Thursday, August 31, 2017

Actions and words

"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.' "And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went. "The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go. "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first."

If you haven't read Shannon Burns' essay on language and violence, do. Near the end is the story of Ricky at the recycling center.

Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ancient wars

A review of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede wound up on my radar. The author (Aisha Harris) introduces it by comparing it to Medieval Times. I've been to the latter once: romanticized medieval culture, combat, and dining--not very closely related to anything SCA would put on. The real era often treated classes of luckless people very badly, and sometimes the conflicts involved things just as horrible as anything the 19'th century saw. But that was all 7-900 years ago, and the quarrels quit mattering long ago. Nobody but historians cares who was Duke of York in 1232, and we're apt to laugh at the differences between the warring sides--when we understand them at all. Not our oxen getting gored here...

In the American Civil War the North won, and by and large most folks in the North that I know don't give it a second thought anymore. Badger football is in Camp Randall stadium, and I doubt many fans realize the park memorializes a Union encampment/training ground. And when they do, they don't care. It's an ancient war. There are some customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("If this show were being performed in New York, he said, he’d think it was weird."), but little more. I can't speak for the South--I gather the hostility diminished over the years, and that in some circles there are customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("War was really about state's rights"--likely a big part of it for the rank and file, but definitely not true for the leaders). I've no idea how much emotion is invested in the war anymore.

But if the Dixie Stampede is any indication, where one of the pigs in the pig race is named for the iconic Lee, I suspect that there's a fair bit of "it's an ancient war" in the South too. What makes a glamorized Medieval Times-type amusement possible is that nobody deeply cares about the contest.

Aisha came to it as one for whom the themes of the Civil War were not ancient history. She found parts very awkward, sometimes tasteless or tone-deaf, and generally felt out of place. And she's right, of course(*). But I hope her children will be able to say "it's an ancient war." That might be a lot to hope for--maybe I should say her grandchildren.

The alternative to "it's an ancient war" is that new wars refer to the old in their laundry list of grievances. (Not that the old grievances matter as much as the new, but you want to show continuity in the villainy of your enemies.) That's not the road I want us going down.

(*) Although sometimes ... She complained that the "southerners" door label was light tan and the "northerners" was dark blue; this was tone-deaf. Um. If it had been reversed, would that have been better? I'd have thought the colors were a reference to the uniforms, not demography.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Babylonian "trig"

"Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years," says Dr Wildberger. "It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own."

When I read "However unlike today’s trigonometry, Babylonian mathematics used a base 60, or sexagesimal system, rather than the 10 which is used today. Because 60 is far easier to divide by three, experts studying the tablet, found that the calculations are far more accurate." I surmised that Sarah Knapton (Science Editor for the Telegraph) probably wouldn't know a sine if it hung blinking above the highway.

And it turns out the good Dr. Wildberger has a book to hawk. Said book is supposedly going to revolutionize the teaching of trig, apparently by using rational numbers and limits. (Don't reporters do any background checking anymore?)

Want a different view of the Plimpton tablet? It looks like a table of Pythagorean triples. Pythagorean triples are a fun topic that mathematicians have been working on for several thousand years now. I've played with them myself. The simplest one is the (3, 4, 5) triangle. The next is (5, 12, 13). There are an infinite number of them, and if it amused you (and apparently it amuses Dr Wildberger) you can get arbitrarily close to the shape of any right triangle with a Pythagorean triple triangle.

The traditional approach to trig links neatly with complex numbers and turns up smoothly in various branches of math. His scheme avoids some ambiguities with orientation, just as he claims, but also misses out on the connections. Poor choice.

In India, 1400 years ago, sine and cosine were approximated with parabolas, and I vaguely remember the idea being considerably older than that; so I'm not saying the Babylonians didn't do any trig. But this is not it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

But what if the cause is not entirely worthy, or what if the man in the arena has some vices?

We, the pinnacle of moral development and the epitome of all virtues, weigh those vices and decide whether to acknowledge the other's achievements. We must not celebrate the poetry of this man because he was a thief and murderer, or the scientific achievements of that man because he wore the shirt his girlfriend gave him, or the courage and skill of a defeated enemy because you must have truth but never reconciliation. You can't celebrate a man who helped design a great experiment in liberty because he wasn't consistent.(*)

You've heard the complaints in the other direction too, haven't you? "You can't honor that Communist terrorist Nelson Mandela."

I don't fly a Confederate flag, nor want a statue of Lee in our neighborhood park. I get it that some people don't feel as though they were involved in any historical reconciliation. What gets up my nose is the envious insistence on our superiority and right to demand obedience to every single detail of today's rules.

Who died and made us God?

(*) You may have to fight the enemy because of his vices, but acknowledge his virtues--they probably make him a more dangerous enemy. You might even learn something from him.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017


I sometimes overlook the most obvious things, for the longest time. I must have read Voyage of the Dawn Treader fifty years ago, and I only just realized the sly title Lewis gave the Governor of the Lone Islands: "His Sufficiency." No majesty or excellence is claimed or aspired to; just "sufficient." Beautiful bureaucrat-ese.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat videos

In my youth I was a last-picked non-athlete, and I never got much into sports personally. In between other interests and a tendency to deprecate whatever was popular, I never got into sports vicariously.

And so, as a young adult, I didn't see much use in professional sports, and thought investing in a city team a terrible waste of money. Over time I started to notice that watching sports was one of the few civic bonding activities we had. Oh. Maybe this kind of entertainment serves a useful function after all...

Cat videos are a byword for triviality. But in seas of rancid virtue-signalling, perhaps they represent something we can bond on--at least a little. They aren't much at all, but every little bit helps. I won't sneer.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The marchers

It was predictable, and I'm not happy to have been right. We've had one flavor of political shock troops for a couple of years--pretty soon we'll have another; maybe more than two. I'd hoped we could keep it all in the past.

I wonder whose side the driver was on. As of this time I have to take every report with a helping of salt. I can think of four different scenarios for the driver without breaking a sweat--three of them fairly likely. All I know is that somebody is supposed to have been arrested. Update: He's alleged to have been seen with the first group of marchers. As feared.

One picture showed a close group of marchers, probably the same team, carrying confederate and nazi flags. (The old Confederacy lands supplied a lot of volunteers to fight the original Nazis.) I've no reason to doubt that "heritage not hate" is a real description of the motives of a lot of confederate flag wavers--and the combination of a symbol of resistance to central control carried with a symbol of totalitarian rule is more than a little ironic. Probably the pictured group were all nazis, and used the confederate flag as the symbol of racial supremacy it is for some people. Some of the other marchers were said to be racial separatists (not the same thing as supremacists, of course), and I've no notion yet of who the rest were, or even if they knew who all the other groups were. Somebody thought it was OK to have nazis tag along, though. Or wanna-be nazis.

Words are supposed to mean something. I've always been interested in history, and WWII was not that long ago when I was young. Nazis were still the symbol of the enemy, and everybody knew why. I hear horror stories that substantial fractions of today's graduates unable to tell what side England was on during WWII (or else who are pulling the pollster's leg--but I observe a fair amount of ignorance myself). What does "nazi" mean to them? Generic bad group? "I know, teacher! I know! It means Trump and anyone who voted for him!" Similarly, racist means you wonder out loud why we import foreigners to cheaply do the jobs you can't find anymore. It isn't even so much "May as well be hanged for sheep as for lamb" as that the distinctions are blurred.

When the powers-that-be claim that noticing certain problems makes you a swamp-dweller, some proportion of you will join the swamp-dwellers. Think of labor relations early last century. Publicly noticing problems got you called communist, and a lot of noticers joined the communist swamp-creatures.(*)

I suspect that too many people have long memories for the nazis to become a significant force again--certainly not under that name. But the attitudes may come back. We had those attitudes before, and though we've had a few generations in which white racism was suppressed, anything can happen--especially when the elite are alien and arbitrary. "Cling to those you can trust"--and you can't trust Pichai, or the Mizzou administration, or HR.

I used "you," but I, and I suspect most of my readers, are in the happy situation of having skills and education that mean we can comfortably ignore some of the problems, and that, knowing the history, we know the boundaries between the ordinary and the vile. I don't worry about the swamp-creatures--there usually aren't a lot of them. We protect free speech for good reason. I worry when people stop noticing the differences. God help us.

(*) National socialism is congruent to international socialism: totalitarian, the party is the most important thing, violent expansion, have to break a few eggs to create utopia... I regard Che Guevara shirts the same way I think of Martin Bormann shirts.

Blue and Green

I remember wondering once upon a time how it was that the Blue and Green parties got to be so all-encompassing: Religion, class, politics, sports--and probably other things the histories didn't record.

I think I get it now. If I were to find a MAGA hat and pay a visit to a few selected restaurants in Madison, I suspect service would be quite slow, and I might be rebuked for producing a "hostile environment." Virtue signaling your politics or social views in your business isn't ubiquitous, but is still very common. The new restaurant in the building we rent office space from made a point of emphasizing how much they supported Planned Parenthood--even before they opened. I think you can still eat at McD's without implicitly supporting any party, but stories about restaurants refusing to serve cops keep cropping up. Typically corporate comes down hard on the offenders, but clearly the impulse is there.

Has it always been like that? I seem to recall more overlap in interests when I was younger--but the Cubs and the Sox had (overall) different classes for fan bases(*), and my Better Half remembers a visit to Finn McCools to find the band was playing "If you hate the Queen of England clap your hands." (She got by with a visit to the ladies' room and some fractured German to a belligerent inquisitor.)

(*) It was explained to me that the class difference was a side effect of being located in different neighborhoods

Thursday, August 10, 2017


In the Atlantic we find: "Pets don’t actually make people healthier, according to a new analysis. Ability to own a pet does." "The cat owners appeared healthier than people without pets, but the difference went away when the researchers factored in that the cat owners were likely to be healthy for other reasons, mostly bearing on socioeconomic status."

Of course, we want to keep an eye on this to make sure that the result is true. But if it is, what's going to happen to the Emotional Support Animal industry? I haven't seen their reaction yet, but let me guess: "The study doesn't address emotional issues, only deals with children ..."

Monday, August 07, 2017

Chastity of the Mind

It is tempting to embrace every story that comes along that flatters your tribe or besmirches your opponents. After all, the stories generally fit with what you know; build on knowledge you already have.

When you know the CIA is evil and has done unforgiveable things, stories of how they engineered Tolbert’s assassination or plotted 9/11 dovetail nicely with their record of villainy. Racists abound, so when 3 black churches burn in 2 weeks you know it means racist activity is on the rise. When you know the Clintons are corrupt and ruthless, the story that a man killed himself just before he was due to testify about them obviously tells of just another rub-out among many.

Be realistic. Soldiers won’t die if you don’t retweet that bon mot immediately, or repost that quotation of uncertain provenance. You’re not really in a hurry. You may like to think that hearts and minds wait trembling for your imprimatur on the news, but people who know you can probably already predict what you plan to say.

Instantly reposting stories that go down like such sweet morsels is just virtue signaling: your judgment must be profound since you have such noble friends and recognize such a vile and deceptive enemy!

Two words: Richard Jewell. Three words: Duke lacrosse case. Four words: Day care satanic abuse.

A good scientist looks at data that supports his model, and also looks for data that would contradict it. Until it is studied carefully, it is not good for either purpose.

The first reports are usually wrong. (Sometimes later ones are a cover-up, but not so often.) Let your conclusions be tentative, if you must draw any--wait a while and see what else develops.

Yes, I’ve been bitten by that kind of mistake too. It takes practice to reserve judgment.

“There’s a Bene Gesserit saying,” she said. “You have sayings for everything!” he protested. “You’ll like this one,” she said. “It goes: 'Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.'” From Dune by Frank Herbert

"Do you read the papers? Of course, you do. But do you read them as I read them? I rather doubt that you have come upon my system. ... I remember once when I lived in the Capital for a month and bought the paper fresh each day. I went wild with love, anger, irritation, frustration; all of the passions boiled in me. I was young. I exploded at everything I saw. But then I saw what I was doing: I was believing what I read. Have you noticed? You believe a paper printed on the very day you buy it? This has happened but only an hour ago, you think! It must be true... So I learned to stand back away and let the paper age and mellow. Back here, in Colonia, I saw the headlines diminish into nothing. The week-old paper - why, you can spit on it, if you wish.” From “And the rock cried out” by Ray Bradbury

“[John]: 'But I must think it is one or the other.'

[Reason]: 'By my father's soul, you must not - until you have some evidence. Can you not remain in doubt?'

[John]: 'I don't know that I have ever tried.'

[Reason]: 'You must learn to, if you are to come far with me. It is not hard to do it. In Eschropolis, indeed, it is impossible, for the people who live there have to give an opinion once a week or once a day, or else Mr. Mammon would soon cut off their food. But out here in the country you can walk all day and all the next day with an unanswered question in your head: you need never speak until you have made up your mind.” From The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis