Sunday, December 31, 2006

Uses of fantasy

Youngest daughter spent a few years running all ideas she couldn't quite fathom through her imaginary zebrahan herd--the queen would pass some law dealing with a question and she'd imagine the dramatized setting. It didn't always--or even often--seem to result in an understanding that reflected the real world, and we tried to explain why laws that demanded that zebrahans had to sacrifice to give their children an education were misplaced. (OK, see, yes they should do their best for their kids, but how is a queen going to know what their best is, and who died and made her God?)

Youngest son is now doing the same thing, except with his colony on Mars. We've had some very interesting discussions as a result. Of course, on Mars in a fragile colony you lose a lot of freedoms you take for granted on Earth (no pets, for example), but we've had some interesting times explaining to him why freedom of speech is a good thing, and why capital punishment for theft is a bit excessive.

I've noticed that when youngest son wants to imagine something new, put himself in a story, combine characters from different stories, and so on, he doesn't say "What if." He says "I had a dream that."

The light of the world

How much would we give to live back when Jesus lived, hear His voice, ask Him questions (and be able to understand Aramaic too)?

And yet in John 16 Jesus says we're better off with Him not around that way anymore. It seems odd, but that's what He said.

We can't bring gifts to Him like the Magi did, but He said in Matthew 25 that whatever we do to the least of those around us we do to Him.

We can't see Him, but wherever two or three are gathered in His name He's with them--and in Israel He could only be in one place at a time: as though He showed up in Walnut Street but not in Door Creek.

We can't hear Him answer our questions and teach us, but the Holy Spirit is with us now, and we can learn if we humbly listen. And that humility includes listening to each other.

Jesus said that we would do even greater works than He did (excepting His atoning sacrifice, of course). What ought those works to be, and where are they?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Odd.

There was no hint that the post would appear twice--no hint of a glitch. This is blogger beta, so maybe there's a few hitches yet.

Was there nothing else to write about?

In the Wisconsin State Journal this morning one of the Hussein stories analysed the probable effects of Hussein's death on Bush's approval ratings. You can devise more foolish and tasteless reports, but it takes effort. The focus is the only marginally relevant and certainly manipulable "approval ratings," the assumption is that the outcome of a trial conducted in a different country is supposed to reflect how well the president of this one is doing his job, and the matter in hand is merely the speculation of nominal experts. That's not terribly more important or useful than discussing whether young singers will start wearing clothes again.

Hussein

Saddam Hussein was hanged last night.

I decline to worry about procedural issues in his trial—it sounded very much as though he was allowed to make his case freely, Ramsey Clark to the contrary. How our country wound up with a man like Clark in a position of responsibility is still a mystery to me

Nor do I worry that this will infuriate his supporters. I’d guess that what little effect this hanging will have will be a short pulse of vengeance violence followed by a small resignation decline. Most of the fighting is driven by current issues, not a fallen leader from yesterday.

Nor do I get my shorts in a knot about the death penalty, as though it were somehow excessive for such a tyrant.

Our family wasn’t bothering to follow the case in great detail. Not our tyrant, not our courts, not our laws. I assumed that he’d be found guilty, and presumably hanged for his crimes; so there wasn’t going to be much surprise about it.

But it was odd to see the headline last night and feel slightly sad. When Ford died I thought of Antony’s “the good that men do lives after them,” as Ford entered into rest. But with Hussein there is no such hope. He made his bed, he must lie in it; may the Lord have mercy on his misbegotten soul. The world is a better place without him: a terrifying verdict on a life.

Tyrants like him are a dime a dozen, of course. He happened to be ruling a rich and powerful country, and lived long enough to thoroughly identify himself with the state. Mugabe has to work harder to get the same corpse count, ruling a poorer and less easily controlled country. I could undertake to find equally brutal characters in my own neighborhood, though they’d lack Hussein’s cunning and ambition—and therefore his scope of action, and therefore his crimes. We must only judge the deeds, not the heart, and by that appropriate standard my brutal neighbors are relatively innocent and Hussein exceedingly criminal.

We did not remark on the headlines in the paper this morning. My youngest son is fascinated with a Star Trek episode he’s seen a few times: Encounter at Farpoint. Two weeks ago he built a Lego courtroom like that used in the show, studded with Lego and Bionicle figures. This morning he built a gallows for it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ford

I wonder if Ford knew what the pardon would do to his career. Politicians miscalculate all the time, perhaps he did too.

Or maybe he was exactly what he seemed, and really thought that it was best for the country; and was willing to sacrifice his career for the country.

We long for that attitude in our leaders. I wish we could see it. There's a tiny handful whom I suspect we could trust to do the right thing, a far larger number I'm sure would not, and a heap in the middle who might--just might--rise to the occasion.

I know one politician who made an unpopular vote and lost the resulting recall election. It wasn't a life or death issue--it just had to do with public financing of a stadium--but he thought it was important and so did a lot of angry voters. He told me he'd vote the same way if he had to do it again, and I believe him.

Not many ever risk as much as the real hero of Camp David--the man who initiated the talks, made the unpopular concessions that benefitted his country, and was murdered for it. Anwar Sadat was no saint, but give him credit for showing a quality rare enough even in democracies.

I think Ford was what he seemed to be, and I think we got the man we needed when we needed him.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Joseph

Who was Joseph? We slide over him--the shepherds get more air time than he does in the Christmas plays. Of course he wasn't the father, and wasn't the husband--yet. Either would have been a position of authority--everybody knew to look first to the father in the family. But he was only a stand-in.

Of course God was turning the old order on its head, and now the ruler was helpless and God's power shone in weakness. But even so, Joseph wasn't the worldly family ruler yet. He hadn't even married Mary yet--accepted and acknowledged, but not married.

Why not marry her and forestall the odd looks? There might have been some prosaic problem like a lack of funds to pay the expenses, but my guess is that he was too awed to marry yet. Something holy was happening, and he had to wait. So he had reverence and practical (maybe even emotional) patience.

We're told he was just (or righteous--the word's the same). When he found that Mary was pregnant, which meant she had been unfaithful/impure, he remembered his duty to God's justice. There's a punishment for lawlessness, even for those dear to you. He tempered this with mercy--not Divine gracious mercy that shares the punishment, but the honorable mercy of a man who tries to mitigate the punishment. But he listened when God told him what was really about to happen.

What would that message have meant to Joseph? In his home the Savior would grow up. He was a poor man--how can he possibly prepare things correctly for the Savior? Would the Savior need to go study under the greatest rabbi?

If the mother governs the nest, representing the welcome and nurture and growth, the father is the guardian of the threshold, looking both ways and representing the claims of the family to the world and of the world to the family. He must be both just and loyal, and in some way justice must come first. He has the responsibility of the sword to fight for his family, and it is evil to do that without justice. Joseph was just.

He took on the responsibilities of being the husband without being the husband yet. He took on the responsiblities of being the father, without being the father-yet. He unexpectedly took on the ludicrous role of protector of God.

In the great drama he was not going to be a central character, though he probably expected to be important, and didn't know he would completely vanish from the scene. Mary was to be the archetypal Christian. Joseph was more like John the Baptist: she must increase and I must decrease. Or perhaps like Martha, with the necessary lesser duties.

I imagine Joseph outside the stable with the livestock, keeping an eye on the displaced beasts that panic at the smell of blood, waiting and hearing the pain he cannot protect Mary from. Wondering how he's going to try to raise a prophet and Savior. And now and then wondering how he's going to pay the midwife. For he was a just man.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Autism and the God Connection by William Stillman

I heard the last two minutes of an NPR show featuring the author, and decided to check out his book.

Stillman is not a good writer. As Twain noticed, there’s a bit of difference between the “lightening” and the “lightening bug,” and Stillman's editor, if he had one, was asleep at the switch.

The title is grossly misleading. Stillman doesn’t write much about God, and even when he does he much prefers to say “Higher Power.” He does, however, write a lot about ghosts, angels, dreams, and “Spirit.” The book is chock-a-block with anecdotes of supernatural occurrences surrounding people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome (of which he is one).

From these incidents he concludes that mystical experiences are to be expected (though not always found, he admits) around autistic people, who ought to be reverenced as spiritual guides for the rest of us.

There is only one thing in the book I’d consider worth the effort to read, and I can save you the time of finding the book.

He believes that mental retardation and insanity are no more common among the autistic than among the rest of us, and that most of the autistic are normally intelligent and emotional people imprisoned in some sensory overload or inability to communicate. My experience with Asperger’s people and with autistic people via the AUSome Society suggests that he is correct.

Reread my last paragraph and skip the book.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cells

Does it get any clearer than this?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Argh!

Mark Neubauer gave a talk on "Observation of WZ Production at CDF," which included a short bit at the end on the limits they got for ZZ production. Expected background was .009 events, expected ZZ to 4 leptons was about 2.6 events; we saw 1 event so all we can give is a limit rather than an observation. They used a clever scheme to get around missing bits of lepton coverage by looking at stiff tracks (with minimal calorimeter energy) going into cracks as a kind of generic lepton: could be a muon, could be an electron, almost certainly not a hadron. They didn't use forward muons from the forward muon detector! And wouldn't you know it, in the 1 event they found, one of their "generic muons" was pointing right at a forward muon stub. Be nice if they'd mentioned it: a little credit would have been good for us lonely forward muon folks. We spotted it right away in the event display.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why is AIDS so much more common in Africa?

The BBC reports on a study in Science that says malaria can increase the "viral-load" of viruses in the blood stream, obviously making the chances of infection greater. I'd been wondering if there was some genetic factor, or maybe a "sexual practices" factor that would predispose to easier transmission, but this seems more plausible. Unfortunately malaria is hard to beat down.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mountains

You can stand and watch the mountains for a long time. Even on a clear day they always seem to be slightly changing, just below perceptibility. Probably the changing light makes it seem so, together with the fact that they are too big to take in entirely, so you have to keep working to grasp what you're seeing.

You can't watch them for long, of course--there's work to do, places to go, people to see. The mountains only appear in glimpses when the clouds of daily action part to unveil them.

I find that I both forget them and don't forget them. I may be arguing over procedures or brainstorming the cause of an intermittent error, but somehow I'm still distantly aware of the hidden peaks, just as I'm distantly aware in the warm office of the frigid wind outside. There's a faint background to the day, brought to sharp foreground when I pass a window facing east or west.

The mountains do not care, and have no bearing on my work or play. God does.

Why can't my day be as infused with awareness of God as it can be with awareness of the mountains?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Perhaps not quite what they meant

We drove behind a truck labeled Natural Oven Bakery. Youngest son and I discussed whether their natural oven was a geyser or a volcano.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Selecting for deafness

Other people have commented on the deaf lesbian couple who selected for a deaf child, and covered (better) the points I'd have made. All I can add is that I am amazed at the vast gulf that divides me from those who think "selecting for defects" is legitimate. They act as though the child is like a car that has to fit in their garage; like an adornment and not a person.

I suppose I shouldn't be too startled. Our country (pretty much every country, actually) has allowed people to be treated as property. We got rid of that, but the attitude was taken for granted by millions for centuries.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Water is a flavor too

The water in different places tastes different. So when great chefs compose a recipe, is it only really perfect using the water supplied to their restaurant? A different mineral taste is bound to effect the flavor.

I'm not sure how one would cook using the high-sulfer (rotten eggs!) water supplied to my late grandfather's place near Picayune, but that's an extreme case.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quite a bite

The BBC reports that a team determined that one of the placoderms had a bite of about 80,000 pounds per square inch, and could open its mouth fast enough to suck fish in. The placoderms were those odd ancient fish that had bony armor over their head and "neck" and even tiny shields over their eyeballs (with a small hole to look through). I don't know what they ate, but it must have been able to fight back pretty agressively if they needed that much armor. Maybe the prey flailed spines around--I wouldn't think you'd need that much armor to guard against stinging tentacles.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Genetic variability

The BBC reports that human genetic variability is far larger than previously expected. I was expecting this, oddly enough. I’ve read too many reports estimating how closely related species are, and how long ago species diverged based on an estimated mutation rate. This is not my area of expertise, but I had a gut reaction that the world was not that simple, that there had to be a lot more fuzziness in biology than in physics (and there’s a lot of fuzziness when you try to measure things in particle physics). I hope this leads to some new estimates for systematic error in the “mutation clock.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Shame?

I guess it wasn't perfectly true that "no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." OJ's book Neener Neener crossed the line. A pity the line is set so low, though; and I've a horrible feeling that OJ was just a little ahead of his time. I'm told the man is functionally illiterate. Think of what sort of twisted "confessor" his writer must be.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Some things get better

I got behind the wheel of an Olds 88 (13K miles!) today, and was reminded that some things do get better. Cars are better made now.

I hope our new (22K miles) one lasts us a while. A Grand Caravan replaced the Aerostar. Not cheap, but what to do . . .. The Aerostar is unreliable, and the Voyager is on its last legs too. So the Voyager is now our emergency backup car.

I wish the Madison bus ran out to Sun Prairie.

Rules fail

Every few years somebody tries to reform the tax code, or fiddle with immigration laws, or craft some other scheme to make life more fair for people who fell through the cracks under the old system.

And, shortly thereafter, we notice that there’s a new batch of winners and losers, and some new injustices or inequities.

I am more and more convinced that Godel’s theorems have political analogs. No finite set of rules (laws are one type of rules) is going to fix all the problems of a society. Each rule has consequences, and after a while you find yourself adding new ones to fix problems the old ones brought. The number of rules always increases.

Somewhere we get diminishing returns. Some sets of rules let you run a “mostly just” society, that is more or less stable. Adding more rules moves the injustices around, but doesn’t seem to stamp them out. The new set may be marginally better—it will not be right.

And “hard cases make bad law.” Trying to tinker with the structure to save a few can break the structure. Remember how “no fault divorce” was supposed to relieve the suffering of the few people who had to endure horrible marriages, and get the lawyers off everybody’s back? Didn’t work quite the way we expected, did it? I’m not convinced that our society has bottomed out yet from that disaster.

It seems the better part of humility to give up trying to “fix” government after a while. I don’t believe this is a counsel of despair, however unwelcome the idea may be. It is more a matter of recognizing the limits of your tools

Even with a “mostly stable” and “mostly just” society, some injustices are going to call out to us, and we cannot afford to tolerate them. It poisons the soul to do so. But passing new laws isn’t always (and after enough laws have been passed, often isn't) the right solution. We—not the society as a whole, but individual you and I—have to try to ameliorate them ourselves.

Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

It was rather striking how much of the book paralleled things I’d been thinking of over the years—all the way to the illustration of God’s power being like playing a master chess player: do what you please, resist as much as you like, he’ll use your best moves as part of his far more skillful plan.

The book’s organization leaves a little to be desired, but since most people aren’t going to read it straight through that is probably an advantage.

Three prominent themes in the book are:

  • The Christian life often has dry times when God doesn’t seem to be around. Often it gets harder instead of easier.
  • God seems to work more through suffering in our lives than anything else.
  • Jesus said that we were better off with the Spirit (and therefore the Church) than we would have been with Him still here. That means the Church is immensely more important than we let it be.

This isn’t an apologetic work, nor one that claims to clearly explain the ways of God to man. It is the observations of suffering brothers and a reminder that hope does not disappoint—if you hope for God. If you expect God to magically adjust the world for your comfort, you’re begging for disappointment.

Read it. Yes, you.

At the concert

The middle-school band concert with youngest son was unusual. The director picked a set of short pieces so that every instrument got a solo—but they were very short pieces. In the percussion section a young lady’s hair draped over her shoulders, but whipped back in fright when she clanged the cymbals. I was listening especially for the clarinets, and they sounded good.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Why all at once?

OK, now the alternator is shot on the Plymouth. And it’ll need some new brake pads soon. I dunno if we really need the oil leak fixed. Fortunately the car went onto battery power as my wife drove off the highway into town, so she was able to nurse it to our mechanic’s shop, who happened to still be there wrapping up some paperwork. So he’ll look at it Monday morning. Probably the looonnng drive home in the first snowfall of the season stressed the car.

If the car is going to fail, it is good to have it fail in convenient places! Close to home is good, close to friends in Oak Park was good too. Blessings come in funny shapes sometimes ("your clothes did not wear out nor your feet swell").

Reflections after Elections

I had resigned myself to having little effect on the elections. Dane County is pretty solidly leftist, so Tammy’s seat was secure: she’s pretty far left wing. The Senate race was also pretty lopsided. I’m not a big fan of calling folks in other states to tell them how to vote—we designed the country as a federal system for good reasons. So, I did my duty but without any grand sense of expectation or of worry. I sleep soundly on election nights.

Of course now we’re a-swamp in postmortems, most of them rattling the same themes: corruption and the war. I didn’t pay much mind to the corruption scandals: it seemed very much business as usual on the Hill; and I still fail to see what bearing the illicit doings of a clergyman I never heard of should have on whether or not I and my friends go to vote.

The war I do care about, and I fault the Republicans for not taking it seriously enough. (Institute tax cuts during war time? What???) I hope the rhetoric from prominent Democrats was just campaign nonsense, but I’m not sanguine about the chances of that. I suspect Bin Laden was right about American staying power.

Madison is still littered with graffiti and signs and bumper stickers asserting that “A Fair Wisconsin Votes NO.” Dane County certainly did, by over 2 to 1. Wisconsin, on the other hand, had fairly different ideas. The local paper dug up some resulting shock and horror. The Wisconsin amendment has an additional clause that could, if lawyers stretched it enough, also ban “civil unions” that resembled marriages. I’d call that a feature, not a bug. Why multiply institutions?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Election reporting

Since TV isn’t worth much as a source of information about the elections, I turn to the newspapers. But what sorts of stories do I find there?

Spokesman for Party X says recent events put Party Y’s election strategy in jeopardy. (In other news, a defense attorney says his client is innocent! ) Pundits who couldn’t tell an evangelical from a Moslem opine about the influence of the Haggard (who?) scandal on the evangelical turnout.

I’m not a party member, much less a party strategist. The word “electable” never enters my conversations. Nor am I a political junkie desperate to hear word, however speculative, of any disasters afflicting my political enemies.

Reports about party strategies may be, in some attenuated sense, news, but they aren’t political discourse. If politics were a game without consequences, like chess, focusing on the strategies would make sense. But it turns out that it matters who gets elected; so we should pay a little attention to what the candidates have done and what they say they’ll do. And maybe hand them a few more real-world questions to answer: new funds aren’t going to magically appear, so what can the county sheriff do differently—realistically?

And some of this examination does happen (the League of Women Voters tries to put some real-world questions out there, for instance), but in the paper the stories comparing candidates are on page 5 of the local section and the strategy stories go on page 1 or 3 of the front section.

I'll be voting, having tried to figure out who's who beforehand. I always go vote. Maybe its quixotic--some elections are pretty much foregone conclusions (I already know who's going to win the US Congressional seat from this district)--but I'll vote anyway.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Followup on that transmission

The local AAMCO repaired the transmission, and I took the bus back down to pick it up. Lo and behold, when I stopped at the Belvidere oasis to buy gas, I couldn't start the car anymore. I called them to see if there was anything they might have loosened, and they said no; but called back a few minutes later to suggest that I try to start the car in neutral. That worked, and he diagnosed a bad neutral safety switch.

So, this morning I took the car in to the West side AAMCO in Madison (the East side one seems to have gone belly up), and discovered that the switch was not part of the original repair and was going to cost extra. I'm dubious, but it is plausible. The machine is running again.

The trip on the Blue line through Chicago was not entirely pleasant, though it was an eye-opening hour and a half. On the northwest side was a billboard advertising a health club or spa treatments, with the motto "Look better naked!" A naked black woman with chocolate syrup strategically placed was drawn boistrously reclining in a giant sundae dish. The ad producers need a sense of shame and the target audience needs a sense of proportion.

Another thing about the King Tut exhibit

One of the items in the special exhibit was a portable shrine about a foot and a half on a side, with foot-places for a statue (presumably of Tut). At the bottom of the left and right side was a sled board, shaped rather like a snow ski. Another such shrine in the building was made of stone and was nearly 4 feet high/wide/deep--and it had, on the left and right bottom, images carved of those "skis." I guess that the archetypical shrine was dragged along the streets, and so every model had to have the skis also. It seems odd to sled it along rather than carry it (so it doesn't touch the ground) or use a cart (so it doesn't need so many people to drag it), but maybe the ancient originals had to go across sand from time to time.

Nano-stamps

Ok, this is cool. Chinese scientists (the Chinese inventing printing) have tinkered with cicada wings to use the sheets of little nano-pillars thereon to use them as molds for tiny printing blocks. The first application thought of so far is for Raman scattering lenses, but there may be others.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Similarities

Have you noticed the similarities between the ways we celebrate Halloween and Easter? For Halloween, the kids dress up in fancy costumes, carry around bags, and hunt around to load up on candy bars and other sweets. For Easter, the kids dress up in fancy clothes, carry around woven baskets and hunt for painted eggs and candy eggs and rabbits. The one is Trick Or Treat, and the other is Wicker Treat.

It isn't that simple

It isn't that simple

It is received wisdom that men are only interested in sex. As with most stereotypes there's some truth there. It is received wisdom that men aren't as interested in who the sex is with—that they're eager to “make new conquests.” Once again, there's some truth here, but it is usually explained in terms of a reductionist view of sex, where the only things that matter are sensation and gene propagation.

Sex isn't that simple.

The sensations of sex are pleasant. But there's more. It is also pleasant to give pleasure to your partner. And it is pleasant to give pleasure to your partner by letting your partner give pleasure to you. During sex the distinction between giving and receiving can become blurred. Sometimes it even seems that the boundaries between bodies become blurred. It is not for nothing that people speak of sexual union. I know that people can be selfish and stingy and careless. I'm talking about when sex works right. And of course you don't have to have sex with someone to discover their selfishness—you can spot that ahead of time.

We all know that sex by itself doesn't create a permanent emotional union or generate permanent love. I won't try to summarize Lewis' The Four Loves here—I'll assume you understand the different operations and similarities of affection and eros and friendship and agape. The natural operations of sex mimic the results of deeper love. But that's not all.

The natural operations of sex even somewhat resemble the “fruits of the Spirit.” That they are not the same is obvious—one need merely look for the fruits of the the “fruits of the Spirit” to see that. Love, joy, etc are supposed to have lasting effects and produce results in our lives. But the appearances are still there when the sex works right.

We all know of people who wake up with a stranger, or feel disgusted with themselves, or even “past reason loved” resulting in “past reason hated.” But these aren't what they were looking for in sex.

  • Love. Even without a marriage to sustain it, sex can result in a strong affection. In fact it bonds so strongly that you feel almost like a part owner of the other person. The bonding is dulled by promiscuity, and selfish people focus on their pleasure and their “ownership.”
  • Joy. Excitement and pleasure on the one hand and satisfaction and satiation on the other resemble joy.
  • Peace. Satisfaction and exhaustion make you feel peaceful.
  • Patience. Oops Sex isn't famous for producing patience.
  • Kindness. Serving your partner's pleasure is one sort of kindness.
  • Goodness. Oops Sex isn't obviously connected with goodness, although you can play semantic games about it being a good thing.
  • Faithfulness. For a moment, at least, one feels linked forever. But faithfulness is a long-term thing, and the emotions I'm writing about here are quite temporary. Oops
  • Gentleness. Satiation and exhaustion can leave you feeling gentle. Excitement doesn't always lead to gentleness, though. Half credit?
  • Self Control. Oops Sex is not famous for inspiring self-control.

I suppose 4 1/2 out of 9 isn't bad for an imitation.

If you discover something that seems like love, that bonds you to another person, and that seems to make you a better person, it makes sense to think about it a lot, and want to share it a lot. It isn't just a matter of looking for sensual pleasure.

Of course that's not how the rules of the game go, and undisciplined sex winds up causing a lot of evil and pain.

Unquiet dead

In The Lord of the Rings the barrow-wights that Frodo et al meet are plainly not pinned to their barrows, but can move around by night. Probably the wight brothers could even fly.

King Tut and the sequel

I didn't see the “golden” King Tut exhibit back in the 70's. This tour didn't include so much gold, but more “everyday” sorts of things and artifacts to put Tut's treasure into perspective. There were artifacts from the tombs of his relatives, for instance; an animation (not a cartoon) showing how the shrines and coffins were nested (with almost no room to spare!), and things like his sister's chair and his chair and the coronation regalia (maybe) box.

Usually funerary goods made of wood were fairly shoddy, but the royal furniture was pretty well made. The lid of the regalia box had Tut's cartouche on it—detailed, so the falcon looked like a falcon with feathers, the grid showed a painted checkerboard pattern, ad so on.

One lady near me was comparing the pectoral with the Navaho jewelry—presumably because both involved turquoise. (I bit my tongue when she expressed amazement that the ancient Egyptian work was almost as good as the Indian—I've never seen Navaho jewelry even close to the Egyptian worksmanship.)

We saw many wooden statues. Many were defective, so we could see how they'd been pegged together (not always carefully—they seemed to rely on filler or paint to cover the gaps). The stonework was excellent, though. A cosmetics box had a lion resting on the lid, scenes of predators attacking deer on the sides, the god Bes with his tongue hanging out on two sides, and heads of Nubians and Syrians under the feet of the box. I marvel at the dishonesty of the afrocentrists who claim the ancient Egyptians were black. Not only were they not black, some of their folklore and iconography is pretty racist. Omar Sharif (yes, we bought the audio tour) said this symbolized the victory of order over chaos, but that seems pretty silly—the theme is obviously domination by the “lions,” though I admit I don't quite see how Bes' tongue fits into the picture.

Another item explained as symbolizing “order over chaos” was Tut's mace. The head struck me as odd—it was carved to look like some large bud. Maybe they meant it to look nice, or maybe the bud had some magical/symbolic meaning; or maybe both at once.

The wooden cow heads came along with the story of the divine cow, which I'd completely forgotten. Recently I'd been trying to figure out why the Jews kept making images of calves (Aaron, Jereboam). But if a cow took the gods to heaven, it might be that the cow was an intermediary afterwards, and thus a sort of generic figure to envoke when trying to contact a god/gods.

The exhibit spent a lot of time on the results of the latest CAT scan of Tut, which showed that he hadn't had his head smashed after wall, but suggested that a very recently (days) snapped femur might have had a bearing—infection, maybe. His skull was elongated, though not nearly so far as in the Akenaten caricatures.

I got to see up close details of things I'd only seen pictures of before. I'd not realized before that the black areas on the pectoral weren't black gemstones but paint. Amazing what binocular vision does for you.

Since the Egyptian antiquities people were so heavily involved, I was surprised more wasn't made of Akenaten's monotheism. Perhaps it was still too repulsive for them to focus on. True it wasn't a pantheon, but it did focus on a created thing.

The place was crowded! It took us two hours to get through the exhibits, and at least two school groups went by us.

Of course there was more to see before and after our tour of the Tut show. The younger kids got to finish going through the animal designs/adaptations section; somebody always wants to see the hall of gems (even if part of the lights are out), and we went through the Evolving Earth halls. The Cambrian room had three huge screens playing underwater scenes with trilobites and unpronounceable creatures going about their businesses. Truly weird.

The new dino arrangement is well thought out.

Alas, though our trip to the museum was only marred by an almost near miss and an ominous shudder when trying to park, the return trip proved fraught and expensive. The car didn't want to accelerate, and by the time we were halfway to Oak Park we plainly had transmission problems. I checked the levels at Austin—and unfortunately the fluid seemed OK—ominous news. Before we got to the Harlem exit the engine was racing and we ran to a stop halfway up the exit ramp.

I had to get out several times to wave around drivers who didn't realize what flashers meant. 911 eventually brought a state trooper, who summoned a DOT tow truck to get us off the ramp. (He was very solicitous for our safety, and we're grateful.) AAA eventually arrived, but not before an old Oak Park friend came and fetched the three kids. AAA towed us to a firm that didn't do transmissions—everybody was closed and they couldn't check—and I had to wait around another hour and a half the next morning for another tow. Turns out the fluid had cooled enough to engage first gear again, and I probably could have driven the four blocks.

The middle daughter drove down from Madison and all but I headed back home at 23:00.

I left the car with AAMCO with promised that they'd call with estimates, took the subway to O'Hare and the bus to Madison—but I decided to get off at Dutch Mill rather than try to ride into the gathering crowd for the Halloween party on State Street.

Shave and clean clothes!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Royal dentists

This story from the BBC about tombs of the the pharaohs's dentists is interesting. Given the amount of sand reported to have been found in ancient Egyptian bread, and the horribly worn state of their teeth, I guess it isn't surprising that dentists would have been honored. Oddly enough, in the book Dead Men Do Tell Tales it was reported that Tzar Nicholas had teeth so bad he must have been in constant pain. The authors guessed that he was afraid of going to the dentist.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Punching out Picasso

Something about this story seems oddly fitting. $139M? Selling "art" like this isn't serious; its a game for people with more money than imagination. It seems quite proper for the owner to accidently poke a hole in that con-artist's painting: no great loss. Even the money isn't a great loss; it is just a game.

Worship in song

Door Creek Church tried out a song called "Sing Alleluia"

It was syncopated, had irregular meter, had irregular rhyme, and there was no music supplied--just lyrics.

For some reason the congregation didn't sing it very loudly. Funny, that. They sang fine on other pieces, so it wasn't for lack of desire to worship together through singing.

You'd think it fairly obvious that congregational music has to be somewhat different from the average songs. A congregational song has to sound good when sung by a large group of untrained voices. The singers need more support, in the form of easy melodies and straightforward meter (and normalization for the pitches). If you're going to get fancy, show them the notes.

One song leader I knew could take fancy Christian songs and massage them until the congregation could handle the tunes. He made it look easy, but it probably isn't.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I'm not going to complain about Homeland Security taking the alarm clock apart. I'd rather have to repair an alarm clock than worry about how thorough the searches are.

When I visited my Aunt in Wyoming last month, I placed my film and camera in a ziplock bag. The gentleman doing the screening at tiny Casper airport took my camera out and checked it to be sure it was the real thing. The scanner beeped me because I had a metal barrette in my hair. The people were courteous and thorough.

I also did laundry before repacking. James did not have that opportunity, so whoever went through his stuff had to go through a week's worth of sweat. The screeners wear rubber gloves, with good reason. I do not envy anybody the job of going through other people's grubby clothes.

I thought at first that taking the alram clock apart was funny. A friend pointed out, "A dinged up alarm clock beats an explosion in the air." Good point.

Mrs James

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oh, yes

And my luggage was delayed again: That makes 5 out of 5 coming into Madison. Apparently Homeland Security got their underwear in a knot about my son's alarm clock (old fashioned style)--they disassembled it.

From the sky

My flight to Madison was canceled, but I was lucky enough to get on a later one. It was delayed a trifle, and when we took off the sun had just set. The horizon was a rainbow with a fingernail moon shining through it and some distant "stars" gliding through it for a landing. We banked, and I watched the lights of the traffic and the parking lots and the homes.

The men who designed the roads and headlights and streetlamps didn't plan for their work to be beautiful from the sky, but God made it so anyway.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Shifts changed

When I first started taking shifts on CDF, things were a trifle different. The only name that's still the same is ACE, who then as now was responsible for running RunControl and was supposed to be the person knowledgeable about all aspects of the DAQ. You always need peons to check that everything is working correctly though. Automated instrumentation wasn't cheap or easy, and so we had a walk-through checklist.

Walk around the relay racks downstairs, looking at the banks of Droege power supplies to see if anything is drawing too much current: and are all the red lights on? Flip the switch to monitor the other channel--anything wrong there? Read off and write down some obscure numbers from a panel here, then climb down the ladder to the gas platform and check the alcohol temperature (we had to put trace amounts of alcohol into the wire chamber gas by bubbling it through cold alcohol). Or you could take the elevator to the pit and climb up into the gas platform if something was blocking you from above, I suppose. Check and write down the current on this, look at the ACNET plots on the (color!) Accelerator Network terminal (press the button and make hard copy on the slow ink-jet printer if something needed to be looked at further), look at the accelerator timing signal on the scope in the trigger room (it never looked different) and measure the timing difference. Walk among the relay racks and look for dead lights, smoke, or anything odd.

And, of course, by the time you were done it was time to do it all again.

The top level of the DAQ system was a cluster of VAXes: a 780, a few 750's, and I think a 730 as well. The various monitoring and control interfaces were VT-240 terminals, except for the event display which was a big color Seiko graphics terminal (which had the cheapest, flimsiest keyboard of anything I've ever had to work with). The event display was the standard CDF event display (at first), and took one or more minutes to display details of an event. (It ran the entire event unpacking and part of the reconstruction.) After a year of this Bill Foster wrote his own event display called DF (for Damn Fast) that skipped most of the unimportant stuff and displayed an event in 5 seconds. We've used it and its descendents in the control room ever since.

The log book was a stack of standard computation books, and we'd write stuff in them, or tape in bits of printouts. Each detector had its own log in addition to the main run log book. The control room sported an LN03 laser printer, which was a considerable source of contention. It wasn't blindingly fast, and every time a run ended that had any reasonable statistics the YMON consumer process would print out the entire wad of detector performance histograms, and since it was using YBOOK-based graphics internally this was way slower than it needed to be. The ACE would be waiting to print his end-of-run notes to tape in the log book, but he and everybody else would twiddle fingers for 15 minutes. And everybody dreaded a short run: it took longer to print out the worthless histograms than the run took in the first place. We peons had to look over these histograms of frequency of hits on wires, energy deposited vs position, etc, etc and try to figure out if something was wrong with some part of the detector. Usually something was, and usually this was a known problem waiting for an access to fix. So we had to read back through the notebooks full of detector printouts looking for scribbled comments telling us that something odd was actually OK or a known problem. Communication was a serious problem, and the reference plots weren't always up to date.

Of course during the run YMON would periodically display the histograms for you. A VT-240 running in Tektronix emulation mode is kind of slow, and even if you'd seen what you needed to you still had to wait until it was done before moving on to the next plot.

We kept track of our detector status by sending a few selected events to the monitoring programs. Everything that passed the cuts was written to tape (first reels of 9-track tape upstairs, then 8mm tapes in the control room, and now it gets piped across the street into big IBM tapes in a tape robot system), but the "consumer" processes weren't fast enough to analyse everything so they only got a few events to look at. YMON looked at primitive detector details (do you have hot channels, is a wire dead, etc). LumMon tried to keep track of luminosity and trigger rates: if some "tower" in the calorimetry shifted its baseline and started showing signals above pedestal too often, then triggers based on it would start to appear too often (and be bogus, too)--so you keep track of such things. The fair-haired-boy was PhysMon: a process to try to keep track of the quantities we really wanted to know about, like the missing energy distributions, rate of W or Z production, J/Psi mass (a good monitor for making sure that tracking is working right), and so on. Of course it took forever and three days to accumulate enough statistics to be useful, and runs generally only lasted a few hours, so PhysMon was rather a nuisance. Over the years we added more monitors: notably such things as TrigMon, which tried to figure out where our triggers were coming from and whether or not the triggering logic was correct for that event (I'm working with that program these days).

After a few years it was felt that audio alarms would be a good thing, and so we bought a DECTalk box. The voice reproduction was awful, and since alarms often came in bursts the ACE would often find that the box was still yacking at him two minutes after he'd solved the problem.

Downstairs the relay racks were stuffed with FASTBUS and CAMAC crates and even the occasional NIM crate for triggerlogic. The SSP (Slac Scanner Processor) was an IBM 370 emulator on a board in a FASTBUS crate, designed to handle the readout of TDC data and format it into something that the VAXes upstairs would read out in a block of data we called a bank. You had to program the thing in IBM assembler code. We needed some changes made once, so I learned the language and wrote the changes--and then somebody else repeated the work independently. Calorimetry pedestal suppression was handled with something called an MX--a huge board 4 feet high filled with discrete components that did comparisons, additions, and pedestal subtractions to tell us whether or not we had a "jet" of energy in the calorimetry. The FMU (Forward MUon system) had a special crate which continuously read out the signal strength from those selected channels in our system which had an iron-55 source near the wire. The idea was to monitor the wire gain. Originally the board we used for multiplexing the wires into a single ADC was nice and straight, but by the time we'd stuff in all the chips and connectors it bowed a quarter of an inch out of true.

For a while our Event Builder was based on a few MacIntosh Plus computers! For quite a few years we had old Mac Plus' on desks, since they provided a relatively cheap way of giving us a VT100 terminal (an emulator) to connect to the VAXes with.

After a year or so cameras were installed so we could keep an eye on what was really happening in the collision hall. The checklist included pointing them at meters on the forward calorimetery and checking the gas bubblers in the hall for the FMU system (see at least one bubble in all the tubes in one minute? check). And looking around the hall to see if anything looked out of the ordinary.

So what's new?

Well, we've a Science Coordinator now (aka SciCo aka Psycho), and a monitoring ACE who keeps track of the voltages and gas and accelerator status, and 11 different Consumer processes which need a Consumer Operator to keep track of (and PhysMon was finally dropped from the list: replaced with ObjectMon). The VAXes gave way to microVAXes which gave way to Ultrix boxes (with some Silicon Graphics) which gave way to Linux boxes. The VT-240's and Seiko's gave way to big CRT monitors, which have recently given way (and about time, the upper Consumer CRT had screen burn) to flat panel monitors. I'm sitting in front of a 20 inch Dell flat screen--and I need the screen space it provides. There's a slightly smaller one mounted just above it, which is much closer than the old CRT which had to be mounted further up and back. 6 Consumer Monitor displays are cycling through their standard plots, and the event display beside me is showing both the calorimeter and side view of a recent event. The chairs are nice big comfortable adjustable things. The DAQ is now linux based, and instead of a farm of 68020 processors (or MicroVAXes) upstairs we have a farm of 320 rack-mount Linux computers downstairs for our Level-3 trigger. Each alarm is different: if the solenoid current is out of tolerance the theme from the Twilight Zone plays, a different failure causes beeps, something else buzzes . . . And of course the fan noise from the trigger system in the other part of the room is as loud as ever. I wish I could use earplugs.

Downstairs the MX's are gone, the FMU turned into the IMU, we use VME instead of FASTBUS, the racks of Droege HV supplies are gone (replaced with multi-channel CAEN crates)--and we've got several old cows: the Berkeley Zener Divider systems (one HV in, and you use pins to set what smaller voltages you want to go out on various channels to photomultiplier tubes--an old but robust system). The desks downstairs that we used to use for assembly and repair and logging in using any Macs that still worked have been squeezed out for more relay racks.

The voltage and gas flow monitoring is now automated. Of course every now and then one of the monitoring PC's freaks out: loses connection to the CAEN mainframe or to the net or just decides to go stir crazy. Then you have to go fiddle with it for a while. But it is nice to be able to look across the room and see that all voltages are on.

The old cameras in the collision hall were replaced with color camers, and pretty soon those will have to be replaced too--radiation has damaged a lot of the pixels. But there aren't any bubblers downstairs anymore. I may live in Wisconsin, but to me a bubbler is not a drinking fountain but an item in a gas flow system designed to let you know that the gas is flowing and to keep air out of the system. It didn't pay to compare the bubble rate on input with the bubble rate on output--it raised uncomfortable questions about how much the chamber leaked.

The walkthroughs are no more. In fact, most of the construction/maintenance phase being over, most of what used to be work and storage areas on the first floor is now open, and there's a visitor's center now with the old CTC (you can look inside to see the thousands of wires), a prototype central calorimeter wedge (as tall as a man) and other models of the detector, together with posters of physics results. Everybody needs to wear a Fermi ID when in the building, but the rack of film badges is gone. The kitchen is more worn, and apparently enough people complained that they've started keeping the supplies of plastic tablewear stocked again (for a few years you had to use a spoon for everything). That matters when you're on shift. All the small cabinets in the counting room downstairs are gone to make room for more relay racks. We used to keep small electronic parts and log books in them.

One thing hasn't changed, though: something always breaks when I'm on shift.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Browning said it

From Pippa Passes we have a description of more than a few celebrities:

That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit
Which seems to take possession of the world
And make of God a tame confederate,
Purveyor to their appetites 

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Foreknowledge isn't always knowledge

If you had described to me 28 years ago what my life turned out like, I would almost certainly never have married my wife. Who wants children with Aspergers? If you had told it to me 27 years ago, I'd have thought long and hard before proposing; and probably insisted that we never have children.

The mere description doesn't do justice to the reality, and the reality is that I wouldn't trade the family for anything. I'd do it again, except for a few (ok, more than a few) screwups along the way.

And I haven't any idea how I'd convey that fuller knowledge to an earlier me. Some words didn't have the same freight they do now, and I'd no idea how much meaning there could be in "being there." I'd have been scared.

I've not lived a particularly adventurous life, but I remember one moment that was an "OK, here goes" moment--just before "I do." I'll always be glad that I wasn't too scared.

What we focus on

Memories are fickle, and the details of the setting may be wrong, but the core I think is true.

When the Del Santos arrived in the port of Monrovia, it was too late for immigration procedures, so we spent the night aboard. It rained.

There were a few rickety wooden chairs on the deck under the overhang, and I tried to collar one, but there were more important people visiting us. I didn’t care so much about the VIPs—the rain pouring off the edge of the awning was more interesting.

Truly! The edge of the awning was straight, but the water poured down in individual equally-spaced streams. I was puzzled and pointed this out, and one of the VIPs replied that though the edge was straight and flat, the roof itself was corrugated, and so the water came in channels.

Aha! Maybe these VIPs are going to be interesting after all!

They were answering lots of questions, mostly about dull stuff—I was more curious about whether it was going to rain like this all the time. But by the time they got around to my question, the answer was obvious—the rain was tapering off. In fact, the runoff was down to the rate of drops instead of streams.

Drops didn’t come uniformly, and I tried to find the pattern—but there wasn’t one. It was a pleasant display of randomness, until it tapered off to nothing.

I’ve always been interested in the patterns and the why behind the scenes. Even at 8 ½ years old.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Civil War by Bruce Catton

I decided to fill in a fairly large hole in my history knowledge, and tackled Catton’s books: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomatox. These cover the history of the Army of the Potomac, as viewed from the Union side.

Several threads run through the history, beside the obvious continuity of the army group. The Union side, for a long time, did not have a clear understanding of what they were trying to do. The Union side was afflicted with incompetent officers at all levels, and Murphy’s Law made sure that pivotal battles hinged on the decisions of officers who were in no hurry to fight. Apparently one pivotal incompetent was Pinkerton in his role as intelligence officer, who magnified the Rebel armies by a factor of two and frightened several generations of Union generals. Nobody knew how to deal with the new technology of rifles at first, or even with the muskets: in one early battle Union and Rebel soldiers just stood and shot at each other point blank. Eventually they learned to dig in and use trenches to fight from, but I gather they never did figure out that helmets would help. Accident and friendly fire played their usual stellar roles, and so did domestic politics: Democrats looking for political advantage did everything short of actually volunteering as soldiers for the Rebels to help them keep fighting the Union.

I won’t attempt to summarize the history. Catton tries hard to show what things looked like from the point of view of the ordinary soldier as well as the strategic picture.

It is fascinating, and horrifying, to see how easily things might have been different—in each direction. The anti-war party in the Union was so corrosive that it came close to achieving its aim: defeat for the Union. That’s a strong accusation, but accurate: peace without victory meant a dissolution of the Union. The Rebels were close to victory more than once thanks to incompetent Union generaling. And the Union was close to early victory several times—and if key figures had ordered ruthless attacks rather than waiting around, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.

The longer the Rebels fought, the Federal government became relatively stronger and the States became relatively weaker. In a battle for “State’s rights” they’d have done better to down arms immediately—States would have had a stronger position in the country today. Although perhaps this was for the best in the end: the US could not and cannot be successfully isolationist, and a strong coordinated central defense turned out to be essential for facing the imperialist powers.

I like the author’s style. Read it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Searching is hard

I learned years ago that when I was annoyed with the church or its leaders, and nurtured that critical attitude, I wound up doing less good and more evil in the average day than I did otherwise. Something about that attitude spread through the rest of my life.

We’re looking for a new church home. And to find one I have to analyze what we find, and evaluate it: be a critic weighing pros and cons. I’m not looking forward to spending a lot of time that way.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Eden and beyond

The latest research in nano-technology shows more and more clearly how powerful biological fabrication can be. Large metal objects will remain the domain of large furnaces, but small and complex objects might be generated in other ways: if we knew how to tame the creatures to do it. A symbiosis between oysters and bacteria which reduce iron could produce laminates of iron and oyster nacre—small, but strong and very tough. It would take a lot of research, but it might work.

I’ve long thought that the dog was with us in Eden—an example given of what could be done when we subdued/tamed the world. In retrospect taming the dog seems straightforward: take a pack animal and make it part of the human pack. But it took insight to see that this was possible. The dog is just one part of the wide world. Could we ever have tamed it all? Not just the wolf and the sheep, but the mouse and the snake and the bees?

Taming a wild and dangerous world without reducing its complexity or majesty seems a huge task, and one I can only describe by analogies. The seamen of sailing ships did not try to create their own winds or dry the ocean paths, but used the ocean to support themselves and tacked when the winds weren’t favorable. They finessed the power of the wind and ocean to get them where they wanted to go. We dam up the sides of the Mississippi, and the silly river silts up higher requiring us to dredge and dam it higher still. Suppose instead we found a way to finesse the power of the river, letting it flood where we wanted it to instead of wherever it found a way loose. Or, as Lewis pointed out, if we could persuade mice to defecate someplace else we wouldn’t mind them eating our leftovers.

With greater and greater knowledge the taming would be more and more complete. There’d be work and to spare to understand each region and its creatures and to plan a web of obediences in it: science and art combined.

I have no way to imagine how human relations would be different in an unfallen world, where people could know each other in love, and therefore know each other far better than in our self-involved world.

And I’m in no position to even guess at what the relation between God and man was like.

The creativity and power and love that could have been is mind-boggling.

Eden is gone forever, though; and we’ve a world full of wicked problems; a world where a God who hates divorce sets up rules for how to arrange it; a world where sacrifices sometimes have to die; a world where those who try to build Eden create Babel instead—if they’re lucky; last century they often wound up with altars to Molech. Yes, I think Babel is a good analogy for what we are developing here in the US: great plans and noise and no common language anymore.

But though Eden is gone, and we’ve no hope for a harmonious world (let alone a loving one) anymore, we’ve hope and a still greater gift. Our creativity is just shards of what it might have been, but if we have the Holy Spirit living with us it is His power that matters, and that is greater than any Edenic man’s could possibly be. We have to live in the wreckage we made and suffer at each other’s mercy, but the meaning of it can be transformed in undreamed-of ways. Who knew that God was a suffering servant? And that we could be like Him that way?

Though our best work is just filthy rags, with His transfiguring power our poor endurance can be glorious.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Unless the seed dies

From My Utmost for His Highest

We tend to say that because a person has natural ability, he will make a good Christian. It is not a matter of our equipment, but a matter of our poverty; not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us; not a matter of natural virtues, of strength of character, of knowledge, or of experience— all of that is of no avail in this concern. The only thing of value is being taken into the compelling purpose of God and being made His friends (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ). God’s friendship is with people who know their poverty. He can accomplish nothing with the person who thinks that he is of use to God. As Christians we are not here for our own purpose at all— we are here for the purpose of God, and the two are not the same. We do not know what God’s compelling purpose is, but whatever happens, we must maintain our relationship with Him. We must never allow anything to damage our relationship with God, but if something does damage it, we must take the time to make it right again. The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain and the surrounding influence and qualities produced by that relationship. That is all God asks us to give our attention to, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack.

That’s a hard thing to remember. I was blessed with various gifts—a good analytical mind, good big picture skills, flexible: surely God wants me as a teacher. But God doesn’t need anything of mine at all, and so long as I imagine that I know His plan I don’t listen. So long as I think of myself as a guide to the ignorant I’m not much use, and then what powers I do have tend to point people to me rather than God. I remember a half a year when I felt strongly that I was talking too much, attracting too much attention, and that I should shut up and let the scripture speak for itself without elaboration. I did, mostly. I got no feedback on whether lessons were better or worse. Life’s like that.

Of course one great temptation in the modern evangelical church is to imagine that because Christ did it all we have nothing serious to sacrifice, no hard work to do. That appeals to my rather lazy side. I know better, naturally, so I find some congenial work to do that other people might find hard, and spend a lot of time on it. It takes talent to blunder into pits on both sides of the path at the same time…

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Birthday

I've been asked what I want for my birthday. I said I'd like a laser you can start a campfire with.

That's be cool!

With a historical flare, too.

Geek fire

Monday, July 24, 2006

Creative spam

I just cleaned out the junk mail from gmail--it doesn't have a single "dump it all" command, unfortunately, so I have to chuck it in blocks of 50 messages. In amongst the enhancement offers, come-ons and pleas for help from Nigeria, a message about Small Group Bible Studies: "What seven word phrase guarantees ..." (gmail only gives the first few words). I didn't need to read further: "guarantee" is a word of magic, not obedience. But I'd not have thought that small group leaders would be such a lucrative demographic to tap online. Somebody has more imagination than I do.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Oops

After weeks of almost nightly practice, last night was the first night of Patience. My wife suggested that it might be good if I bought a ticket, or at least came late. There were hours before then, so I went home and tried to attend to the suggested errands. That evening as I ground over reluctant alignment measurements, I realized: This isn't another rehersal, this is opening night!

I dashed off, figuring I could get in the last half hour. In the parking garage a large pickup truck stuck out into the turning zone, and a huge SUV decided they wanted the middle and my lane too. I tried to get past, and brushed up against said pickup. No damage done (big black mark on the side of my car), but the security guard turned around and tried to figure out what to do.

So I arrived just as the curtain fell. From my position I couldn't see my wife or son during curtain calls, and she never saw me.

So much for bringing moral support.

Compared to the great problems in the world, disappointing my wife probably doesn't register on the radar. But I can do precisely nothing about Hizballah and Israel or any of the other battles. But what I can do, I ought to, and I muffed this one.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Our Superstring Universe by L.E. Lewis Jr.

Strings, branes, extra dimensions, and superstring-m theory.

Who edited this? I can’t believe a particle physicist looked at it, or looked at more than just a slice or two of it. Lewis writes like a reporter: reasonably clearly, and with a charming breathless disregard for the facts.

The preface announces that this may soon be the most important theory of science…ever. Even back in June 2003 it was no secret that superstring theory was running into serious problems—such as not being able to predict anything. But set that aside and plow on. He brings in the “space particle” interpretation of strings to support a “continuous creation of space” and then brings in “an interpretation of a feature of SS-M theory;” namely the holographic principle “which seems to imply and allow a concept generally considered to be outside the realm of science. It is the concept of a human afterlife.”

That’s just the preface.

Next he addresses the origin of our universe in a breathless set of pagelets describing the time intervals starting with the initial nugget (which encoded our “universe to be”, never mind the Darwinian selection mentioned on the next page). Only 3 of the 10 space dimensions succeed in uncoiling.

Along the way he interjects descriptions of what he means by force and motion, space-time, matter-energy, and symmetry. I’d like to applaud him for trying to explain symmetry to the layman, except that he gets a bit hung up on jargon and forgets to include translational symmetry. (Translational symmetry is like driving in the Great Plains. Drive a hundred miles and the landscape looks exactly the same as it did before—nothing seems to change.) Then he proceeds to screw up what he did talk about when he addresses symmetry breaking. Water, inspected at the molecular level as he wants us to, isn’t really very symmetric at all. To understand what he’s talking about you have to think of yourself sunk in the middle of the ocean—water all around you. Move, turn—it always looks the same (just so you stay far away from the boundaries—pretend they aren’t there). But when the water starts to freeze a solid object appears; and now you can move nearer or farther from it, and look at it from different angles, and the view isn’t always the same. Some symmetry is now lost, or “broken.” “Building symmetries” is also possible, along similar lines.

The reason this sort of thing is important is that the equations that describe behavior of matter change in subtle and important ways when there is no longer one or another symmetry.

During the section on the inflation of the universe, he mentions quark formation, saying that up and down quarks appear and create protons and neutrons. Except, of course, that you have to generate anti-quarks as well, which generate antimatter, which annihilate with ordinary matter, and only an asymmetry in the weak interaction leaves us with any leftover matter at all. No mention of anti-quarks appears here (or anti-electrons in the next section)—a stunning omission.

In Chapter 11 when he yammers about “a new energy source?” he asks ”is it possible that (electron’s) mass could be converted directly into energy?” The answer is no, and if he understood the symmetries he wrote of earlier he’d know that. (He uses a picture that shows why, but I guess he didn’t understand it.) Then he calculates the energy equivalent of the electron—and gets .54 kilowatt hours! Of course this is wrong by a factor of more than 20 billion billion. I guess he was asleep during the lectures on measurement and units. I find it rather creepy that he professes to be able to explain arcana of M-theory and yet doesn’t know that cm/sec isn’t the same as m/sec. It comes as no great surprise that he completely omits any mention of the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force in his section on the standard model.

He starts out reasonably clearly describing the history of quantum mechanics, and then bollixes the section about Einstein’s contribution. On the whole that section is worthwhile, though: clear expositions of this are rare.

When he talks about omega, the expansion of the universe, and the microwave background he leaves the reader about as wise as before—maybe a little worse if the reader actually thinks that light can “cool.” If you’re going to talk about “curvature” of space, you need to open with a few examples; explaining what motion looks like in 2-d curved spaces like a sphere’s surface and handwaving your way to 3-d.

The missing dark energy and dark matter problems come up. It’s been long known that galaxies act like there’s more gravitating matter in them than meets the eye. Recent work untangling the “Einstein lensing” (light bends in gravity, so you can get extra images of remote objects) of distant galaxies shows that the intervening galaxies that cause the lensing have a distribution of gravitating matter that doesn’t quite match the visible part. Theoretical calculations of the universe’s overall curvature parameter (omega) suggest that the visible matter is only 4% of what’s needed to get omega=1. Even with estimates for “dark matter” this still only comes to less than a third. (They call the missing part the “dark energy.”) You’d think this was time to give the theory the old hairy eyeball, and that’s part of the appeal of string theory.

I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on string theory. The learning curve is pretty fierce, and the math is pretty hairy. The model is appealingly simple, and work that’s been done hints at interesting links tying together various physics and astrophysics mysteries in addition to putting gravity and quantum mechanics together in a natural way. You just have to ignore the fact that nobody’s been able to use it to predict anything yet because there are an infinite number of resulting models of the universes and some fundamental problems with getting the parameters right.

The fundamental model of string theory is fairly simple. All particles are vibrations in a space of 11 (or 10, or 23) dimensions. Eh? You only know of 3? (Don’t forget time!) Well, you wouldn’t see a dimension if it were coiled up on itself in a minute loop—unless there was something echoing around in that tiny loop like the sound in an organ pipe. You still wouldn’t see it directly (too tiny) but you could tell when an energetic one went by from the kicks it gave other things in the vicinity—which is how you spot the elementary particles. With a few simple rules about interpretation (faster vibration means more energetic means more massive) and about the interaction of these strings you can come up with a theory of particle physics and incorporate gravity naturally. The loops of tiny dimensions and vibrating strings in them put natural limits to the unpleasant infinities that show up when you try to describe gravity in quantum mechanics equations.

Some glitches arise: there should be a whole zoo of very heavy elementary particles, unless they all decayed away long ago. The theory demands some dramatic cancellations between positive and negative energies to give the small masses of the known particles: unbelievably large numbers differing only by minute amounts. (Truth to tell, quantum electrodynamics in the standard model has its own issues with things like that; but they’ve found some ways to justify and systematize them with “renormalization groups.” Don’t ask. Physicists do things that make mathematicians wince. They work, though.)

”Supersymmetry” (an elementary particle symmetry between particles with two different classes of spin) arises naturally out of string theory. This is regarded as a virtue, for some reason. Supersymmetry theories predict that every particle known so far (electron, up quark, Z-boson, etc) has an analogous particle of the opposite spin class. This makes a lot of calculations simple and the models beautiful, but we’ve never found one of these supersymmetric particles. As far as this experimentalist can tell the theorists can always tweak their model this way or that to predict that the lowest mass “super particle” was just outside the reach of the last experiment. Of course there’s all that dark matter that we don’t understand; maybe that’s stable supersymmetric particles. Or maybe not; I can’t seem to lay my hands on any to test it.

Chapter 8, on “Curled-up Shapes and Extra Dimensions,” is not terribly clear. It may seem so to a layman, but I found a lot of the theory described to be unmotivated and arbitrary. Which I suppose is natural when you don’t know the theory very well. But I’m not going to take Lewis’ descriptions as accurate given his track record, and neither should you. The chapter on “Building Credibility” doesn’t. In “The Search for Proof:’ finding the predicted supersymmetric particles would bolster all supersymmetry theories, not just string theory; neutrino interactions are rare but still happen often enough that we build detectors and find them; etc. If we had some ham we could have some ham-and-eggs if we had some eggs.

I will pass over the section on the holographic principle and life after death in silence.

It was kind of fun to see some old familiar names like the Icarus neutrino detector. I worked a little on that long ago—it is a liquid argon detector under the Gran Sasso mountain; one of Carlo Rubbia’s ideas.

In summary: the author doesn’t know what he’s writing about. Parts of the book are clear and accurate, and parts of it are clear and wrong. And for some parts I can’t tell one way or the other.

One interesting site critiquing string theory is Not Even Wrong

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Health Second Edition, by Marna Owen

If I may paraphrase a more famous review: This is not a book to be taken lightly. It should be thrown down and stamped on.

Youngest Daughter is taking Freshman Health at home this summer. This is the book she was assigned. It is startlingly elementary for a High School Freshman course.

The subject area consultant is Dr. Anita Hocker, who is “Supervisor of Health Education and Health Services for Sarasota County Schools,” “a specialist in curriculum,” “has been a high school science teacher, a developer of community health programs, and a medical researcher.” That last bit of resume padding is telling: a researcher would mention what the topic was. Dollars to doughnuts Anita was a student hourly—an honest job but not a research position. The Curriculum advisor is Stephen Larsen, with degrees in speech pathology and learning disabilities. There’s no info about Marna Owen.

In this book one learns such marvelous things as “Bones are hardened cartilage” (page 48). The chapter quiz often refers to things not discussed in the text. It also includes “Health Issues” such as “Some states have laws that require people to wear seat belts in cars. Do you think that these are good laws? Should the government get involved in your health?”

Maybe it escaped notice somewhere along the line, but questions about government responsibilities have more to do with political theory than medicine. The book reads as though the text and questions were composed separately. And howlers like the bone and cartilage claim shouldn’t have appeared even in a first edition, let alone a second.

The mental health includes the usual nonsense chatter about self-image. Youngest daughter and I had a long talk about “good self image.” This little gem of a phrase carries substantial ambiguity: Does it mean that you think well of yourself or that you think accurately of yourself? There’s a fellow in the mental hospital who thinks he’s Superman—he has a great self-image. And another who thinks he’s already damned and in hell, and needs to be whipped: not such a nice self-image.

We read a bit of Psalm 51: David had a pretty low opinion of himself at the time, but it was accurate. And what was really important was his attitude. He decided to go repent and try to get forgiven, in the hope that even somebody like him could still be good and an example again.

I think it was the Incans who had a proverb loosely rendered as “Party as though you would die tomorrow; farm as though you would live forever.” Both images are wrong: you (usually) won’t die tomorrow and you aren’t going to live forever. But the attitudes matter: celebrate wholeheartedly, enjoying everything as though this were the only time you could; and work responsibly.

Researchers found that bullies often have a “good self-image” (contrary to the party line). Suggestive, isn’t it?

Youngest daughter and I also had a long talk about the necessity for professional help after crises. Once again, recent work looking at the use of counselors after disasters (NY Times archives) found that people who put the past behind them and (using good old denial and other defense mechanisms) tried to go on with life were generally in better emotional shape a few years later than people who tried to talk through their issues with the counselors. Some people benefit from professional help (I’ve seen that, and so has she), but most seem to overcome crises just fine with just friends and time.

Some people need therapy, but we don’t need a “therapeutic culture.”

And we don’t need this book. The school is going to get a very nasty letter about it. Luckily we have a number of good references to fill in gaps, but students in a class have no such luck.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Puns

Son, you are 12 years old and it is time for you to learn about the noblest form of wit: puns. With puns you are playing with sound and meaning, with the very nature of word and language. They enliven conversation, and sometimes even enlighten. You will find them in the books of the prophets, and Jesus himself is reported to have said one. Samuel Johnson can go pound sand.

You know, of course, that a pun uses words that sound similar to restate a phrase in a new way with a new meaning.

The most delightful of these are firecracker puns, which need no buildup but fit naturally into a conversation. In the best of these the new meaning fits into the conversation, and invites reciprocation. Puns where the new meaning is irrelevant tend to derail the conversation, which is not usually ideal—though sometimes a new direction is exactly what is needed. (It is very hard to give short examples, because they fit into the much longer conversation.)

Built-up puns are also fun. The shorter the buildup the better, and the more plausible the buildup the better. It is more fun for the audience when the pun is unexpected, so try not to spoil the surprise by announcing the joke in advance.

Puns must have context. Just noting that knows and nose sound the same does not leave anyone rolling on the floor laughing. It is a rather boring fact. But observing that “though an obstinate 3-year-old is unschooled he really no’s a lot” puts the similarity to use, gives it a context, and wins the undying thanks of an amused parent. Or so one hopes.

It is probably best to practice with built-up puns first, until you become skillful enough to see opportunities in conversation for firecracker puns. To do this you start with a reasonably common or plausible phrase, and see what can be varied.

Try “bar association.” That’s an organization intended to maintain standards for lawyers—if you don’t meet the standards you aren’t allowed to practice law. But bar sounds like “barre,” which is a ballet term. Who could “associate” in ballet? Students or teachers—pick one. The pun is more effective if the buildup has some links to the original, so we’ll pick the teachers as the associates, and try to put them in some sort of formal group.

That suggests an obvious buildup: “The ballet teachers unionized last month, and formed their own barre association.”

That isn’t too bad. It has the virtue of being short, at least. However, the “association” part isn’t very strongly connected with the “unionized,” and so the result is kind of limp. Unless there is more context (such as the word “association” having appeared already in the conversation), this is pretty weak.

It isn’t hard to strengthen it, though—because “bar” has several meanings already. One of them is “tavern” which of course is a place where people congregate/associate. So you can modify the buildup to be: “The ballet teachers union is at Matty’s Tavern for their weekly barre association meeting.” The word “association” is still not very well motivated, but “bar” is now a double pun. The more puns you can work into a phrase, the better (unless it starts sounding labored).

A built-up pun needs more and stronger context than a firecracker pun. If there are several of you in the kitchen and the dog begs for the ham bone, you can toss him the bone and say “Bone appetit!” The context is there already: the bone and the hope that the dog will enjoy his meal; so the pun can stand alone. This may be a bad example, because it is hard to come up with a plausible buildup: the best I’ve got is to talk about Julia Childe devoting a few minutes to explaining what leftovers are suitable for giving to the pets. To make that plausible you need to describe it with a sentence or two—and you start to lose the virtue of brevity. This pun works best as a firecracker.

Let’s look at another phrase, and see what it offers when we vary it:

Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.

  • Nobody. No-body; body. This could come from an undertaker, Dr. Frankenstein, or the famous wrestler’s name. The problem is that revising nobody gives kind of awkward grammar.
  • Knows. Nose, no’s. The word “nose” appears naturally in contexts with dogs sniffing things out, elephants, or Cyrano. The phrase “no’s” is a bit awkward, but means denial—maybe someone contradicting one of those fake tell-all stories? But that assumes that your audience knows about them.
  • Troubles. Tribbles. This is an old Star Trek reference (and has been done repeatedly) Not recommended: those likely to understand it will probably see it coming.
  • I’ve. Eye, ivy. Eye is hard to work in, but ivy might, especially together with scene, below. Some kind of outdoor setting?
  • Seen. Scene, screen, been. Scene means setting or view, of course. Screen can be in a garden too. Been would have to be pronounced with a long e, which isn’t standard anymore, but it fits in nicely with a confession (Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been)

We can pick out a modified phrase: “Nobody knows what troubles ivy screens.” Obviously the issue at hand is some kind of plant disease killing off the plants put there to hide the ugly brickwork. I leave working out the exact buildup as an exercise.

Or we can try to talk about watchdogs failing at their job with “Nobody nosed the troubles I’d seen.”

You always have to keep your audience in mind: puns about ballet may misfire if they use jargon your hearers don’t know about. For example, I only learned what the word “barre” meant a few years ago: before then I’d have just looked blank if you tried the earlier pun on me.

If your audience is familiar enough with the subject, you can sometimes use an indirect pun, where you don’t actually say the pun itself but say a phrase that references it. For instance, if someone mentions the ferry, you can say that you’ve heard of a collection of amusing stories about it collected by the Brothers Grimm. The actual pun—ferry tales—doesn’t need to be said. Carom puns like this work best in conversations, but they’re hard to fit in.


Ready? Go bless the world with glorious puns.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More bumper stickers

On one car: “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake” and “Let’s get together and feel all right.”

I’m trying to figure out under what set of definitions the first statement could be true. At first glance it seems counterfactual (a polite way of saying “stupid lie”): history is quite full of counterexamples. But let me try to get inside this person’s head and figure out what sort of view of the world they are using.

I have to assume that the person who wrote this, and the person who stuck it on his car, actually mean something logical by the statement. It of course could be illogical nonsense that sounds good, and it is tempting to classify it that way—lots of people hunger for nonsense, after all. Or it could be the product of ignorance; but I doubt it—high school history has been dumbed down, but not dumbed down that far.

I’ll assume we both understand war to mean what happens when at least one group of people band together to fight with another group to achieve some objectives (keeping the other guys from killing them, or capturing slaves or land, etc), and that this fighting is on some largish scale. History is full of cases where one side’s objectives (staying alive, keeping their own property, grabbing the other guys’, or whatever) were met. It also is larded with cases where neither side’s goals were met, and a lot of people died with not much result. Nobody won those wars—no argument there.

Take a common enough setting as the example: country A wants a chunk of country B, and would like some slaves and other loose booty to go with it. A’s armies attack B. Repeatedly. After a few decades A practically (though rarely officially) gives up. Lots of people are now dead and both countries are poorer, but B survived, and so their objectives in going to war were met. (Substitute “tribe” for country if you doubt that this is common.)

My Bumper-Sticker Philosopher looks at this and says that nobody wins. He must mean that everybody has lost, and plainly both sides have lost a good deal in this case. Perhaps he is thinking of lives and treasure. If so, then he is saying that lives and treasure are more important than whatever the object they were risked for was. That sounds good at first, but on closer examination it isn’t quite as obvious as it seems. First, notice that the people fighting disagreed with him—they were willing to risk their lives for some mutual goals. Some were willing to die for those goals.

Look at the goals of the people of country B. They want to keep from being robbed, and keep from being made slaves of. If they valued life and safety more than protecting each other, unfortunately they would quickly have neither. So in a way they have to lose their lives to save them: be willing to die in order to survive. (The goals of the people of country A, though less ethical, are founded on their intent to take risks to provide for their own.)

If you take the claim that a life is worth more than anything else to its logical conclusion, nothing is worth risking your life for either.

So by what means do you avoid predation? Perhaps my BSP expects that each person will, if he feels safe from your attack, feel no need to attack you. That’s a common formulation anyway. A cursory glance at society proves otherwise: at least 1% of the population is perfectly willing to prey violently on the rest. My BSP seems likely to reply that this would not be true in a perfectly just society. This is true by construction (in a perfectly just society there aren’t any predators to begin with), but is not very useful (and I get very tired of hearing it). It is quite easy to increase that percentage, but it has been very hard to reduce it.

So if my Bumper-Sticker Philosopher thinks of loss of lives and treasure as the loss of the war, then he seems to be saying that nothing is worth risking lives for, and that he trusts in an Edenic society to make people good.

Maybe the BSP is more subtle, and he means something else. Perhaps what he means by loss is more of a spiritual thing. When we fight we become killers, in intent if not in execution. So when people go to war, something happens to their characters, making them less than they ought to be.

OK, I can follow that line of reasoning. Of course you run into Hamlet’s problem: “whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or “to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” For willingness to protect the innocent is as obviously noble a characteristic as is a peaceful spirit.

I can go farther. Unwillingness to protect those in your care is an ignoble abdication of your responsibility unless there is some better guardian available. Frequently there is no other guardian, and so you must fight unless there is a supernatural guardian and supernatural justice available.

I note that in this case my BSP’s statement does not absolutely demand that there be no wars. It may be that you must choose between ignoble actions. This differs from the purely materialist attitude discussed above.

So perhaps my BSP is a pacifist on religious grounds. I’m inclined to doubt it, though—because of the second bumper sticker.

The second bumper sticker carries, in this culture, an erotic, promiscuous, message. I’m not aware of any major religions that command both pacifism and adultery. The combination is found in do-it-yourself religions, with each man his own prophet. I am reluctant to dignify “it’s true because I say so” with the title of religion, or honor such a jackdaw as a prophetic follower of God. The tests for prophethood are pretty strict.

So I reckon there are three possibilities:

The message is nonsense in pretty language.

The Bumper-Sticker Philosopher thinks that life is too important to risk and probably also that a Just World (&tm;) will have no war or crime.

He objects to war on religious grounds, as defined by himself

I think I have spilled a lot of virtual ink on nonsense.

I should revise the numbers. A survey done in 2005 says youth gang affiliation in Dane County is 6%. So my predator rate (based on prison populations) is a factor of 6 too low.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Aha! Light

The pastor’s sermon explained a lot. When he spoke about following God’s leading he said (among other things) that he had not wanted to come to such a small church. That wasn’t the Aha moment—I had to sleep on it—but the lights made it clear.

A big church has multiple pastors on staff, and can hire managers. So do we now. A big church doesn’t need to rely on volunteer advice; it can hire consultants. So do we now. A big church has the big spotlights shining on the pastor. So do we now, and very clunky they look in our small auditorium.

We aren’t a big church, but we’ve got a pile of money and we’re using it to buy big-church accouterments. That’s an expensive way to humor the pastor.

The official reason for the spending is that we are growing, and need to have people in place as we grow. But the lights, intended eventually for the new building, are pretty useless right now.

Of course a few mysteries remain: Why the allergy to AWANAs? Perhaps it was Not Invented Here, or perhaps there were personality conflicts. And the allergy to adult education is also odd. I warned X that relying on small groups meant there was no systematic training, and he said that was something he was working on. This Sunday for the first time they introduced the small group leaders—not as teachers but as pastors! Maybe this is the kickoff for his more organized curriculum. Still, “pastors?”

What to do?

Is this a time for you to be building yourselves paneled houses when my house is in ruins? Haggai

Is this applicable now? Is God’s house in ruins?

I don’t see this applying to the finances of our local church—they have money, and are running through it like drunken sailors.

And yet it does apply to them, and to many other churches as well, where the congregants do not do anything but sit and watch and leave. I overgeneralize: some members of our church are far stronger Christians than I; some do more good works than I (easily arranged, I fear) and have grown in faith and love. But a lot of those are leaving, and the design of the services and activities seems calculated to drive them away.

I hear rumors of the same sorts of problems elsewhere.

What’s the plan? Attract people with sermons addressing felt needs and popular culture, show them the gospel, baptize the persuaded—and then what? Enlist them to recruit more in a holy Ponzi scheme? Hand off all instruction and guidance to small group studies with random study plans and no culture of spiritual disciplines? What’s the point?

And he pitied them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.

OK, maybe things are happening that I’m not seeing, that make the whole picture better. I doubt it, though. A large fraction of the youth in church youth groups don’t connect with a new church when they go off to college, and some never return to the faith. And when adult Christians, nominally instructed in the faith, can say things like “I have no problem with the idea of Jesus having been married” (yes, real quote; luckily not from our church), something serious is missing.

My own observations suggest that evangelicals often don’t get any systematic introduction to the faith, any systematic explanation of what is expected of them as Christians, and have no training to resist the solipsistic spirit of the age. I can name names of Christians whose only arguments to convince unbelievers are “The Bible says so” and “Darwin was wrong.” It’d be a pretty silly pagan who found that compelling.

I know the school of thought that holds that our true witness is our lives, and there is some truth to that—our lives should be signs and wonders that ratify what we say. But such content-free argument as I described mixes all too easily with the “Its true for you but not for me” attitude that saturates our society. Without clarity converts can and do mix in what they please, worshipping God and other gods—and we have some idea of what He thinks about that.

What we need to do is teach charity, clarity, and purity. Once saved, you are now a member of a new family and you must learn to grow in

  • Charity: love for God, love for your brothers and sisters in Christ, and love for your neighbor; all eventually expressed in actions somehow
  • Clarity: know what it is we believe, and why, and know how this differs from the blandishments of the world; and also to know what we don’t know and what we’re willing to disagree about.
  • Purity: not just a negative—the absence of sin—but the positive changes in mind and spirit coming from a focus on God and His word, on righteousness, prayer, study and meditation, worship together, and more prayer

So what should I do in our local church? Make noise and complain about what’s missing? That’s been done—most of those complaining gave up and left.

Offer to teach it myself? That’s scary. About all I’m good at is the “clarity” part—I don’t have a stellar track record with “charity” and “purity” and I can read the book of James as well as the next guy.

I offered my ideas and service to the elders for the “clarity” part of the instruction we need in the church. Either they’re distracted, don’t like details in the offering, or don’t think it fits in with the grand scheme—the dime has not been gotten off. Maybe they were freaked out by the copyright notice on the book, but if it goes out under my name I want it to be what I said.

What next? Rattle X’s cage again? Ask Y for his take on the material/plans?

Or just do it? Announce that I’m offering this course at my home at such-and-such a time?

Why not?

  • The material isn’t lesson-ready yet: it needs more questions, examples, suggested extra reading, and so on—several weeks at least, and I need some feedback wrt details and plans. I’m not a trained theologian, and there might even be a few mistakes in it.
  • Venue: Parking is a problem around here, and the living room is small.
  • Am I the right teacher for this? Will I be making myself the center? It is very easy for me to consider myself smarter and wiser than the elder board. They make it easy, but it isn’t a good attitude to have. (At least I don’t feel holier…)
  • If the elders disapprove, there’ll be some more explosions, and likely a few more people leaving.
  • Eats more of my time and adds some stress to the family—and with two Aspergers children at home we have an adequate amount of work and stress.

Of course all of these have answers: time, so what if we only have 3 people, somebody’s got to, too bad, and maybe it won’t be so bad.

I’ll keep praying.