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.