Thursday, March 31, 2005

John Paul II

Pope John Paul II came to Chicago in 1979, and I went to hear his mass in Grant Park. I'm not Catholic, but I'd been looking for God and found Him while attending a Catholic college; and I'd followed the events after John Paul's election, including the beginnings of the Solidarity movement, still just a whisper in the wind in Fall of 79.

I read the Bible during my lunch breaks, and for a while I read other Christian books, including his "Sign of Contradiction", which went into a lot of detail about Mary, and how Christ's ministry confounds everybody's expectations, then and now. I also have a collection of his poetry, "Easter Vigil."

Two samples:

Marble Floor
Our feet meet the earth in this place;
there are so many walls, so many colonnades,
yet we are not lost. If we find
meaning and oneness,
it is the floor that guides us. It joins the spaces
of this great edifice, and joins
the spaces within us,
who walk aware of our weakness and defeat.
Peter, you are the floor, that others
may walk over you (not knowing
where they go). You guide their steps
so that spaces can be one in their eyes,
and from them thought is born.
You want to serve their feet that pass
as rocks serve the hooves of sheep.
The rock is a gigantic temple floor,
the cross a pasture.

Words Spoken by the Woman at the Well, on Departing
From this moment, my ignorance
closes behind me like the door
through walls which you entered, recognizing
all I do not know.
And through me you led many people in silence,
many roads, and the turmois of the streets.

I hear tonight that John Paul has received Last Rites.

mrs james


And Terri Schaivo finally dies.

You don't often see as much nonsense and lies flying around a single person as you did around Terri. From Randall Terry BS'ing about Terri miraculously talking again to the despicable CBS push-poll; lies and lies. "Michael beat her" and "its her right to die." And somehow giving food and water are heroic measures. In the Sun Prairie Star one man-on-the-street capped it with "The question is, does she have the right to live?"

I hope my life never hinges on the common sense of Judge Greer.

I'm told Terri's room was guarded. I hope, for the sake of their souls, that the guards occasionally snuck in to give her a sip of water.

"for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


We were waiting by the mall, facing the sunset and the thunderstorm racing towards us. The sky was turquoise under the cloud, with veils of rain; the sun blocked by dense cloud. I've never seen a storm so clearly, with the sunlight beneath it. The wall cloud was as sharp-edged as a cow-catcher, and behind it jumped ropes of lightening. As the wall cloud passed over us, I heard a diffuse roar, and from across the vast parking lot I could see a whiteness on the asphalt. The roar grew louder and more stacatto, and suddenly we saw the hail, and dashed inside just as the quarter inch pebbles began pouring around us. Several handfuls followed us into the store's lobby. A woman with packages came to the doors, and decided she wasn't in such a hurry to leave as she'd thought. And the hail became rain, and the rain dissolved the hail, and slowly diminished. And then my wife arrived.

Cave of the Mounds

The home school group organized a trip to Cave of the Mounds, a beautiful surprise in a small gravel pit on a farm in SW Wisconsin. The owners dynamited a new section in 1939, found the cave, were going to wait three days until the dust settled to explore, and couldn't stand the suspense; they went in three hours later and were just delighted.

#2 son is on Spring Break from his school, so he came along. To head off Fussing Sister Syndrome, #3 daughter went in the other group, with another mom who knows her. #2 Son has read about caves and knows all the $40 words: speleology, flowstone, aquifer, etc. He gave half of the tour guide's spiel for her. This would have driven his sister crazy; the guide didn't mind at all. I did make him lower his hand a number of times, to let somebody else get a word in edgewise. A very enthusiastic group: lots of little boys in our party. Little boys notice everything and announce it to the world; little girls tend to notice things quietly, except for 4 year old Elsa who oohed and clapped her hands and told her longsuffering 13 year old brother about everything she saw, twice.

Our guide was the most knowledgeable I've heard in the cave; this is my 7th or 8th trip there, and I learned a lot of new details. She brought a strobe light and showed us phosphorescence in some features. She deftly fielded all the kid's questions and didn't mind repeating herself. Ask for Allison if you go to the cave this summer.

A creek runs through the property above the cave, and the snow hasn't melted in the shadow of the footbridge. So I looked over the bridge to see water burbling rapidly at the bottom of a miniature snow crevasse. Springtime is drip season inside the cave, and we could hear the water running in the underground stream below us. In the summer I never heard it. The pools on the upper levels were still, except for drips, which was a blessing, because you can't see some of the domes clearly if you look up, but you can see the reflections in the pool.

Cave Broccoli: a black formation that looks more like round bunches of coral hanging down, forms in pools. The water level in the pool had been lowered with a pump, so you could see the "broccoli" more clearly. I finally found out that the dark purple we'd seen in Jewel Cave, SD Badlands, was due to manganese mixed with the calcite. Here, what looked like a row of purply-brown heiroglyphics were actually streaks of manganese.

Went to Beautiful Downtown Mt. Horeb, WI for lunch at an old diner, and to count trolls on the Main St. "Trollway." Mt. Horeb boasts a Mustard Museum, nicely rehabbed 19th C. storefronts, and an assortment of wooden trolls on posts in front of various businesses. One in a wooden bathtub, one with a cat at his feet, licking up ice cream that dripped off his sundae; an old lady troll with an umbrella, a mayor troll with the key to the city. I missed the Richard Nixon troll. He used to stand in front of an antique shop.

Kids have little experience of slow food. I told them we were NOT going to McWhatnots today. So daughter and I had burgers, but real beef cooked to order, not preassembled in New Jersey; and Luke had a BLT and I had a bowl of the best chicken dumpling soup ever. A real homemade cannonball dumpling: solid, heavy, sticks to you. Washed it down with a chocolate Phosphate (for the uninitiated, a phosphate is soda water plus syrup, like an ice cream soda minus the ice cream). Had to explain to #2 son what the check was, and why I left a tip, and how to figure it. Daughter has been to some real restaurants already, but hadn't paid attention to that detail before.

One last stop on this expedition: UW Geology Museum. Picked up lone copy of self-guided tour, did the rounds, and then let kids have a turn with the self-guided tourbook to review the parts they liked. The shark fossil--shark vertebral disks plus remains of what the shark had for dinner--is my favorite. I fail to see how they can assert that one set of bones belong to a baby mosasaur; all I can see is something that looks like a fossilized cornish hen thighbone. Son liked the fossilized crab, all in once piece; I don't know how they chiseled that out of the rock without breaking the claws. Truly horrendous facial bones of an early armored fish. Amethyst geodes I'd love to take home.

Came home just before a howling thunderstorm, with a tornado warning over Waunakee. Told son a dozen times or so that cell clouds were passing to the north of us, but he was perfectly welcome to go roost in the basement a while.

#2 Daughter is in Myrtle Beach with youth group, where they had tornado warnings on Easter. She called yesterday to tell us she'd spent more time in the laundromat than on the beach (they're camping, somebody didn't set up the tents and tarps right). Today heard from husband of one of chaperones that daughter had taken his wife out for a six mile hike along the beach, so she must have made up for rainy days today.

mrs james

Overheard on the bus

The driver had pulled over, and we assumed he was waiting at his time point. (He'd have done as well to keep going: traffic was extraordinarily slow in the construction zone.) After a while I noticed the sound of a noisy phone conversation: It was the driver. I only heard fragments of his half, but that was certainly enough to spur on curiosity:
"looking around through books in the Bible, you know, the Old Testament.."
"referenced in a couple of the gospels, let him who is without sin cast the first" ... "attention"
"But you know those folks, they want to kill all the black people."
"I agree completely, only a judge can decide a crime."

I suppose they were talking about the news story that a judge overturned a jury's verdict when he found that a few jurors had looked up some things in the Bible. Don't ask me about that case: I don't know the details well enough to say whether the judge was out of his mind or not. Perhaps the driver didn't mean exactly what his words said, but I've heard things like them before.

They say Madison is a liberal town. You have to wrench that old word "liberal" inside out and stamp on it to make it fit.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Static demonstrations

Youngest son (YS) came into the living room a few minutes ago rubbing a peice of styrofoam on his hair. The table in the living room had been commandeered to hold a tray of potting soil for starting flower seeds. YS wanted to see if dirt would jump up to the foam like hair and bits of paper did--and lo and behold, he suddenly had a dirty peice of styrofoam. Glee! Young scientist at work!

Pearls of Great Price

The Milwaukee Public Museum is showing a lovely exhibit of pearls: jewelry, history, pearl culture, and the troubles of the freshwater mussel industry in the US. #2 Son liked "seeing how they harvest pearls and how pearls can be put to use, by putting them in tea sets and jewelry and other things." Yes, tea sets--a silver tea set, copied from a Moorish design, with pearls set into the silver work.

#3 daughter wanted to see what famous people wore the jewels, and was glad to see a picture of Good Queen Bess in her pearled finery. We have spent several months on the 16th C. in home school--you need to spend that much time, given the Reformation, the Age of Exploration, and the spectacular politics and personalities of the time. Queen Elizabeth I is her favorite. Elizabeth, having had a most precarious childhood and a very thin wardrobe budget before her accession, became the Renaissance equivalent of the compulsive shopper; she had a thousand gowns, so encrusted with jewels that the gowns could stand up by themselves. She encouraged early attempts to make artificial pearls; she was crazy about jewelry in general and pearls in particular.

#3 daughter also enjoyed Byzantine jewelry and a bird brooch made with two oddly shaped pearls, one for the head and one for the tail, with a golden body.

Speaking of gowns encrusted with jewels, the most spectacular items included a Nepalese pearl/papier mache/fabric/white plumed/gold/etc. crown, about 30 inches high, with a picture of the prince wearing it; a pearl and oval amethyst necklace from the Victorian Era--amethysts were the size of quarters; a Russian Orthodox priest's vestments which seem to have the same cut as a Mandarin robe, made of white floral brocade (all-over square pattern, about 1 inch, of white and yellow tiny buds) and 4-inch crosses of beryl and spinels and pearls in a line fown the front, seed pearls embroidered all over. Somebody must have worked for years on that. Lillian Russell's chrysanthemum Tiffany brooch, a hundred "petals" of thin oblong blister pearls. A pearl, gold, and fabric tarantula brooch, life sized, made with two huge red conch pearls for the body, meant to be worn on somebody's shoulder, presumably a very expensive way of "freaking out the mundanes." A high society wedding gown, 1966, with swirls of pearls sewn in, by the designer, Priscilla (Sombody) of Boston, who created wedding gowns for Trisha and Julie Nixon and Lucie Johnson. Ugliest piece: boots from some performance in the last 20 years, white stringy fur at the top and a zillion pearl buttons sewn on.

Today I learned that conch shells produce irregular orange and pink pearls; that "black" pearls can be blue and green--the color of pearl is often determined by the species of mollusk that produces it. I learned that the cultured pearl industry uses 200 tons a year of American freshwater mussel shells for the culturing "seed," and that the culturers cut a thin slice of the nacre-producing membrane, painted with antibiotic solution, to stimulate the production of nacre to form the pearl. I also learned that the Japanese historically liked mother of pearl but didn't appreciate individual pearls until contact with the outside world showed them a very lucrative market for them. In Papua New Guinea, explorers reported that children used large pearls as marbles!

#2 son had fun with the interactive exhibit that allowed him to control magnification of the electron microscope shot of the crystal structure of the pearl. Seems the pearl is formed of aragonite, which is like layer upon layer of hexagonal crystals, like flat sheets of terrazo tile stacked. The aragonite and conchiolin (my new word for the day) that form the layers of the pearl are translucent. Some light that strikes the pearl bounces off directly, but some of the light penetrates a layer or two before bouncing back. This reflection gives the illusion that the pearl itself is glowing.

If you live within driving distance of Milwaukee, go see this before it closes in late June. Unfortunately this is the last stop for the show.

A brief plug for museum memberships: I find that these pay for themselves. If you use a museum twice a year, and if you go to museums when you travel, odds are very good that you'll find a museum that accepts your membership. Our Milwaukee Public Museum membership gets us into the Louisville Science Center and the Museum of Science and Industry and Field Museums in Chicago, among others. When we took all 5 kids to museums, one trip a year paid for itself. Now our older kids are too cool to go with us, so it takes two trips to pay for itself. Only time we got skunked on the deal: Shedd Aquarium withdrew access for Milwaukee Zoo memberships, and a trip to the Shedd for two adults and three of our kids cost $75--same as a membership. Rules are that members can choose whether to accept memberships if the other museum is within 100 miles. This explains why the MPM and Discovery World, which share a lobby, don't share memberships.

The membership also saves you a bundle on special exhibits. "Treasures of Egypt" was $18 a head last summer and $11.50 for kids; but only $5 a head with a membership. To see "Pearls: A Natural History" is $14.50 for a non-member adult but only about $4 for a member. Also big savings on IMAX tickets.

Go see the Pearls exhibit, and plan on taking your time.

mrs james

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Between Good Friday and Easter comes the Sabbath

On Good Friday we have the sacrifice and the dereliction. On Easter Sunday we have the resurrection and the joy. What's the Saturday in between for? Imagine if you were there.

It was the Sabbath, when no one was supposed to work (except God, busy maintaining the world). OK, maybe you had to rescue the farm animals stuck in the ditch, or care for the sick, but otherwise everything went on hold. You had to wait to finish the schoolwork, wait to conclude the deal, wait to finish painting, wait to finish the preparations of the body for burial. The disciples had to wait before trying to skedadle out of town (they could only go a Sabbath-day's journey), though the Sabbath gave them a slight break before the authorities would start hunting for them.

On that Saturday/Sabbath, there was nothing they could do. They probably didn't know what to do anyway, except lie low and wait.

One of the lessons of the Sabbath was "you don't hold up the world." For six days you work and for one day you rest and realize that the results depend on God.

Lots of life is bound up with waiting. A boy wants to be a fireman, but he'll have to wait. A couple want a baby--they'll have to wait. Why can't you learn to walk right away? Travel takes time. Growing takes time. Ripening takes time. Wisdom takes time. Even drying clothes takes time.

And God makes us wait in other ways. We read of many prophets, but there seem to have been spans of time with no prophet--especially the four hundred years before Jesus. "You have enough for now, follow what you know and wait." How long have we been waiting for Jesus' return? And, I suppose, how long has God been waiting for us to finish reaching the world?

Plant the crops and wait for rain. Mend the fishing nets and wait for the rain to stop.

Newlyweds find a monthly interruption to nuptial delights--and it lasts a week, too. Why? I don't know: Waiting again.

Someone said that 90% of life was showing up. That's kind of a primitive way of looking at it, but a lot of life is spent being there and being ready and waiting. And I guess God wants it that way. How to occupy our time while waiting is a matter for another meditation.

But for this Saturday/Sabbath, we wait, as they waited; for Easter isn't about what we can do.

Star Wars III

Lucas was quoted describing his upcoming movie as a "tear jerker." If I go by his recent efforts (sand as a topic for romantic conversation?), I suspect we'll have a camp side-splitter instead.

Yeah, I'll probably see it. Not on opening day, and if my friends say it is really bad I'll wait for the video. I'd prefer the big screen, though: when Lucas wants to put on a spectacle only the big screen is big enough. The story may not make enough sense, and the actors may be reading their lines for the first time, but Lucas knows how to put on a good spectacle. I wish I could find 'The Phantom Edit.'

Novel By-Words

Youngest daughter (YD) and youngest son (YS) were playing Star Wars Monopoly. YS plays strategically, and had loaded the equivalent of Boardwalk/Park Place with the equivalent of hotels. YD eventually landed on one and went broke. Oldest son (OS) was making soup in the kitchen nearby.
YD: "You cheated!"
YS: "No I didn't!"
YD: "You're not supposed to load up one set of properties like that! You cheated!"
OS: "No he didn't."
YD: "Yes he did!"
OS: "You're just saying he cheated because you lost, you Al Gore."

No, Gore is not a frequent topic of conversation around the house.

and no, YD had no idea whom OS was talking about.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Water Heater Replacement!

A few tips for the newbies from the now oh-so-experienced (and slightly dinged up) me.

  • Rent an appliance dolly. For twice as long as you think you'll need. I figured this one out after pulling the new water heater out of the back of my van.
  • Measure the basement landing. Build a crib of 2x4's if you find that the box+dolly is wider than the landing. It will be.
  • Ask a teenage daughter to take a shower after you turn the heater off. This means that you'll get rid of all the hot water, and you can use your garden hose to drain the heater without ruining the hose.
  • You're going to have to shut off the house water, unless there's a valve already on the hot water line. You can't just shut off the cold input and drain the house hot water--somewhere upstairs a faucet mixes hot and cold together, and it comes back downstairs.
  • The old machine has a lot of rock and sand in the bottom. With the house water off, there's no pressure, and it takes a long time to drain. Mine took over an hour. Keep the hose flat. It was suggested to me that I should have ripped the outlet off or used a thin rod to push the crud out of the way. I didn't want a giant puddle on the floor.
  • Make sure you know exactly what size the gas outlet and heater inlets are. Ditto for the water lines.
  • Flexible gas hose kits don't have all the parts, unless you're lucky. Look carefully at the double-male adapter. One end is beveled, unlike the double male black pipe piece you just bought.
  • Get the correct grease for the gas pipe fittings. Use it on the male connectors.
  • A rubber cork is a nice thing to stick in the gas pipe to keep it from stinking up the place. You did turn the gas valve off first, right? And double checked it? I got my rubber stoppers from university surplus, and happened to have one lying around at the time.
  • If you are re-using the flexible copper water hoses, don't forget to replace those $#%! washers. They are not the same size as garden hose/washer hookup hose washers.
  • Look for the union in the gas line. It had better be downstream of the shutoff valve, or you've got a problem. Undo the union first, and then work your way out to the heater. There aren't any shortcuts.
  • Clean the gas fitting threads with a wire brush. Don't scrimp: ten extra minutes brushing might save a half hour looking for a leak later. Old fitting grease chips off nicely with a sharp knife.
  • Be courteous to increasingly irritable and cross-legged family members wondering when the water will come back on. You will need them when you try to get the old water heater back upstairs. It is full of rocks now.
  • Try to center the new machine under the existing pipes. Try to try-fit the water lines. Murphy dictates that one of the 12 inch hoses will be 1/2 inch too short; and the next size up is 18 inches.
  • Cold water goes in the intake marked COLD.
  • The water softener drain hose will be in the way. Luckily we're having to replace that too (it doesn't work), so I just got rid of the copper tube. Don't forget to cap it off, though.
  • When bending flexible hoses, bend them over a sofa back or something else with a large radius, or they're apt to pinch themselves half-closed.
  • Wear gloves when trimming the metal vent stack.
  • For some reason the screws holding the vent don't want to go very far in. As long as the vent can't move, you're probably OK.
  • Before you dolly the old machine out to the curb, check when the appliance pickup date is. There might be some penalty for having junk left out too soon.
  • Fill the machine with water before trying to turn it on. A water hose is going to leak.
  • It might take a while, and you might smell a little gas, when trying to light the pilot light. Remember that the last few feet of the gas line have air in them, which doesn't burn very well. As the directions say, turn the pilot off. Go outside or something so your nose doesn't get acclimated to the smell. When you come back, put soapy water on the fittings and see if you see bubbles or smell anything.
  • Don't forget to return the dolly.
  • Tape the heater manual to the wall.
  • If you luck out, you might save a few bucks buying a water heater connection kit. It wouldn't have helped me much, though.
  • The thermal damper isn't really needed with modern systems.
  • Amuse yourself rolling the old machine back and forth and listening to the rattle inside.

No, I didn't make all those mistakes. Quite a few, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

When anthologies are good, they are very, very good; but when they are bad, they are stodgy.

My friend is home schooling her 9th grader and a younger son. The anthology they have comes from a publisher which emphasizes quality and Good Character. Their editor must think that fun and good character are incompatible. No Ogden Nash. No JRR Tolkien. Probably Kipling's "If" but definitely not any of the Barrack Room Ballads.

So we're going to have kitchen table poetry again this week, with this family and (we hope) another family. We are going to play with words! Lots of Tolkien--"Errantry", The March of the Ents, the Dwarves' cleanup song (Chip the glasses and crack the plates!). Also "Sir Patrick Spens", Eve Merriam's "Weather," "Ozymandias" and an abysmal sonnet on the same topic written by a friend of Shelley's whose name has mercifully fallen into the dust "In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone." Then Nash's delighful sendup, "The Collector":

I met a traveler from an antique show,
His pockets empty but his eyes aglow.
Upon his back, and now his very own
He bore two vast and trunkless legs of stone.
Amid the barrage of collector's jargon,
I gathered he had found himself a bargain,
A conversation piece post-prandial,
Certified Gen-u-ine Early Ozymandial.
And when I asked him how he could be sure,
He showed me PB Shelley's signature.

Mrs James

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Purpose-Driven Church by Rick Warren

I read his The Purpose-Driven Life a while back, and I was impressed with his skill as a translator: putting Christian principles into language that modern ill-educated Americans can understand. (Although I disliked his pick-and-choose approach among Bible translations, and was annoyed that all of his "For further reading" references in the appendix were to his own stuff.)

This book starts out with the not-entirely obvious premise that the main purpose of the Church is evangelism, and goes on to lay out methods for designing a church to do this. He eventually gets around to describing what you do with the body of believers, but that comes rather late in the book. It isn't that he thinks of edification only as an afterthought, just that he believes the priority, and the hard part, is getting non-believers into the church.

He emphasizes making non-believers comfortable, thinking carefully about who you want to attract, doing your research on who is in the area and what sorts of things they like, and taking care with the music and the facilities and the welcoming procedures to make sure everyone is comfortable. Of course, believers are asked to commit to things like daily Bible study, tithing, and getting involved in some ministries in the church.

It all seems logical and benign. And it seems to work so well. And yet. . .

Three words: Segregated by design. His model targets one group at a time. If the church gets big enough to fire up new services or new congregations, they can target new groups, but if not, you wind up trying to entice just one subculture; one age group. There's something wrong here. "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?"

I think there are at least two things wrong.

  • I think he underestimates the appeal of the unusual and the exotic. Californians are notorious for seeking out the weird and mystic. If you are searching for something new to give your life meaning, why would you expect it to be described in completely familiar ways?
  • And he back-shelves the life of the church and corporate worship. He stresses (repeatedly!) that these things are important, but sticks them in the Wednesday corner and keeps the unbelievers away from them. I'd imagine his prescriptions seem even more dramatic to liturgical Christians.

Read it for yourself, and see what you think. I think that I must not obstruct the work of God--far be it from me to discourage evangelism--but that I have to try to make sure the other work of the church is not slighted. So I'll honor what he has accomplished, but emphasize what he has overlooked.

A comment from a dear reader:

Too often a person hears only that it is easy to become a Christian and nothing about how difficult it can be. For the past several weeks I have been reading the New Testament to ferret out the commands Christians are given - direct commands, interpreted commands (as from Paul), and guidelines. If we began to teach new (and old) believers these things, we would have a different church, a different Christianity. I remember hearing decades ago about a young man (Korean or Chinese, I believe) who was memorizing Romans 12. It was a long time before he returned to recite it. He said he was trying to live up to each thing in it before he felt he knew it. Perhaps we should direct more believers to Romans 12.

I'm still working on that chapter--not ready to recite yet.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


Our youngest doesn't have good handwriting or drawing skills, so when his 5'th grade teacher assigned a project on Montana that required him to draw the state bird and flower, he was in despair. He was allowed to trace, but not trace on other paper and glue it in his report packet (???). I printed out pictures of the bird and flower, but the report packet paper was too thick to see through. So, he decided to make his own "light table:" use the computer screen with a big white page showing. Bingo: tracing was a snap.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Placebo effect

Does the placebo effect work on lab rats, or just on people?

I read of an experiment in which doses of morphine were administered to patients in pain, and the last dose was saline--but had the same effect as morphine. (Unless the saline included naloxone, which blocks morphine's effect.)

You could train lab rats to come for their pain reliever dose at regular times. If you had some way of telling if the rat was in pain you could tell if a saline dose at the end of a string of morphine doses (just as was done with the humans) relieved pain or not.

It sounds straightforward, and would say something about what kind of expectation helps with placebos.

Update post with some info from a researcher.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Emergent Church

I keep hearing rumors about the "Emergent Church," and decided to look around a bit and find out what's going on. One site has numerous links including a pointers to Brian McLaren's web site. So far I'm rather less than impressed. Talk of the movement being "a conversation" seems somewhat disingenous--I gather that it already has a strong political viewpoint (transnational progressivism, justified in a rather tenditious "creed"), and a philosophical base (postmodernism). I can't quite tell if their choice of postmodernism was to let their description of the gospel be relevant to modern seekers or if they like it. I hope its the former. From my position as a hard scientist in a major university I may be seeing only the most extreme of the postmodernist/poststructuralists, but what I see is despicably solipsistic. Brian's open letter to Charles Colson makes the postmodernists sound like secular saints with a burning heart for social justice. I will reserve judgment, since I don't know the history of the movement well, but given what the movement turned into the postmodernists have the burden of the proof of their good intentions.

This piece seems typical of Brian's posts: The Three Postmodernisms. (I had to get the Google cache version, since his site didn't have the original.) The first is the nihilistic "There is no truth" version that he says is imaginary outside of drunk college freshmen. The second is the "Adolescent" version, typified by political correctness, alienated European intellectuals, and relativist pluralism. He says this one is scarce outside "sophomore English and graduate philosophy classes," from which I conclude that he hasn't spent much time on university campuses. The third postmodernism he calls "emerging postmodernism." He describes this in practical, glowing, and benign terms, but the problem is that it doesn't exist yet; so his descriptions are wishful thinking. "It can’t be fully defined yet; it may be decades away from mature definition."

When I look at the postmodern landscape, I see “fields ready for harvest,” as Jesus said. But so far, in spite of so much being at stake at this critical moment in history, those willing to get out into the fields and do the hard work of seizing the moment are too few. There are plenty of critics who stand at a safe distance on the modern road that runs beside the postmodern fields, shouting their criticisms and warnings. Instead of joining them, you will, I hope, pray to “the Lord of the harvest” – so that more workers will become willing to jump into the action and get their hands dirty in the postmodern fields, making visible the good news of Jesus.

Frankly, I don't know what he means by the above. It sounds inspirational but when I try to decide whether he means that we should embrace or redeem postmodernism the sentences get all fuzzy.

I think I can reject reductionism without buying into the currently popular isms. "Post-colonial" is not an imprimateur of virtue, and the voices of the oppressed can be as stupid as the voices of the oppressor.

Paul wrote that he tried to agree with everyone as much as he could, so that by all means he might save some. That's a good model. On the other hand, if you embrace too much you're liable to not save any, and drag others off into the swamp with you. Trying to read postmodernists/poststructuralists leaves me feeling dirty, and I don't want to do it unless there's a good reason. So far all I've seen in this "emergent church" business is vaporware and captivity to secular philosophy, with some respect for Jesus on the side.

God can do a lot using deeply screwed-up people, and using deeply screwed-up institutions. I'll not claim that this movement will never serve His purposes. But so far I'm not enthused. I'll keep reading, though.

Stick Ice on Dust: Eases Accretion?

ScienceBlog reports on a PNNL study reporting that ice subliming on dust formed fuzzy crusts that reduced the tendency of dust grains to break apart on collision--and therefore be more likely to coalesce later. They note that the high background radiation in the early solar system would neutralize the naturally forming ice electrets, but note that "chipping" during dust collisions would recharge them. I mused earlier on the "weathering" effects of radiation on space rocks; they noted some natural fluffiness of ice forming at supercold temperatures. Two effects compete here: the "weathering" causes some dislocations but the energy deposited makes it easier to rearrange ice molecules into "less fluffy" configurations. I wonder if they can add radiation to their vacuum chamber. . . Update: Martin Iedema pointed out that the proto-planetary dust clouds were likely to have been thick enough to shield against a lot of the solar wind and cosmic rays. Oops, forgot about that. And he said that if solar wind resulting in compaction of the fluffy ice, this would mainly effect the elasticity rather than the electrical properties of the ice. Cosmic rays, of course, tend to be minimum ionizing at these distance scales, and so don't deposit much energy usable for annealing (though they do result in dislocations). Thanks for the update and correction!

Dead Galaxies

The New Scientist has an article on "dead galaxies", galaxies which have had no star formation for several billion years.

"Now, using NASA's Spitzer telescope, which trails behind the Earth in the coldness of space, astronomers have determined the galaxies are red because they are dead - no stars appear to have formed for 1.5 billion years. That arrested development happened early in the history of the universe - their distance means Spitzer is viewing them just 2 billion to 3 billion years after the big bang. "We think galaxies form over tens of billions of years," says lead researcher Ivo Labbé, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, US. For example, he notes the 13 billion-year-old Milky Way is still forming stars today. "Surprisingly, we found galaxies that are fully formed and dead when the universe was only one-fifth its present age."

Their first theory is that supermassive black holes made the galaxies very active and heated the gas and dust in the galaxies so much that it flowed away, leaving the rest of the stars to sit and age alone. OK, that sounds plausible. I wonder what happened to all the dark matter. You have to model systems where the blast from the black holes is sufficient to drive gas away from the combined gravity of the dark and visible matter. The mass of the galaxy thus falls slightly, and some of the dark matter also drifts away. (It isn't blown away: the whole point of dark matter is that it doesn't interact easily with the ordinary forces such as electromagnetism.) After such a long time I don't think you could see the gas as any sort of obvious object any more: it should have mixed with intergalactic clouds. The lost dark matter would probably be in more of a thick ring--hard to see even if you could readily detect dark matter. (Assuming spiral galaxies--not stated in the article)

I wonder if one could compare the velocity profiles in these dark galaxies with those in more dynamic ones to see if you can model dark matter self-interaction? Probably not, since the distribution of star formation as a function of radius would have been skewed by the force of the blasts from the central black hole.

Interesting. . .

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Tweel

This month's copy of Nasa Tech Briefs (dead tree edition) mentioned the Tweel, Michelin's new tubeless tire. It has a rim and flexible spokes. The CBS article above mentions that it gets a bit noisy at high speeds, and it isn't in production yet, but it certainly looks promising--they say it handles well. Number two daughter thought of one issue immediately, though--what happens if you get a stick through the spokes? I guessed that you could cover the empty space with some flexible plates (maybe rubber) to keep that from happening accidentally, but that's a good question.

My Name is Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

No full review, this time. I bogged down in the first chapter: I didn't care particularly about any of the characters. And then the book had to go back to the library. I've read other books of his and enjoyed them, though. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Back from Iraq

Art was back from Iraq, and gave the church Men's Breakfast a talk about his experiences there. His was an engineering unit, and most of what he said dealt with things they built or tore up. First job: fetch a Bradley out of the Tigris. They devised "cop in a box" buildings: take a shipping container and fit it with doors, windows, light and fixtures--just add a generator and the cops. Or fit it out differently to make a jail. What next?

Build headquarters, repair bridges with the central pylon blown out, build bypass roads in deep dust finer than flour, try to clean up cities after the action--with a few Saddamites still at large. Find and dispose of over 300 IEDs. Four men died doing that.

Look for WMD component caches: find one, excavate it, bury it again, and wonder why it never gets mentioned.

Forget to return your soil/concrete testing kits, and so wind up as the only unit able to test the concrete the locals try to sell for runway repair.

Always wear your helmet. Plant concrete barricades around all your buildings, so if mortars come in at night you'll be OK so long as its not a direct hit and so long as you're asleep in bed.

Pray a lot. Work the extra hours so your men don't have to. Send the men out to work at night if you can: less heatstroke that way.

Figure out who the trouble-makers in your own hierarchy are and send them to Kuwait.

Wonder why ammo is in such short supply. Jump through complex hoops to make sure the Iraqis you hire for inspections actually look like they're working for somebody else (safety first!). Pay cash for everything. Learn what "Insh'allah" really means ("God willing I'll be able to get around to it someday").

Everybody loves D9 bulldozers. Even generals yearn to climb up in one and make walls fall down.

Pray some more. Learn to really appreciate chaplains and officers who care about the men and look to serve. Mourn for 7 comrades.

What else? A whiteboard with a countdown of days left: "39 days until we get extended again." An engineering unit is not going to be content with sagging tents when its a piece of cake to fix up something decent--and they do. Learning cultural accommadations: They tried to build Western-style showers and toilets for the Iraqis, only to find that (thanks to some nutty interpretation of a story about Mohammad) Iraqis won't sit to urinate or defecate, and want water to clean off afterward--so they used the showers as latrines. Back to the drawing board...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Blue Clay People by William Powers

In 1999 William Powers went to Liberia, then run by the infamous Charles Taylor, to run Catholic Relief Services. Though the cover blurb calls him "fresh-faced" he already had some experience: just not in Africa. Liberia had lots of surprises for him: some external and some evoked from within him.

He clearly did a lot of nip and tuck on his story to try to give it a little drive and dramatic appeal--nobody's life reads that neatly. And he makes it sound as though he had more feeling for Sapo National Park than he let himself have for any human.

Liberia is one of those places where grand theories of aid and of good intentions meet the road--and turn to dust. Spend good money to build badly needed bridges--which the Oriental Timber Company promptly tears down to build sturdier ones to handle log transport. Nobody talked to the OTC beforehand, because they couldn't be trusted anyway. Pay for a village to to build a new farm type, and they'll tear it down so you can pay them again next year. Everybody from the driver to the Supreme Court is corrupt and looking for ways to siphon off something from the goody stream. Or is it corruption if you're trying to keep your family from starving?

Want to complain about the OTC logging where it shouldn't, or its shady tactics and private army? You might want to be out of the country when you do.

Want to take in the beautiful tropic sunset walking along the beach? It ain't called PooPoo Beach for nothing.

"Miss Manners" wrote of her childhood something along these lines (from memory) "When he discovered where we were moving to, and that post included a residence with servants, my father sat us down and said 'It takes a while to get used to having servants. It takes about two minutes. It takes about two years to get used to not having them any more.'" Powers discovers the same thing. At first he's deeply uncomfortable with being the "bossman" and having a driver. And then he discovers, and is outraged at, how deeply isolated the foreign community can be. And then he starts to learn why they isolate themselves.

Wonderful ideas turn to dust. Sometimes through outright incompentence: like USAID building a market building hours from any village or existing market. Or building a swamp-rice paddy in a swamp that's only a swamp during the rainy season. Sometimes through failure to understand the culture; as with his own guinea-pig project.

His heroes are Gabriel, the untiring idealist; and Jacket, the cynic who wants everyone to have a bed. And as the country goes to hell again and the NGOs pull back and make contingency plans for evacuation his heroes make unexpected choices, and he has hard duties:

"People cried when I handed out those severance letters." "It's not your fault." "That sounds like a line from a movie. Anyway it feels like it is." I stared out the window. OTC had penetrated even farther into the Krahn-Bassa National Forest, supposedly a protected rainforest. Two OTC trucks tailgated us, flashing their lights to pass. Momo let them by, and a cloud of dust covered our Land Rover. We rolled up the windows, coughing. The drivers were Asian. We rolled on for a long while, no one speaking. Finally I said, "Do you know one CTS paycheck here feeds fifty people?" Momo jumped in when he heard th is. "Yeah! Everybody want to eat some. Next minute--what?!--money small!" "Then why do you give to everyone?" Susan asked him. "People talk. They say you mean, you greedy. Your relatives gossip. Anyway, they gotta eat too. How I going to let them hunger when I got something in my pocket?" "It's the original insurance polity--a traditional safety net," Susan said. "Also a race for the bottom," I said. "What is the incentive to get ahead personally if everything gets shared equally in the end?" "Ah, but when you give, you get to be the bossman!" Susan said.

And his villains are the warlords, and the economic situation, and the "pepper" sneezed into everyone's soul--including his own. Oh, and missionaries. It really gets under his skin when The Economist describes him and his ilk as "secular missionaries."

He gives a good picture of Liberia, as far as I can remember (and extrapolate from what I've heard since I left). I can't verify his description of life among the expats: life has to be much different now because of the war and boy soldiers; and the missionaries I knew then weren't much like his NGO expats now. But the fundamentals of living in Liberia were pretty much the same. Go read it.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Smoking saves lives?

From the Telegraph, this story about unintended consequences. When smoking was banned, airlines cut costs by using cheaper recycled air for air conditioning rather than pulling fresh air in from outside. In consequence, with 60% of the air recycled, long distance air flights are now a perfect way to spread avian flu (and other diseases). Telegraph requires a free subscription