Monday, May 30, 2005

Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card

I'd seen the first book around the second-hand shops for some years, but nothing about the blurb grabbed me. Another "series writer," so what.

And I didn't make the connection with a series of other books he wrote: Leah, Rachel, and others.

But I read some online comics, and apparently Card stirred up a huge furor: the word betrayal turned up frequently. Hmm? The complaints boiled down to "He wrote so movingly of acceptance and understanding of even the most outcast, and then he wrote this."

That told me a few things: Apparently I'd missed out on a very well-respected as well as popular author, and apparently he was a deep enough writer to understand both toleration (mercy) and judgement, which LeGuin, for all her skill, is not.

The library kept Ender's Game in the Young Adult section; which made it a bit hard to find at first. (I don't understand at all how they decide what goes in that category.)

The thesis of Ender's Game is that an alien insectoid species (Buggers) have twice attacked Earth, which has, under a compromise government, mobilized a space force to defend humanity. The children with the most promising sets of skills and psychological profile (as tested, anyway) are taken to a space station to Battle School. There, though they have ordinary courses, they learn leadership and innovation through (safe) combat games.

Ender is a (rare) third child. Both his older brother and sister were tested and rejected--the brother too vicious, the sister too mild--but all are off-the-charts brilliant. Little, and often a target, Ender goes to Battle School, where he shines despite the harsh treatment and crushing pressure--external and internal.

That much doesn't give anything away. The story is not suspenseful in the sense that there's any doubt who will be the commander--the title tells you that already. But it is a good story about how to try to train someone to be empathic enough to be a good leader, empathic enough to figure out and respond to an alien enemy's strategy, and ruthless enough to destroy and to spend your own men to destroy.

So I picked up Ender's Shadow, a "parallel" book written much later, and from the point of view of Bean, an even younger and brighter child than Ender. Not quite as moving, but well done, and obviously designed as part of a series (which, lo and behold, it is).

Tastes will vary, but I recommend the book.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Band Concert

Tonight was the final high school band concert of the year, and MD Middle Daughter played tuba in the last band. I took piano lessons for a while, but the metronome and I never got along and now I play the radio. It's always a little miraculous to hear someone getting music out of what I only make noise with.

The program order was slightly scrambled, and the sound of the bands was good. The Northwoods piece by Robert Smith was maybe a bit heavy on unusual instrumentation (a saw, bowing muted and unmuted cymbols), but a good time was had.

Up until the final band, with MD. Pastorale went fine, but then something broke on one of the bassoons, and Whatsover Things has a bassoon duet at the beginning. Thus; a plea for a match or a lighter. A student from the back provided a lighter, and announced that it was from "Chad." We had a brief intermission for a soldering session, and when it became clear that it was trickier work than at first appeared, the awards people took the stage. Next year they need to rethink how to manage handing school letters to 34 people on a crowded stage.

The bassoons sounded fine, (as did the tubas!), and then came the student's awards to the teachers. MD complained afterwards that the intermissions dried up the emotional drive.

And the final piece was The Stars and Stripes Forever, with soloists and others coming forward near the end to be heard better.

The contrast of Sousa and almost all the other composers was dramatic. "Fantasy," "rhapsody," "voices of" all meant the music didn't have a strong central theme and drive; but that it tried on one theme for a while, and then did a little color, and tried another theme. OK, Mozart is always strong, I meant the others.

A pleasant evening; and I'm proud of MD.


In the checkout line ahead of me at Walmart Monday was a slim woman in ultra-short shorts and a long-sleeved shirt; with long long tanned legs and very pale face and hands.

Citizen of where?

Koromah Boykins wants to be Don Quixote. "Boykins is among a growing number of African-Americans seeking citizenship in Liberia."

Charles L. Jones, President and Chief Executive Officer of Restore Negroes Heritage to Africa says the thing that stands out the most in his mind is, "there are lots of ordinary Liberians who believe that Liberia was founded as a homeland for freed slaves from America, their descendants, and all people of color who want to live free. That premise we can say is long forgotten, and is totally unfulfilled. Many of the founding fathers descendants who are citizens of Liberia continue to serve the Caucasians of the Western world until this day," says Jones.

Jones says he himself has been involved in trying to reclaim his citizenship from Liberia. "I've been doing this since 1999, when I got back from Liberia, went to the U.S. State Department to seek help for Liberia because the country was in turmoil. Jones says the state department said they could not provide the kind of help that he was seeking, but you can help if you go to Liberia and run from president.

" How can I stand for president in a country I'm not citizen of. Jones says the state department official informed him: "that's where you are wrong, You and every black American are citizens of Liberia."

Jones says when he asked whether there any documents to that effect he was told to conduct research which he eventual did.

"I went and found them on the internet, on the archives and the Liberian congress. It has what is known as Article 9. 1839.

"I'm not a stranger to Liberia or Africa. I have spent fifteen or more years in Liberia. I found many people in the country who agreed with my philosophy. So that's how long I've been involved, he says.

"Once we claim our citizenship to Liberia then we will be restoring our heritage to Africa," says Jones. Jones said the problem now facing him and others seeking Liberian citizenship is whether to put Liberia in a court of law and let the courts interpret the issue as whether they are legitimate citizens of Liberia or not. Or apply for the rights to become citizens of Liberia.

Where do I start? Jones wants to dredge up superceded laws to give him access to another country. I have a picture of a State Department functionary, sick to death of a boring pest, who decides to play on the credulity of his tormenter. Or perhaps State has some genuine nutcases who dislike their own country aboard--there's some evidence for that.

Do we know this family?

Boykins says the meeting was timely and nice. "My family was happy to know that they have a background in Liberia. My grandfather was born in Liberia from the Koromah and massaquoi family. My father, Robert Boykins, is a resident in Baltimore, Maryland.

And Koromah wants to get the British government to persuade Sierra Leone to give him some property that his family may or may not have had a right to back in a day when there was no Liberian government control of the region in question.

In 1989, following the death of Koromah's grandfather George M. Koromah Sr, the family discussed what what was going to be done with the property in Soulema, Sierra Leone. "Our portfolio left by grandfather led to the research of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 These deeds led me to London to inspect the registrar and found everything to be legitimate," says Koromah

"England takes the territory so long in dispute, and which covers a line of sea coast of some forty miles, by cession direct of the so-called King of the Gallinas and Chiefs of the neighboring country, in an " Agreement" concluded at Solymah, March 30, 1882 with Governor Haveloc, which agreement was not ratified for nearly a year, as appears by the Governor's Proclamation of March 19, 1883, conveying "Her Majesty's confirmation and acceptance."

The Region "annexed is described as bordering on the Atlantic Ocean and Extending a "Distance inland of half a mile from high water," and intended " as part of the colony of Sierra Leone." The consideration is an annual stipend of 210 pounds distributed among fifteen native princes and headmen in sums of from 5 pounds to 30 pounds, payment to begin at once.

Somebody needs to take Koromah aside and remind him that the law is generally quite practical. Hundred-year old claims in a land where government has been a rarity are worth precisely nothing. The US is fairly generous with dual citizenship, but not that generous. And blaming all your woes on the "Caucasians" will get you lots of shoulders to cry on, but not a lot of practical help.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Joyful Noise

#3 daughter played percussion in a small ensemble for home schoolers yesterday. She began percussion 6 months ago, with a practice pad and bells set, and got into the ensemble in January. I asked ber, "Now that you've played for six months and been in a concert, how do you like percussion?"

"I like it. I like drums better than wind instruments. Drums don't squeak!"

In transit

The road to church is under construction, which gives us an excuse to drive our favorite back roads. #2 son asked, "Aren't you going the wrong way?"

#1 son answered, "The road's under construction. So the wrong way is now the right way."

mrs james

Monday, May 23, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

In The Empire Strikes Back we see Yoda as a mysterious and powerful Master. In The Return of the Jedi we see that Yoda could be wrong. And now, in Revenge of the Sith, we see Yoda as a blundering fathead. In the pivotal scene, when a miserable Anakin is looking for advice about his wife, the great Yoda delivers a Buddhist sermon on the virtues of detachment.

I guess this is supposed to tie in with the whole vague business of "balance" (the Jedi clearly didn't have both oars in the water if they'd countentance things like "truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view"), but I can't be bothered to work out continuity issues for Lucas. He swears there were to be no movie sequels, but one scene leaves an opening for sequels, or for a TV series. . .

Lucas is very good at spectacle, and he delivers. The dialog isn't quite as bad as I'd expected, but the poor dialog and vague acting completely undermine what should have been a climactic scene when Anakin swears himself to the Emperor.

And Lucas tries to lay the foundations for the rest (first) of the series and tie things together, and does a pretty decent job of it. He's never worried too terribly much about continuity before; making sure the plot runs fast has been more important. And so, dark tone or no, it is a pretty fun movie.

But for crying out loud: After nine hundred years, Master grammar Yoda cannot?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Animal Rights

Peter Young was caught recently. He is a member of the Animal Liberation Front, and was sought for his role in "releasing" hundreds of minks.

They were indicted in 1998 on federal charges including interfering with interstate commerce by threat or violence. Federal authorities call it an animal terrorism charge. Sympathizers scoff at the charges, the most serious of which carry up to 20 years behind bars. "It's a funny terrorist who doesn't harm a single human being," said Steven Best, author of "Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals."

But ALF is a terrorist group, well known for intimidation campaigns. I find it incredible that people can actually believe the sorts of things they do, but they can and do and their hatred is consistent.

"Antibiotic" beer?

National Geographic has an article on how ancient Nubians wound up with tetracycline in their bones.

The bones, the researchers say, contain traces of the antibiotic tetracycline. Today tetracycline is used to treat ailments ranging from acne flare-ups to urinary-tract infections. But the antibiotic only came into commercial use half a century ago. So how did tetracycline get into the Nubian bones? Armelagos and his team say they found an answer in ancient beer. The brew was made from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomycedes, which produces tetracycline. The ancient Nubians, according to Armelagos, stored their grain in mud bins. A soil bacteria, streptomycedes is ubiquitous in arid climates like Sudan's. "We looked at how the grain was used then and came across a recipe for beer," Armelagos said. The Nubians would make dough with the grain, bake it briefly at a hot temperature, and then use it to make beer.

He goes on to cross-reference their neighbors, the Egyptians, who had a written language (I've no idea why the Nubians wouldn't--they borrowed so much else from the Egyptians, it would be crazy not to learn to write. Maybe they just didn't like writing on stone, or didn't have stuff as durable as papyrus)

Armelagos said the Egyptians used beer as a gum-disease treatment, a dressing for wounds, and even an anal fumiganta vaporborne pesticide to treat diseases of the anus. The anthropologist also believes the tetracycline protected the Nubians from bone infections, as all the bones he examined are infection free.

They don't mention Egyptian bones, and I suspect the Egyptian beer was not similarly innoculated, so I suspect their pharmaceutical uses of beer related more to the alcohol content.


Our library has a cart by the checkout line called "Your Lucky Day," where they put new arrivals. You can be the first to read a book they just bought. Monday the shelf was almost bare. There were a few DVDs; mostly "Arthur" this and Arthur that. Right next to "Arthur's Vacation" was "Un Chien Andalou." Hello Dali?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Remodeling and leak-proofing

The large lecture hall was remodeled during the Chamberlin Hall work, to allow for more electronics and for a lecture demonstration prep room in back. The old hall (it is underground) leaked a bit, so the powers-that-be took this opportunity to reseal the courtyard above it. For a couple of weeks workers stripped out the old loose sealant in the cracks, cleaned and ground out the cracks, and filled them with brand new goo.

Apparently they also flushed out the accumulated silt that slowed water flow, because the new hall leaks worse than before, and the prep room has a substantial puddle in the middle of the floor. Dedication is coming up soon . . .

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Problem solving

Our youngest had the following problem in his math homework the other day (I don't remember exact wording): "One student brings a brown bag lunch to school every day for a year. This generates 67 lbs of trash. If everyone in your class brings bag lunches to school for a year, how much trash will that make?" He crunched the numbers.

The next question: "What could you do to reduce the amount of trash?" His answer: "Home school."

mrs james

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Middle Daughter MD noticed a new student (he's in the local paper today) earlier this school year. He was tall, black, and didn't slouch. Her first thought that day was "He must be an immigrant."

And so he was, and apparently a fine student and athlete. Interesting that "not slouching" is the mark of a foreigner.

Very odd, but not really complaining

Earlier this year, Middle Daughter MD had her calculator stolen from her band locker. It was pretty distinctive, with duct tape and her and her brother's names written all over it. Luckily the graphing functions (required for Algebra classes) weren't actually needed in Physics class, so we were able to find a suitable replacement.

Last week, the calculator reappeared, sans duct tape, in her locker. There's a kind of honesty there . . .

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


From the NY Times article: Chimerism--having cells from another person in your body.

One route to this odd state, called chimerism, is the vanishing twin. Dr. Helain Landy of Georgetown University, who has no involvement in the Hamilton case, has found that 20 to 30 percent of pregnancies that start out as twins end up as single babies, with one twin being absorbed by the mother during the first trimester.

Others researchers have found that in some cases, before the twin is absorbed, some of its cells enter the body of the other fetus and remain there for life. The cells can include bone marrow stem cells, the progenitors of blood cells.

Another route to chimerism is through the cells that routinely pass from a mother to fetus and remain there for life.

Perhaps instead we should think about reinterpreting the meaning of the DNA analysis. Does the "chimerism rate" represent an error rate in the tests?

So many "breakthroughs" have been anounced based on DNA analysis that I'm starting to become quite skeptical. Every other month or so we hear that animal X is really related to animal Y instead of the animal Z that it looks just like.


School violence and inequality

OK, which is the cause and which is the effect? LeTendre and Baker say that

"The more school systems produce a set of academic winners and losers, the more likely they are to create an atmosphere leading to in-school violence. This does not mean that nations should stop trying to raise scores, but they should be careful to raise the performance among all students. Persistent inequality in national resources produces both long-term and immediate problems for nations, the most pressing of which may be school violence."

I haven't read the book, but the the Penn State press release doesn't indicate how they tried to distinguish causes from effects, and they seem to rely on student evaluation of how violent a school is--which is a bit unobjective, to say the least.

I wouldn't rule out the theory that both violence in schools and inequity in performance stem from the same source. In this country you can very plausibly argue that an aggressively anti-establishment subculture (which I call a "ghetto subculture") drives both school violence and degraded performance. So which do you try to deal with first? Do you try a zero-tolerance policy for school violence? Do you try to hire more teachers (oops--they don't like being attacked in the halls either)? Do you try to address the underlying cultural conflict between civilization and barbarism?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mother's Day

Pneumonia knocks the stuffings out of people. Mom's been home for almost a week now, hadn't finished a sentence all week. Voice sometimes stronger, sometimes not.

Yesterday I replanted the flowerpots on her patio for Mothers' Day. We wheeled her into the living room (O2 concentrator has 50 feet of line) so she could see them. I said she could either enjoy the fresh air and look at the patio flowers, or get dressed and we'd go for a drive. Took her for a half hour drive, past the llama and sheep farm, brief stop at the truck stop famous for massive cream puffs, then through the park and home. Had a small slice of the cream puff and she was ready to take a nap, but color looked better.

This morning I have been blessed with a plush Rose Breasted Grosbeak, courtesy of #1 son; a Lindt raspberry chocolate bar, from #3 daughter, and a yellow feathered memo clip from #2 son. We're taking Mothers' Day in installments so that kids can take turns spending a little time with Grandma.

Yes, I'm cooking on Mothers' Day. But everybody else gets to clean up.

mrs james

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Wood in Ancient Rome

Youngest Daughter (YD) is studying Ancient Rome, with particular fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum. One curiosity, to my eyes at least, is the paucity of furniture in Roman homes. The books applaud this as a lack of clutter, but I'm a bit puzzled. Cabinets are such useful things . . .

Perhaps this was just the fashion at the time, or perhaps termites were so troublesome that wooden furniture wasn't all that desirable.

Or perhaps wood was just hard to come by. If they burned their forests for cooking and cremations, then after you've built a few ships furniture starts to get rather expensive. But I can't get the numbers to come out right--I keep estimating only a few square km per year deforested.

From the Cranky Professor

.....Deforestation is greatly overstated in most of the current histories (esp. the popular ones). Archaeology is beginning to show that the flora base of the Mediterranean has never really been all that different during human history (at least for the last 15,000 years or so). Poets weeping about deforestation seem to be engaging in an "everything runs down" theme rather than real observation. My copy of _The_Corrupting_Sea_ is at school or I'd offer some references.

.....Furniture almost never survives. ALL the surviving ancient furniture is accidental. We would have had much more from Pompeii if they'd invented the plaster-casting-the-voids technique earlier. There is a significant amount of hardware surviving from chests. On the other hand, the rooms probably were simpler than ours.

Music tryouts

As YS is heading for Middle School next fall, we insisted that he try out various instruments for orchestra or band. (He's been learning piano and basic percussion at home.) He vehemently rejected the tuba: "Playing the tuba is too much for my lips!"


On the lighter side, Youngest Son (YS) has been reading The Way Things Work, that entertaining work which uses mammoths to illustrate principles of science and technology. (I recommend it.) YS decided to recreate the descriptions of various scenes involving levers and mechanics using Legos, a small stuffed mammoth, and some yarn. He did a darn good job, too--his improvised pulley worked. Hours of fun acting out scenes from the book . . .