Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Airplanes and birds My youngest received a model airplane for Christmas: one of those you pump up and let the compressed air run a piston that drives the propeller. We took it to a nearby park and flew it (usually into the ground, but that's part of the fun) until a gentleman showed up with a remote control plane of his own and a large black dog. As we left (my youngest does not like dogs), the second flight of the remote control plane with bird-shaped wings nosed down not far from us--at which point a red-tailed hawk flew out of the nearby trees, and hovered over the downed plane for a few seconds before deciding it was inedible and flying away. Beautiful.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Christmas Dinner

And so we celebrated the birth of the most famous Jew of all time with a ham dinner. I think next year we'll try something maybe a little more fitting...

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Late Neanderthals 'like us'

The BBC has a science report asserting that the later Neanderthals were more gracile and structurally like modern men. It says a great deal about how little we know about them that a single find has people jumping to dramatic new conclusions: Interbreeding with modern humans or evolving in the same direction . . . The old rule of thumb says that if two critters have fertile offspring, they're the same species--which would mean that Neander and Sapiens (semi-sapiens?) were the same species. Without salvageable DNA, there's no way to test that hypothesis, though.

Evolving/breeding in the same direction . . . does that mean that the environment was less harsh, or that technology meant that you didn't need to be The Incredible Hulk to survive, and so might actually survive to adulthood? I wonder how much of the bone size difference is due to environment... The skulls are legitimately different and the baby Neanders are alleged to also have thicker bones than Sapiens, so obviously not all the difference is response to environmental stress. Someone claimed serious iodine deficiency might be responsible for making a Sapiens look Neader, but that doesn't match what little I've seen in the pictures of various deficiencies. But iodine deficiency in a Neander might look rather dramatic--and a number of the Neander sites are in areas without a lot of fish. Maybe the gracile Neander is normal and the Hulk isn't?

Theories are a dime a dozen when you don't have much data...

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Failure of nerve

The site Sci Tech pointed me to this article at the Ayn Rand Institute in which David Harriman combines a legitimate skepticism about 26-dimensional string theory with a spectacular ignorance of fairly elementary experiments in the field. Sorry, Mr. Harriman, but the sub-atomic world is rather weird, and if you assume that a photon takes only one path through the two slits you wind up with the wrong answer. I hold no brief for the multiple universe stuff, but the case for dark matter is getting quite strong--go look up what's happening with Einstein lensing of remote galaxies.

I originally followed the link without checking where it lead. Somehow it seems fitting that it turned out to be the Ayn Rand Institute. Rand seems to be popular in blogland, but I find her theories marvelously simple, untainted by reference to messy reality.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

A science conference

I can tell that this fellow, quoted in Wired, has been to a few conferences...

Brian Alexander, in his recent book Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion, aptly describes the ennui potentially engendered by scientific sessions:

"The talks almost always take place in the dark," he writes. "During the first 10 minutes, the scientist-presenter fumbles with a bulky laptop computer in an effort to get the PowerPoint program to work. During the next 30 minutes, the scientist, who has never been trained in the art of public speaking, explains, often through a very thick Chinese, German, French or Italian accent, why the mass of pinkish cells on the right is the surprising and highly significant result of the procedure performed on the almost identical mass of pinkish cells on the left. Line graphs are shown.

"The final five minutes is taken up by a question period. Colleagues stand at a microphone in the middle of the aisle and, using the polite code phrases of science, ask the presenter if he has considered the possibility that his head has unaccountably become entangled in his ass."

We don't look at cells in physics, but we do look at interminable plots of histograms comparing data and monte carlo--frequently not very similar . . .

Mbeki supports Mugabe

The BBC reports Mbeki as saying that 'a lack of international support for Zimbabwe made forcible land seizures "perhaps inevitable".' Since I presume Mbeki is already familiar with the history (Mugabe's cronies stole the money Britain gave to buy out the white farmers, and the biggest drop in international support has come since, not before, Mugabe started the violent seizures by fake war veterans) I have to conclude that Mbeki is a liar. And why lie? Because he gets popular support in South Africa when he makes racist claims about the villainy of white "imperialists."

I wish this sort of evil were less common, but 'the yellow peril' sells newspapers. Real enemies exist, and it is a piece of cake for politicians to fan up minor grudges into bit hatreds in the name of defense. I'm a bit more familiar with American history (waving the bloody flag, anyone?), but I see the same story everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, fantasies about peaceful pre-Columbian Indians to the contrary.

Of course around the University I find people hypersensitive to bloody-flag-waving by Americans, to the point of denying that there are real enemies; and inattentive to the same thing by foreign leaders, to the point of serious dishonesty.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Cage revisted

In an earlier post I said I hadn't heard his 4:33 piece on the radio. But, I forgot ZENPR from Alex's Restaurant. (link is gone, replaced w/ description)

Monday, December 15, 2003

Debka: oops

Debka is a well-known Israeli news site, specializing in cutting edge rumors, some of which turn out to be major scoops and some of which are sheer hot air. It isn't often that I see such a contradiction as in this one, though, in which the writer claims that Saddam was kept as a prisoner by captors looking for the reward, who kept him without means of committing suicide. Umm. He had two guns, as another part of the story mentions, and not much room for food or water. Doesn't Debka have an editor?

Sunday, December 14, 2003


So Saddam is caught. Now we find out how much of the fighting centered around him, and how much was imported. I suspect that he's been mostly a figurehead for the past few months as the net closed tighter around him--hard to be involved in day-to-day management and keep your head down at the same time.

Lord of the Rings

I've seen that some theaters are offering the trilogy all at once, which has got to be at least 10 hours long, or more if they use the extended versions. This sounds like a job for the suit Dave Barry advertised which has pockets and fittings for everything. For dedicated fans only, I guess.

I haven't seen the extended versions yet. I looked at my \$ supply and decided not to buy them, and then looked at how often I had a 4 hour block of time to watch a video, and decided not to rent them.

Opus, by Breathed The State Journal picked up the comic strip Opus last month. It gets twice the area as the next largest strip, and 4 times the area of some of the others. I don't think the Journal is getting their money's worth; it seems Breathed has forgotten his old skills. Opus isn't funny.

The State Journal put a "Who is Paris Hilton" story on the front of their Daybreak section last week, sparking a little argument around the kitchen table. My eldest daughter thought her ugly and stupid-looking, with phony style.

I think she'll be an attractive lady when she grows up. (If she grows up.)

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Powerpoint Poisoning

The NYTimes quotes Edward Tufte saying that Powerpoint limits presentations to such minimal information as to distort them. You can't easily put much text on a slide, or easily show connections between points--and the bullet model isn't the most appropriate for all presentations.

Amen. It may be OK for trying to decide between "tastes great" and "less filling," but it (and OpenOffice's equivalent) is painful to use when describing an analysis.

I know that you can only put so much info on the screen and expect people to be able to read it (focus!--and don't get me started on remote video: it's like trying to read through jello). The discipline of paring down your speech to the important points is hard to acquire, and Powerpoint helps with that. But when you share details--and lots of them--with people who care about the details, Powerpoint is a mess.

FWIW, our solution is to provide all presentations on the net, so that remote sites (like mine) or laptop users can read the details in a PostScript or PDF file.

What's that again?

Headline in the classified section:

Year-end blowout on used cars!

Makes me want to take one out for a spin!

Is it music?

John Cage "wrote" a famous piece: 4:33 which was 4 minutes and 33 seconds of a pianist not playing the piano (in 3 movements). But is it really music? When was the last time you heard this played on the radio? Hmmm? (Peter Sinclair's ZENPR in Alex's Restaurant doesn't count.)

Saturday, December 06, 2003

The Transformation of American Religion

How We Actually Live our Faith, by Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe's claims that religions in America have been changed at least as much by the culture as the culture has been changed by religion. He makes a pretty good case for it, too. We talk a lot about God, but on inspection we don't actually say a great deal.

When you're too close to a mountain, you don't see it very well. It may seem a small thing to say that our culture loves novelty, but the pervasive quest for novelty has profound effects on everything from the economy to religion. Set aside brand-new do-it-yourself religions like Wicca: religions appeal to timeless tradition--perhaps newly revealed to some Smith or another, but nevertheless reflecting the ancient/eternal plans of God (or karma, or whatever). "Gimme that old time religion" is its traditional appeal--after all, ultimate reality shouldn't change.

But Americans don't respect tradition and authority. Americans enjoy/suffer the most hyper-individualistic culture I know of, with very little reference to duty or sacrifice. Churches, synagogues, and Muslim groups all make accommodations to these cultural traits; by downplaying the elements of sacrifice, focusing on "consumer-oriented" service, and very often minimizing doctrine in favor of affirming personal experience.

The result: churches which differ less and less; making fewer and fewer claims to truth; and trying to appeal to members who may have once been Catholic, Pentecostal, and Methodist--or at least members of churches with those names. Even nominal faith-based social projects tend to rely almost exclusively on the same social and economic principles as secular programs. God

"is a God of love, comfort, order, and security. Gone is the God of judgment, wrath, justice, mystery and punishment. Gone are concerns about the forces of evil." America's God has been domesticated, there to offer solace and to engage in dialog with the understanding that, except that under the most unusual circumstances, he will listen and commiserate. In a world governed by this more accessible God, sin still exists and atonement is still possible. But the sins are less numerous, less serious, and more forgivable. The wrongs that people do are the sorts of things that can be set right by pleading to God's good side, not his commanding presence.

I firmly agree that the church must constantly translate its message into the language of the then-current culture. Unfortunately there are irreducible complexities--statements about the nature of God and man that aren't part of everyday experience. We easily slide from the precise to the fuzzy to the wrong. Because guilt generally makes you feel guilty, feeling guilty is a good sign of guilt. So we talk about feeling guilty (part of everyday experience). But not all guilty feelings are important, and so we wind up talking about feelings and psychology rather than moral guilt.

Wolfe looks at the impact of culture on religion in worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, morality, sin, witness, and identity. (And he skewers The Prayer of Jabez gratifyingly.)

I find it hard to pick out a single section from his chapter on tradition, but he details the curious interplay between Jewish denominations in their reaction for or against the traditions--including a Conservative kaddish which event which has the aura of tradition while changing just about everything about it.

Sin seems to vanish into psychology and non-judgmentalism--for some reason people don't like to hear that they are sinners, and often don't come to churches that talk about sin. They want uplift (a good thing), and somehow the subject of sin doesn't come up so much.


Wolfe covers many topics here. Though fundamentalists often speak of the submission of wives to husbands, in practice this is heavily modified and indeed many women resemble what he (after Carol Gilligan) calls "difference feminists," holding that "women's morality tends to be more caring and cooperative." Mormonism "is all but creedless and stands completely without exegesis." And Islam in prisons . . .
Although Islam in many ways resists the culture of the prison, in other ways it copies it. "We have to deal with discipline in the ranks of the masjid [mosque]," as one life-term Sunni Muslim comments. To do so, Muslims, he points out, judge their own, and when mild punishment fails, "other methods can be invoked. In certain instances people have been severely beaten up or stabbed, depending on the severity of the transgression and the threat it presents to security of the Muslim community."
And he looks at the famous study in which 150 students were told that some of their exams were graded in error--some over and some under by a point. (All were a point too high.) "The teacher wanted to know whether students who were more religious would be less likely to cheat that those who were less religious. And that is exactly what he found. ... the faithful, on every single measure of religiosity, were the ones more likely to say so. ... The true importance of this little study lies in the fact that, given a chance to cheat, the overwhelming majority of students, religious or not, in fact took it."


It is no secret that evangelicals, despite the name, rarely evangelize. Instead of the often reviled Bible-thumping proselytizing, you find extreme sensitivity (to the point of shyness) to the feelings of others and a heavy reliance on "lifestyle evangelism," in which you try to be a good person and hope non-believers notice.

In traditional evangelism, the church, standing in for God, is the savior and the sinner is the penitent; believing themselves to be in possession of a truth that will set others free, evangelicals seek to bring the power they possess to those whose empty spiritual lives render them weak. Lacking either downtown locations that bring them in contact with strangers or public places in which they can reach out to passersby, evangelical megachurches, by contrast, have little choice but to offer incentives that will bring people to their doors. That process inevitably transforms the balance of power between institution and individual. The unchurched and the newly churched know that they have something the megachurches want--their potential or continuing membership--and they are willing to drive a hard bargain before they offer it up.

Evangelicals have tried to use contemporary music as a vehicle for evangelism. But

one has to pay careful attention before the coded religious messages of Heart in Motion can be detected. . . . There is always a price to be paid by those who cross over into the mainstream, and for evangelicals, the price is self-effacement.


For Muslims in a non-Muslim America the mosque has taken on a number of the roles that governments or community organizations performed back in their Muslim homelands--and so the mosque takes on a prominence that it lacked back home. In fact, "in the United States, mosques inevitably come to resemble churches," with well-defined congregations, with formal instruction, and with opportunities for socialization.

In East Dearborn, Michigan, the largest Muslim community in the United States, "the Sunday service--or any service, for that matter--is a time to meet with friends," writes an anthropologist who lived in and studied the community. "This is very much the case for young unmarried men, who cluster in corners of the building. Not always welcome in the homes of one another's parents because of the unmarried sisters who may be present and because they are often perceived as a general nuisance, the mosque is a safe haven for them. Unless they have pretensions to religious sophistication . . . enlightenment by the sheiks is probably not their primary concern."
(It had not occurred to me before that the sequestering of women would have the effect of creating a pool of discontented young men hanging out in a place quite likely to offer radicalizing instruction.)

My take

Go read this one for yourself. I cannot do the book justice here--he covers too many aspects of the transformations for any neat summary.

Are the transformations good? As I read my history, each era has its characteristic virtues and vices--and likewise the church in each era. If you "go with the flow"--we know where the broad road leads. I believe that only by maintaining the tension between the ideal and the available can churches stay honest. Preach uplift if you like, but don't forget about sin. The same Jesus who said "My yoke is easy" also said "count the cost."

Thursday, December 04, 2003

What was that again? department

Not far from here is Temple Gardens, whose sign proclaims "Chinese Restaurant, Noodles of the East." Under that new sign you can clearly see in the unfaded blue paint where a previous sign read "Frozen Custard, Burgers, & Blues."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

You are what you eat

This article from BBC about helpful parasites seems slightly horrifying. Why would hookworms be helpful? Perhaps for the same reason that leaches are still useful for draining blood from congested areas, or perhaps there's some handy chemical the hookworms use to suppress the body's reaction that we might be able to isolate. I'd prefer that, myself. After all, hookworms do cause some damage.

I'm not an expert, but what I've read seems to fit a "bored army" model for some immune disorders. The immune system is supposed to be sensitive, and if you don't give it enough to do it can become hair trigger sensitive, and start going after our "slightly odd" (but necessary) cells. Or to describe it another way--every part of our bodies needs exercise to keep from deteriorating, though not so much exercise as to destroy us. Running is good, shin splints are bad. A mild cold doesn't hurt too much, malaria is bad news.

If that model is correct, then we need a little exposure to dirt to keep us "in fighting trim," but not so much that we damage ourselves. I have no prescription for how to do that. Having kids play outside and maintaining basic waste sanitation (our own wastes are more likely to infect us than those of other creatures) seems like a nice rough and ready set of rules. (Yes, I know about river blindness, but I live in Wisconsin.)