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.