Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vetting Prayers

So Obama is now approving opening prayers before they are made. I can see why, given his years under Wright, he'd want to make sure there weren't any unfortunate explosions of bile; and given his embrace of abortion I can understand that he'd not want any prophetic complaints that might contradict him.

I have to wonder if his staff give an implicit suggestion to leave out Jesus, or if the pastor mentioned was just imagining things. I like to hope that if they explicitly requested non-Christian prayers the pastors would balk, and loudly--but you could find a few who already come pretty close to Zelazny's prayer.

Everything has to be controlled; everything has to be "on message" without distractions, even other men's petitions to God. I wonder if he's figured out a way to vet God's replies?

Tucker Callaway

He and his wife were missionaries to Japan for years. Then they moved to Liberia, where I met them.

He was a large man, with exotic paraphernalia and habits. He brought a Zen bell from Japan, and told me he wanted to use it as a doorbell. It was a wonderful small bell—the tone persisted for over 90 seconds (I timed it), but when he hung it near the door someone hit it too hard and cracked it.

I remember visiting their house once and seeing a book on Tarot on the table. That seemed odd for Baptist missionaries, but he explained that his wife had read The Greater Trumps and, interested in learning more about the subject, had picked up a book and a deck. The Greater Trumps was a nondescript hardcover on his shelf, and I thought no more about it.

Shortly after that my parents got hold of a book reviewing the works of three authors, one of whom (Charles Williams) was previously unfamiliar to me. I was curious now, and asked Tucker to lend me one.

He said they were books dear to his heart and lent freely. Naturally I read all seven, and surprisingly enough “spoilers” in the book review did not spoil the fascination of the books, which I still enjoy.

He told me he envied me the joy of reading them for the first time, and then recommended Treasure Island. I told him I’d read that one long before.

He was exploring a theory of radical pacifism, and on one walk was talking with me about an idea in which one would try to show love to an attempted murderer by trying to keep him from murder by assisting him, thereby removing some of his guilt. I think he was a little disappointed by my response. I suspect I’ve always been more of an experimentalist than a theorist, and the notion didn’t seem to satisfy a “sanity check.” I’m quite a bit older now, and I hope a little wiser. I still think he was wrong.

He held no grudge, and asked me to proofread a book of his: Zen Way, Jesus Way. In retrospect I think I probably didn’t do a careful job: I was too fascinated discovering the subject to think “line by line.” Zen was a whole new way of looking at the world, and Tucker did a careful and sympathetic job of describing it.

After the review, we talked about it for a while. I offered to disprove it and he to defend it. I lost, of course: Zen forms a consistent approach to the world and isn’t subject to mathematical disproof. But price you pay for essentially saying that everything is illusion is that you are also illusion: there is not even an I to suffer illusion. In a sense you explain the whole world and lose your own soul.

It’s a little like that “trivial metric” I described earlier. It satisfies the criteria, but there’s no room for any sort of detailed map—the terrain is trivial. It is like Chesterton’s narrow circles of the madman’s thought. I gather from a somewhat angry review of the book that Zen as actually lived by non-monks includes some other aspects, including ethics, but these seem to be brought in by the back door, so to speak. Which isn’t surprising—only hermits can live by the unalloyed principles of illusion.

I left to go to college, and lost touch with Dr. Callaway. I understand his unorthodox approaches got him into a little trouble: his idea of a living parable jarred with the themes of Liberian culture. He should have run his ideas past somebody else first.

Before he died he wrote the framework of a book on Islam, but when his daughters looked at the floppies after his death they found he’d erased it. I remember feeling some loss about that—I’d have been interested in reading what he had to say. But it probably wouldn’t have been as insightful as his book on Zen. He spent years immersed in Japanese culture and studying the religion; not so much with Islam.

Aura again this morning.

While driving. I suppose I should start keeping track of this.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sleight of hand

Did you notice that the budget deficit is proposed to be $1.75 trillion, while the increased taxes are $1 trillion--except that the tax calculation is for 10 years?

The printing presses are going to be running hard...

Bush kept his campaign promise to lower taxes, and I still think that lowering taxes in wartime was the dumbest move he made. Campaign promises are dangerous.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DC voting

IIRC, DC was kept separate in order to prevent the host state from pressuring the federal government. It was certainly a real risk in the early days of the nation—Virginia would have had no qualms about directly harassing representatives of non-slave states, much less merely standing aside while bands of thugs did the dirty work.

The balance of power between federal and state governments has shifted since then, and provided DC can maintain its own police force I don't see huge risks in lumping it in with Virginia or Maryland now.

The current bill is unConstitutional. The proper way to go about this is with a Constitutional amendment.

But DC is such a tiny area, with a small population and essentially no industry—nothing productive, anyway—that it is a joke to call it a state and give it a couple of senators just like New York.

I'd go with maintaining federal jurisdiction for DC law enforcement and making it a part of Maryland or Virginia (flip a coin—loser gets it?) for all other purposes.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


What's a distance?

Let's imagine a map spread out on the table, with east/west in one direction and north/south in the other. We can make the grid as fine as we like, pick a center, and say that we measure x to the right and y up from the center. Any point on the map will have a position (x,y), with x measured to the east of the center and y measured to the north. West means negative x and south means negative y.

How far apart are two points on the map?

Someone naive might say: take the difference in x and the difference in y and add them. A sophisticated student would snicker at that: a crow would fly straight straight from one point to the other and only have to travel √ ((x1-x2)^2+(y1-y2)^2) . But the pros know it isn't really a stupid answer at all. It depends.

Suppose the map corresponds to a city with east/west and north-south streets. Maybe a crow can fly diagonally, but the taxicab driver has to follow the streets. If he has to go from 600 West/200 South to 300 West/200 North he has to drive 3 blocks East and 4 blocks North, for a total for 7 blocks. The crow can fly it in only 5, but that doesn't help the cabdriver.

The same map can demand different distances depending on what it represents.

The mathematical term for a set of distances like this is a metric (from the root word for measuring). The rules for a metric space are pretty simple and obvious. It is a set of points where:

  • Every two points have a distance between them
  • The distance is never negative.
  • The only time the distance is 0 is when the two points are the same.
  • The distance between a point and itself is always 0.
  • The distance from A to B is never smaller than the distance from A to C plus the distance from C to B. It might result in the same distance, but a detour in the middle of a trip never makes the trip shorter

The mathematically inclined can verify that both the traditional "as the crow flies" metric and the "taxicab" metric satisfy these conditions. Intuition will serve the rest of us OK. Remember that sets can be infinite: a line is a set of points, but an infinite number of them.

You can easily imagine some other cases where the distance takes funny shapes.

Suppose the map is of a nice flat plain, with a river down the middle and only a couple of bridges. Two points on the map, if on opposite sides of the river, might be very far apart: or very close, depending on where the bridges are.

Or suppose that the map is of the area around a hill. The real distance a traveler experiences is going to involve uphill and downhill aspects. It might well be easier to go around the hill than over it, and the new distance you devise will reflect that.

There's always a distance system called the "trivial metric:" The distance between two points is always 1, unless the two points are the same. It is a handy case for testing theorems, but not much use for anything else. It works--it satisfies the criteria--but it doesn't reflect landscapes we want to work with.

An amusing exercise is to ask: what is a straight line in an arbitrary metric space? Instead of devising some complicated parametric formula, we can say that "The line segment from A to B is the set of all points for which going from A to that point and then from that point to B doesn't make the trip any longer."

The results can be wild.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the Cold

One winter pastime for those of us in the frozen northlands is snickering at the helplessness of our more southern friends in the face of the occasional mild snowfall. It is entertaining to feel tougher and stronger than the hothouse plants from warmer climates.

Bad weather demands that we exercise caution and take some responsibility for ourselves. If your car stalls on a back road at night you can die if you didn't bother to bring a coat along, and you have to be aware of where the ice is unless you enjoy twisted ankles. In California a homeless man can nest under a bush at night. Not here; not in February. Dress right and be prepared, or suffer the consequences.

But it is silly to think ourselves champions of rugged self-sufficiency, and not just because there are others farther north who laugh at us.

Much of our defense against winter is communal. We may laugh at an Arkansas town shut down by a mere 6 inches of snow—but our cities aren't shut down because we run snow plows; and if 6 inches falls they even get around to plowing our street. The city doesn't stop because we make sure it doesn't. Communal action.

If we get a half inch of ice: no big deal. There's no school, non-essential businesses stay closed and if your trees start breaking you find out who in the neighborhood has chainsaws. He lives right next door. No big deal. If the power goes out you just put your groceries in the garage to stay cool—the lack of cable TV might be painful, though.

The stores sell us warm coats and snow shovels and snow blowers and sidewalk salt—we don't sew our own coats by candlelight or make our own snowshoes. We're part of a web of commerce that supplies us.

The sidewalks are kept back from the streets so that street plowing doesn't block them, and the city fines you if you don't clear your sidewalk in reasonable time. Houses have to be built with adequate insulation and heating. Our rules are designed to make it easier to deal with winter. Communal rules.

Even dealing with accidents is communal—people are quicker to stop for someone stuck in a snowbank than for someone out of gas in the summer.

We live “proof against winter” not because we're so much tougher, but because we hang together.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Holder is probably right. We need courage to talk about race; to proclaim the news that nobody bombed the levies in New Orleans and that prisons are populated by different groups largely at the rate at which those groups commit major crimes: that a black male youth is 10 times as likely as a white male youth to commit a serious felony.

We need the courage to tell Sharpton that we can tell the difference between a racist cartoon and one that isn’t without having to ask his permission first.

The real problems will never be addressed, much less solved, so long as the gatekeepers of dialog profit from professional victimhood.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Star Wars question

From the Revenge of the Sith, I remember a scene with a room full of youngsters practicing Jedi stuff. I gather they were padawanabees.

Rattling Story

Drudge Report pointed to a report that an earthquake rattles Jersey...again. If you look at the story, it says the quake was magnitude 2.2. I'm not sure what this would rattle--neither people nor dishes feel quakes this small. But I suppose the editor figured it would make a good headline, and the name of the game is to grab attention. The interesting part of the story was that this was the second (albeit tiny) quake in two weeks, which apparently is unusual for that part of the world. Have a look a the California/Nevada quake map for how the other side lives.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The secret of fixing things--some of the time

We have a breadmaker that we don't use a great deal. I'm fond of fresh hot bread, so I suggested to Youngest Son that he learn how to use it and make some. We found the recipe (the manual is long lost), figured some substitutions, and he loaded everything in the machine and .. .. .. oops. The electronic menu was gibberish. Unplugging and replugging didn't help--if anything it was less legible. But we figured the default was probably OK and punched start.

40 minutes later my better half realized the thing was still kneading--the timing system was farbled.

Dump contents in loaf pan and bake. (The bread turned out heavy and crumbly but OK.) In the meantime, google to see if parts are available. (Answer: No. Regal quit making the things 10 years ago.)

The mechanics worked: the problem was in the control system. Maybe something simple came loose, or corroded. There's only one way to find out.

I opened it up and found nothing wrong, but struck with a wild surmise I shoved each connector back and forth on its pins to see if maybe there was contact corrosion. If a CAMAC module misbehaves, the first thing you do to try to fix it is pull the thing out of the crate and re-seat it. Maybe ...

I heaped it back together and plugged it in, and the menu appeared clear as a bell. So I reassembled it and tomorrow we'll see if the timing components work too.

As with all magic tricks, you must never explain it to the audience...

Friday, February 13, 2009


Unfortunately, Obama is living down to my expectations. Definitely not ready for prime time.

But Pelosi: I'd heard some bad things about her, but I didn't believe half of them. I guess I was wrong; I had no idea she was this high-handed. I predict there will a a provision or two in there that benefit some of her San Francisco friends, just as happened before.

I'm not sure that "stimulus" is even nominally the point of the bill anymore.

And I gather that the Senate banking committee didn't cover itself with glory when interviewing the big bankers, and instead displayed startling ignorance.

The Great Transformation The Beginning of our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong

I haven't finished this yet.

The book starts out by explaining its purpose: to look at the peoples and trends that form what some call the Axial Age: a pivotal period (though now known not to be as dramatically short as Jaspers thought) in which 4 great religious traditions emerged: Hinduism/Buddhism, Confucianism/Daoism, monotheism in Israel, and Greek philosophical rationalism.

She starts with a fantasy about Aryans, in which the peaceful people discover horses and develop a warrior sub-group. Not a good start if she wants to be taken seriously as a historian: she goes far beyond any historical records. And one can be both a brutal warrior and a peaceful farmer: witness the Vikings, who went on raids in order to build enough wealth to buy farms. OK, some of them enjoyed raiding, but they often claimed their ambition was to farm.

At that point I decided to do a little spot checking to see what the rest of the book was about.

I read a short section on the woes of a philosopher trying to influence an ambitious Chinese king. Nicely written and very interesting. Then I read a section on prophets in Israel and the formation of monotheism and the rewriting of the Pentateuch. Um. For her the JEDP approach is gospel, and the interpretation assumes that monotheism was new. It smells a little circular.

Comparing one section on Hindu ritual with one on prophets in Israel suggested to me that she doesn't like Amos very much, but very much admires Hinduism.

Her intro bothers me, and some of the details don't match things I read elsewhere. I'm not sure how reliable a history this is.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Groundhogs, Llamas, Turkeys, Deer, and Other Natural Wonders

The Groundhogs have spoken. Sun Prairie's Jimmy the Groundhog, and his better-known fellow prognosticator Punxuntawney Phil, have agreed: don't put your boots and long underwear away any time soon.

Sun Prairie's Jimmy IX is a charming little animal who is calm enough to visit schools, unlike his cranky predecessor Jimmy VIII. Jimmy IX was rescued after a roadside accident. The vet said he'd survive but couldn't return to the wild. Jimmy can't walk a straight line because of motor nerve damage. So when he visits a school, his handler can let him stand on the table without a leash, because Jimmy doesn't wander. And he doesn't need to walk a straight line to tell the mayor whether he's seen his shadow or not. Election to the office of Mayor of Sun Prairie confers the ability to understand groundhog speech as one of its perks.

Somebody on the radio said yesterday that "If you drill a hole through 38 inches of ice and shiver out on the lake waiting for dinner to swim by, you might be from Wisconsin."

Yesterday I drove James to the bus stop, and took the scenic route home. There are three farmettes with llamas on one of the back roads. God invented llamas to demonstrate His sense of humor. Take a good look at a llama. He has a round, sheepy body on camel legs, a long neck with a gawpy-looking head and big eyes, like a furry, rounded ostrich. At one farm, a sleepy big brown llama draped his long neck across the shaggy back of his spotted buddy.

That ridiculous looking little cousin of the camel does an excellent job of guarding sheep, or so I have read in that wonderful fountain of information, Highlights For Children. Llamas are tall and can see trouble coming a lot sooner than sheep can. They will protect sheep too. Coyotes have learned not to mess with creatures whose long legs can kick very hard.

The wild turkeys have adjusted very well to the edge of suburbia. I had to honk at one to encourage him to cross the road. Another fat tom strolled around the parking lot of the water filtration plant on Sunday.

I will keep the emergency shovel in the hatch after spring comes. I have needed the shovel in the past to gently swat a strutting tom who was too preoccupied with his lady friend to notice traffic. Shovels also come in handy when way out in the country near creeks. You do not want to run over a snapping turtle the size of a medicine ball; and you don't want to try to pick one up, either.

Saturday's thaw brought us a lovely bird chorus and a rapid drop in bird feeder grain. Sunday's drive to church revealed an intricate lacing of deer tracks along the road. The deer have certain preferred crossing places. A network of tracks funnels to one point on the road, and fans back out on the other side.

Six more weeks of winter. I'm ordering my seeds today anyway.

Mrs James