Thursday, November 24, 2005

My Father

My father died last week. He was 78.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He persisted. (I get distracted more easily.)

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Pooh Bear Childcare"

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

Real ER

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

Friday, November 11, 2005

Extreme Soft Diet

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

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

Happy Hour Coffee?

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

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The lighter side of dividing

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

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dark Matter again

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

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

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

I think I can contain my enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Intelligent Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singing Mice

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