Sunday, March 30, 2008

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Sorry, I got very tired of Cone and decided to finish reading this instead

This is subtitled Nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality, and that's pretty much what it is. It rambles back and forth through his life, telling what he found or was shown, and he's willing to explain his imperfections. Sometimes it is poignant, and sometimes ...

I've been to a play. It was Romeo and Juliet, and I took a date. It was my first date ever. Even though I never wanted to act myself, taking a girl to a play was a good move.


Even though it is good move to take a girl to a play, I screwed it up.


Later in the play they accidentally kill themselves. It is not very believable, but that is what happened.


When we were walking out my date clasped my hand, and even though I wasn't feeling very mushy I smiled at her. We ascended the aisle and made our way through the crowded lobby onto the steps of the playhouse. There were girls everywhere, all of the misty-eyed. Two girls in front of us were talking to each other. One of them threw her arms in the air and cried out, "I wish I could know love like Romeo and Juliet!"

I couldn't take it anymore. I whispered under my breath "They're dead."

I didn't think anybody heard me, but my date did.

Read it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

An injunction against CERN?

Althouse noticed the NY Times story about the lawsuit asking for a temporary injunction against CERN's startup of the LHC. I assume the reader is quite aware (as the NY Times article mentions) that cosmic rays continually bombard Earth and Sun resulting in center of mass energies far in excess of those CERN can muster. If doomsday reactions could occur, they would have. True, at CERN the wonder particles might be created roughly at rest with respect to the Earth (not likely, btw) and be able to hang around, but that doesn't make much difference, since the cosmic-ray varieties

  • also have a non-zero probability of being created roughly at rest in the Earth's frame
  • would be zinging around from interactions in the Moon and Sun to liven up life here on Earth

Since anybody can sue anybody for anything (even if the court has no jurisdiction in Switzerland), the mere fact of the suit means very little--perhaps the gentlemen want a little publicity.

Some of the comments make me a little sad, though. Some people are afflicted with a blanket distrust of "authority figures." But the CERN experiments aren't like trying to use nukes to loosen up the San Andreas fault and make lots of small earthquakes instead of one big one. (You could write volumes about the unknowns and risks there.) This is more like claiming that dredge fishing will annoy giant squids which will rise up and eat you. It is actually possible to say "not bloody likely" in a case like this.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sign of Depression?

I'm no economist.

I like listening to the radio in the car, and prefer classical or songs where the human voice is heard clearly past the music. The stations specializing in the latter tend to be "oldies" and the ads have been for cosmetic surgery, medical treatments, nursing care for parents, and other such middle-aged attractions.

I've never heard so many ads for debt reduction ("We helped XYZ reduce their tax debt to 28 cents on the dollar!") in my life. Maybe it is a couple of firms getting really aggressive, or maybe demand is way up. With home equity loans getting harder to find...

Cone again

There's a medium-long interview with James Cone available. I listened to it (don't try to watch--the sound is out of synch). It sounds very much like the Bibliotheca Sacra analysis on House's site (offline now) was correct in stating that BLT makes "black" experience the touchstone for revelation, deprecates Bible, and interprets all human relationships in terms of power. Cone is not consistent in his analysis, of course. He claims that all religion is violent when associated with the powerful, even if there isn't any overt violence; but then goes on to say that the powerful always use religion. Therefore the only true religion is that of the oppressed. If they become powerful--then what? Their religion in turn becomes "violent." Unless this time it magically happens to bring on the Kingdom of God.

The sanctity of the oppressed is such a fundamental part of this system that I think I can finally understand why conspiracy theories like "AIDS was created to destroy black people" or "the government spread cocaine among black people" are so popular. Aside from the usual gnostic attraction of such theories, they provide this generation with their own oppression to make them holy. This generation has no separate water fountains or Jim Crow laws, and much less overt racism to face (yes, I hear things, and things have changed), and in fact can see programs like affirmative action intended to help them. They have to have something that makes them oppressed, and therefore morally better than the rest.

So it is good to have a list of grievances, the more dramatic the better--never mind their accuracy or relevancy. It isn't just a matter of being able to blame your situation on somebody else--it makes you better than them because you are thereby identified with Jesus.

If you have the stomach for it, watch the video.

Is Cone a worse heretic than Osteen (for example)? They both turn the Kingdom of God into money and power here and now. Cone is certainly more hateful, but frustrate somebody who thinks they're entitled to prosperity and see what bubbles up.


The death threats that accompanied the publication of this short movie seem to validate its premise--that Islam is intrinsically violent, and requires reform.

Is the movie fair to the millions of Muslims that don't go in for cutting off heads? Not really. There are plenty of Muslims who don't care for trouble and aren't that interested in imperialism. They are rumored to constitute a majority.

Is it unfair? Not really. Too huge a fraction of Muslims support this rhetoric and violence, even if they'd not actually do anything themselves. Egypt comes to mind

Is it hate speech? No, but it quotes a lot of hate speech.

I'd provide a link, but the sites keep getting shut down, so a static link is no use.

Watch it. Even though it doesn't describe all Muslims, it describes a subset with whom we have been at war for decades, and probably will continue to have to fight for many more. And we need a few reminders. The powers that be in the media seem to have an overwhelming fear of being offensive or making Americans angry(*). 9/11 memorial shows without footage of the carnage? Maybe that is related to the death threats mentioned above?

I'm told the movie pops up (and gets deleted) on Youtube--search for it.

(*)Except angry at a short list of domestic targets.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cone and Wright

Everybody seems to be writing about Wright. This is an interesting take on the prophetic aspects of his work.

I picked up a book by Cone from the library, and am trying to get through it.

It isn't easy.

I am a physicist in academia, and get some of the letters that any scientist with visibility gets. I actually try to read them. It isn't easy--the writers generally use words like "energy" in novel and incomprehensible ways, hide assumptions, move conclusions valid in one setting to completely different ones, complain of conspiracies by mysterious elites, and only rarely say anything of worth.

The first chapter of Cone's book is like that--but dripping with hatred as well. Perhaps the hatred is understandable--it was written right after King's assassination--but it doesn't bode well for the theology part, which I haven't gotten to yet. And "understandable" anger does not mean the work is going to be valuable or accurate or even "authentic."


On the side of a office building on 1st street is a large mural of a prone woman with a phantasmagoric array of images on her back. It took months to create. No, it isn't vulgar. It wordlessly advertises one of the businesses inside: "Tranquil Tattoo" When I think of people shoving needles into each other, "tranquil" is not the first word that comes to mind. Perhaps the clients are soothed with soft music, or maybe they are schnockered, or perhaps the tattoists slather them with lidocain first. Laughing gas?

Has anyone tried to correlate tattoo positions with acupuncture sites, and done follow up on client health? You got an "M" on a positive energy site for your pancreas, but the "O" landed on a negative site for your spleen, so they should cancel out, except for the occasional internal electrical discharges.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring is here!

All the signs of spring are here:

  • Notes on the calendar say so
  • A squib in the newspaper says so
  • Somebody hit a skunk on the highway near our house
  • My better half killed a fly in the living room
  • The daffodils are buried in 6 inches of wet snow

Check. It's spring.

Meth followup

The pictures finally appeared in the paper. I've met the woman (Holly King) briefly, but never seen Underwood before. She looks gaunt. I don't remember that.

The reports suggest that this was a small-scale operation, so cleanup shouldn't be as huge a worry to the neighborhood. Nothing new on the kids, though--"with relatives" I knew already.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I've ignored Spitzer(1), I've ignored Wright the Cone-head(2), I've ignored the brokerage firm fire sale on Wall Street(3)--but I can't ignore this one.

When I first started reading science fiction more grown-up than Tom Swift, Clarke was there. And he was thoughtful and inventive. Sometimes he was prophetic: geosynchronous orbits and "I remember Babylon" (the latter more fulfilled by the internet than satellite broadcasts, but it was the social aspects that worried him). Sometimes he wasn't--he seemed to suffer from the popular SF delusions about the role of human sexuality in society.

His prose could be deadenly didactic when he went into a long riff away from his story. And his ideas about God were pitiably simpleminded.

But he was a creative genius. And we'll miss him.

(1) I have some taste. And I didn't know who Spitzer was before, and didn't feel competent to analyze his downfall.

(2) I'll bone up a little more before I say anything.

(3) I have nothing interesting to say. "Yikes?" "Hope this does the job?"

In the neighborhood

About 150 yards from me a special team from Chicago is dismantling a methamphetamine lab. Two were arrested. The two kids will probably stay with grandparents. I had to come through a police checkpoint to get home, and about 8 homes are in the cordoned-off area where nobody is allowed. This is the first bust in this county.

In between us is a home where the wife does in-home daycare. The neighborhood is duplexes, tightly bunched together. A fire or spill and a lot of people could have been hurt.

I've been by the place many times—even tried to drop off info when I was a board member. Never met anybody. That's not the only place where people rarely appear, of course—that seems to be the norm in most neighborhoods. Still, that place seemed unfriendlier than usual. But I'd have never suspected a meth lab.

They can be anywhere, though.

I hope our neighbor's daycare doesn't suffer. It is ironic that the neighborhood will appear less safe now that is objectively more safe.

Maybe they will be done by morning. The police chief said it might take 20 hours.

I've heard that contamination usually means the building housing the lab has to be torn down. I wonder what this has done to the kids?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Birth rates

The theme of low birth rates is back again; from warnings by Steyn to snide derision in The Nation.

Why should there be so few children, though?

Let me count the ways...

Country music sometimes celebrates family and children, but the pop music I hear almost never does. I don't know enough about European pop to reliably compare it with American music, but what I've heard/understood has been more like American pop and rap. Music affects you; and favorite genres that the past few generations have immersed themselves in have little room for family.

C.S. Lewis spent one section of The Four Loves on affection: love for those nearby. It seems unlikely that a person would come to have affection for children if there weren't any around.

Our society is strongly segregated by age and function. If it weren't for church services I'd meet almost no children except my own in an average week—and even in church the small children aren't part of the service. Children and youth spent years in school (and I'm deeply suspicious of the learning efficiency there), and not integrating in any serious way into adult and civil life. There is no legal room for children at work, nor, thanks to intense specialization, is there much practical room for them.

The segregation extends to social gatherings and amusements as well, with the prominent exception of sports. I'm not a big sports fan, but finding all ages gathered around the basketball game on TV or out at the baseball park is good to see. Aside from that: we have children's amusements and adult amusement, and infinite subdivisions of each, with a substantial number of people isolated not just from other ages but from other people as well, while they sit in front of a screen. Just as I am doing right now.... Hmm No meeting means no affection.

With children not part of the daily picture, they tend to become abstract. Abstract children are an expense and interfere with amusements. Real children (yours or the neighbor's) you can think of affectionately, but abstract kids are alien.

And who wants to be bothered with aliens? So, fewer kids.

Aesop's Fables translated by Laura Gibbs

I read a book of these of the fables when I was little, and liked the stories of cats and foxes and wolves and frogs, though I didn't think much of the morals attached. The stories were far stronger than the didactic morals. This is a much more complete set of fables, with a better translation.

The Greeks used weasels to catch mice instead of cats, so some old familiar stories sound rather different.

Not all the fables are Aesop's. Some were written as much as 500 years later. Some are Greek and some Roman and some seem to have been retold even later.

All the old famous ones are here—sometimes with noticeable differences. Many of the tellers couldn't resist the urge to have one of the characters explain the situation. “Realizing his mistake after the fact, the wolf exclaimed 'My self-conceit has been my undoing!'” The ancient epimythium doesn't always seem to harmonize well with the message of the fable, but most of the time it illuminates the attitudes.

The tales are a treasury of wisdom, of course, dealing with the various aspects of life in their often contradictory ways. They admonish a man to deal generously with strangers and to take care of his own first and avoid evildoers. (Sometimes minor variations on the same story are used to illustrate completely opposite points!) One theme I don't find much of is forgiveness, but endurance and accepting your lot in life turn up a lot.

I can see why some fables were omitted from the children's collection. The one about the Emperor Tiberias (593) and the silly attendant requires explanation (“slap that makes you a freeman”). There's a tale (521) that shows that the Anatolian antipathy to Arabs is of long standing (Hermes fills a cart with dishonesty and wicked tricks for distribution among mankind, but it breaks down among the Arabs who appropriate the contents). Another (574) suggests a menage a trois as a solution to infidelity.

If you haven't read Aesop's fables, you must. Find a copy of some collection and read it. This one is good.

Monday, March 10, 2008


The BBC has a teaser report for their broadcast on piracy, and they bring up an interesting point I hadn't realized.

A piracy attack is an attack against a vessel that happens in international waters.

However, attacks that happen inside territorial waters, which are normally 12 nautical miles from the coast, are deemed as acts of robbery.

The laws that govern this distinction also determine the type of response that can be initiated.

For example, if a naval or coastguard vessel is a witness to an attack by pirates who manage to get into territorial waters, they are often forced to break off the right of "hot pursuit", as they do not have the permission of the relevant sovereign government to be in those waters.

As Mr Herbert-Burns of Lloyd's Intelligence Unit recalls, that is exactly what happened in the case of the Danica White.

"Two days after the attack, a United States naval vessel tried to intercede and fired shots across her bow," he says.

"The Danica White then managed to get inside Somali territorial waters and the United States naval ship had to break off pursuit for that reason.

In the special case of Somalia, this rule ought to be waived, since there is no sovereign government there.

Good to see they weren't all eaten

The Zoological Society of London spotted Liberian pygmy hippos in the forest. It was feared they'd all been eaten during the civil war, but apparently some survived. They were already very rare, and now are very much rarer--but you can't blame the refugees. They had to eat.

I remember Suzy at the zoo. We all chanted "Suzy open your mouth," which is what the feeder did come feeding time, but I guess she was smart enough to know we were fakes. She mostly didn't bother, and even when she did she didn't open wide.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Do you know what cantankerous means? Your boat is bobbing wildly in the harbor.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Across the pond

Just before the Texas et al primaries, NPR aired a couple of stories about which American candidates were preferred by the “man-on-the-street” in Iraq and Britain. No prizes for guessing who was preferred.

This seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for stories. It is not exactly a secret that Western European politics tends to run much more along statist and socialist lines than American, and so they quite naturally find more in common with left wing Democrats. (And I gather that Americans who don’t think “nationalism” is a dirty word scare the bejabbers out of them.) And given that most of the news is about the hotly contested race, that reporting tends to be biased in favor of Democrats, and that Iraqis have few other useful sources of information about the candidates besides the current US reporting, they’ll tend to favor the candidates they hear about.

In US Olympic reporting, reporters will interview the gymnast’s trainer’s wife to try to fill the time (ignoring non-US contestants, as a rule). This is equally silly. In any event, British opinions about our candidates matter about as much as my opinions on the best Mayor for Lyons.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Geneva again

I spent most of the trip working with a colleague to get a software project completed, or at least ready for testing. We succeeded in the latter goal, though not the former. The required remaining changes are few and fairly straightforward, though.

I took off most of Sunday, and took the bus/tram/feet to the English-speaking evangelical church in the old city. The number 9 bus doesn't go all the way anymore: you have to change to an electric tram to get from CERN to the railroad station. The tram has automatic ledges that extend from under the doors when they open, so there's less of a tripping hazard getting from the platform to the train.

The service was good. Afterwards I must have looked quite a sight as I tried to pull on my bright red Wyalusing State Park hoodie, trying to stick my head through a sleeve.

The sun made a rainbow arc through the fountain.

I wandered through a different part of the city this time, and found the natural history museum. I was curious about what the glaciers had looked like, and went in. I gather they sort of gathered in the mountains and pushed outward. I started to feel strangely weary and lightheaded--found out later that week that the med I'm taking can mess up the potassium balance: and has.

The place has a huge bird display, and I found that the black and white crow that hangs around CERN is a "pie bavard" aka magpie. That seems appropriate, somehow. Eldest son would have loved the place.

It must have been the first sunny day this year--everybody was out; lovers everywhere by the river and lake.

I ran across a Russian Orthodox church. The gate was open and the doors and there was a woman with her child playing in the yard, and I wondered if they had tours. But then a woman backed out of the church, crossed herself, backed out further and crossed herself, and then did the same a third time. I felt a little delicacy about the idea of sightseeing there.

I was in the middle era between lunch and dinner, and on Sunday only the expensive tourist places seem to be open, so I passed up the opportunity to drop mucho francs on a meal. Not much fun to eat alone anyway.

The fountain spray was blowing onto the pier, and a large crowd was standing there getting rained on. And at 1600, it turned off.

I have to improve my French if I'm going to keep doing this. I feel like six kinds of idiot spending so much time around a town and not knowing anybody besides other physicists.