Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quite a bite

The BBC reports that a team determined that one of the placoderms had a bite of about 80,000 pounds per square inch, and could open its mouth fast enough to suck fish in. The placoderms were those odd ancient fish that had bony armor over their head and "neck" and even tiny shields over their eyeballs (with a small hole to look through). I don't know what they ate, but it must have been able to fight back pretty agressively if they needed that much armor. Maybe the prey flailed spines around--I wouldn't think you'd need that much armor to guard against stinging tentacles.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Genetic variability

The BBC reports that human genetic variability is far larger than previously expected. I was expecting this, oddly enough. I’ve read too many reports estimating how closely related species are, and how long ago species diverged based on an estimated mutation rate. This is not my area of expertise, but I had a gut reaction that the world was not that simple, that there had to be a lot more fuzziness in biology than in physics (and there’s a lot of fuzziness when you try to measure things in particle physics). I hope this leads to some new estimates for systematic error in the “mutation clock.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I guess it wasn't perfectly true that "no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." OJ's book Neener Neener crossed the line. A pity the line is set so low, though; and I've a horrible feeling that OJ was just a little ahead of his time. I'm told the man is functionally illiterate. Think of what sort of twisted "confessor" his writer must be.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Some things get better

I got behind the wheel of an Olds 88 (13K miles!) today, and was reminded that some things do get better. Cars are better made now.

I hope our new (22K miles) one lasts us a while. A Grand Caravan replaced the Aerostar. Not cheap, but what to do . . .. The Aerostar is unreliable, and the Voyager is on its last legs too. So the Voyager is now our emergency backup car.

I wish the Madison bus ran out to Sun Prairie.

Rules fail

Every few years somebody tries to reform the tax code, or fiddle with immigration laws, or craft some other scheme to make life more fair for people who fell through the cracks under the old system.

And, shortly thereafter, we notice that there’s a new batch of winners and losers, and some new injustices or inequities.

I am more and more convinced that Godel’s theorems have political analogs. No finite set of rules (laws are one type of rules) is going to fix all the problems of a society. Each rule has consequences, and after a while you find yourself adding new ones to fix problems the old ones brought. The number of rules always increases.

Somewhere we get diminishing returns. Some sets of rules let you run a “mostly just” society, that is more or less stable. Adding more rules moves the injustices around, but doesn’t seem to stamp them out. The new set may be marginally better—it will not be right.

And “hard cases make bad law.” Trying to tinker with the structure to save a few can break the structure. Remember how “no fault divorce” was supposed to relieve the suffering of the few people who had to endure horrible marriages, and get the lawyers off everybody’s back? Didn’t work quite the way we expected, did it? I’m not convinced that our society has bottomed out yet from that disaster.

It seems the better part of humility to give up trying to “fix” government after a while. I don’t believe this is a counsel of despair, however unwelcome the idea may be. It is more a matter of recognizing the limits of your tools

Even with a “mostly stable” and “mostly just” society, some injustices are going to call out to us, and we cannot afford to tolerate them. It poisons the soul to do so. But passing new laws isn’t always (and after enough laws have been passed, often isn't) the right solution. We—not the society as a whole, but individual you and I—have to try to ameliorate them ourselves.

Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

It was rather striking how much of the book paralleled things I’d been thinking of over the years—all the way to the illustration of God’s power being like playing a master chess player: do what you please, resist as much as you like, he’ll use your best moves as part of his far more skillful plan.

The book’s organization leaves a little to be desired, but since most people aren’t going to read it straight through that is probably an advantage.

Three prominent themes in the book are:

  • The Christian life often has dry times when God doesn’t seem to be around. Often it gets harder instead of easier.
  • God seems to work more through suffering in our lives than anything else.
  • Jesus said that we were better off with the Spirit (and therefore the Church) than we would have been with Him still here. That means the Church is immensely more important than we let it be.

This isn’t an apologetic work, nor one that claims to clearly explain the ways of God to man. It is the observations of suffering brothers and a reminder that hope does not disappoint—if you hope for God. If you expect God to magically adjust the world for your comfort, you’re begging for disappointment.

Read it. Yes, you.

At the concert

The middle-school band concert with youngest son was unusual. The director picked a set of short pieces so that every instrument got a solo—but they were very short pieces. In the percussion section a young lady’s hair draped over her shoulders, but whipped back in fright when she clanged the cymbals. I was listening especially for the clarinets, and they sounded good.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Why all at once?

OK, now the alternator is shot on the Plymouth. And it’ll need some new brake pads soon. I dunno if we really need the oil leak fixed. Fortunately the car went onto battery power as my wife drove off the highway into town, so she was able to nurse it to our mechanic’s shop, who happened to still be there wrapping up some paperwork. So he’ll look at it Monday morning. Probably the looonnng drive home in the first snowfall of the season stressed the car.

If the car is going to fail, it is good to have it fail in convenient places! Close to home is good, close to friends in Oak Park was good too. Blessings come in funny shapes sometimes ("your clothes did not wear out nor your feet swell").

Reflections after Elections

I had resigned myself to having little effect on the elections. Dane County is pretty solidly leftist, so Tammy’s seat was secure: she’s pretty far left wing. The Senate race was also pretty lopsided. I’m not a big fan of calling folks in other states to tell them how to vote—we designed the country as a federal system for good reasons. So, I did my duty but without any grand sense of expectation or of worry. I sleep soundly on election nights.

Of course now we’re a-swamp in postmortems, most of them rattling the same themes: corruption and the war. I didn’t pay much mind to the corruption scandals: it seemed very much business as usual on the Hill; and I still fail to see what bearing the illicit doings of a clergyman I never heard of should have on whether or not I and my friends go to vote.

The war I do care about, and I fault the Republicans for not taking it seriously enough. (Institute tax cuts during war time? What???) I hope the rhetoric from prominent Democrats was just campaign nonsense, but I’m not sanguine about the chances of that. I suspect Bin Laden was right about American staying power.

Madison is still littered with graffiti and signs and bumper stickers asserting that “A Fair Wisconsin Votes NO.” Dane County certainly did, by over 2 to 1. Wisconsin, on the other hand, had fairly different ideas. The local paper dug up some resulting shock and horror. The Wisconsin amendment has an additional clause that could, if lawyers stretched it enough, also ban “civil unions” that resembled marriages. I’d call that a feature, not a bug. Why multiply institutions?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Election reporting

Since TV isn’t worth much as a source of information about the elections, I turn to the newspapers. But what sorts of stories do I find there?

Spokesman for Party X says recent events put Party Y’s election strategy in jeopardy. (In other news, a defense attorney says his client is innocent! ) Pundits who couldn’t tell an evangelical from a Moslem opine about the influence of the Haggard (who?) scandal on the evangelical turnout.

I’m not a party member, much less a party strategist. The word “electable” never enters my conversations. Nor am I a political junkie desperate to hear word, however speculative, of any disasters afflicting my political enemies.

Reports about party strategies may be, in some attenuated sense, news, but they aren’t political discourse. If politics were a game without consequences, like chess, focusing on the strategies would make sense. But it turns out that it matters who gets elected; so we should pay a little attention to what the candidates have done and what they say they’ll do. And maybe hand them a few more real-world questions to answer: new funds aren’t going to magically appear, so what can the county sheriff do differently—realistically?

And some of this examination does happen (the League of Women Voters tries to put some real-world questions out there, for instance), but in the paper the stories comparing candidates are on page 5 of the local section and the strategy stories go on page 1 or 3 of the front section.

I'll be voting, having tried to figure out who's who beforehand. I always go vote. Maybe its quixotic--some elections are pretty much foregone conclusions (I already know who's going to win the US Congressional seat from this district)--but I'll vote anyway.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Followup on that transmission

The local AAMCO repaired the transmission, and I took the bus back down to pick it up. Lo and behold, when I stopped at the Belvidere oasis to buy gas, I couldn't start the car anymore. I called them to see if there was anything they might have loosened, and they said no; but called back a few minutes later to suggest that I try to start the car in neutral. That worked, and he diagnosed a bad neutral safety switch.

So, this morning I took the car in to the West side AAMCO in Madison (the East side one seems to have gone belly up), and discovered that the switch was not part of the original repair and was going to cost extra. I'm dubious, but it is plausible. The machine is running again.

The trip on the Blue line through Chicago was not entirely pleasant, though it was an eye-opening hour and a half. On the northwest side was a billboard advertising a health club or spa treatments, with the motto "Look better naked!" A naked black woman with chocolate syrup strategically placed was drawn boistrously reclining in a giant sundae dish. The ad producers need a sense of shame and the target audience needs a sense of proportion.

Another thing about the King Tut exhibit

One of the items in the special exhibit was a portable shrine about a foot and a half on a side, with foot-places for a statue (presumably of Tut). At the bottom of the left and right side was a sled board, shaped rather like a snow ski. Another such shrine in the building was made of stone and was nearly 4 feet high/wide/deep--and it had, on the left and right bottom, images carved of those "skis." I guess that the archetypical shrine was dragged along the streets, and so every model had to have the skis also. It seems odd to sled it along rather than carry it (so it doesn't touch the ground) or use a cart (so it doesn't need so many people to drag it), but maybe the ancient originals had to go across sand from time to time.


Ok, this is cool. Chinese scientists (the Chinese inventing printing) have tinkered with cicada wings to use the sheets of little nano-pillars thereon to use them as molds for tiny printing blocks. The first application thought of so far is for Raman scattering lenses, but there may be others.