Wednesday, January 19, 2022


While reading a book on Christian mystics I found that John Bunyan had learned from a book called The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven. Interesting title... and the author was Arthur Dent. Where had I run across that name before? The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I wonder...

The net is a terrible distraction and time sink, but it can sometimes find things for you quickly. Douglas Adams wrote:

So this guy [...] assumed – he instantly leapt to the conclusion – that I had deliberately made this extraordinary, involved academic joke. He went through The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven and teased out all the parallels between the two books, and he sent me this long dissertation on this 'joke' that he discovered I had 'created'. I had to write back and say, 'I'm sorry, I've never heard of this book.'

Oh well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022


Graham Majin at Quillette makes a case that Marshall McLuhan's influence here is much like Foucault's. McLuhan championed the idea that the medium has an impact on the effect of a work of art (or history or)--which seems straightforwardly clear. He took it farther to say that the effect of the medium dominates, especially in aggregate, and a radical change in media changes the culture--never mind what people seem to be saying.

I read Understanding Media back in high school, and my impression was: well, ok, but ... Majin's article accuses him of helping normalize the idea that journalism makes the news and that truth isn't literal. I don't remember that, though I only read one part of his works--maybe I just forgot. (I thought The Medium is the Massage was self-indugent and silly.)

If he were alive today, he'd look at the isolated phone-veneraters riding the bus and say "I told you so:" Although our disembodied culture was certainly not what he hoped for.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Important moments in history

It might be easier to find accurate and useful information in this 1619 Project.

Vai alphabet

From the Max Planck Institute a test of a theory about letter evolution. There's an old idea that letters rose from writing signs that were pictographic, and then got simplified over time. It seems quite plausible. Not all alphabets are derived from the mideast scripts. In Liberia, back around 1834, Vai tribesmen decided to create their own alphabet. Neither Roman nor Arabic scripts were a good match for their language, and the creators decided to make their own. They're supposed to have been illiterate in any other language, and their characters don't closely resemble anything else.

The alphabet did not die out, but it underwent some changes. The first link includes a video showing three of the Vai letters and how they were drawn over the years. They morph and simplify. The shape and even direction of the letters shows quite a bit of variation--I'm guessing it wasn't perfectly standardized. That would have made it easier to simplify.

"Visual complexity is helpful if you're creating a new writing system. You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners. This complexity later gets in the way of efficient reading and reproduction, so it fades away," says Kelly.

As the letters became less complex, Kelly and team found they also became more uniform. This is despite the language never having been adopted for mass production or for bureaucratic needs.

Oversight Board

Byron Bishop, currently Equal Opportunities Division manager in the city's Department of Civil Rights, tapped to be the city's first independent police monitor took himself out of consideration for the job after documents surfaced showing he'd discriminated against a woman he'd been having an affair with and violated state licensing requirements at his former company.

"The Police Civilian Oversight Board voted in closed session to offer him the job"

The decisions from the state Department of Workforce Development's Equal Rights Division and the former Department of Regulation and Licensing date back to 2007 and 2005, respectively, and were shared with Madison's Human Resources Department by a member of the public. The Wisconsin State Journal obtained them through a public records request.

... Board members — who unlike the vast majority of the members of Madison's dozens of citizen boards are paid for their work — have also refused to comment publicly about their decision-making in the search for an independent monitor ...

If the records were that easy to come by, I wonder how the PCOB overlooked the matters.

Two cases:

Bishop ticked the right boxes and they didn't bother to look farther ("Eric A. Hill, a white former military police officer who sought the monitor position, filed state and federal discrimination complaints in November, alleging that nearly 30 social media posts by board members disparaging white men and the military put him at an unfair disadvantage.") This seems pretty likely--seven of the eleven voting members posted biased statements about Eric.

Or they knew, and it didn't matter to them because he ticked the right boxes. I wish I could say this was unlikely.

UPDATE. I should have added a bit more information. From a 2020 story about the founding of the board in response to protests:

Those appointees are: Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, who was nominated by the Community Response Team and has been a longtime advocate of police reform; Ananda Deacon, nominated by Freedom, Inc.; Joshua Hargrove, nominated by JustDane; Rachel Kincade, president of Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality, and Solidarity (MOSES), nominated by NAMI; Ankita Bharadwaj, nominated by OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center; Yesenia Villalpando-Torres, nominated by UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence; Maia Pearson, nominated by Urban Triage; and Jacquelyn Hunt, nominated by YWCA.

Freedom Inc wants to do away with police and prisons and has a history of intimidation. MOSES aims to end "mass incarceration," whatever that may mean. JustDane used to be Madison Urban Ministry--I used to know a little about that, but that was decades ago.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

"Believe this; not because it's true, but for some other reason"

Some big names in research agree that politics is more important than truth. I'll be retiring this spring. Just as well, I suppose--the cancer seems to be spreading. It hasn't hit our group yet.

Thursday, January 06, 2022


I don't keep close track of the finance world. Some things the big player do are obvious blunders, but others require intimate knowledge of the players to evaluate. I'd heard of people who weren't happy with federal inflation-risky policies, but couldn't tell you who they were.
a reputation hardened around Hoenig as the man who got it wrong. He is remembered as something like a cranky Old Testament prophet who warned incessantly, and incorrectly, about one thing: the threat of coming inflation.

But this version of history isn’t true. While Hoenig was concerned about inflation, that isn’t what solely what drove him to lodge his string of dissents. The historical record shows that Hoenig was worried primarily that the Fed was taking a risky path that would deepen income inequality, stoke dangerous asset bubbles and enrich the biggest banks over everyone else. He also warned that it would suck the Fed into a money-printing quagmire that the central bank would not be able to escape without destabilizing the entire financial system.

Asset inflation enriches the already rich. Read the article. Is the author missing something?

Wednesday, January 05, 2022


Pittacus of Mytilene: "A crime committed by a person when drunk should receive double the punishment that it would merit if the offender were sober."

He composed his laws in verse. That would make law school a bit more interesting--assuming the poetry was competent. Of course, poetry often tries to shove multiple meanings into a phrase, and that might give judges rather more interpretive discretion than we generally expect.

"Pittacus at Mitylene made stairs to the Temples, which served for no use, but as a dedicated gift ; hereby signifying the ascent and descent of Fortune : those whom Fortune favours ascending, the unfortunate descending."

I'd build a big, tall house with rooms by the dozen
Right in the middle of the town
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below
There would be one long staircase just going up
And one even longer coming down
And one more leading nowhere, just for show

Thanks to Dr. Boli for learning about Pittacus.

UPDATE: "The Cretans commanded all free-born children to learn the Laws with a kind of melody"

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Deer Covid,

I've been reading that white-tail deer have turned up with COVID--and not just one strain but at least 3, implying multiple infection incidents. I take that to also mean that researchers have DNA-sequenced the viruses and are sure it isn't something else.

One of the more notable characteristics of the deer is their extreme efforts at social distancing from humans. Living in the great outdoors, at least in humans, seems to reduce the respiratory transmission rate too. When deer are alone with each other they do congregate, so they could share the bug easily, but how does the bug get from sick human to wild deer?

Different models might be distinguishable...

  • Deer are really really really susceptible to the airborne virus, and can catch it from a few viruses. They wouldn't have to be very close to humans then. And they'd spread it among themselves like fire.

    This should be easy to test. Get a deer from one of those deer farms and try to infect it.

  • Deer get really close to people at deer feeders. I've never seen one myself, but I've heard of them. Not suburban, and not exactly rural either--on the outskirts of town but far enough away from tempting farms... I'd expect the people who expect deer to show up to be people who are fairly isolated (or else the deer would be spooked) and thus less likely to have the bug in the first place.

    I have no good idea for how to test this. You could do a longitudinal study--ask people not to feed the deer because they're getting sick and then see if wild deer get new variants. Lots of luck with getting cooperation.

  • A variant of the above: deer feeders to attract wild deer to make later hunting easier.

    No cooperation here either...

  • COVID has more than one mode of infecting people/animals. We know that the earlier forms were pretty much entirely spread through the air--there weren't outbreaks around grocery sto res, for example. But the virus turns up in the sewer. WHO said on 29-July-2020 "there is no evidence to date that COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems, with or without wastewater treatment." That wouldn't be a grave surprise, but having it transmitted at some small level wouldn't be a grave surprise either. I don't think deer eat trash much, which might be another way of getting the virus into them. There's no guarantee that deer can't be infected by means that don't bother humans so much--our digestions are different.

    Once again, get a few deer and try to infect them

  • Something else with closer contact with humans also has close contact with deer, and serves as a vector for the disease. We know cats get it, though cats aren't generally close to deer.

    What else around the yard gets it? Birds? Surely not mosquitoes--Africa would be swamped with it then.

Further research required..

I wonder where we could set one of these up

I had never heard of the Boogg before. It's a Zurich tradition: a snowman stuffed with straw, cotton, and dynamite. It beats Jimmy the Groundhog for drama.

UPDATE: Incomplete w/o a video. This is from 2018.

Iron work in unexpected places

"Hunter-gatherers who lived more than 2,000 years ago near the top of the world appear to have run ironworking operations as advanced as those of farming societies far to the south." That points to the paper:

"Excavations in what’s now northeastern Sweden uncovered ancient furnaces and fire pits that hunter-gatherers used for metalworking." And some of it fairly sophisticated too. I guess they had enough forests to make charcoal, and some source of ore. If you have that, what you need is enough people to help with making charcoal and building some furnaces. Mining and crushing the ore isn't quite trivial either. There's a bit of investment in infrastructure, and finding the right tools and organization for the work. I'm guessing the actual iron-working spots were pretty much fixed, and maybe only used part of the year.

Having your own iron source could be handy enough that you'd spend some effort trying to entice at least a smith to come live with you. I read that AmerIndians were annoyed at having to rely on other people for all their iron tools--the situation might be roughly parallel. I'm told there were bounties paid for smiths to settle in small towns in the colonies, but there was already a market in them, and the culture was the same--and sedentary enough to make such a move natural and convenient.

But a move to a more migratory culture would be a much more jarring transition. There'd be a smaller market for the smithing skill, though a good one for newly smelted iron. And what in that culture would seem to be an enticement? Getting away from a feud? Women? A friend? I'm guessing that the southern and northern tribes were nearly as different as Indians and colonists here.

Once you've adopted some iron workers, you're over the hump, and the rest of your tribe and allied tribes should get the technology eventually. If they have the natural resources.

UPDATE: wrt iron among the Indians this describes some of it. The Eskimos had iron, some from meteorites, some possibly from trade with Greenland, long before Columbus.

New World diseases?

What diseases did the New World provide to the Old?

We all know about syphilis. Were there other diseases? Surely the answer is yes.

A reddit-er notes that Europeans very often did get sick. "when we read the accounts of early Spanish entradas in the U.S. Southeast, the authors make specific mention of crew members becoming ill weeks after their arrival in new lands" Cocoliztli didn't spread to the Old World, but didn't come from there either. "Giardia, Entamoeba, and Cryptosporidium" and other parasites were common. "...Jamestown, where of the > 3,500 who arrived from 1617-1622, only 1,240 were alive in 1622. The chief cause of death was endemic illness, and the term "seasoning" was commonly used to describe the disease transition new immigrants needed to go through before their survival was more assured"

It sounds like there was plenty of disease, though if much beyond syphilis made the return trip it got lost in the noise of Old World / African diseases. If you can transport a sick person fast enough he could infect others at the far side, or if the disease was a recurring one (malaria), or if the vector could survive the trip (rats) you could transfer the disease across the ocean.

UPDATE: AVI points out that malaria was suspected. The model would be that within a group a few people had latent malaria, and when it resurfaced (that happened to me, BTW), if there were anophelese mosquitoes around the rest of the group could get it and spread it. Europe/England has species of this kind of mosquito, but apparently some of them are not efficient trasmitters. An "indoor" disease? But England certainly had malaria: "By the 14th century ague was usually referred to tertian or quartan fevers (fevers occurring every third or fourth day)"--vivax, ovale, or falciparum vs malariae for the every 4 days.

So I'd guess that either the "seasoning" referred to malaria+ (+ malnutrition, + some other bug, possibly intestinal), or it was actually something else. Yellow fever, maybe? But malaria was certainly part of the cocktail that destroyed so many Europeans visiting tropical rainforest Africa.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

For the kids

They twist up balloon animals for kids at festivals and fairs. Could one take fruit roll-ups and make ori-gummis?

You might need extra-thin roll-outs, with maybe a little something to reinforce it.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Bad luck

I'm agnostic about ghosts. The stories seem somewhat inconsistent and I've not seen them myself, but there's plenty of testimony to their existence, including something my wife saw once.

Every now and then I wonder. Have you ever known someone who had "bad luck" coming out the ears? Computers hang for him. The register runs out of tape printing his receipt. Everybody goes out for icecream, and his cone has some shredded paper in it. His porch regularly gets hit by porch pirates. His doctor decides to retire just before an important consult.

Is he haunted by a poltergeist?

Or maybe his guardian angel went to the wrong address...

Friday, December 31, 2021

Happy HollowDays!

Holidays is from Holy Days, of course, and those have clear meanings--just like birthdays. Quasi-holy days like the 4'th of July, or Columbus day, or Labor day at least theoretically retain meaning.

But New Years is arbitrary, and in practice a lot of the quasi-holy designated days are just "days off" to which we attach no significance. They are "Hollow Days."

They don't have to stay hollow. They may not have deep meaning to us, but we fill them with our own traditions, and the traditions carry their own meaning. Having phosphates on New Years Eve was one such, although since not everybody in the most recent generations likes them that may wind up replaced with making brigadeiros instead (a tradition of less than a decade's standing). My mother in law worked as a soda jerk when she was young. We still use the chocolate sauce recipe she learned there, and probably will again tonight.

I've never gotten any deep thrill out of "watching the ball drop", but playing some board games till late and having icecream (hold the soda) is just something we do. We fill in the blanks our way, with our own meanings. Not like the Advent candles...

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Fearing guns

AVI's latest got me thinking about fears. Among some people I know the reaction to guns isn't intellectual but visceral. They fear them, and not just as instruments that might be turned against them.

I think Terry Pratchett may have touched on an aspect of it when he suggested that the presence of the gun (otherwise named in his novel) could prey on your mind in an almost magical way. Perhaps for some people there's something about becoming Jupiter and throwing lightning around thats a terrible temptation. If so, I'd expect the same temptation to afflict people who like becoming Jupiter and threatening the world--but if so it gets beaten out of them very quickly because brandishers and threateners aren't part of daily life, except maybe in the big cities. Where, perhaps not coincidentally, there's more support for gun control.

Some people recognize a gun as a tool to make suicide easy, and fear that because of their own inner struggles. That gets my respect.

Perhaps the gun is a reminder that the world is a lot more dangerous than you want to believe, and that makes you afraid? I don't think this fits all of the people I know--it's not a very flattering hypothesis. When I've seen someone carrying, I wondered what they knew that I didn't. But then, I have a fairly good opinion of my own judgment about risk. If I didn't, I might worry more.

If we use the "moral foundations" framework, where does civilian gun carry fit? Look at it from the point of view that you're the person who isn't carrying.

  • Care/Harm: The gun is a tool for harming (or plinking/hunting/etc but pretend with me here)
  • Fairness/Cheating: If you believe the state/police should take care of everything, a gun is cheating.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: Not obviously relevant. Perhaps the owner plans to protect herself against betrayal, but that doesn't have much to do with this point of view
  • Authority/Subversion: If you believe the state/police will take care of everything, a gun is subversive
  • Sanctity/Degradation: Not obviously relevant, though perhaps a gun, as a harming tool, is out of place in a holy area--if interpreted very broadly.
  • Liberty/Oppression: Not obviously relevant--from the point of view of the non-carrier.

So guns do tick a few boxes that relate to gut political attitudes.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Third day of Christmas

I know; wrong John for the day. Still, I've heard this passage so often this month that it seems worth a little inspection.

"It is he who will go as forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah"

What comes to your mind when you think of Elijah? Mine? Fire from heaven when he confronted the priests of Baal. There's nothing at all like that with John--no records of any miracles at all. Jesus said noone since Eve was greater than John -- until the kingdom of heaven.


  • Calls for a drought. Miracle
  • Provides food for a widow. Miracle
  • Raises widow's son from death. Miracle
  • Confronts Ahab and the priests of Baal.
  • Calls for fire from heaven. Miracle
  • Oversees the liberation of people from Baal.
  • Anoints the next rulers of Aram and Israel; identifies successor prophet.
  • Confronts King Ahab about Naboth's vineyard; he repents.
  • Confronts King Ahaziah about idolatry; no evidence of repentence.
  • Is taken to heaven. Miracle

Hmm. John did no miracles, which cuts out half of the incidents. What's left seems to be mostly confronting kings, overseeing conversions, and pointing out his successor.

Perhaps Gabriel has a different perspective on power than I do.