Saturday, April 30, 2005

Near death

I got a call Tuesday at 4:20 in the morning saying that my mother-in-law was "in the process of dying," and would I like to notify my wife. That proved a bit difficult, but I eventually got word to her.

In the meantime I was sitting by my mother-in-law's bed, talking to her and reading some familiar Bible passages to her. Over the hours she started breathing regularly again, and by the time my wife was able to get there I think the original hospice nurse would have had a different opinion. Certainly the new one did. The chaplain came and talked about death issues, and the patient's breathing became more and more regular.

She's partly recovered now, able to eat some things and talk a little--and object to "the valley of the shadow of death" when the chaplain was reading the 23'rd Psalm. A sense of humor again . ..

I'm pretty tired; my wife is even more so. The homeschool schedule went ashcan, but I'm not as worried about that as the beancounters at Education: a lot of the most important things to learn aren't in the curriciculum.

One day at a time.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Train horns and clarinets

Yesterday I took #2 son to see a friend's model railroad layout. Imagine a basement area about 12' x 15', with an HO scale layout around the edges and a long peninsula of track down the middle, set at chest high. Miniature billboards ca. 1950, names of railroad lines on the boxcars that you haven't seen for decades because they have disappeared under conglomerate logos and graffiti. Houses and businesses and miniature people, and a tiny cat, less than a centimeter, curled up on the roof of an 8" farm house. Trees made of winter weed tops about 5" tall and sprayed green, a few of which had been felled by an adventuresome mouse who wanted to build her nest in one of the tunnels.

We then went to meet #1 daughter on campus, after a Geology field trip. While waiting we channel hopped on the radio and ran across a clarinet concerto; written to be a bit dissonant in places but played with grace. Since #2 son had recently tried mouthpieces for band instruments (looking forward to band at the middle school next year) and since he'd done especially well with the clarinet, he was interested to hear what you could do with a clarinet. I explained to him what a concerto was and pointed out a few details, but mostly we just listened. When we picked up his sister, he told her about the trains and the "clarinet contralto."

mrs james

Saturday, April 23, 2005

One of those days

My better half is extremely tired today, and told me "I'm coherent as long as I don't try to talk."

Friday, April 22, 2005

Non-essential services

The University's main computer systems had some cooling problems this morning , so they closed down some non-essential systems. They kept "our major systems, i.e., WiscMail, WiscCal, etc." going, but library access was turned off. That says something interesting about the nature of the work we do here, and what we find most important . . .

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

OK, I like this

Work is play when pumping water.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The price of fame

I wrote in a comment to somebody's advice column, and the columnist printed it,with my name on. Ok, that's how she usually does it; no surprise there. But a nice old slightly cracked lady called me the afternoon the column appeared, with a rambling commentary that I found a nice polite way of deflecting and ending.

Posted a comment to a news blog and got a certain amount of tinfoil beanie snarkiness in response. That'll teach me to watch my wording.

mrs james

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

The book is in the form of a reflection of meditation. I hope speed-readers (I often wish I were one) will find themselves slowing down and maybe even putting the book aside from time to time just to think about the mystery. The book is not entirely meditative, however. Arguments are also advanced, and there is some vigorous wrestling with traditional doctrine--"doctrine" being just another word for "teaching"--about the death of Christ. And there are stories about people today who in their troubles find themselves, as they say, at the foot of the cross. Sometimes they find themselves there in anger, sometimes in joy, but always in a deeper awareness of the mystery of their lives within the mystery of life itself

And so it is. Sometimes his "wrestling" with doctrine overwhelms the meditation, as in his defense of the hope that all will be saved, or in listing the (traditional but speculative) virtues of Mary. More often he wrestles with what it means to be a sinner, and how terribly far from God we are even at our best; and how unexpected and yet central Jesus' sacrifice was.

Never mind the warts. Go read it. Slowly.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Long Truce by A.J. Conyers

How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit

Conyer's thesis is that the meaning of the word "toleration" began to change back in the 17'th century from a respect for other's values based in humility to its modern meaning, which is a radically solipsistic denial of universal values. This meaning has proved useful to governments interested in power and economic well-being, but inimical to all other social organizations; whether the family or the church or the city or the trade union.

At the conceptual level, what makes this process possible is the steady conversion of society, over a long period of time, but at an accelerated rate in the twentieth century to the notion that social life is framed by a national government at one end and the autonomous individual at the other--the bipolar vision of society. It is a vision that serves the interests of centralized power. This vision contrasts, as we have seen, with Johannes Althusius's understanding of society as a symbiotic relationship of many groups, some more comprehensive than others, from the family, to the collegium, to the community, to the region, to the state, to the church, to the human family as a whole. Each association or group has about it its own goals and its own internal discipline, each linking by degrees and in its own way the individual with the whole of the world, including the state. By this idea, and by the similar Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity,the state is by no means the only significant social association that an individual belongs to, nor does in constitute what it means for a person to belong to a society. The individual is not first and foremost, let alone exclusively, a citizen of the state.

What we have seen is that the modern doctrine of toleration plays a key role in this process of the bipolarization of society. It has done so, and continues in this role, for the following reason. Each association and group develops out of a sense of its purpose. The purpose might be quite practical and limited, such as one might find as the raison d'etre of the collegium or association of workers and professional people. Or it might exist out of a sense that is highly refined, transcendent, and even theological in nature, such as one finds in the case of the church or a religious body. The more the group exists on the basis of a telos or purpose that transcends in significance the practical purposes of the state (or the ideological vision of the state), it becomes thereby an indegestible, alien, and resistant object that frustrates the simple bipolar power arrangement.

The society that exists easily between the poles of state and individual is a society that has become featureless. It is a society in which "voluntary" organizations decline, as many sociologists have lately observed in the United States. It has become a "mass" society. Its mode of existence is a secular one. And the individual in such a society stands more or less defenseless against the demands of a powerful state. Commenting on the results of the French Revolution, Benjamin Constant saw this operation clearly: "The interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand." The idea of toleration, in the modern sense, calls into question the validity and even the ethical appropriateness of attaching oneself too strongly to the kinds of loyalties and the kinds of transcendent convictions that are the very soul of the association. It targets the intractable loyalties, along with the intrinsic disciplines and moral commitments, of the family and the church or the synagogue. It does so not out of a commitment to a certain conspiracy to undo these institutions but out of the tacit and almost intuitive recognition that here are the most formidable barriers to the spreading efficiency of central administration and the centralization of authority. The passions must be harnessed to the larger agenda and not be distributed and made disorderly in the untidy natural associations that spring up so freely in a society not well organized, nor rational, nor subservient to the goals of commerce and power.

The cover illustration was selected to remind us why tolerance is important, now and far more so back in the 1600's. It shows a helpless man being piked by a gang of gleeful murderers: the monk and the cap with the cross giving clues to the motive. When the power of the state was put at the service of enforcing orthodoxy Europe suffered through truly horrible times; times of a cruelty not seen on that scale again until the power of the state was put at the service of enforcing ideological orthodoxy in the twentieth century.

Conyers illustrates the changes in the philosophy of government from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and Dewey: Hobbes' view of meaningless existence seems to have pretty much carried the day. And if there isn't any meaning, the state's purpose of maintaining order isn't limited. Certainly I hear very little of "natural law" in discussions about law: everything revolves around interpretations of statutes, as though the sometimes arbitrary decisions of government were the ultimate definition of law. The current debates about "homosexual marriage" reflect this reductionism: marriage is reduced to a contract (albeit an easily broken one) and the family is merely the company of those covered by such a contract. Does a family really involve no meanings or obligations beyond those spelled out by statute? You'd think people would recognize a reductio ad absurdum, but people can get used to anything, I guess, and it is always possible to make things worse.

Conyers does not offer a cure, exactly--he wants us to change our philosophies of government and toleration to recognize the natural human organizations and to, in humility, recognize that even someone obviously disastrously wrong may somewhere have some insights we lack.

I think he'd have done better to be more explicit in his definition and contrast of the different meanings of toleration.

Someone--I think C.S. Lewis--wrote that many things in a society are as invisible to the people within it as water is to a fish; and that a later historian would look back on the twentieth century and see such fierce adversaries as Hitler and Churchill standing side by side in firm agreement on some ideology. I suspect that Conyers has a piece of that picture here. The West has grown up around the notion of the centralized nation-state, with other institutions and power centers deprecated. Go read the book.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Some info on placebo in rats

I'd puzzled about placebos in rats earlier. I asked Dr. Coe for information, and he was very helpful.

If one broadens the definition a bit to include 'conditioned effects' and anticipatory effects, then there is even more in the animal literature.

For example, one can condition an allergic person to have an allergy and histamine response to a color or odor by associating it just once with the allergen.

An interesting observation in the Viagra studies is that it is hard to see a drug effect over the placebo effects. 30% of men report enhancement of sexual performance when given sugar pills.

In rats I wouldn't necessarily talk about it as placebo, but any time you do something repetitively in animals, they both will anticipate it and show a conditioned response.

Doesn't necessarily even require the brain. Expose a rat repeatedly to bacterial endotoxin, and there is the development of tolerance by the second exposure. So even the immune system has elements of learning and memory.

Habituation and sensitization are important features of many processes, and are probably related to the placebo effect.

Certainly with pain, which is in a real sense a created experience both out in the periphery and in the CNS, there is plenty of opportunity for modulation to occur. We have been conducting studies on fibromyalgia, where there is real pain, but also a big influence of psychological factors on pain symptoms.

In the clouds

Last evening, I was glancing at jet contrail clouds in the clear blue sky. One jet must have been changing altitude, because the contrail bent and spread: it looked like a white cobra rearing up and spreading its hood.

2004 Bumper Stickers

This is Madison, so before 2-Nov-2004 we were awash in Kerry bumper stickers. You could see a few Bush stickers, but I'd guess they were outnumbered 8 to 1 or so. Then we had the election. The next week, the Bush stickers outnumbered Kerry by about 2 to 1. Shame and resignation vs triumphalism? I don't know. But I looked about me recently, and found that Bush stickers were disappearing, leaving about equal numbers.

The funny part is that the number of Feingold stickers has always stayed high, and he wasn't even running in the last election.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Ever heard that old saw, "God doesn't give you anything you can't handle?"


God does not give un anything that He's not prepared to carry us through, every step of the way. God doesn't just know what we need because He's God Almighty and knows everything anyway; He created us, and He also walked the earth as a human being, Jesus, born to a very young mother whose neighbors counted on their fingers to reckon how many months after the wedding that baby showed up. He had to put up with schoolmates who thought He was weird because He never sinned. He lost people He cared about on earth, was rejected by his neighbors and his best friends.

I make this speech again because I have just come back from my Uncle's memorial service. My aunt is one of those Self Reliant New Englanders, who somehow thinks she's supposed to keep everything together and never lose control of herself; who is always taking care of other people. The other day she wondered how long people would want to "babysit" her because she doesn't have it all together. I think on the 17th or 18th or 19th repetition, I finally got across to her that it's ok to let other people take care of you once in a while, and that God doesn't expect her to carry the whole load by herself; He's there for her and He has provided a lot of people who care for her. We read some Psalms together,especially 139.

I appreciate the Navy people who came to help out at the funeral, since my Uncle was a WWII Navy veteran. My aunt had just asked for someone to sound the Bos'n's whistle. They sent the bos'n, a bugler, and a young man who presented the flag; all three of them 19 years old and 5'7 inches tall. They were a very considerate and serious lot. I talked to them briefly afterward; I told them about a few of the Navy careers in our family. They told me a few of theirs; the flag man in particular was proud of his family's service. I said our ancestors made their history; now you're making yours.

mrs james

Sunday, April 10, 2005

WCRP w/ candy

We were faced with a superfluity of Easter candy, including those all-too-soon stale Peeps. I proposed that we buy a Tombstone cheese pizza, sprinkle it with excess Peeps, and make a Peepza.

We didn't.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

John Paul II

I haven't tried to comment on his life and death, partly because I didn't know him very well and those who did have written so much better. I have nothing new to contribute.

And I don't want to spend time kvetching about the ubiquitous commentators whose eulogies boil down to "he was a great man but too traditional." Fisking is a bitter sort of amusement.

Nor do I want to spend time noting all the points we agreed and disagreed on. I don't have to measure everyone against myself.

But I think if he were reading the newspaper stories calling him instrumental in the fall of the Soviet Union, he'd wear a wry smile as he began to recite Psalm 115.

Job Applications

Our middle daughter is looking for a summer job, and among the local stores she visited Jacobsens, a butcher chain that makes very good bratwurst. The lady behind the counter said that they were hiring, and asked if she could be there the next evening (Friday). When middle daughter said no, she had some obligations at church, the wrinkled lip and changed tone suggested that the invitation to fill out an application wasn't quite sincere.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Ah, the joys of taking Asperger kids ("aspies") out in public!

#2 son has all the timing and sense of a rhinoceros. He has memorized half of the science books out there, but doesn't base his own inventions in reality, so started to rattle off some of his far out imaginary inventions at people. Had to remind him a few times to let the presenter say his or her piece.

He passed up Shakashiri in order to see all of the displays; went through them much more slowly than his sister. Not so interested in the biology except the bird beaks, which were more "mechanical"--a tool matched to a bird's beak showing how a bird gets its food. So the "kiwi" beak was chop sticks tied together, for picking gummi worms out of a pile of oreo crumbs, a pelican's beak was a strainer spoon for scooping miniature marshmallows out of a bowl of water, etc.

Spent the most time at the alternative energy display. Saw the solar cooker, made of a plywood box containing a smaller box of cardboard lined with foil, and old newspapers for insulation, with a glass top. Had heard of these, for use in third world countries to keep down overuse of timber resources. #2 son played with a lot of motors, loved his spectrum glasses and the display of spectrography, comparing the spectra of nitrogen, neon, and white light. He didn't like shaking up the vial of wheat germ +water+soap+alcohol for nearly 3 minutes, but did enjoy drawing a lot of DNA goop out of it.

Asked one presenter about his project, which involves controlling runoff at Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which is in our old neighborhood and is a favorite place. Cringed when I heard him talk about a rainstorm as a "rain event."

We brought home a bag of "loot", including his vial of DNA Goop from wheat germ, the prismatic glasses, lots of maps and worksheets. He gave his chocolate covered "Peep" (TM) to his sister.

A good messy time had by all. But my feet hurt.

mrs james

Science Show

The UW held a science exhibition, aimed at younger students. We took our youngest two. The youngest son YS stopped at every booth, and sometimes explained things to the presenter. Our youngest daughter YD was much more picky, but hung around a long time for things like the demonstration of how different bird beaks were used for catching different foods. I made her stick around for the demonstration of spectral lines, but didn't have to ask twice about the chocolate exhibit. They were melting chocolate over oreos--the conveyor belt had lots of holes for excess to drip through, and it bounced to help get all the drips off. She was fascinated by the fetal alcohol syndrome table, with microscopes focussed on chicken embryos. And she stayed for the whole stem cell display. The YS was with my wife, so she'll have to describe his enthusiasms.

Shakashiri's "Science is Fun" chemistry show was put on by a bunch of graduate students, who did a creditable job. Though Mike, the intro guy, might want to tweak his spiel a bit: "Next Saturday we're hosting a "Women in Science" show. There'll also be a hands-on portion of the program ..."

YD was adamant that she didn't want to see Shakashiri, but I made her go anyway, and she was chuckling along with everyone else quickly enough. One reaction was the catalyzed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide, which released oxygen and steam in a plastic bottle (which shrunk). I though it'd have been cool to drop a lit match in the bottle to watch it flare before it hit the water, but they explained later that they'd not ever done that--they didn't like working with oxygen.