Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Political Crowds and Me

President Obama will be visiting UW Madison this afternoon--the first president since Truman to visit. That makes it "historic" in the loose sense newspapers use the term.

I'm not bothering to go.

It would be inconvenient, though not overwhelmingly so, but even if it was a snap to show up and get a reserved front row spot, the spot would stand empty.

It's not just because I consider the man a misguided empty suit. I'd offer the same somnolent enthusiasm to a similar visit by President Bush, a man I came to respect.

Does anybody remember John Anderson? Back in 1980 he came to the University of Illinois as part of his presidential campaign. I'd heard the buzz about him, and I went to hear him. He unburdened himself of his standard stump speech, tailored for UI, and left.

If the purpose of the effort was communication, it utterly failed. I'd heard it all before. I concluded that day that if I wanted to find out what a candidate thought, going to campaign rallies was inefficient, and also probably the most boring method available. The script was going to always be the same, with fill-in-the-blanks for the football team and the local pols. There'd be no "Churchill at Westminster College" moments.

I've not attended a campaign rally since. I've talked with a candidate or two running for local office--that's much more interesting and perhaps even useful. But for President, or Senator, or Congresscritter? The speech has nothing much to do with the candidate's real goals--it's been polished by spin doctors and PR people to sound as nice as possible without saying anything substantive. Possible dissenters in the crowd are cordoned far away so that no hint of disagreement taints the love fest. What's there to learn?

But of course that's just me. I'm an Apollonian sort in a rather Dionysian culture; one who just gets a headache from football cheers and just can't seem to care much whether the Cubs win the championship this year. I assume they will sooner or later--Dante told us the lowest circle of Hell was frozen over.

Which leads me to wonder what purposes rallies have. Maybe there's something I'm leaving out.

First and foremost, the rally is an opportunity for the faithful to commit darsan with the illustrious visitor. Laugh, but we all do it--I'd go see Neil Armstrong, even if I knew I'd not get to meet him.

Second, the rally gets everyone together to hear the message. As I said this is terribly inefficient, which makes me think this really isn't a major function anymore.

Third, it is an opportunity to be part of a community enthusiastic about a cause. You come blase, and leave excited ("Oh whip me, whip me into a frenzy with your cries and cheers and freighted words!"). I'm not a huge fan of manufactured enthusiasm, but I can imagine that connecting with other people is good even when shaped like this. The key for me is not the community, but the cause. Is it worthy of my enthusiasm and devotion? Getting pol A elected instead of pol B generally isn't. Defeating slavery or abortion, or championing safe working conditions--yes.

Fourth, it is an opportunity to encourage others in the cause--to make them feel as though the support is great and the victory inevitable. Once again, the cause makes it or breaks it for me.

Now meeting somebody in person; sitting down for an hour or two over dinner--that's a whole other ball game. I'd be happy for the chance to have an unscripted chat with any of the presidents, provided the talk wasn't about politics. (I really don't want to hear kvetching about how X couldn't get along with Tip O'Neill, who famously got along great with political opponents) For most of them I think we'd find something to talk about.

But "historic" visits? Eh. The tea party rallies are a historic movement also, and I've not been to any of those either--and they, being more local, would be more interesting.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Knock Knock!

Sight of the day: a downy woodpecker hammering away at the entrance to a birdhouse in the backyard. There are no chickadees this time of year, so nobody's being disturbed, but I've no idea what he thought he was going to find there.

Yesterday we had a young woodchuck in the front garden; probably told to leave the nest a few blocks away. When he showed signs of wanting to take up residence we shooed him out of the foliage, tossed a basket over him, and guided him into a live trap. I don't want any unscheduled excavations.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"If ever it should happen that the system of English athletics should vanish from the public schools and the universities, if science should supply some new and non-competitive manner of perfecting the physique, if public ethics swung round to an attitude of absolute contempt and indifference towards the feeling called sport, then it is easy to see what would happen. Future historians would simply state that in the dark days of Queen Victoria young men at Oxford and Cambridge were subjected to a horrible sort of religious torture. They were forbidden, by fantastic monastic rules, to indulge in wine or tobacco during certain arbitrarily fixed periods of time, before certain brutal fights and festivals. Bigots insisted on their rising at unearthly hours and running violently around fields for no object. Many men ruined their health in these dens of superstition, many died there. All this is perfectly true and irrefutable. Athleticism in England is an asceticism, as much as the monastic rules. Men have over-strained themselves and killed themselves through English athleticism. There is one difference and one only: we do feel the love of sport; we do not feel the love of religious offices. We see only the price in the one case and only the purchase in the other."

From Twelve Types by GK Chesterton.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"I say its spinnage, and I say the hell with it."

A headline on a newspaper this evening said: "Gender pay gap smallest on record."

Somebody tried to find a nice way to say: "a lot of good jobs went away leaving a lot of men unemployed." Trying to put a happy face on news like that edges some distance into dishonesty.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Not a new problem

"It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhumane, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly even touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach."

From the "Twelve Types" by Chesterton, the section on Pope.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday on shift

I came in for shift. For the first time I traversed the route I had in mind: didn't have to make last minute corrections when I realized I was lost. On the other hand, I stalled 3 times--in daylight with no steep hills. Unlike yesterday, when I was in the middle of Cessy trying to turn left without crunching the car behind me while pointed uphill onto a half-blind intersection. I stalled there 7 times, and rolled backwards (and got honked at) 4 times. I suspect riding with me would turn your hair grey. I have come to detest roundabouts: I feel like the can in a paint shaker after driving through St. Genis.

Shift started and so did the alignment meeting and so did a bunch of configuration questions and the DCS shifter asking "Why is the DCS monitoring of your detector halted?" and the main shift leader asking when we'd be done flashing our firmware. (It turns out that the Xmas monitoring system that is under CSC control can and does stop the DCS monitoring of chamber voltages. And restart it again without burdening the DCS shifter with details. Actually, I suspect that every subsystem has some skunkworks method of bypassing DCS. Probably makes life very interesting for him, since he's nominally responsible for monitoring the safety of the whole system.)

After the chaos and flurry, it is dead. ECAL isn't working, and they've tried several times to start new runs--failing each time. The warnings are not beeps and wheeps as at Fermilab, but clips of pop songs: "I think its stupid and sad that everything turned out so bad" or "Don't stop me now, I'm having such a good time." and "Its a kind of magic" I gather the last one is for starting the run, and at least one of the first two is for a run ending.

Actually, CDF's beeps and wails are for subsystem warnings. The Run Control's messages are computer-generated and nearly unintelligible readings of text error messages. You can imagine how acronyms come across.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


French drives me nuts sometimes. A conversation rattled down the hall this morning, and the only clear phrase by my door was "EEL AH PLU" He has more? Than who? Of what? Oh. It rained.

Yesterday I sat by a group of ladies discussing the dynamics of different cultures and tolerance and immigration. I got that much. I couldn't for the life of me tell whether the main speaker was pleased with or criticizing the situation. Just a few key words went missing, or went sideways.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Noise canceling headphones

Even Hearos soft earplugs start to hurt my ears after about 7 hours, and the flight from Chicago to Brussels is 8 hours. (The return trip is 9) You can buy a basketful of earplugs for the cost of a Bose, so that was never an issue. But a cheaper on-ear set from Able Planet seemed like it might be worth an experiment.

I tried them in a few settings: my office, my office while making a conference call, a flight (by themselves), and a flight (with earplugs as well). I'll try them with the table saw later. Will I be able to hear the telephone?

  • They are comfortable, and the cord disconnects so you can just use the bare headset if all you want is sound cancellation.
  • In my office they cut out a lot of the computer fan and AC noise, which was a pleasant relief. Conversations are slightly muffled but not enough to interfere.
  • The headphones were annoyingly static-y for the conference call. They will not be very suitable for work with the monitors--and they may not block the drums anyway. I suspect a more expensive set would work better, but I'm not going to try.
  • I felt a slight pressure in the ear when using them on the jet.
  • They do not block as much sound as earplugs; on the other hand earplugs cut conversations too and the headphones don't. Much.
  • They seemed to block more of the middle and upper range frequencies.
  • They are lightweight and adjust comfortably.
  • After 4 hours the inside (not the outside!) of my ears started to hurt and I felt a buzzing in my ears. I switched to earplugs at this point.
  • After an hour or so I added the headphones again. This cut the sound even more. There's probably an irreducible minimum sound level that comes through bone conduction.
Mental stimulation and Alzheimer's

Some recent research suggests that mental stimulation does stave off the onset of Alzheimer's, but the final deterioration is faster. This would be consistent with the disease beginning at the same time in both samples (mentally active and inactive), but that the mentally active group's brains "rewire around" the damage until it becomes too great. We know the brain is somewhat "plastic," and can reorganize to a surprising degree: see an early story and the followup on London cabdriver brains.

It might be interesting to compare brain activity and development between other different groups: parents and the childless (not involved in teaching or care); police and assembly-line workers; and so on.

I was going to write "police and nurses" but it occurred to me that both professions demand extreme attentiveness to details of other people's actions and appearance. The element of personal danger is much higher for the policeman, but an empathetic nurse might feel the danger to the patient too.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

Somebody was hard at work in the Amazon: "they have also found vast orchards of semi-domesticated fruit trees, though they appear like forest untrammeled by man."