Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy 2010

I don't think I can summarize 2009 better than Dave.

Methuselah

Last fall my better half bought some painted lady butterfly larvae to help with a 4H demonstration. Shipping turned out to be badly timed, but in any event the caterpillars grew and pupated and came out as butterflies, and mated and laid eggs.

Sometime around 14-Sep ( plus or minus a couple of days) one egg was laid that hatched in the usual way. The life cycle went along the usual way for the next couple of weeks for this one and his/her siblings/cousins, and then they pupated. A little less than 10 days later they started coming out--a second generation of painted lady butterflies. For some reason it is considered unusual to get a second generation out of supply-house larvae, but we got them. Some didn't make it, and several had twisted wings, but the rest were fine. That would be back in the middle of October.

We kept them in a display box, with slices of orange or lime for the butterflies (we'd used thistle and other things for the larvae). They generally live a couple of weeks as butterflies, and one by one they died off.

Except Methuselah, who is still alive and kicking after over two months. He escaped for a couple of days and ran afoul of a defunct spider's web, but seems none the worse for wear. He'd be dead in a couple of minutes if he got outside into the cold, but indoors he seems to be doing fine, sucking down on lime slices and sitting in the sunlight.

UPDATE Methuselah died on the 5'th of January, after living about two months longer than usual for his species.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Philippians

Rich had often spoken of how important memorization is, and I'd often been embarassed to realize that I couldn't cite the location or exact wording of some passage. The author of Hebrews didn't let it bother him, but I did.

During my December trip to CERN in 2008 I decided to change that. If little boys in Senegal could memorize a whole book in a language they knew not a word of, why couldn't I master a simple letter? The discipline would be good whether it worked or not--immersing myself in the scripture should be of some benefit, even if not an immediately tangible one.

I picked Paul's letter to the Philippians at random and set myself a few ground rules. I would read it twice a day, along with the morning and evening chapters. If I found that my attention was wandering (I know how often that happens!) I'd go back and reread the section I'd glossed over. When the NT readings reached Philippians I'd just skip on to the next. At least one of the times I'd read it aloud. And I'd do this for a year to try to make the contents and message habitual to me.

I revised that list pretty quickly--reading aloud took forever and could be heard outside my hostel room--not nice when people are trying to sleep. And twice a day made it the hugest part of my devotional time. I shifted to once a day--half in the morning and half in the evening.

After the first couple of days I started noticing things I'd never seen before. Little things like how often "All" came up, or the rhythm of the letter alternating between instruction and personal. The big themes I'd heard many times before, and they merited revisiting: for Paul "to live is Christ" so why not for me? I too should embrace servanthood, forgetting what is behind and pressing on, counting everything worthless but knowing Christ, "whatsoever things" and so on.

One theme crops up several times--that suffering for Christ is a special gift, like the grace to believe in Him. Suffering isn't a popular theme in most churches I'be been in.


So what happened?

I did what I said I'd do--Philippians every day.

I didn't come close to memorizing it.

Applying it---hmmm. I tried to make eager service a part of my life. I don't think I got very far. You'll have to ask my wife.

"Forgetting what is behind" tends to be easy; maybe too easy. I find it fairly easy to forgive good-old-me.

The pure, true, noble, etc--I tried to think about these kinds of things, but with no particular success. The newspaper isn't exactly a wonderful conduit for such, nor the radio, nor the net; and thinking about the economic and political world doesn't encourage good thoughts. (I'm afraid I can only take so much of the Christian radio stations--evangelical or Catholic. The evangelical station plays a lot of inferior music and superficial theology, and the Catholic veers off into Mary and magical explanations on how prayer X takes time off purgatory.)

I don't think I act very much better. I may notice my failings a little better--I didn't keep notes. I know Philippians a lot better. I don't know if I will try the discipline again--this next year I'll be focussing on the gospels.

Your mileage will vary.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Day

Forget the wars and rumors of war, the rising and falling of nations, and the madness of rulers. An obscure birth in an irrelevant town in a downtrodden land in a lost empire is still the center of our lives.

"Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things work."

(Robert Farrar Capon)

Ice on Christmas Eve morning

With nobody having to go to work in the morning and no school, I figure I can sleep in. Until I hear the garbage truck in the distance. Whip on clothes, yesterday's flannel shirt, rummage for the shoes and ...

discover that there's a layer of ice over the new snow, and I've got to dig a path if I want to roll the garbage can down to the street.

The snow is damp and heavy, but it scrapes up nicely and I get the can down before the truck appears (going down the other side of the street, of course). Then comes the thought of what happens to wet snow when it freezes. So I empty the driveway and sidewalks, and notice that Youngest Daughter's light is on. So she probably has to go to work after all. She did

The car is encased in about 3mm of ice, but the lock is unblocked and I get in and fire it up. There's something pleasantly sensuous about scraping loose ice off a warm windshield, like a pulling a loose scab or peeling off an old sunburn. The ice slabs slide before the scraper, clinging to the glass as they go, until they reach the ice at the far side and crumble into a growing heap that slowly drifts down the window frame.

Frigid ice on a cold windshield makes for hard work, but when the car is warming up and the air is just about freezing, scraping thin ice is fun.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Music

There's a wealth of good Christmas music to pick from: I estimated thousands of old songs, and some new ones that I suspect will become classics also: "Mary Did You Know," for instance.

There are even more performers, and the economics of the field seem to force them away from doing standards--not enough expected sales, I guess. So everybody tries to jazz the standards up a little and make them different enough to stand out. After all, if I already own one performance of Silent Night why should I buy another one this year unless there's something different?

I've read that hymnody was one of the glories of the Protestant churches. It might be a little hard to sustain that claim using what plays on WNWC this time of year. I heard a fragment of a new song tonight that went roughly like: "Baby Jesus do you know that you came to die for our sins? Don't be afraid, after three days..." at that point I reached Walmart and gratefully turned off the song. Did the composer realize he was expressing superiority to Jesus?

Time to turn on a little Handel, and maybe the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album (if you're going to be different, do it well!).

What if

Bob died before I came back from Switzerland, so I never had a chance to have a last goodbye. I never offered to walk with him on his daily mile to the hospital cafeteria. He'd probably not have felt comfortable with it--he was intensely private and only had work-related conversations--so I never tried. But I never tried.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

CNN makes you a god

For some reason (probably $$$) O'Hare blasts CNN from monitors all over the airport, with only a few blessed spots of relief (or you can spend the bucks for a private lounge). They seem to run on a 2-hour cycle, so a long layover you get it again and again. I really don't care to hear any more about Tiger Woods, but apparently CNN thinks that's vital news. One woman reporting on the "surge" into Afghanistan spoke slow and lugubriously when describing the things the early forces would be doing, but perked up and became cheerful when talking about all the possible things the Taliban would do in response. I'm not joking: her pitch rose and her speech was faster. The O'Hare feed is larded with ads for CNN itself, mostly self-congratulatory bits on how important and courageous and noble their commentators are.

They advertised a new application for the iPhone which would give you feeds from CNN, showing an iPhone in hand as the owner scrolled it from image to image to image. The music in the background was "He's got the whole world in His hands."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Values and tastes

I've heard "That's your opinion" a little too often. Often the claim is misapplied.

I think a clearer breakdown of disagreements would look like this:

  • Disagreements over facts
  • Disagreements over tastes
  • Disagreements over values

Facts

Through many meetings I've heard many disagreements over facts. Luckily the people I work with honor the truth, and I don't hear outright rejection of the facts--the disagreements are generally due to confusion about the circumstances of a measurement. You can get wildly different results for a measurement for what appear to be slightly different setups. At the end of the day we usually figure out what the confusion was, and agree on the result. We may not be happy about it, but we hold that the facts are the facts.

I wish I could say the same about everyone. Politicians are notorious for ignoring facts in favor of getting elected.

Many times disputants have no first-hand knowledge of the details of the matter at hand, and rely on their favorite authorities. Or perhaps I should better say: they rely on what has been reported that their favorite authorities say. Reporters are notoriously careless, and often decline to let pesky details get in the way of a good story. As I mentioned above, apparently small details can make major changes in the result.

One little problem is that some authorities lie. If your only source of information is a Saudi newspaper you're not likely to have a solid knowledge of anything outside of Wahhabi praxis. The rumor mill will generally be even less accurate than the official bamboozlers. When pressed, your source may admit that no, he wasn't actually the one who saw the witch turn into a goat, but a cousin of his saw it and that's just as good. The cousin, it will turn out, is not strictly a blood relation and if found, will refer you to his cousin in turn.

Taste

I think Spaghetti-Os are unfit for human consumption, that mushrooms in a green salad represent an unfortunate adulteration, and that Beethoven could compose rings around Elton John. Some of these positions can be sustained with argument and facts, but at the end of the day a reasonable person could conceivably disagree, and say "I like this." There's no accounting for taste. And if I must I'll eat the salad.

For that matter, I think John Adams is a terrible composer--but I actually like "The Chairman Dances" (from his "Nixon in China"). I can't explain why that should be an exception.

Youngest Son likes "Psy Trance" music, especially South African. I don't quite understand why, but was able to recognize enough of the roots of the style to guess that he'd like "Popcorn." Youngest Daughter wants to hear opera. Sometimes they both play at the same time...

Tastes in music don't usually play as huge a role in life as taste in wives, of course; but the principle is the same: X clicks with you and Y doesn't. There's not always a strong intellectual component to taste.

Values

Some things are not a matter of fact or of personal response but of something more deep-seated which you may call values. Unless you only hang around people who agree with you, you'll have heard arguments in which the disputants say things like "This proposal takes away our liberties!" vs "How can you deny so-and-so the security they deserve?" The proposed changes to the American health care system are a fruitful font of such arguments. Several times I've heard the dispute boil down to "This puts the people who manage the Post Office in charge of our health" vs "Why is that a problem?"

If you listen closely you discover that the participants are often talking past each other. Those who value liberty over security often aren't even talking the same language as those who value security over liberty. These are much more fundamental matters than mere taste, though people often pick up these values from their environment without much thought.

Another fraught dispute is about divorce. I've heard some who favor the status quo reject facts about harm to children as irrelevant to the primary value: the interests of the parents. Because of what they define marriage to be, they cannot even agree about the relevant facts with those who propose more restrictive divorce rules. This isn't a dispute about facts, or about tastes, but about values.

For what its worth, one of the fundamental divides in our culture seems to be about the nature and value of freedom. Is freedom "potential" or "the ability to commit?"

Values can be wrongly ordered, of course, just as "facts" can be wrong and tastes unfortunate or even sick.

Example of Fuzzy Things at Church

Our former church (and to some extent our current one) is heavily into "seeker-friendliness" with a loud band and praise songs. There's not much quiet meditation and prayer, and not much congregational response. Singing is about it, if you can even hear yourself over the sound system. No corporate prayer, or Bible reading--and needless to say no liturgical year. I grew up with the Southern Baptist liturgical year, featuring Anne Armstrong and Lottie Moon to help celebrate Easter and Christmas.

I happen not to be terribly fond of several popular praise choruses, and loud music is painful. However, my objection to the church's approach wasn't based on taste, but on values. I judge that the congregational response is critical to worship; and as far as I could see there was little or no response beyond the vague excitement that any loud music can bring. Sunday morning was entertainment, with an entertaining sermon.

You could argue that I'm deceiving myself, and finding value-based excuses for enforcing my tastes. That's always possible, though I doubt it (I like some other praise choruses, and Verdi's "Requiem"). You could argue that I don't understand other people's responses as well as the worship team does, and I should trust their understanding. Once again: possible, but I doubt it.

If this is a matter of taste I should keep my mouth shut and accept the situation as my cross to bear. If it is a matter of value then the question becomes "How important is this?" At the former church I concluded that, on the whole, worship (personal response to God together) was not happening much and that I had an obligation to our kids to take them somewhere where worship would be modeled better.

Maybe I was wrong. If there were no other churches in the area I'd have stayed.

Politics

It is sometimes claimed (I've said it myself in greener days) that both major American political parties want good things for America and merely disagree on the means. I have been forced to a far more cynical view of politicians, who in the current environment cannot seem to avoid corruption; but be that as it may I'm not sure the parties agree on what is meant by "good." Certainly they have different ends in mind (when they have ends beyond their own advancement), and different visions of what the USA is and ought to be in the world.

Oddly, it was not always so--the values of political parties change with time. I suspect a Southern Democrat from 1950 would have heart failure looking at his party today, and probably a Republican looking at his.

Take one little example of values in politics and society--is diversity a means or an end? Is it a value in itself or something that produces other values?

Changes

People's values change too. Sometimes someone discovers that they something is more important to them than they realized it would be, and re-evaluates their values to accommodate it. I wasn't enthusiastic about having children when I got married--I figured children came with the territory but I'd had no great longings in that direction. After having children I've changed my values to something closer to what they should have been all along. That doesn't mean my tastes have changed--my ideal vacation is still to sit back with a good book and not go anywhere. That doesn't seem to inspire enthusiasm in the rest of the family, though, and I value their happiness and being happy with them.

The values that we pick up from our environment don't always hold up when we think them through--and it takes some people a while to get around to thinking them through. It is easier to pick up new ones from a new environment, and college is certainly a new environment for freshmen. From the fact that they generally wind up espousing whatever is in fashion this decade I conclude that most college students aren't "thinking through" but "picking up" values.

Oddly, one way to acquire new values is through new tastes. I'm told Amish youth are expected to be out in the world before rejoining. Imagine an Amish boy, schooled in the importance of diligence and good use of the limited time he has on earth, who decides he enjoys World of Warcraft too much to give it up. Cue the cognitive dissonance. If he starts to reject the old value of "good use of time" what will he replace it with? Probably something from the constellation of new values the other players exhibit--the primacy of personal satisfaction, perhaps. He'll probably still be diligent--it isn't exactly the same as using time wisely.

I suppose there are probably personal inventories to help you figure out what things you value. You have to figure out why yourself.

An advertisement

The poster advertises CLASS with 3 figures--two thin young women in black makeup and short dresses and a grim faced man in a split shirt--all in black but the haughty woman's skirt. It is night, with lights in motion behind.

At face value: Why class? What about them is supposed to be superior? Knowledge of fashion, surely, but there's no hints of greater intellect, and the fashion is unlikely to be so superior that it will endure. What are we to suppose they do? Not work--they project the image of idle rich; who meet all the right people and say .. what? The image is of a group that won't even be able to discuss Sartre, much less an intellectual.

They project an image of "image" and we are supposed to take them at their word and stare--the haughty one must have some good reason for acting superior. The goth stilter must be desirable because she's in fashion and the man holds her; and the man looks purposeful so he must have a purpose.

But when you project an image of "image" it starts to cut through the illusion. We understand that they are only projecting an image, and sense that they are models acting a role--the emptiness is too near the surface to sustain willing suspension of disbelief. They become too obviously clothes-hangers.

And you wonder if they know what to do with a good meal.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Morning

This night was like the others in the wrong time zone: sleep flayed from the night leaving islands of grotesque dreams. Naturally I was rag tired when it was time to get started—I think I remember a few of the morning readings, but things don’t stick well at that hour.

The sky over Geneva was high clouds, and the Alps beyond were outlined in red and yellow with their valleys illumined in faint blue haze. The sun rose behind the clouds so the mountains weren’t glared into flat monochrome, and the textured vision lasted for a long time.

The conversation over breakfast with colleagues was mostly of all the things we need to fix and how to arrange them with least risk (repressurizing the beam pipe and then pumping it down again later adds 6 weeks to the schedule), but my eyes kept straying to the morning mountains.

Now I sit at the window trying to fit sensor positions and watching hour-old webs of contrails sweep swiftly overhead. One of the contrails must be over half a mile wide—a grand signature of “I was here” written on the sky. It is an impressive lattice, but it must be perpetually renewed and in the end the human work leaves behind what was there before—the simple mystery of the air.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I don't see how this could work

We're instructed that although North America has seen lower temperatures than normal for the last decade, the southern hemisphere has been warmer.

For a look at some of the raw data, and a reasonable analysis thereof, look at this fellow's check. It illustrates the problems associated with weather monitoring: variations, incomplete coverage, unexplained changes in apparent baseline... Take that last point. One station moved its monitor's position one year (which can change the average temperature!). And lo and behold, there was an apparent change in the baseline temperature--but not at exactly that year. What do you do with that? Something happened--maybe somebody put a birdbath under the sensor, or maybe somebody got rid of the barbecue pit. Unfortunately there were no other temperature monitors around that year, so you can't cross check.

Name your choice: don't correct the data, take averages before and after and lower the earlier data by the difference, or ditto and raise the later data. Or you could show that something bad happened and leave it out completely.

As a hint to the reader, more stations came online later, and their data agree very tightly with each other and with the old station--so the more recent numbers are more likely to be correct. Therefore you should either leave the data alone or lower the old values. Without any smoking gun to explain the difference I'd leave it alone.

That isn't what was done. In fact, what happened next is a little hard to credit. Correction terms were added to all the recent data. When you have 5 stations that corroborate each other you'd think that was fairly solid, but apparently it didn't match what some model said, so it was shifted to agree with some other (unreferenced) stations.

That is not the right way to do comparisons. Aside from the obvious bias in the data that you feed into your model, it means you no longer have any real-world measurement to compare to. The correct approach is to model what the variation is going to be by location, run your model, and then predict what the local temperature averages should be to compare to the the real world stuff. Keep your model and your corrections separate and never confuse raw data with corrected. If you need to weight data for different locations differently, that's fine, but never ever show the weighted plots and announce that these are useful for any real-world comparisons.

Let me give an example. Suppose I have thermometers in the yard: one on the driveway, one under the tree, and one next to the garden. The driveway one will be consistently hotter than the rest, and the one under the tree cooler: say 10 degrees hotter and 5 degrees cooler. If I want to get some estimate for what the variation is from month to month I can take readings, subtract 10 from the driveway reading and add 5 to the tree reading and average them--and look at how that varies. That works fine, and nobody gets confused so long as I show what I'm doing. What they did with their plots was like adding 5 degrees to the tree thermometer plots and showing that as though this was what was actually read. That's confusing and obviously the wrong thing to show people. What they actually did with the data seems to be worse, since there's no way to figure out where the correction came from.

I do not like to think about what kind of reception that sort of analysis would get here. No explanation of the correction terms, and showing corrected data instead of real data? April Fools, right?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

EPA

I see that the EPA head has decided to regulate everything that produces CO2.

I really don't see how this can end well. If sane heads prevail she will lose her job, and one hopes her staff would be booted too. But I suspect the hunger for control in DC is stronger than common sense.

I've no objection to efficiency--far from it--and would like to see the river of money going to oil thugocracies end. But to pretend that CO2 is a pollutant is merely to lie, and lie in a way that gives open-ended control to cloudy figures that will inevitably begin to tweak rules this way or that in exchange for hidden favors.

In among the mountains

The temperature will probably drop below freezing tonight, but it was a bright sunny day (nice change from rainy yesterday) warm enough for merely a sweater. At home the van slid into the street yesterday, and tonight comes snow. You don't generally think of Switzerland being warmer than the MidWest, but around Geneva it is.

Meta-rules

I wrote some thoughts on courtesy, but only recently thought of a good example of what I mean by "meta-laws." Take a three-year-old and tell him that he is not to play with the glass elephant. Shortly afterward you will hear a crash and an explanation that you had not forbidden touching it. After superglue and a new regulation you will discover that poking it with a stick is not covered. The end product is an overwhelming list of instructions to leave it alone in every way, shape and form, not to tip the table on which it sits, and not to enlist his sister in his nefarious doings. The meta-law is easily understood, but if the culprit does not want to follow it you wind up with disturbance and endless rulings, some perhaps more far-reaching than the original meta-law. Courtesy is this kind of "meta-law."

Aura again

And just as I was sitting down to work with Yang. Made it hard to keep track of where the mouse was...

Friday, December 04, 2009

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

His most recent book is competently written and funny, and tells a solid story. Yes, we were worried about that.

The thesis is that the Unseen Academy (wizards school) finds itself required to play a "foot-the-ball" match, without using magic. As usual the main characters are new ones, but Vetinari and the Archchancellor and Pondor Stibbens get a lot of time too. Pratchett apparently decided to try to explore Vetinari more, and look at the consequences of Stibbens' "willing workhorse" attitude. The pivotal figure is the mysterious "sort-of naif" Nutt, and I'll not spoil matters by telling who and what he is.

Have fun.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wisconsin Weather

This morning as I rode the bus past the UW school of dance building, I saw gardeners mowing and trimming the grass. The sky was straining but had only produced a risible snowflake or so despite the chill and breeze.

This evening the wet snow flocked the grass and sidewalks and glazed the streets. Lawnmower to snow shovel in less than 12 hours--that's Wisconsin.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Decrease the surplus population"

It is hard to describe how deeply evil is this proposal to "reduce carbon emissions" by funding "family planning" in poor countries. The villains here are the Optimum Population Trust, who report that

According to the OPT, every £4 spent on family planning saves one tonne of CO2.

It estimates that a similar reduction would require an £8 investment in tree planting, £15 in wind power, £31 in solar energy and £56 in hybrid vehicle technology.

It is promoting a scheme in which wealthy people can offset their own carbon emissions by funding contraceptive programmes in the developing world.

Even if carbon emissions were a serious problem (not exactly proven), the picture of fat Westerners pretending they can compensate for their greed by getting rid of poor people is revolting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A sense of humor

Our church is promoting "Advent Conspiracy" in which members cut Christmas shopping by a large fraction and give the unspent money to the Salvation Army and projects to provide fresh water in Guatemala and Liberia. We and the kids agreed that with finances so tight there'd be gifts of meals/new food instead of the standard presents.

God must have a sense of humor--or He thought we had no will power. My better half lost her credit card, so that is now canceled. Online shopping (think Amazon) is now halted.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bohemian Rhapsody

Henson's creation lives on after him. Monday someone posted a Muppet version of the Bohemian Rhapsody. Go see it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vision

I wear reading glasses more these days, and prescription lenses help my driving but aren't mandatory. I walk around without glasses most of the time. I get used to it--my vision seems perfectly natural.

And then I put on my glasses to see the number on the distant bus, and am amazed again at how clear things appear. What I'd thought was normal wasn't. I forget what clear vision is like.

There is a way that seems right to a man... Until he turns and puts his glasses on and is humbled by his ignorance.

Monday, November 23, 2009

LHC

I've heard reports that pictures of first collisions were announced and then withdrawn and then reposted. I don't know if that's true or if CERN management is really trying to keep control of the information. I'd have thought they'd have figured out last year that thorough control was going to be impossible: scientists like to tell about things.

I understand what their worry is--careless reports are picked up on by ignorant reporters who then publish nonsense, which makes us look stupid and confuses the funders who wonder why we talk about Y when the newspapers reported X.

Foggy night

As I walked to the car after leaving our friend's house tonight, not a star showed, until a small fuzzy moon streaked and vanished.

I'd never seen a meteor through the fog before.

Aura again

Just logging. Never had a headache with it so far.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Afghanistan Plans

I don't know what we should be doing right now. The generals say send more troops, but Pakistan is unstable and I don't think Obama bought much cooperation from Russia with his missile defense retreat--which means that supplying troops is likely to become problematic.

I suspect what we need is going to include a new paradigm (long overdue) for how to deal with enemies (and friends) in areas that are not really nations in the classical sense, but more collections of tribes. And for dealing with scattered groups of people who owe primary allegiance to some inchoate political entity such as a caliphate. There isn't one, but people are willing to fight for it anyway! If there's no government to speak for and take responsibility for a group of people in an area, how do you deal with them, trade with them, fight with them? Working that out, and then getting some agreement from our allies on the details, is not going to be done in a day. Getting the State Department to work with some new paradigm may take a miracle. Getting the UN to agree is probably completely impossible.

Given his rhetoric and track record in other fields I suspect Obama is dithering, but I can hope somebody is at work on the framework problem. I also suspect that the ISI may have outmaneuvered us in Afghanistan (and possibly themselves as well--I don't know how well they'd manage if their proxies actually were able to break up Pakistan).

Courtesy

I was discourteous to a few people the other day, and need to find them and apologize. In the meantime I've been thinking about the role of courtesy in society and government.

The social stigma attached to discourtesy can be hugely powerful. The rude person is breaking laws, unwritten though they may be, and other people react accordingly. Why?

I submit that some rule of courtesy is an indispensable “meta-law” for a culture. Exactly what the form of it is will vary somewhat according to what the society values most, though the bones of it will roughly be the golden rule.

Imagine that you are driving to the store. There are quite a few laws that govern how you are to drive. Your speed must not exceed the posted limit. You are to stay in the right-hand lane unless passing another car. You must signal turns. You must park in one of the designated slots.

These rules do not absolutely constrain my driving at every moment in the trip. At an intersection I want to drive straight through and another car wants to turn right into my lane. I can speed up to let him turn behind me, or slow down a bit and let him turn ahead of me, or maintain my speed and let him wait. There's no law against my slowing down once I reach the other side and blocking him just for spite.

You may not see that kind of thing on city streets, but I've seen it on the highway.

We've handed the police a huge blank check for enforcement: they can stop you for “reckless driving.” As far as I can tell it isn't clearly defined: it is whatever the police officer says he thinks risks accidents. Of course the ticket he writes may be thrown out in court as ridiculous, but in the meantime he can stop you for any whim he pleases.

We gave them this privilege because too many people do not apply a rule of courtesy to driving. They are rude, careless of other's interests, and apt to think of themselves as the only important people on the road. (And of course there are the foolishly careless who forget the road in their interest in disciplining the kids in back or adjusting the radio)

Courtesy is not love. We extend courtesy to people we've never met before; or who we may never meet. Cleaning up your campsite in a park is courtesy to the people who come after you; perhaps even courtesy to the animals. I can't love those I don't know; and if I did love them I'd probably do much more than merely police the campsite.

However, courtesy is like love. I set aside my convenience for the benefit of someone else. True, these are almost always for small matters, but small things add up. One splash of water against the side of a ship doesn't do much, but a steady stream of them moves it. A steady stream of courtesies tends to make a person feel welcome and part of the group—assuming the courtesies are the same for all and not noblesse oblige.

That sense of being part of the group is essential if you expect someone to be willing to sacrifice for the group. If you want someone to be willing to risk his life for his nation, or even pay taxes without cheating, you must either motivate him by fear or love. You can't buy courage; and paying someone to pay his taxes is silly. You can, of course, hire mercenaries, but thousands of years of history are available to warn us about how unreliable they can be. There is no good substitute for an army of a country's own citizens.

Fantasies of a world without war in which armies are not needed can be amusing but barring a revolution in human nature it isn't going to happen. God intervening can do that sort of thing; but installing a different set of political bosses will not.

Of course different cultures value different courtesies. Middle Eastern countries are famous for hospitality (I do not speak from experience here) and for extended and polite haggling. The haggling can be a way of treating each other as humans and not merely mobile vending machines (decide if the price is ok, insert money and take product). Hospitality is a fairly obvious way of welcoming someone.

In the West we aren't quite so good at hospitality and aren't really very friendly hagglers, but we have other courtesies. We seem to be better at letting people be—getting out of the way when someone is in a hurry, providing privacy, and so on. The public commons are common, and folks get very upset when others (generally youth) block the sidewalks or hang out in the streets and compel others to stop or go around. The loss of that courtesy is an early sign of the disintegration of a neighborhood—it instantly creates an “us and them” mentality.

The offenders against courtesy may be careless, selfish, ignorant, or malicious. The malicious are the ones who try to “game the system” to take advantage of other's courtesy, or the ones who hate the rest of society and look for ways to injure and offend. We've all run across a few of these, and their kin who use illegal means as well.

We're all selfish from time to time (see the first paragraph), or careless; and ordinarily conscience or social pressure pushes us back into line (assuming that we're able to perceive social cues). And children need to be socialized to understand the rules. Most of us will wind up following the rules most of the time.

What of the ignorant—the outsiders who never learned to value the same courtesies we did? We can do several things: require that they learn our rules on pain of ostracism, attempt a “dialog to learn from each other,” or pretend that nothing is wrong.

A dialog of this order isn't done one on one but as a society, and I know of no way to make it happen if the bulk of the culture doesn't want it to happen. In any event both groups—the “natives” and the “immigrants” learn the other's courtesies; not just one side. And let me repeat—there will be no such adjustment if one side declines.

That leads to the first situation—ostracism and isolation of the newcomers. Sometimes this is exactly what they want—and sometimes it is proper. Just because some action is valued and considered a courtesy doesn't automatically make it good. In general, though, that kind of ghettoization of a group is bad news. Will they learn to adapt? Some groups do, others never seem to—and you wind up with divisions and loss of “we're all in this together.”

The last choice, pretending nothing is wrong, pits the experience of the citizens against desires for tranquility. If the newcomers eventually adapt (and the majority culture perhaps takes up some good things from them) then this will have been the right choice. But when newcomers don't want to adapt you now have permanent friction and a loss of the “we're all in this together” that makes a nation work. If you have a divided nation, you'd better recognize it—pretending will just leave you up the creek when you try to rely on imaginary unity.

I've been on both sides of this.

Take language. It is an elementary courtesy to try to learn the language of the country you are living in. I do. I visit Switzerland regularly, and try to get my French into some semblance of usability. But the work language there is English, and so when dining with colleagues we provide English voices in a sea of French. I feel somewhat uncomfortable with this, as it gives the impression that I do not wish to accommodate to the local language (which I speak very vilely, so perhaps is is actually more courteous for me not to). It is not my intention to create an English ghetto, but it feels like I'm doing it. Of course I'm only a short-term guest and make no demands on Swiss society to accommodate me.

In my own country I have long taken it for granted that most immigrants would want to learn English, but am coming to the conclusion that some fraction would rather not—and I find that discourteous. I think it is meant to be so, to help isolate certain ethnic groups and keep them united—in particular united behind political leaders for whom we are not “all in this together.”

Some oppose immigration because “they're not like us.” I used to think that was silly—immigration brings in adventurous people and new ideas. And it certainly does. It also brings risks, and I think it better to recognize them and think about how to mitigate them than to pretend there's never any problem. Sometimes there is.

In one sense it is foolish to think about protecting a culture. Cultures are always in flux, “And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Yet in another it isn't foolish. Deliberately disrupting (as recent memos suggest the British Labour Party tried to do) or ignoring the disruption of a culture is a recipe for disintegration of the bonds that hold the nation together. I'm assuming that the change is neutral or just as good—evils need to be resisted whether new or entrenched.

We are prompt to teach our children the new courtesy of rejecting ethnic slurs (a good addition). Can we remind them to salute their elders, open the door for others, and others of the old traditions as well? Can we remind ourselves that a man is not his political party? Learn to call rudeness rudeness and not “authenticity?”

A little of everything
  • Nixon’s paranoia
  • Clinton’s elastic concept of the truth
  • Roosevelt’s high-handed drive to control everything
  • Grant’s blind eye to crony corruption
  • Lincoln’s carelessness about the Constitution
  • Wilson’s sanctimony

and more, much more:

  • Unparalleled lack of experience
  • Unparalleled ability to anger our allies
  • Unparalleled eagerness to pass the buck

Has there ever been such a president before? And he reads the teleprompter so well!

Of course Lincoln had the excuse of a civil war, and the various excesses were disposed of after the war. The comparison is grossly unfair to Lincoln, but he was the only example I could come up with. Better historians are welcome to add/modify the list.
Y2K, Mayan Style

I gather that on 23-Dec-2012 all the Mayan COpanBOL programs will fail, and stelae will fall, and all will be "kilt and buried in the demolishments."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

11 November

I've never been famous for physical courage, and never been particularly fond of having someone tell me what to do and where to go. I've been fortunate not to have needed to fight—so far.

There are others who submitted to orders and went where they were told; some to boredom, but some to fight and some to die. I have no idea what I would have been like had the call come to me. Vietnam was winding down and the draft was over; there was no need to do anything much. They served in a special way that I didn't and probably never will.

I salute father and uncles and brother-in-law and friends—thank you.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Eldest Daughter, having uncovered some leftover fireworks from the 4th, decided (quite rightly) that any celebration that involved letting off fireworks was an appropriate one for Americans(*). A small Guy was duly annihilated by cone fountains and flashers last night.

(*)A little history of the holiday from 1066 and All That

James was always repeating 'No Bishop, No King,' to himself, and one day a certain loyal citizen called Sir Guyfawkes, a very active and conscientious man, overheard him, and thought it was the new slogan of James's new policy. So he decided to carry it out at once and made a very loyal plan to blow up the King and the bishops and everybody else in Parliament assembled, with gunpowder. Although the plan failed, attempts are made every year on St. Guyfawkes' Day to remind the Parliament that it would have been a Good Thing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

31-October: That time of year

Happy Reformation Day!

You were expecting another holiday? Perhaps you think it is Christmas already, since 31_oct = 25_dec?

I'm not quite sure how to celebrate. Maybe we should dress up as characters from Foxe's Book of Martyrs and threaten to nail posters to people's doors if they don't give us candy. That's muddled enough to be a truly American celebration, no?

Friday, October 30, 2009

"Lasting Joy"

Baptist missionaries to Liberia had a reunion this past July, and Phil made a DVD of images from it which my mother sent me. I guess I'd known a third of those present, and most of that third I didn't recognize anymore. I wasn't the most gregarious sort back then (still not), and the missionaries and MKs had somewhat different priorities and orbits--and we've gone very separate ways since I left Liberia.

The pictures of the speakers and the legends reminded me of "How Things Were Done In Church" when I was young. I was bored to tears with a lot of it. Some I've since learned the worth of.

Work

I've been racing hard to get some alignment results before the processing deadline. I made it, but in one of my presentations I included this as backup material

"I've been working for five days without any sleep to finish this report. At first I had a mental block. But on the fourth day I was visited by an Incan Monkey God who told me what to write. Now I just have to find somebody who can translate his simple but beautiful language."
I had a taste for lunch

And Coreana is no more.

About seven years ago I was at the bank branch on University Square and saw a new restaurant—a Korean one. One of their advertised menu items was “rice salad,” which sounded pretty strange and not quite what I had in mind. But a few months later I, in a (for once flush) adventurous fit went in and tried bibimbap. I guess I've been there almost a couple of dozen times in the past six years (not a big spender), and only had something else twice. "Rice salad" was a little misleading.

Yesterday at lunch their new location bore a sign saying “Business is closed. We will not reopen.”

I was curious why, and perhaps their website has a clue—it explains that they don't do catering because it was so hard to train and keep good chefs.

Too bad. Have to figure something else out

I stopped by the ICU deli on the way back, and found they were finally open after remodeling all summer. Instead of the old sloppy joe they offered a “vegetarian sloppy joe.” (with a salad, better for me than the usual chips). It was OK, but was missing something. Besides meat, that is.

Funny how expectations are. After a couple of months with no Korean meal (and no terrible urge to find one), a sign on a door makes me hungry for one.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hockey Stick

I am not a climate physicist, but some years of experience in another field have given me a little intuition about when something is amiss. I may not have the expertise to say "You made thus and such an error" but I can say that something doesn't look right. The famous global warming hockey stick graph set off my glitch alarm.

It looks like I was right to be suspicious--the scientist has been cagey about releasing data, and apparently his tree core sample was hand-picked from a larger set of cores with no explanation of why the rest were excluded. (When all are included, the graph shows no spike.)

You always have to clearly explain why data sets are omitted, and demonstrate that omitting them doesn't bias the results. It seems that half the time we spend estimating the uncertainties in our measurements and half the rest of the time trying to understand the biases.

Not the Onion

To say they've awarded the prize to even less appropriate candidates is very faint praise.

the list of laureates makes interesting reading. Some of the awards are obviously reasonable, some were for causes that evaporated, some are generic ("We want to award something to this person, and a peace prize is the closest thing we have.") and some are nonsense. You have to admire Le Duc Tho's response.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Unreality shows

I've never watched any "reality shows," partly because they never seemed interesting enough to get involved with and partly because I didn't think it would be particularly good for my soul to spend time enjoying cruelty. Also I haven't found much time to watch anything the past few years.

When I heard about the Survivor (ed: Big Brother) shows, and the "viewers voting them off" theme, I immediately thought of a simple way to make the shows more dramatic and viler(*): let the contestants have access to poll results. If one saw his numbers drop, he'd be more likely to indulge in dramatic stunts to get attention, especially if viewer suggestions were also available to them. The simplest ways to get attention are the old faithfuls sex and aggressiveness; and I'd guess those would become even more pronounced with such a model. And each week the sex and aggression would have to ratchet further to keep getting the required attention.

It is no part of my charge to increase the villainy of television, so I didn't advertise the idea. Sooner or later the producers would come up with it themselves.

Yesterday it occurred to me that we already have such an environment in the entertainment industries. The famous actors and singers have publicists who know fame is the key to raking in money; and who probably suggested some of the stunts that made the news. As I predicted, the result is ugly, and steadily getting worse. They're even interrupting (by collusion?) their own holy award ceremonies in order to get attention.

The point of diminishing returns is a moving target, because the culture gets more jaded. Even Polanski finds supporters. It can't go on forever, though--the personal price gets too high.

(*) I automatically try to solve problems, even when they aren't good problems to try to solve.

Image is everything

Is the Telegraph report about the Brown/Obama/Sarksozy meeting true? Did Obama really postpone the Iran announcement to not '"spoil the image of success" of his disarmament session?'

The effect was to dilute the impact of the announcement and postpone the Security Council dealing with any real hard choices--settling instead for meaningless platitudes.

Who is to be dazzled by this "image of success?" Not the French or British or Iranians, nor the Security Council. Nor a lot of the rest of us who worry about the mullahs getting the bomb. Images don't seem to buy the US any particular goodwill or favors.

I wonder how large the audience for this image of success is meant to be. Perhaps it is only an audience of one.

Clashing maxims

For home maintenance we use two:

A place for everythingEvery place with a thing
and everything in its placeand everything in some place

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Who can resist...

Youngest Son's middle name is David, which is Welshified as Dafydd. He enjoys making pickles (cucumber and bean), so shall we call his product Dafydd-dills?

End of the year

The Cubs lost, and the Brewers won, and that's the end of the season. There isn't any more. Right?

Who can resist...

Cerebus had three heads. I think the Hydra started with 7. There are stories of two-headed giants. But I can't think of anything with five.

Which means there's no traditional cinco-pate-ion.

improv wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson

Don't Prepare, Just Show Up

The author has taught improv theater at Stanford for over 28 years. She looks at life as improv, and offers some rules. The rules assume a few things, though—such as a genuine commitment and willingness to work hard; otherwise they are worse than useless, as she indicates herself.

  1. Say yes
  2. Don't prepare
  3. Just show up
  4. Start anywhere
  5. Be average
  6. Pay attention
  7. Face the facts
  8. Stay on course
  9. Wake up to the gifts
  10. Make mistakes, please
  11. Act now
  12. Take care of each other
  13. Enjoy the ride

Some of these may seem excessively obscure, but she elaborates. For example, item 9 is about counting your blessings. Think about the ways you are supported in your everyday life, and the chain of people working for you from the men fixing the potholes in the road to the lad who delivers your newspaper and the engineer managing the distillation stack that created the gasoline for your car. In improv theater everybody has to support everybody else, and it is important to get a feel for that quickly, and not be greedy for the spotlight.

This is a small short book, and I fear that a summary is likely to be close in length to the original.

I'll be trying to see if I can apply some of this with our kids. Some of the rules: “Just show up” and “Act now” are the sort of thing that aren't always obvious when you have trouble reading emotions. One thing we'll try tonight is the “Parable Game” where the participants create (quickly!) a new “wise” saying, each offering one word at a time. When done, everyone solemnly intones “Yes, yes, yes” to show how wise it was. An example: “Try … not … to … laugh … when … you … look … at … your … waistline.”

Read it.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Rio

I hope Brasil is able to fund the infrastructure associated with the Olympics: it is a huge expense, and re-purposing the facilities afterwards is difficult. I seem to recall several countries where many buildings never served any fitting purpose again--too large or inconvenient for other uses. It'll cost a huge fraction less than trying to build in Chicago with its astronomical land costs and corruption overhead.

I wonder if Chicago's poor showing had anything to do with the President showing up to try to twist arms. A more experienced politician would have known better.

Update: There's no shortage of well-deserved snark.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Childhood's fairy-land lost

Our childhood has a fascination for us, and most of us have a sense of longing for something lost in those years. Some path or toy or cloud reminds us of a fragment of what we used to feel, and we want it again. Perhaps the mood is a hunger for the wholehearted emotions of childhood, so uncomplicated and simple. Perhaps it is a sense that our more adult minds have chosen so much evil that childhood seems innocent. Your parents wouldn't agree about your innocence, having seen your character from day one, but that age seems less thoroughly tainted, and so pure by comparison. Perhaps it is lost wonder from the years when everything was new and we knew how to discover.

I think a part of it is a hunger for unity. Our lives should be whole, and most of our childhood's memories and perspectives are now lost to us. I do not easily remember even what life was like before I was married, though with effort I can retrieve it, and now and then I feel a little twinge of regret that parts of my life are fragmented and faded. I do not think we were made to lose our pasts so.

The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins

The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died

First a complaint: The first couple of chapters could stand some tightening up and getting rid of repetitions. He makes many assertions without adequate examples. And at some point, even if it meant putting in an appendix, he should have laid out the main events in a clear timeline, with explanations of why populations were estimated to be thus-and-so.

I have never read a historian citing Charles Williams' Descent into Hell before to explain the interaction of ancient and modern faith; and I'm delighted to see it (one of my favorite books) though not thoroughly persuaded.

A critical point to bear in mind is that the so-called Nestorian church did not actually follow the condemned doctrine of Nestorius, and apparently was perfectly orthodox on the point of Jesus' nature in the 8'th century. I am not expert on these matters but Jenkins asserts and some others seem to agree that the Nestorian church would be considered as Christian as any other today. Other groups such as Monophysites are a little more problematic technically, though I notice that in practice many Christian churches today wouldn't know how to tell the difference.

So to first order he is writing about Christian churches, even if some of them are supposed to be heretical and had been suppressed within the Roman Empire (West and East). That suppression actually helped some of them spread, because Persian rulers thought that they'd be useful “allies.”

Think of the situation shortly after the church is attacked in Jerusalem. The church is mostly Jews, situated in the eastern section of the Roman empire. To the north are Syrians, and north of them are Greeks, and north and east of them you are outside the boundaries of the Empire among smaller kingdoms. To the south is Egypt and Arabia, and south of Egypt the Nubians (outside the Empire) and beyond them the Ethiopians. The west we know pretty well, though it bears repeating that the Roman empire ran along north Africa as well. To the east is Persia, and beyond Persia India and the plateau Asian tribes, and beyond them along the Silk Road: China.

The Christian gospel went in all directions—and Mesopotamia was far closer than England.

What this account claims is that Christianity reached Edessa very soon after the death of Jesus (*), and that the earliest missionaries stemmed from Antioch. Given the relationships of the cities and trade routes, that general pattern is overwhelmingly likely. The third and fourth leaders of this church were of the family of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and early historians like Eusebius confirm that kinship wish Jesus gave a special warrant for authority in the earliest church. Near the end of the first century, the Roman emperor Domitian sought out the “relatives of the Lord,” the desposynoi, whom he suspected of sedition. On examination, though, the surviving relatives proved to be hard-working small farmers, whom the emperor judged to be unworthy of his attention, and so he let them live. That investigation might well have persuaded any remaining kin to migrate beyond the limits of Roman power, to Parthian Cresiphon—which is just what the Nestorian record suggests. The story also fits well with what we know about Jews relocating to Babylonia in these same years. The account is plausible, in a way that European legends of early apostles and saints are not: no serious historian thinks that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, Mary Magdalene to France, or the apostle James to Spain. But the Nestorian sequence does, in contrast, suggest a trajectory that is perfectly credible for the first and second centuries.

(*) an odd choice of words on his part.

The Eastern churches also provide an unexpected witness to current Bible controversies:

The Syriac Bible was a conservative text, to a degree that demands our attention. In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminine leanings.

The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them early because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatssarion assumes four, and only four authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians or Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels of scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. The Syriac Bible omits several books that are included in the West (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation).

Remember the history of the silk industry? In 550AD some monks smuggled silk worms from China to Byzantium. Since the silk industry was supposed to have been tightly guarded in China, the monks must have been there for some time already—which gives an indication of how early missionaries must have arrived there. A formal mission was established in 635, and monasteries spread—but apparently the faith did not have deep roots, for it faded after a Taoist emperor closed the monasteries and expelled officials in the ninth century. (He also got rid of Zoroastrians and Buddhists.) Christianity arrived again after the Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth, but when the Mongols were expelled so were all the “foreign religions” the Mongols had tolerated.

Jenkins describes the church in India as fortunate in not having a lot of history to report. There was a lot of friction when the Portuguese arrived, of course. And not just in India.

So bizarre were the customs of these Easterners, so puritanical, that Ethiopians even looked askance at the Portuguese habit of spitting during church services.

Latins were troubled by the pretensions of these threadbare Christians, who nevertheless claimed such grand titles. In 1550, a Portuguese traveler reported that the forty thousand Christians of the Indian coast owed their allegiance to a head in “Babylon,” the catholicos. Bafflingly, they had not so much as heard of a pope at Rome.

Of course I skipped a block of time here: about a thousand years between Nicea and the Portuguese. That era is the core of this book. The churches had been slowly declining under Muslim rule. Life was harder for dhimmis, and although Jenkins is reluctant to say so outright, quite a few of the attacks on Christians came from below, not from above: the rulers found they had to protect the Christians and Jews from attacks roused by imams. There was an intrinsic conflict that could be roused in times of crisis or austerity. Still, there were something of order 20 million Christians in the Middle East through India at about 1000AD, compared to perhaps 30 million (very much notional) Christians in Europe.

Jenkins says “Though Muslim regimes could tolerate other faiths for long periods, that willingness to live and let live did fail at various times, and at some critical points it collapsed utterly. The deeply rooted Christianity of Africa and Asia did not simply fade away through lack of zeal, or theological confusion: it was crushed, in a welter of warfare and persecution.” The Ottomans came. Their rulers picked Islam. Perhaps they decided they had to be more Muslim than the Arabs to establish religious/political bona fides: at any rate they tried hard to exterminate Christianity. It does not make pleasant reading. The Mongols arrived on the scene a little later. At one point it was conceivable that their rulers would decide to be Christians: some were. Of course this made Muslims think that Christians were 5'th columnists, which naturally made the Christians hope for external relief. When Timur did overrun the place, it was as a Muslim, and once again Christians were attacked. Timur didn't even treat fellow Muslims well: Christians were really in trouble.

Now came the rise of Europe, and once again local Christians wound up being thought of as possible traitors. The European powers were largely driven by self-interest, but there was some interest in helping fellow Christians: but on certain conditions; such as reorganizing the churches to look to Rome, and changing doctrines and practices: causing new conflicts.

The twentieth century brought the final erasure. The fall of the Ottoman empire seems to have opened the door for both semi-secular powers like the Turks driving out Armenians and extremist Muslim groups like the followers of Wahab and Qutb. The fragmented groups of Christians have been murdered and expelled, and as transportation gets cheaper, have emigrated. Bethlehem now has a fraction of the Christians who lived there only fifty years ago. Turkey and Greece arranged a population swap based on religion. Lebanon is an unstable compromise, and the Christians are now a significant minority in that tiny land.

Jenkins tries to give the Muslim groups the benefit of their excuses: they feared for their religion when outsiders pressed, or they were merely acting the way everyone else did when they aggressed. And he's not eager to admit the long-standing violent streak in Islam. This gets annoying after a while.

He goes on to ask what happens when a religion dies, and dodges around it by suggesting that Christianity left traces in the lands where it vanished. He mentions art and architecture, but realizes that that doesn't cut much ice, and goes on to point out the relationship of Sufism to Christianity: and there are some pretty clear borrowings. He points out that the underground Christians of Japan kept the religion alive for centuries, though when it resurfaced in the twentieth century it had changed a lot. And he notes that because a religion vanishes from a region for a few centuries that doesn't mean it will never return, provided it stays alive elsewhere.

The hierarchical churches could be crushed by decapitation, provided the authorities kept it up long enough. With nobody to consecrate new priests, pretty soon you run out of priests; and nobody gets baptized into the faith, nobody offers communion, and the lay believers, left alone, worry along without what they regard as critical elements of their faith. Jenkins doesn't think that less structured churches are necessarily more robust against persecution, and I suspect he is correct: no organizational scheme is going to be an adequate bulwark.

The more closely a church allies with secular authorities or with some ethnic group, the more protection it has against enemies—but when the secular authorities fail, the church's fate is apt to mirror theirs. A persecuted church may find that the only places it can survive are remote or difficult regions where it runs the risk of growing tied to a particular tribe and losing catholicity.

The great question is why? With no obvious infidelity or besetting vice—or at least none worse than any other—the church in this land or that was driven out and the gospel hidden from the people for centuries. Jenkins has no answer, except to note that centuries come and go and with them kings and empires, but the church is still around and is larger than ever. Just not in its ancient home. And who knows about tomorrow?

I have no answer either, but I know God is just and judges us on what we know; and where the land was taken from light to darkness He will judge the people by how well they follow what little glimmers remain.

I'm looking for more information on the subject, but for an introduction read this book.

"If you liked this book..."

Amazon has a feature that uses your purchase record to try (sometimes with odd results) to predict what other books you might like. They're trying to sell more books, of course, but they give it a polite and helpful feel; and sometimes it is helpful. But there's no substitute for exploring in a library or used book shop, and lighting on the book you never guessed you'd like or the subject you didn't realize you needed to know. I'm still discovering the world, and still discovering me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Up

My better half and I went to see Up at the bargain theater(*). Everything I'd seen from Pixar had been good, and the reviews were all good. They were right. The opening sequence is a poem in images of a man's life. Pixar meant for the kids to like it, but there are many touches than only an adult will see and a bittersweet tone the kids may not notice. And there's an adventure, of course, with hair-breadth escapes.

I'd have made the villain just a hair more crazy, to see if he could be more pitiable, but that's a quibble.

See it, and stick around for the credits.


(*)I seem to remember when first run ticket prices rose to the price of the bargain ticket. Am I showing my age? Maybe I should invest in some balloons.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

How the Romantic Generation discovered the beauty and terror of Science

The Romantic Poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Blake et al—were roughly contemporary with the likes of Willian Herschel and Humphry Davy and a surge in exploration and discovery.

It hardly seems fair, but we all study (or used to) the romantic poets in high school but unless you read the sidebars in the science book you'll not remember Herschel (built a major observatory and discovered the first new planet in thousands of years) or Davy (discovering iodine, disinfecting power of chlorine, miner's safety lamp, etc). You have to hear about Faraday's Law, of course, and a jazzed-up story of Franklin testing lightning. And if you follow up on Franklin you find a scientist and ambassador and writer who made his mark many ways; and you might wonder “Were they men of such huge genius that they could do anything?” (and where are their like now?), or “Were the pluckings so easy that anybody could make discoveries?”

It is true that what they worked so hard to find out is taught as elementary knowledge now, but when you are starting from nothing or even from misconceptions (fire, earth, air, and water); it is very hard to make those first discoveries. A detachment of soldiers to help you explore is all very well, but when untreatable diseases attack and human enemies outnumber you ten thousand to one a few muskets won't keep you alive.

This book is a story of some of those scientists and explorers—British or living there—from the late 1700's through the early 1800's, illustrated with some of the comments and poetry of the romantic poets—who were very familiar with and often wrote about the discoveries around them. In fact Coleridge knew several of them very well, and appeared at scientific meetings.

The main characters are

  • Joseph Banks who was with a team exploring Tahiti. He was President of the Royal Society for decades, and sponsored numberless researches.
  • Ballooners! The hot air (and hydrogen) balloon craze opened up a new way of looking at the world, new excitements, and new ways of dying.
  • William Herschel, a musician who dedicated himself (and his sister!) to astronomy; to better ways of seeing with the best instruments in the world (which he made) and methodical searching of the sky.
  • Mungo Park explored in West Africa, and told a fascinating tale of unheroic adventure after his first trip. Scholars tried to figure out what happened with his second.
  • Humphrey Davy, who almost invented anesthesia with laughing gas and went on to a grand career in chemistry; though his great love may have been fishing.

The romantic poets were fascinated by wonder and mystery, and they could find it in the exotic creatures painted by the explorers (no cameras); in the growing realization that the universe was far huger than anyone had dreamed, with vast emptiness holding scattered islands of light; in the mysterious new rules hidden inside ordinary processes; and in the expectation of continued growth of innocent knowledge and power to drive away all human ignorance and misery. And superstition—could men be like gods? The science of the day was reflected in the poetry of the day. And opposed: Blake hated what he thought was dissecting beauty.

Holmes does not just quote the famous poets. The scientists themselves wrote poetry, for this was an age when education was supposed to be broad. I suspect that we would have more polymaths if we wanted them, and if they could survive our entertainment-soaked dissipation with their concentration intact.

Herschel's discovery of a new planet (Uranus) was earthshaking. None of the ancient astronomies or mythologies mentioned any but the five, but now we knew more; we thus must know more than all the ancients with their stories of stars and gods. Examined so, the conclusion does not follow, but this was the kind of symbolic impact the discovery made. Holmes seems sympathetic.

Davy's first major job was with a clinic whose philanthropist creator meant to try to heal diseases with gases. Davy discovered the properties of nitrous oxide (after experimenting with things like carbon monoxide!), by testing them on himself and eventually on volunteers. But eventually chemistry beckoned, and he went on to discover new elements, and when called to help miners he carefully worked through the properties of “firedamp” to discover how to keep it from igniting. Wire mesh conducts heat away from a methane flame well enough that even when there is enough methane in the air that the mesh glows red hot the fire fails to propagate into the room beyond.

Herschel's sister Caroline gets her due in this account. She seems to have been a dedicated and able apprentice who contributed to his work and made discoveries on her own account as well.

Electricity seemed to have some connection with life, since little jolts could make dead muscles twitch, and so they had great debates about the soul and Vitalism. In response Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (partly based on some real people), which has colored the picture of the scientist ever since. Is he a searcher of truth or tampering with things he doesn't understand?

The end of the book comes at the end of an era: Banks is dead, Davy is dead, and “natural philosopher” is explicitly redefined as “scientist” by a new generation of scholars and specialists.

Bank's stay in Tahiti involved much danger and sex, but he stayed with them enough to learn of the patterns of their life, and of their institution of arreoy in which men and women indulged in “free love” with the stipulation that all children born were to be destroyed unless a man was willing to acknowledge and raise it, at which point the man and woman were out of the group. I find this a chilling echo of the current American scene.

There's lots to learn, and it is a fascinating book. Read it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oil?

This story is scary. It sounds nice at first--an oil discovery off the shores of one of the poorest countries in the world: don't they need the money? But we already know what happens when free money pours into a place like this: the powerful collar the money; and if the country is really unlucky warlords start fighting over the take. Little goes into infrastructure or development, and even in the countries where some does it isn't taken seriously--isn't valued. The important thing is to get money, not to earn it; and if it is easier to siphon from the money stream than produce, who will aspire to build anything? (Cue the joke about Saudis never lifting anything heavier than money)

Sierra Leone already has diamonds and gold, and the free money from that gave them a horror of a civil war. I'm not sure how far Sierra Leone exists as a state even now, years after the war. Can they find the upright men they need?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Borlaug

A great man was slowly taken from us. He did more good in the world than the whole House and Senate's worth of politicians put together.

I pray that God sends us more like him.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Whatever things

I have not been commenting a lot on the events of the year: "Was Wilson rude or was he 'speaking truth to power'?" or "Was the release of the allegedly ill bomber compassionate or to cement an oil deal?" or "Are Americans forgetting was 9/11 was about?" and so on. Partly this is because so many of the answers are so obvious that it seems a waste of time to try to craft a response. Partly it is because I'm kind of busy--or at least that's a handy excuse.

But it is also because I've been studying Philippians a bit, and the mendacious spectacles in DC and London (and Hollywood, etc) are neither true nor noble nor right nor admirable, and I find that contemplating them does not benefit anybody. They sour my attitude and I can't do anything to cure them. And so I try to think of other things.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Capitols?

I get a Liberian newsletter that aggregates news stories about the country. It said this evening that Julius Kanubah reported that the Liberian House passed a bill directing the creation of a new capitol inland, on the grounds that it would be more spacious and would be much cheaper than rebuilding Monrovia.

I suspect somebody has some land he wants to sell. Monrovia is Liberia's main port and largest population center, and rebuilding isn't optional. A new capitol is a silly luxury.

Haze and neighbors

As I drove this morning the sun shone brightly, leaving only a faint haze behind. Everything nearby was sharp and clear—or perhaps only slightly faded; but the mists distanced the farm houses across the fields.

What was near was clear—the car, my youngest daughter, the road, the sunlight and the mailboxes by the side: my little part of the world. The distant houses hold fathers who clearly see the sunlight and their roads and their daughters, but it is all hazy to me. I can know it, but not see it until our little parts of the world converge.

I mustn't forget that their skies are clear too, but I can't pretend that I see their roads, or value them the same as the roads I see--until they become my neighbors.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Discovering God by Rodney Stark

The origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief

As usual, Rodney Stark is quite readable. This time he is doing a merry tap dance on the toes of received wisdom about the history of religion. He starts by pointing out the research showing that primitive societies do not have primitive religions; that in fact very many have a “High God” with an interest in people’s moral behavior. The standard approaches to the evolution of religious belief are nonsense, and easily seen to be nonsense—but things like “totemism evolved into polytheism evolved into monotheism,” or the “Bicameral Mind” gibberish (conclusions drawn merely from studying Homer and deciding that people changed between the Iliad and the Odyssey!), or Boyer’s self-defeating claim that religion is merely an evolutionary adaptation (so then is science): all these and more clutter the landscape and obscure the obvious facts that religion is universal and sacrifice is a rational deal.

The “Temple Religions” (Sumer, Egypt, MesoAmerica, etc) are for him a devolution. They are generally state-supported and state-supporting, meant for the elite only; and carry essentially no ethical component whatever.

He insists on what on reflection is quite obvious—changes in a religion (or in any other great cultural attitude) originate in a handful of individuals who persuade others. The great “Temple Religions” were pretty stable (Akenaten notwithstanding), because of the entrenched conservatism and self-interest of both the state priests and the state.

The single most important element in the religiosity of a society he considers to be the competition among religions and sects (considered as “high-intensity” offshoots of religions), and examines the effect this had in Rome. Competition meant that each group had to vie for attention and legitimacy, not resting on its laurels. He notes that Rome persecuted not just Christians but Jews and Cybelians and even deprecated volunteer fire departments—anything that smacked of community organization.

Then he moves on to the “Axial Age” and the rebirth of monotheism via Zoroastrianism and Judaism. His discussion of the Deuteronomists won’t win him any plaudits in my church, but in the end he can’t seem to find that they did much substantial re-writing of history. Here the theme of evolving revelation comes up again.

India comes next, with the old Vedic religion transforming into the Upanishad religion in the time of considerable upheaval and religious competition, which competition survives to this day; as innumerable Hindu sects vie for attention all over India. I hadn’t realized that Buddhism had been so forgotten in India.

China and the “Godless” religions come next. The truly “Godless” religions are the elite versions—the popular versions of Taoism worship many gods, including (no doubt to his unutterable surprise, LaoTzu). Confucius and Buddha are likewise worshipped—Buddha in form of Buddhism so modified with the addition of a Heaven and Hell that one might call it a new religion. Behind the scenes, for the millions of common folk, are the Folk Religions with legions of gods responsible for all the details of life. Some Chinese, if the sacrifice to the god doesn’t bring the desired results, have been known to whip the idol in retribution.

The Rise of Christianity is the next chapter, and he again points out the obvious—that Jesus was real, the New Testament is not a late forgery (he approvingly quotes arguments dating John to circa 40AD and the Synoptics not much later), that the Gnostic “gospels” are not remotely Christian (if you read them you’ll see they’re not even the same kind of literature!), and so on. He reiterates what he said in other books: mass conversions don’t exist: the spread of Christianity is consistent with a 3.4% yearly increase and conversions occur through influence of friend and family; Christianity, like all sects, began largely from upper classes (once you get past the first few years, I suppose—Peter wasn’t rich); and the different ways Christians treated women, the sick and the poor made it very much more attractive than paganism. If the Roman Empire was 10-15% Jewish (conversions and “all-but” conversions) as some estimates say, then Paul’s missionary travails seem more understandable. The fall of Christianity he dates to Constantine, as the time when, as a state religion, it lost the need for competition and began to corrupt the priesthood. He cites studies suggesting that medieval Europe was even less religious than modern Europe.

The next chapter is about Islam, of course. He points out influences of Nestorianism on Muhammad, and gives a history of the early years. Islam didn’t have mass conversions either, and he cites studies showing 250 years or so to convert half the population—faster than Christianity did in Rome, but then Islam had the power of the state behind it.

The final chapter “Conclusion: Discovering God?” asks whether the various religions contributed to a discovery of God (no—just ask Confucius), whether there is an “Inspired Core” of religions which advance the understanding of God (yes—including Zoroastrianism but leaving out the most recent monotheism), and whether God actually exists (yes).

There’s one large gap in the history, which since it involves prehistory is probably unfillable: how do you go from the primitive religions (often with a High God) to the polytheisms and Folk Religions with no particular High God and no ethical component? The fact that this appears everywhere suggests that it isn’t a matter of diffusion. The fact that it appears in Folk Religions and in Greek-style (non-state) polytheisms and in state Temple Religions suggests that it isn’t a matter of the form of government. I’d guess that it has something to do with merging tribes, each with their own High God and retinue developed from the experiences their own ancestors had with the numinous. Either one tribe wins or you compromise. To make everybody happy you have to treat everybody’s gods the same, and you wind up with a polytheism that nobody believes deeply and which loses any ethical importance. Guessing.

Read it.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Andrew G Bostom

I give up; I can't finish it—this is bad for my blood pressure. This is 800 pages of chapter and verse demonstrating that the vaunted Islamic “toleration” is a myth. Sure, the Turks welcomed Spanish Jews—but treated the local Jews like slaves. Some rulers were moderate, but they frequently succumbed to pressure from below. The roots of Jew-hatred run deep in Islam. Muhammad didn't like them much, and the writers of the Hadiths over the next few centuries seem even less fond. It was no accident that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was good friends with Hitler—they shared common enemies: The British, the French, and the Jews.

This is a good reference, but not exactly beach reading.

The Story of the French Foreign Legion by Edgar O'Ballance

The book is exactly what it purports to be: a history of the famous legion from its origins in 1831 through 1960 when it was heavily involved in the civil war in Algeria. The author was a British historian/journalist who'd served in the British and Indian armies, and who wrote from a decidedly sympathetic viewpoint. He frequently wrote “unfortunately” some disaster or another befell the Legion.

The French government didn't at first have a clear notion of what to do with their idea of a legion of foreign volunteers, and didn't always (often) supply and support them well. After their service in Spain (where the last major battle pitted the French Foreign Legion against a Spanish foreign legion), the legion was disbanded in 1838. But there seemed to still be a need in Africa, and the concept was revived.

Some of the folklore about the Legion's incredibly harsh punishments actually pertains to the punishment work divisions, which weren't associated with the Legion at all.

Some things were true—the Legion (as you might expect from a corps of volunteers) was generally quite good at fighting. This went together, oddly enough, with high desertion rates; which is also not terribly surprising.

The Legion wasn't keen on acquiring criminals, but after a background check to make sure you weren't wanted in France they'd accept anyone (except perhaps blacks) with whatever name they chose to use. It was discovered early on (and had to be relearned during the World Wars) that putting men from the same country together in a unit was a very bad idea.

During World War I a group of Cossacks volunteered. Nobody could speak their language, but they were mustered in anyway—but became obviously disgruntled after a short time. After a few weeks someone was found who could translate, and they discovered that the Cossacks had been eager enough to volunteer—but for cavalry; they were fed up with infantry slogging. (They were released.)

The Legion also tended to be good at finding the right men for the jobs. In quiet times commanders, fearing idle soldiers, had them do construction work; and some of their buildings and roads still find good use.

Camerone is a name to conjure by for the Legion, and O'Ballance tells the story for us. The Legion was fighting the Mexicans, and trying to maintain a narrow corridor. The Mexicans got wind of a gold shipment guarded by the Legion, and a farmhouse became famous as the 3rd Company fought against overwhelming odds (with the upper floor of the house occupied by the enemy!). They fought until overwhelmed (muskets take a while to reload), and killed 10 for 1.

The Legion had victories as well, but over the years most of their battles were hit and run conflicts with guerrillas, in North Africa, Mexico, Dahomey, Viet Nam, and so on.

Legion fought Legion in Syria during World War II—and saluted each other.

The writer's friendly viewpoint is not exactly PC—he assumes that bravery isimportant, that the Dahomey slave empire deserved to fall, and that the Arabs were rebels. Some small conflicts take a chapter, but the more massive battles of World War I are briefly described.

Interesting, but not riveting. It was “bathroom reading” for a couple of months.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Health Care Bill and Programming

I'm a physicist who spends most of his time programming, so I suppose I can claim two professions. In my capacity as a programmer, I contend that it is trivially obvious that the proposed health care reform bill will seriously damage the American health care systems. It represents far reaching changes to the laws (including granting the administration access to all IRS records) in a way that is not only uninspected but untestable. Each clause acts like a statement in a program, adding to or replacing other action statements in a huge body of laws--and we have on offer is a thousand pages of patches to tens of thousands of pages of laws and perhaps hundreds of thousands of pages of subsequent regulations and legal rulings. Nobody has (or IMnsHO can) do a code walkthrough on this heap. It gives a whole new meaning to "Blue Screen of Death."

I have no say in this, of course. My CongressCritter (Baldwin) considers it her pride and joy and is only sad that it doesn't more explicitly compel state control. If she held "town hall meetings" I could try to join, but I'm under no illusions about the welcome given unscripted comments. The core of the district is Madison, so there's no need to hire outsiders to shout down contrary views.

I'm not claiming the system we have is perfect. (For example, I can prove that palmistry is worthless. If it weren't, insurance companies would use it to figure out when to cancel policies.) But the systems mostly work (the quoted number of 47 million uninsured is a lie). They need some work. Carefully analyzed work. This bill isn't.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos C. Markides

A Search for Orthodox Spirituality

In his Prolegomena he describes how he came from Cyprus to the US, and lost his Orthodox faith as he became a professor of sociology. Over the years he rediscovered the spiritual realm and studied the usual things, including Zen and Carlos Castenada.

If you don’t remember Castenada, he wrote a series of books in the 60’s describing his purported conversations with a shamanistic Indian named don Juan, later shown not to have occurred. I admit that I read them too when I was younger and less wise.

This book reminds me very forcibly of Castenada’s work. There is some introductory and interpolating material, but the rest of it consists of purported (and somewhat unrealistic) conversations with the spiritual master. In this case that is Father Maximos, an elder sent back to Cyprus from the Mt. Athos monastic community to work as a missionary. He seems to actually exist, though.

Markides plays the role of a questioning and slightly skeptical seeker, and Father Maximos instructs him in the elements of Orthodox spirituality.

Central features to this spirituality are the necessity for self discipline, the necessity for divine grace, the necessity for spiritual guidance by saintly elders in the church, and the goal of Theosis—man being brought into God. Miracles are expected (and Markides is only nominally skeptical), the Eucharist is a holy power capable of bringing souls out of hell, direct experience of the Uncreated Light is possible, and the real battle is a spiritual battle against the forces of evil which first manifest as wicked or distracting thoughts.

How do you deal with wicked thoughts? To first order, ignore them and give them no home—they are from outside.

Markides comes to appreciate the importance of the monastic life and its incredible value to the rest of society; and develops his own Threefold Way description of how it works:

  • Catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions
  • Fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, is a gift of the Holy Spirit after the soul has undergone its purification
  • Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul
The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions.

The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is a good tool for the non-monk to use to develop a life of continual prayer, but it isn’t exactly clear that non-monks are candidates for experiencing the Uncreated Light. I gather that this is supposed to be the job of the monks, who then help guide the rest of us. Or something like that. Markides asked very different questions from those I would have.

Markides’ asides are sometimes rather irritating. He assumes an attitude of superiority to the monk’s belief in hell (showing himself more ethical than Christianity’s founder) and he persists in framing questions in terms of social equality and freedom—which is not relevant to the master/apprentice or elder advisor/novice relationships. Rebuked by Maximos, he still doesn’t seem to get the concept. Maximos is also dismissive of Markides’ wife’s “eco-peace village” project as irrelevant to the real issues.

The monk’s regimen is quite strict: getting up at 3:30 to be ready for 4 hours of services at 4am, and so on. Watching them prostrate themselves before the icons over and over during the services would take a little getting used to as well. Monks bow and kiss the other’s hand when they meet, on the grounds that the person they meet is Jesus (“if you did it to the least of these”).

There are a few oddities in the book, such as the claim that Western Christianity was tightly connected with government (true) while Eastern Christianity was independent. That doesn’t seem close to true, as current events related in the book testify; unless he is restricting himself to the Eastern monks, in which case it might be (I’m not expert enough to say).

The picture of Orthodox spirituality he draws is similar to that offered in The Prayer of the Heart, so I’m assuming it is accurate insofar as Markides understands it.

For some reason the trade paper edition I borrowed from the library was printed in a thin and pale font, which makes it hard to read.

If you are interested in the subject, give it a read.

Finally heard the lyrics

This morning on the radio Elton John's "Someone saved my life tonight" played, and I was finally able to make out the words:

And someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear You almost had your hooks in me Didn't you dear You nearly had me roped and tied, Altar-bound, hypnotized, Sweet freedom whispered in my ear You're a butterfly, And butterflies are free to fly, Fly away, high away bye bye

The image that came to mind was of a man at the car dealer. The door of a new car is open, and he looks in to see the upholstered seats, and the steering wheel, and the ignition and the radio and the pedals and

the seat belt.

He turns and runs screaming "You'll never tie me in one of those! Never!"

I suspect Elton John doesn't understand freedom.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aura

Again. No headache.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption by Stephen J Shoemaker

Somebody mentioned the Assumption of Mary, and I wondered what the Orthodox thought and looked it up. They called it the Dormition and the Wikipedia reference mentioned this book, which the University library had on hand. The book is based on Shoemaker's doctoral thesis and is pretty heavy going, with a highly academic style, barbs at other scholars, footnotes galore and parallel versions of the stories in the appendices.

Catholics decided in 1950 that Mary went to heaven either directly without dying or after a resurrection (it wasn't entirely explicit which). The natural reaction of a Protestant is “where'd that come from?” Shoemaker contributed this volume to a body of scholarship surrounding the oldest stories of Mary's death—-which come from about the 5'th century.

He emphasizes that there are no records of anything dealing with her death before this.

His approach to the various stories of her assumption/resurrection/whatever is basically literary. He categorizes the stories based on literary affinity (Bethlehem narratives involve a second house for Mary outside Jerusalem at Bethlehem, Palm narratives have her being given a magic palm branch, etc) Some are clearly later, and have been sanitized of some of the heterodox features of the earlier works.

His analysis claims that the various categories of stories arose independently and do not derive from each other. The earliest, in his view, is the Palm group of stories, several of which are prefaced with a prologue explaining how the absence of a record of Mary's death had prompted the writers to go in search of the true story. He takes this (and I agree) to mean that there was no agreed-on story of Mary's death during the previous centuries—and I take that to mean that none existed; that any record of Mary's fate was lost and never recovered.

The various categories of story don't agree with each other, of course, and even within a category there are disagreements on the nature of Paradise that translate in modern theological categories into either an immortal Mary (never died, taken directly to heaven) or resurrected Mary taken to heaven. As he points out, these modern categories are not the most relevant ones to apply to the 5'th century texts.

And about those texts—the early ones (before sanitizing) are gnostic through and through, with secret knowledge and obscurities galore. They are not Gospel—not even close—and are very heavy going. Pius fiction, yes. Gnostic mysteries, yes. (He doesn't like to use the word “gnostic,” but the themes of hidden knowledge needed for salvation are quite strong and that's the gnosis of gnostic.) The attitude towards mystery is completely different from the canonical writings (except the Revelation of John, which is excusable as prophecy). Chesterton had his Father Brown say: "Real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it it's still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it's a platitude."

Shoemaker agrees that there must have been some prior (now completely lost) source from which all these collections came, but does not speculate on what it might have been. So I will.

The disagreements about details within a category like Palm suggests that the source wasn't specific—perhaps laconic in description. The fact that different categories stride off in such different directions suggests that the authors felt free to embellish (gnostic writers seem to have had an extremely elastic notion of “historical fact” to begin with), or perhaps even constrained to elaborate. The various authors filled in from within their own local interests. And this original, not preserved by anybody, may not have been written down at all. It was widespread, whatever it was.

I'd guess the original was a song—necessarily unspecific about all the details. Mary was already something of a big deal, and if someone were to write a popular song it would undoubtedly inspire writers to come up with longer stories to fill in all the details.

In any event, these stories are valueless for documenting anything about Mary. They tell a little of what gnostics thought about her, but that's of little use.

If you're curious about the topic, read the book, or another in the field.