goal, because these are deeply damaged children who are easily re-militarized. (Some started on one side, were captured and fought on the other, were captured again and fought on their original side!) Some go freelance, as seems to have happened with Liberian fighters going into Cote dIvoire. And it isn’t just boys. Girls are also fighters, though they’re less likely to be repatriated. Programs to deal with these ex-fighters are badly underfunded. First comes disarmament and demobilization. Neither is permanent, by the way. And he notes that programs that require weapons turn-in “exclude child soldiers who escaped without their weapons or served as spies, porters, or ‘wives’” Of course, programs that don’t require turn-in to somebody leave a lot of AK-47’s buried somewhere. Rehabilitation comes next: trying to reintegrate them into society. This is very hard. PTSD and physical injuries are very common, as are STD’s. Some (RUF members, for instance) were branded with the name of their organization, which sets them up as targets for vengeance unless they can destroy the marks. (He mentions a well-intentioned group of plastic surgeons, who were only able to help 120 RUF child soldiers.) In a continent with few psychiatrists at all, finding child psychiatrists to help counsel the ex-soldiers is merely a dream (if it would help at all). Then, somehow or another the children have to find their place in society. Of course many people fear them.

The most discouraging thing about Chapter 10 is not the magnitude of the problem, but that he does not quote a single instance where the proposed solutions worked. Some individuals we know were healed and redeemed, but he doesn’t mention any numbers on recidivism. We have a new thing in the world, and I’ve no evidence that we can deal with it.

I went into extra length here precisely because this book isn’t for everybody. If you’ve the stomach for it, read it. I think he’s too hopeful in his prescriptions, and I don’t see any good way to intervene everywhere that needs it (who’s going to do it, for starters?).

Friday, October 21, 2005

Justice and Equity

"All men are brothers." "All men are created equal." "One man, one vote." "When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?"

It is possible for an idea to be both very old and revolutionary. I offer as an example the notion that men ought to be politically equal. These days the idea is widespread enough and popular enough that even tyrants tend to pay it lip service. With a few exceptions, such as Kim Sung Il and almost anybody who runs a sharia shop--and even they pretend that everybody is equally under God's law. I'll assume we're all familiar with the history here.

The huge question is: "Is political equality the only way this fundamental equality between people is to be displayed?" Is it enough that everyone (even the lawmakers themselves) is equal under the law? Or ought there be a tendency to treat people similarly (or even the same) socially and economically (and spiritually?) as well?

I will use the word "equity" to describe the principle that one ought to treat people similarly. It tries to govern our actions towards our neighbors based on what they are: human beings like us. I am aware that this is not the usual definition from legal philosophy.

Of course, though all men may be brothers, some are certainly bothers as well. You can easily find radically different approaches to life, some of which are wonderful and some downright evil. And whether you like it or not, we have to make judgements about behavior. And, whether you like it or not, rewarding those who benefit the rest of us and punishing those who hurt us turns out to be essential to running a society. If you don't reward the benefactors, they quit working; and if you don't punish the malefactors, they keep up the bad work.

Justice demands that you recognize and reward people based on what they do.

The greatest horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated in the name of equity. ("From each according to his ability . ..") That doesn't invalidate the principle, of course, but does warn us that equity as a principle cannot stand alone.

Justice as a guiding principle doesn't stand alone either. Justice doesn't take opportunity into account, so the aristocratic society with a few rich rulers can be just. A single peasant isn't a great benefit to the rest of society, and so isn't rewarded with much. A duke organizing the defense of the region is an irreplaceable asset, and is rewarded with a great deal; which of course means he can build stronger fortresses and buy better horses and be even more irreplaceable. When you say that this society isn't just, you really mean it isn't equitable. The peasant's opportunities are nowhere like as great as the duke's, and he can't possibly be as great a benefit (or as great a disaster) to the rest of the society, even if his God-given talents and his personal dedication may be far greater.

As formulated here, justice and equity are in tension. I think my approach is justifiable. You could try to use a different definition of justice which takes opportunity and intention into account, but that demands knowledge of someone's thoughts, which only God has.

Though sometimes parents can come close to knowing the thoughts. Within a family I think we begin to see some reconciliation between the two principles. Each child is equally valued and loved (at least we hope so), but since each one is different the disciplines and duties required are also different, and tailored to that child's abilities and age and attitude: equitable, in a word. In effect, we wind up with slightly different standards of justice for each child. What from the 15-year-old is insultingly sloppy shows praiseworthy concentration from the 5-year-old. And we share in the common meal because of what we are: members of the same family. Within the family we are closer to that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" that wreaked so much havoc in the world.

But when we move from the family to the neighborhood the model breaks down. I don't know the neighbor's son as well as my own, and I can't tailor my expectations to match his ability. We have to have clearer rules; more abstract rules. And my disapproval isn't enough to discourage bad behavior among the neighbors as it can with my own children.

Expand the scope beyond a block in the city and the model of adjustable rules of justice goes completely to hell. I cannot know that many people well enough to guess their motives, and I'm guaranteed that some of them are going to be bad actors. And if I have this kind of flexible judging authority to deal with them, I might succumb to temptation and wind up being the bad actor myself.

And this is the only model that successfully reconciles justice and equity. And only God knows enough to make it work.

I reject the Unabomber's approach (killing off enough people to reduce society to individual families which then presumably live in wonderful harmony). So I have to accept that society will always be, to varying degrees, both unjust and inequitable.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Classical vs rap music

I still say that rap is just indifferent poetry recited in front of a loud beat. I prefer something that required a little more skill, and at least tries to be pleasing to listen to. There's a world of difference between Yoyo Ma and Yo Mama.

Pizo-electric effects prior to earthquakes?

From, an interesting story about current flow in stressed rocks. Since the amount of rock involved is so huge, so are the currents, and so you can get effects like changes in the ionosphere positions. Another interesting question (to me, anyhow) is what happens to the free hydrogen?

Friday, October 14, 2005

People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck

The subtitle is The Hope for Healing Human Evil, and evil is the topic of the book. But “evil” has a somewhat more restricted meaning here than is usually the case. What Peck means by the word is the attitude of mind and heart of those incredibly self-centered people who are willing to make any sacrifice (of anyone else) and tell any lie to preserve their own self-respect. Because they are such skillful liars they are often well-thought-of, and not largely represented in our prisons.

Peck is a psycho-therapist, and seems to regard that as the ultimate tool for dealing with mental problems. Permit me to discount that a little. He does worry that psychotherapy is apt to be ineffective with the “evil” patient, partly because the patient is essentially never willing to be helped and partly because the doctor must have an incredible love to overcome his natural revulsion.

I reserve judgement on his sort-of descriptions of two exorcisms: he deliberately didn't give enough details. The result isn't very enlightening, nor very germane to the examples of evil people he provides.

He also attempts to address “group evil,” using MyLai as an example, but this really needs a lot more fleshing out. He winds up expanding his penumbra of blame so far that you either have to snicker or envoke Original Sin.

One of his main goals is to try to reconcile religious goals and psychological goals by encouraging a scientific analysis of sin. I don't think he'll win many psychologists over, even with the chapter on exorcisms; and since his theology seems more than a little out of the orthodox mainstream I doubt that he'll win support from Christian leaders either.

BUT. His case histories of the “evil” people are evocative, and you'll recognize people that fill the bill. Unfortunately. Perhaps not so extreme as the father who gave his younger son as a Christmas present the rifle his older brother had killed himself with, but still evil. And for the sake of what you'll learn about them, put up with the rest and read the book.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Kidney Stones

I've heard that kidney stones are the closest men come to labor pains, though without anything like such a happy prospect to hope for. They certainly take the starch out of you in a big hurry.


I wonder if they watch our eyes. Sometimes they seem like a blink with legs.


The two oldest daughters are off to college, and so the youngest daughter has appropriated their room, complete with bunk and snake and midnight blue walls and ceiling. But now she says she'll move back to her own room: she says her dreams are weirder in her sisters' room. Now why could that be? Could it be the posters of reptiles instead of Orlando Bloom?

A Challenge?

Looking for an artistic challenge? Try Paint by Numbers with a Seurat.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Go see it. And watch carefully, or you'll miss a lot of beautiful little details. We laughed and laughed and laughed . . .

I'd not realized it before, but when you do stop-action animation the motion of the air becomes important, and vistas of the sky start to shimmer like the air above a hot engine.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Music and Samuel Johnson

Johnson called music "the only sensual pleasure without vice." Hmm. Does sloth count as a vice?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Moderate Muslims

I've heard a little debate about "moderate Muslims," as to whether they exist and what they look like. I heard of candidates brought forward on a regular basis: some Muslim spokesman offers a statement condemning terrorism and 911. In almost all cases, they follow such pronouncements with a deadly "but" that takes it all back again: "but none of this would have happened if the US didn't support Israel," or "but resistance in wars of national liberation (like Kashmir) isn't terrorism." In other words, the terrorism is our fault, and since we had it coming, partly justified. I came to the conclusion long ago that moderates were not to be found in CAIR or MSA. But these are self-appointed spokesmen.

I think we'll know that we have a noticeable number of Muslim moderates when a halal butcher keeps a section of his store kosher.

The differences between kosher and halal aren't substantial, so it'd be easy to do; provided the butcher is willing to live and let live, and provided the other Muslims he sells to don't freak out.

Are there any such butchers?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Who Would Jesus Bomb?"


No, that's not flippant.

New Orleans Memories

It seems everybody is writing their memories of New Orleans, so I suppose I should join the mob.

I was born there, in Baptist Hospital. That doesn't mean much of anything, of course, since we moved to Arkansas when I was about 8 months old. In fact, I don't remember much of anything except an image of a small house in the city until we went back in '63 on our way to Africa. Even then, I don't remember much besides tree-lined streets and a very large stately church. (My grandfather lived in Mississippi by then, and that's where we stayed.) We left from the port, of course, but for some odd reason I remember almost nothing of that busy place. Except that I didn't want to walk on the gangway. At all.

On a later furlough we visited again, and again I recall those streets, and the home of my father's friend. The walls of her home seemed almost adobe-like, and the ceiling was unbelievably high. She told us of the death of her border, who accidently set his room on fire. The old thick walls contained the blaze, and the rest of her home was fine.

The houses of the old quarter streets, as everyone knows, often have courtyards within the walls; and it seemed to add a little dignity to them. I hadn't read much Faulkner then (and I still don't like him), so I'd no impression of decay or scandal behind high walls--just of quiet.

Shortly after we married, my wife and I went down to see Grandpa, and we took a day to go see New Orleans. In retrospect, we'd obviously made a mistake in going in the daytime, and our budget was woefully inadequate. Naive, and too nervous about whether we'd have the money to make it home.

We went around the French Market, strolled here and there, ate beignets and ice cream, listened to the caliope play by the river and watched the ships sail by higher than the street. I declined (unfortunately) to have an artist draw my wife's picture, and then we wandered off the beaten path, up to Martin Luther King park. I can't say what the signals were that warned us: something about the posture of the men loitering about, but something ugly and dangerous dozed there that day, and we left in a hurry.

I was foolish not to budget for an evening dinner, and I've kicked myself since.

I visited relatives there--some rich and some definately not. The rich took us to a fancy restaurant, the aunt and uncle (and their yappy dogs) had us at their home. On my own for an hour one day I learned that cold shrimp are not all that wonderful.

What else do I know of the city? Jazz is a taste I've acquired only late. A few bits of the cuisine are part of our home: my mother and my wife and I all make very fine red beans and rice, for example. Mardi Gras I never went to, nor cared to since I was young. (Parades are fine enough things, but since I learned what drunken crowds are like I've avoided them.)

Wisps and mists: I was never part of it and it never felt like home to me.

Everybody knew the city was going to flood one day, just as everybody knows the river will move someday and a new place garner the great port. And the old French Quarter will still be a tourist spot in a small historic town where treasure-hunters dig in the mud flats hoping to strike long-lost jewelry boxes and where night-time boat tour guides regale visitors with tales of ghosts and lost splendor (growing in the telling). And the old music will live on, in Chicago and Atlanta and Seattle; and the new music will grow wherever the requisite two or three are gathered together with a great idea.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Africa Exhibit on Library Mall

The booths were half-dead when I got there at 4:28. Maybe the ranting idiot (probably a professor; it takes years to gain that much ignorance) shouting that all Africa's problems were due to American imperialism and capitalism scared them off. Picked up a brochure on African languages from a fellow who seemed to despair of trying to talk over the PA system, looked over the Uganda assistance info, looked at fliers on unoccupied desks. There seemed to be more people waiting their turn on the outdoor stage than actually standing around listening and browsing.

So did I hit it at a dead hour, or did the Chomsky-ite drive folks away, or does everybody already know everything about Africa? Or maybe not care? Supper calls; I must away . . .

Friday, September 16, 2005

Models of reality

I think Godel has been somewhat misunderstood. What he actually proved was that within a logical system with a given set of axioms and rules, some true statements can be made which cannot be proved to be true from within the system.

This does not mean that nothing can be known—quite the contrary. Many things within the system can be known to be true—in some systems an infinite number of them. And we can know that some things are true even if they are unproveable from within the system. This requires information from outside the system, of course, but that isn’t so terribly rare. All that the theorem says is that there exist some meaningful statements which you cannot prove.

It is very tempting to try to expand this finding into other fields, such as politics. The theorem isn’t strictly applicable, but the humility it engenders is something political theorists desperately need. One major reason you can’t use Godel in political theory is because none of the political theories come within shouting distance of describing human behavior, and the predictions of their models are so badly wrong to begin with that it does not make sense to try to define what you mean by true statements within the system.

It may make some things clearer if I explain what scientists do.

The world is quite complicated, but when you look at isolated bits of it you see that its motions follow relatively simple patterns. You can enumerate all the patterns, if you have the time, but we found early on that the patterns fell into categories which we could describe mathematically.

Post-modernist criticisms to the contrary, mathematics itself has no politics or cultural bias. Considered as language (which seems to be the post-modern favorite approach) mathematics is essentially pure syntax, and will give you whatever degree of precision you need for description or prediction—provided your model is correct.

So how do we know how correct our models are? The scientist’s fundamental job is to understand the models and the limits of the models he uses. The best known example is Newtonian mechanics, which works like a champ provided you don’t get too small (you get quantum mechanical effects) or work around too great a gravity (which distorts space and time).

Or if your model is incomplete.

The most famous example of an incomplete model is the falling rock you learn about in elementary physics. For the equations you learn (v=a*T, d=1/2 a*T*T) to be precisely true, there can be no air resistance, the acceleration can’t change as a function of time, measurement of the position mustn’t perturb the system, space-time must have a Euclidean geometry, and so on. For a rock falling short distances, air resistance is a small effect, the acceleration doesn’t change noticeably, space-time is nearly Euclidean, and you can use light to measure the positions without worries. But for a small glider of the same mass, air pressures are as important as gravity—you cannot use the same simple model to describe the airplane’s motion; it isn’t complete enough.

A model has a “domain of validity:” the conditions under which the model usefully describes reality. You do not understand the model completely until you understand its domain of validity.

You can model the interactions of molecules bouncing off each other as a set of equations with a set of initial conditions, but unfortunately there isn’t a simple procedure for producing the exact equations that describe the solution. You must use approximations. To make matters worse, just writing out the position of every molecule becomes unuseably tedious. If you are interested in “bulk” properties (such as pressure), you don’t really care that much about individual positions, and you may use a different model: the ideal gas law or variants of it. It looks like a large jump from the model with billions of bouncing particles to PV=nRT, but we can justify and derive the new model from the old with understood simplifications and statistical mechanics. Let me emphasize this: the new simpler model for gases is justified in terms of the detailed model for individual molecular collisions. It isn’t an ad-hoc add-on anymore; the models for the few and for the many are connected.

You can model the supply and demand for hamburgers: demand and supply having mostly seasonal variation. You can then use the model to predict how much money you’ll need to spend on cows and bread and pickles, and what price to charge for your burgers. You understand that there is some error in the model, due to the uncertainties in weather which can drive up feed prices, and hence beef prices. So you allow for that: “McBurgers will need $450 million next year, but we might need as much as $35 million more if the weather in Patagonia is bad, so keep an eye on the weather during the year.” The model is good enough that you can commit millions of dollars.

Of course, if someone pretends to find a finger in one of your burgers, you’ll need a lot less beef, and your competitors might find that the price of beef is lower this year. The model doesn’t cover that contingency. With more experience you might be able to estimate the rate of those kinds of losses as well, and make them part of a more comprehensive model. (It would make business courses livelier.)

When you use a model you have to check that it is appropriate for the circumstances. To borrow from a familiar joke:

Three men--a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer--are brought to a magical football field, to one goal line. At the other goal line is a beautiful woman. The referee tells them: “You can roll a die. Every time you roll an even number you get to move half the remaining distance down the field.”

The mathematician says “This is dumb, it’d take an infinite number of rolls to get there. I quit.” And he leaves.

The physicist tries rolling the die a few dozen times, verifies that the rule is correct, and he quits too.

The engineer just keeps on rolling the die and moving down the field.

The referee asked him “Why are you still playing? Don’t you know you’ll never reach the other goal?”

The engineer replied: “I’ll get close enough.”

The engineer noticed a limit to the validity of the “half the remaining distance” model: the human body has a thickness, and the model of movement makes no sense when that thickness is smaller than the distance to the target. The model is fine when you’re 20 yards away, but not when you’re 2 inches away.

Another famous example of an incomplete model is the argument that this is, or was originally, the best of all possible worlds; for how could God make anything but the best? The assumption is that we can compare worlds using a simple better-than/worse-than relation. This set of all possible worlds and the better-than/worse-than relation would be an example of what mathematicians call a “well-ordered set.” But mathematicians know of many sets which aren’t “well-ordered” (vector spaces, for example), and there is no obvious reason to believe that you can always say that one world is better planned than another. Maybe a lot of possibilities are equally well-planned. I can’t design a better world, but that’s no surprise.

How do you model risk in loans? The old joke went: “If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, you have a problem. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, the bank has a problem.” The scale of the loan shifts the direction of the risk model.

You can have useless models, and models that are wrong: that have no domain of validity. You can, if it amuses you, model the electrical conductivity of copper by a mesh of rubber bands, but you won’t get any useful predictions or even descriptions from it. Electron motion in copper isn’t anything like that model, even near absolute zero. The model is simply wrong—it has no domain of validity.

You can model a river as a solid block, which doesn’t make much sense for most work but is an OK approximation if you are studying what happens in very high speed impacts or looking at landscape radar reflections. The river as a solid block model has a limited domain of validity.

Political economics provides many incomplete models.

It is obvious that someone who provides great benefit to society ought to be rewarded commensurately with the benefit. It is quite proper for him to ask that the reward benefit his children in turn. But if one person or family amasses too huge a fraction of a society’s wealth, they’re are apt to use it to distort the economy to benefit themselves unjustly. And this needn’t even be intentional. So justice in reward can lead to systematic unfairness.

On the other hand, you must not try to reward everyone equally—we all know what a disaster that produces, and what hideous injustice. Or if you try to temper a reward by heaping conditions on it, that reduces the reward—sometimes to the point of uselessness.

Neither justice nor “equity” stand alone: they conflict. The best ways I’ve seen for trying to satisfy both are ad-hoc collections of unsatisfactory laws about monopolies and taxation and education. (Presumably these collections have to be dynamically modified over time, but so far the only experiments have been in the direction of adding new laws.)

Godel’s work tells me that even if I have a complete mathematical model (which I obviously don’t in political economics), there will be things that are true within that model that I cannot prove from within that model. In practice this may not matter—getting “close enough” may be enough for useful knowledge. In practice, a model can be good enough to stake your life on. Or your eternity on.

I’ll not take up a discussion of the sources of knowledge at this time, except to note that simple observation tells us that the senses are not our only way of knowing.

With that rather extended preface out of the way, I want to look at the post-xxx isms. This isn’t always easy. (And I remain to be convinced that the study of philosophy reduces to the study of language.)

I have a lot of trouble making sense of what seems Rorschach writing by the disciples of Derrida et al. The Sokal and Social Text incident strongly suggests that this is not a failing on my part. So to understand what they meant I have to rely on what I hear, which I admit is biased towards sampling his noisier disciples. Those I hear about are firmly wedded to an oppressor/oppressed model of human relations. Certainly that’s all I ever find them talking about. (The actual philosophy department has a bit more variety to it.) Do I need to point out how terribly limited this model’s domain of validity is? I have to conclude that either these writers have never tried to compare their models to the world around them, or else that they have had such miserable lives that normal human relations are a mystery to them.

In a less political example, consider the philosophy professor Karen Barad, who the Physics Department brought in for a panel discussion about ethics in science, in conjunction with sponsoring the play Copenhagen about Heisenberg and Bohr. I was (as usual) unable to attend, so I searched around the net for samples of her work, which often had to do with science. In one paper she attempted to show that observations of the physical world should be “privileged” texts. There’s nothing objectionable about that, but the fact that it is necessary to argue for this suggests that the philosophical model that understands reality in terms of “texts” is, to put it charitably, not ready for prime time.

She was trying to argue for her own “Agential Realism,” to replace/supplement some other theory; but I’m not going to try to analyze her system. Contemplate one of her article titles: "Performing Culture / Performing Nature: Using the Piezoelectric Crystal of Ultrasound Technologies as a Transducer Between Science Studies and Queer Theories." Could Sokal do better?

Perhaps there exist practitioners of post-modernism/post-structuralism/neo-Marxism/etc that are doing substantive work that actually makes sense, but I am not familiar with them. I will stipulate that they do exist, provided you will allow me to also stipulate that what is popularly taken as post-modernism uses of models of human relations and human knowledge that have very limited or no domain of validity. And yes, I am aware that there are sometimes bitter differences between post-modernism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and so on. And when someone uses the phrase “post-modernism,” they may be referring to quite a range of applications. But whether in sociology or philosophy, it does not escape the charge of relativism. The basis of knowledge is not “discourse,” we don’t look to any human/political “hegemony” to define all meaning, and there is no reason why a traditionally “subordinate” factor should automatically be privileged.

There is a world of difference between the revolutionary statement “Blessed are the poor” and the ultimately meaningless (even nihilist) assertion that the subordinate side of every binary must be privileged. And so when I hear of churches informed with a post-modern viewpoint, I feel a little "cognitive dissonance," and suspect that something is wrong.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Death, Taxes, and the AARP Letter

"Half a century" sounds impressive. It brings to mind thoughts of durability and images of growth.

But turn the phrase on me, and it feels different.

I'd say "I'm not that old"--but creaks and blurs swear to a certain lack of durability in a 50-year old body.

How about growth? Is there more of me than there used to be? (Yes, but I'm trying to lose that weight.) Well, I'm wiser than I used to be. The relics of earlier years remind me of what I valued, so it is easy to compare. Not so many years left to use wisdom, but that's life.

What have I accomplished? That's the uncomfortable question. Recall the story

In a small township a traveler noticed one farm where the fences were perforated with bullet holes, each perfectly lodged in a bulls-eye. He sought out the sharpshooting farmer, and congratulated him on his skill. The farmer said "Well, I just shoot first and draw the bulls-eye second."

And that's a terrible danger. Some of our dreams we chuck because they're just not possible. I was never in danger of becoming an astronaut. Some we discard in favor of other things that we learn are more important. A trip round the world turns into a college fund for the children; writing a great novel gives way to evening walks together with your wife. But other dreams we lose because we were unfaithful to them; we let distractions and lack of discipline eat up the time dreams need to take form and become real. And so, unachieving, we're tempted to take what we've got and call it good.

I find a tension between the warning that "from him to whom much is given much is required" and the call to be faithful in the little things. It seems as though I often fall between the two, satisfying neither requirement. Which I suppose makes me like everybody else.

I have much to be grateful for: a wonderful wife, five fine children (some grown), a roof over our heads, an interesting job working with intelligent people who are generally easy to get along with, some friends, an understanding mind, and an extremely patient Savior. I can't say I've earned any of this--we'd never have the home if my mother-in-law hadn't helped with the down payment. My wife spent the greater amount of time with the children, and deserves the greater credit for how well they're turning out. Everything is gift.

I've made no breakthroughs in my field, though I've found some ideas that don't work. Most of the things I invented to solve problems here and there were thought of before. I'm still working on my writing skills (feedback welcomed).

There's no Ferrari in my future; nor plans to become an itinerant preacher. But with less and less time remaining, I have to sharpen up my foci and lay aside distractions--or nothing will be done right.

I celebrated my 50'th birthday by taking the day off so that my wife could get some R&R at a friend's cabin in the woods. I spent the day scraping paint off the windowsills. No, the job isn't done yet.

Monday, September 12, 2005

I suppose by now everybody has read Whittle's essay on tribes. As usual, he has some fairly crisp observations about society and civilized and uncivilized cultures. A sample:
Now, for the rest of you, let’s get past Republican and Democrat, Red and Blue, too. Let’s talk about these two Tribes: Pink, the color of bunny ears, and Grey, the color of a mechanical pencil lead.

I live in both worlds. In entertainment, everything is Pink, the color of Angelyne’s Stingray – it’s exciting and dynamic and glamorous. I’m also a pilot, and I know honest-to-God rocket scientists, and combat flight crews and Special Ops guys -- stone-cold Grey, all of them -- and am proud and deeply honored to call them my friends.

The Pink Tribe is all about feeling good: feeling good about yourself! Sexually, emotionally, artistically – nothing is off limits, nothing is forbidden, convention is fossilized insanity and everybody gets to do their own thing without regard to consequences, reality, or natural law. We all have our own reality – one small personal reality is called “science,” say – and we Make Our Own Luck and we Visualize Good Things and There Are No Coincidences and Everything Happens for a Reason and You Can Be Whatever You Want to Be and we all have Special Psychic Powers and if something Bad should happen it’s because Someone Bad Made It Happen. A Spell, perhaps.

The Pink Tribe motto, in fact, is the ultimate Zen Koan, the sound of one hand clapping: EVERYBODY IS SPECIAL.

Then, in the other corner, there is the Grey Tribe – the grey of reinforced concrete. This is a Tribe where emotion is repressed because Emotion Clouds Judgment. This is the world of Quadratic Equations and Stress Risers and Loads Torsional, Compressive and Tensile, a place where Reality Can Ruin Your Best Day, the place where Murphy mercilessly picks off the Weak and the Incompetent, where the Speed Limit is 186,282.36 miles per second, where every bridge has a Failure Load and levees come in 50 year, 100 year and 1000 Year Flood Flavors.

The Grey Tribe motto is, near as I can tell, THINGS BREAK SOMETIMES AND PLEASE DON’T LET IT BE MY BRIDGE.

But when he defines

That’s because the people I associate with – my Tribe – consists not of blacks and whites and gays and Hispanics and Asians, but of individuals who do not rape, murder, or steal.
I have to conclude that he's been very fortunate in his choice of neighbors, and perhaps even of his children. Certainly the impulse to steal or destroy pops up all over the place, even in the most industrious homes.

And he might contemplate his own heart, and find what Solzenitzen found; that "the thin line between good and evil runs through every human heart."

I don't know if he wants to think about that, because that line foretells the ruin of every civilization. The civilization is built by the sheepdogs (and the sheep) and torn down by the wolves. But if within the heart of the sheepdog is a bit of wolf, it is "divided against itself," and with it all that it works for.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Bad Science

A science reporter for the Guardian explains why newspapers misprepresent science. I'll not try to rewrite his story here; go have a look yourself. And he's quite accurate, as far as he takes his thesis. In fact he could take it quite a bit farther. I've seen many reports on non-science topics--history, politics, religion--where I knew enough about the events to tell that the reporter was guessing rather than uncovering.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Saudi Arabia Exposed Inside a Kingdom in Crisis by John R. Bradley

The title is a bit misleading: you'll find no dramatic secrets exposed here (unless you've paid no attention whatever for the past dozen years). The whole world knows how corrupt and vicious and hypocritical the Saudi rule is.

That's not Bradley's beat, though he mentions it. He spent over two years working as a reporter for the Saudi Arab News in Saudi Arabia, with unprecedented access to the country. And he got to see parts of the country that I'd only heard tiny hints of, and some parts I'd never heard of at all.

Maybe the title of the first chapter will tell you something: Liberal Voices of the Hijaz. Arabia has a history as a great trading center, and traders aren't famous for insularity or religious intolerance (it cuts down on trade). It may not surprise you to find that he seems to like this region best.

Arabia is also (to this day) a land of strong tribal connections. Bradley thinks these connections to be very strong, stronger than any sense of nationhood. The proof is in the pudding, though. When (not if) the Saudi regime implodes, we will find out how strong the tribal forces are. A large fraction of the 9-11 terrorists came from a single tribe, for instance. We cannot look to the tribes for liberalizing forces, though.

It is also common knowledge that the citizens have come to look on manual labor as demeaning, and a share in the oil wealth as their birthright. The result is, of course, that almost all real work is done by foreigners, most of them fellow Muslims from Bangladesh or the Phillipines or similar places. These poor laborers have legal rights and safeguards, which are generally ignored and unenforceable. They are often best described as indentured servants, though in many cases they never see their pay. A revolution or even merely a general strike among the foreigners would rapidly destroy the country.

The Wahhabis are the ruling religion, and viciously suppress Shia and Sufi sects. This provides a kind of legitimacy for the Saudi princes ("We're more Muslim than you are!") but at the cost of antagonizing the population who happen to live in the oil fields! And the miserable state of women in the country is well known.

The Saudis have been quite good at manipulating the media and keeping their political secrets. So little is known that:

At the Jeddah-based Arab News, the newspaper I worked for, sub editors were often amused to see columns of Middle East "experts"--Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes, and the like--quoting the newspaper's anonymous editorials because they seemingly reflected "a change in the Arab mindset." In fact, they were written by me, a British chap who lives in the south of France, and--when we were not available--by another British chap, who lives in the north of England.

Bradley gives some details about the various princes, which I won't try to summarize. I'm not perfectly convinced that even he has a clear handle on who's doing what why.

Bradley met radicalized youth, bin Laden family members racing cars among the dunes, and poor foreigners. At the end of it all, he concludes that outsiders have very little chance of influencing events or attitudes within the kingdom, though he puts his faith in "subtler" approaches such as language schools and cultural projects and exchange programs. Of course, this has already been done--and has caused some of the problem. The West provides not just the liberal ideas, but also the pornography and the booze and the skepticism that shock the Islamists so much. He has little hope for the regime--I have none.

Go read it.

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Go read it.

I don't endorse all their conclusions (they don't by any stretch prove that dogs and men co-evolved), and it is quite possible that some of their analyses are oversimple.

Still, I learned a lot, and this one goes on my try to find my own copy list.

Where else will you learn about yellow raincoats and rapist roosters and why lab rats are probably the worst creatures to try to use to learn about behavior? Stallions can get along fine with each other, and pit bulls really are bad news. The law of unintended consequences is writ large in animal breeding.

Go read it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Governor Dodge Vacation

We went to Governor Dodge park on Thursday, and came back Sunday. We only numbered 4 this time: Eldest Son was working, Eldest Daughter was working, and Middle Daughter was preparing to move to college. (Of course it isn't that far to move, but she wants to stay on campus and is willing to work to cover the cost.)

Of course Youngest Daughter and Youngest Son squabbled; enough to tempt me to title this "Trails and Tribulations," but on the whole we had a good time.

Forgot the tent stakes (oops), the second tarp (but we had a spare tablecloth), the handbroom and dustpan (for keeping the tent clean of course), dishpans (oh no!), and water bottles (oops) and the hand soap (uh oh). The forecast was for thunderstorms, so I decided against taking the awning. I should have brought it along anyway; we had no high winds, and shade from sun and from rain are wonderful things.

Youngest Son and I hiked to the falls. He's fearless about cliff edges: I'm not. He's got a good eye: we spotted things like a hole where a sapling had been uprooted that was taken over for a wasp's nest. When we came back 2 hours later we discovered that my wife had thought I was waking her up instead of telling her to keep resting; and that breakfast had been an hour and a half before.

The hot-dog bag leaked and filled with icewater. I know what we're having tonight! (Note to self: seal all meats/veggies in freezer bags before sticking them in the cooler).

Oddly enough, Youngest Daughter, though far more sedentary than Youngest Son, kept up better on the trails that afternoon, though we had to sit her down and make her eat grapes to keep herself hydrated. Youngest Son hung on my elbow as though he wanted to be pulled along the path. The path to the cave (used by a foreclosed-upon farm family) was clear when you realized where it was (other side trails looked quite reasonable--we kept thinking we'd walked farther than we really had). We made it back just before it started sprinkling. Rain made lighting a campfire a bit tough Friday, but perhaps I should have been more patient and started later.

The kids made sand castles by the beach (we made a sand gecko). You could see in the sand under the water footprints of a heron and raccoon. Youngest Son rebuilt part of a rock dam in the creek.

What did we have? A touch of hay fever (fields of goldenrod). Very brisk nights. Kids complaining about each other. Several trips to WalMart to get missing camp gear. Air mattresses that went flat.

What didn't we end up with? Mosquitoes. Raccoons eating our Oreos. Much rain. Anybody getting seriously sick. No poison ivy, either (they're very good about clearing that stuff away).

What did we see? A number of maple "funnel trees" with many trunks growing out of a single center. A U-tree, with a horizontal branch at the ground leading to a second trunk three feet away. A wedding party. A cat-bird and vultures. A hummingbird sitting still! A ranger trying to explain that campsites weren't interchangeable. Puffballs. A boulder on the trail that must have fallen out of a rock wall the day before. Ashes, elms, walnuts, spring houses, meadows, small caves, burbling creeks with jewel-weed in bloom.

Saturday night was beautifully clear, and I saw a few meteors. Another camper tried to find the Big Dipper while waiting for his daughter: I showed him where it really was and mentioned meteors. He said his daughter had never seen any before, and he was just mentioning them to her when she saw her first streak through the sky. (She insisted that it was a comet.)

It isn't quiet out in the forest. The crickets kept up a constant noisy background to almost everything. The catbird meowed bitterly that we camped in its territory. Coyotes howled at night, the neighbors' dogs barked, a bird that sounded like a rusty hinge chirped. We heard the squirrels chittering, the chee-chee-chee of a bird we never identified, the loud moans of the double-breasted bed thrasher and the annoyed grouse of the sleepless camper.

We didn't bring a radio, or much in the way of books--I only found out about the hurricane when casually mentioning the weather to another camper. It is tempting to try to stay connected, but then you lose the benefit of being away from it all. Of course we weren't entirely "away from it all." I like plumbing (Youngest Son found the rarely used pit-potties more comfortable than the crowded shower building, though), faucets in the campgrounds had running water we could fill up the camp-pot from, and we checked the cellphone regularly to see if there was some urgent message about my mother-in-law's condition. But aside from a few amenities we had no radio, no phone, no newspaper, no email; nothing but us and some simple chores and some beautiful landscape where we were guests and not supervisors.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

No whys

My Stepfather, Karl, was a good and kind man. He and my mother had five good years together before he began to show psychiatric symptoms. After several years of misdiagnoses and other foolishness from the medical profession, we learned that he had multi-infarct dementia (which James's dad has now).

During that time, I learned that "Why?" is the devil's question. "Why" makes us focus on the injustice and unfairness of the situation; and focussing on unfairness only leads to spinning our wheels. We can't control the "Why."

We can control the "What" and "How:"

  • How do I treat the person who hurts?
  • What is my role in dealing with this crisis?
  • How do I take care of myself so that I don't lose my marbles due to stress?

I am grateful to Pope John Paul II for allowing the world to see his weakness in his last years. He reminded us that we are all frail in some way, yet God still "loves us with an everlasting love." John Paul was dignified even when he drooled. He would not let the world pretend that decline and death don't happen.

We in the industrialized world get uncomfy when we look at weakness. We have removed ourselves as much as possible from a very real and natural part of life; and so it hits us harder when we can't hide from it anymore.

When I first developed fibromyalgia, I didn't know why I hurt and why I was too tired to move. Sometimes all I could pray was, "God; you say you're glorified in weakness. I am weak, so you be glorified in it."

How do we glorify God in these circumstances?

  • We ask for God's grace and for the discernment to recognize grace when it comes.

    Mother has lived 18 months (and counting) longer than anyone expected. She has her anxious moments, and nobody can pretend this is easy. Nevertheless she has received more peace in the last 18 months than I have seen before. I have seen God answer specific prayer, specific evidence of grace.

  • We look for victories. With 3 kids who have Aspergers Syndrome, it's easy to focus on what they can't do. Often we miss the progress or the victory until somebody points it out.

The victories are the small rewards that tell you "You're doing something right." "You've grown in this area." "Your kid will make it, and he'll be stronger because he has worked harder."

When my eldest was three, he was playing with words and sounds. He came up with the phrase "Thank you thinking." For me, the phrase reminds me "Look for evidence of God's love even in a mess."

The greatest source of peace: "We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace,, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in times of need." Hebrews 4:15-16

Jesus didn't spring from God's head full grown and armored. He was God in a baby's body, needing his diapers changed. He was the weird kid on the block--"Can you believe that goody-goody Jesus bar Joseph? He never sins." He lost his earthly father some time before he began his ministry, and as eldest son he was chief care-giver and provider during Joseph's last days. He suffered ghastly pain and humiliation on the cross.

God knows our deepest need not because he is God Almighty and knows everything anyway (though He does). "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows"--borne our sins on the cross, and borne the same trials we face daily. He's been there, done that, got scars.

Mrs. James

"The Battle Doors are Open!"

I don't know why we must grow old and die. Sometimes there's injury or disease to smash the delicate body we casually control. If not, we endure the awful humiliation of slowly losing each power of body and mind, till it seems nothing is left but the helpless naked soul drifting out of sight.

My father, once dignified, strong, and wise, now shivers in a bed he cannot rise from, and can only speak by fits and starts. He knew my name, but could not tell that I was there. At night he called for my mother and my sister--and for the dog he once pretended to disdain because a dachshund wasn't a real dog. And from some unknown distress he warned us that "The battle doors are open!" Only God knows if that was memory or metaphor.

Every power we thought was ours by gift or by mastery, we find instead was merely intrusted to us for a while. Money slips away, and we cannot sign the checks to guide it any more. We spent eager hours learning to drive a car, and that skill slips away in confusion and sluggishness. Even the simple joy of swinging your legs out of bed in the morning is only on loan.

Some of us die as my mother-in-law is dying: crippled by bone cancer and with her mind blurred by exhaustion and the pain-killers (or blurred by the pain when the dose is wrong). She too cannot get up without help, and just getting into a wheelchair seems a crazy risk of her brittle bones. She still has lucid times, and with patience you can collect the threads of her conversation. But lucid times are fewer and the exhaustion eats more of her day.

Our parents are still there, of course, even if more helpless than the babies they once were who could smile and coo. They wait for the final humiliation: that they cannot even keep themselves alive. And who knows what eyes will watch God's judgement of the choices of our souls?

They are going the way their parents went before them, and we will follow them. May we have mercy on each other. And may God have mercy on us all, and reclothe us in glory.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Helley

Subtitled Understanding the special awareness, needs, and communications of the dying, this uses anecdotes to illustrate a set of general observations about the dying and the living.

Slow dying, as opposed to death by heart attack or accident, often follows a common pattern near the end. Some of these, such as unability to drink or the "death rattle" are more frightening to the family than painful to the dying. The family and the dying frequently react somewhere along Kubler-Ross' sequence: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance--though they don't always "follow the sequence."

The authors' main contribution is to emphasize the need to listen carefully to the dying to discover what they are trying to say. People sometimes feel the need to wrap up their affairs, say goodbyes, reconcile with estranged family, or offer some encouragement themselves. Unfortunately, near the end, clear communication can become difficult. Probably most of us have been in the situation of wanting to say something, but, having forgeten the right word, trying to use a phrase that almost fits, or even trying to use some simile instead of clear prose. Apparently the dying are more aware of what is going on around them than one might expect given the closed eyes and lack of reaction.

If we pay careful attention to what they say, we can sometimes figure out what they mean despite some confusion. Some things are fairly clear: a man who laments that the trolley won't stop for him seems to be wondering why it is taking so long to die. Mentioning "Dad" in the middle of otherwise incomprehensible mumbles might mean that the woman wants to see her estranged father before she dies.

Or, of course, it might not. You have to know the person and their situation fairly well to figure out something like that.

The authors suggest that some people can "let go" at will. This is plausible: as the body begins shutting down functions, you might become more aware of the remaining ones--there's less distraction. And if with awareness of the action comes a little control, letting go seems more possible. We can all recall people who died after some milestone: Charles Schultz died days after his last Peanuts strip.

Some people want family around, while others, satisfied that they are loved, prefer not to be a bother and die when nobody is around. The authors say that many people blame themselves for not being there: "I just stepped out for a minute and he was gone!" Maybe the deceased wanted it that way.

Summary: The dying quite likely know what's going on (hearing is one of the last things to go), and you should pay attention to what they're saying. It may be in fragments, or even symbolic, but hear them out.