Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Die Große Stille

We watched Into Great Silence tonight. There was an oddity or two: the French text had “give up everything and follow me” to be a disciple, but the German and English translations left off the “follow me” part, for instance.

Set that aside. It was nearly three hours, and was the kind of thing you should be able to watch quietly. Laundry and monitoring children interfered somewhat. And I must confess that from time to time I checked the clock.

My first reaction to the opening shots was that this kind of focus on background was pretentious. But I got over that quickly enough: the images reflect what life is like there. Our crowded lives need loud commercials to get our attention, but when your world is stripped down and you're trying to pray, an apple on the table can be distracting. Actually, when you're trying to pray pretty near anything can be distracting. At least that's my experience.

It helps to know a bit about what's going on, because there's no commentary. If you're patient, sometimes the meaning or use of something becomes clear; like the loop of cloth hanging in the hall. Sometimes you have to puzzle it out yourself: the monk with the keyboard was practicing hitting the notes right because he was leading the singing for the group later.

Of course you can't see the major activity: prayer. You see people sitting quietly, but since you are a watcher and not a participant there's a certain distance. But Philip Gröning is respectful, and neither approves nor disapproves. The blind monk, and the dying monk are not shunted aside, but are still part of the group. Gröning doesn't celebrate that, just notices it. The outside world can be seen—in fact the monks have regular walks through the countryside and towns—but they're disconnected from it. Except for the abbot who is shown dealing with bills on a desk piled high with paperwork.

The movie covers a year, starting with new postulants in winter, and showing snippets of life: kneeling in cells, singing in chapel, digging out the garden, feeding the cats—and ends after an explanation of life by the blind monk.

My better half said “Half the time I thought what they were doing was wonderful, and the other half I was saying The world is full of people who need love and attention and you're shutting yourselves away in a mountain.

I'm too talkative for such a regimen not to have some attractiveness, but I have no calling to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but praying and chopping wood. Even if I were Catholic. I do think that the occasional fast from news and talk and everything else but prayer and physical work is a good thing for most of us, but not for more than a few days.

I wonder if the reverse is true (probably is): would Trappists benefit from spending a week or two every year making kids clean up their rooms and do their homework? They'd probably do OK at waking up at 4, and at changing diapers; but those are the easy jobs.

Watch it if you can. Read up on the Trappists first, so you can catch on quicker; and try and see it with the kids in bed and the phone turned off.

Copyrighting Pyramids

So Egypt is planning to copyright ancient Egyptian designs, including the pyramids. This should be a great boon to Imhotep and his heirs and assigns. Where they can be identified. For the unexpired copyrights. Where Egyptian law pertains.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Transience and futility of power

This article was pointed out to me this morning: a meditation on the transience of power by Paul Johnson, about how powerful men fall, like the rest of us, to the grim reaper; and all their plans evaporate. Nicely done, but he spoils it at the end:
Fortunately, I am a writer rather than a moralist. I write essays, not sermons. And I am now nearing the end of this one, which I planned last night in bed, awake in the small hours and reflecting on the hollowness of all power, wealth, success and fame. We writers, impotent as we often seem, always have the last word.

Not quite. Fashions in literature come and go furiously fast. The hot topic books for last season's election are so much worthless paper this year. You know the pattern: everybody was talking about some timely book, and the author was no doubt gratified to appear on so many night shows; but this year nobody cares, and no one will ever care again unless some historian a hundred years hence wants to do some background research for a more important topic.

And when empires go, so do their libraries; and the barbarians always need something to start fires with or wrap peanuts in.

Most authors see their demise at the remainder table, but for all but a tiny few that demise will come. Was Aristophanes the finest of the ancient Greek comic playwrights? How could you possibly know?

All power and fame here on Earth will fade--the political and the cultural giants both--as God calls "Time's up. Next!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I suppose it is coming on for time to examine the presidential candidates.

I am angry that they started the process so early--I see no good reason for 24/7 x 365 x 4 coverage. I detest the solemn punditry studying every random fluctuation in the polls. I hate the canned talking points. I despise the focus on electability rather than competence and accuracy.

Of course I'm not a Republican or a Democrat, so I can in good conscience skip the fooforaw. Still, I suppose I should at least familiarize myself with what the candidates claim and do, rather than rely on the "common knowledge" shaped by news outlets more interested in novelty than accuracy.

Am I in a bad mood?

Friday, December 07, 2007


This judge has courage. If he believes in the gods, he knows they might show up and charge him

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


While waiting for his ride this evening, Youngest Son walked across the rug to sniff the long-stemmed narcissus flowers growing in the dish. He was startled by a static shock to his nose.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Writer's strike

I gather that the Hollywood writer's strike is still going on. From what I hear (without detailed knowledge of how royalties generally work in that shell-game industry) it sounds like they have some legitimate beefs and a rational request.

I'm tempted to speculate that a strike improves the caliber of TV shows. Those I've seen in the past few years haven't seemed paragons of quality entertainment. But I'd be wrong--I understand that the producers are planning to fall back on "reality" shows, which apparently are even worse.

Still, it'd be a few years before the strike noticeably impacted my life directly. I just don't watch that much TV, and I've a backlog of movies I meant to see sometime or another, so no new movies wouldn't bother me that much either.

Indirect effects are another matter. With more "reality" stuff and more "Jackass" stuff about, I'd start feeling even sicker about the culture.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


The BBC special report on land mines is interesting. The US comes off rather well, curiously enough, as a non-signatory that has been doing more to remove them than just about anybody else, whilst certain signatories and non-state actors have been planting them anyhow. The last word was given to Tamar Gabelnick, Treaty Implementation Director for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"One can argue the military value of any weapon - even a nuclear bomb - but does that make it moral? No.

"In a democratic society it is not OK to use any weapon to get the job done."

Shall I assume that English is not her first language, and she misspoke? Or shall I conclude that she has no idea what she is talking about?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Department Meeting

The Department meeting today covered a wide range of topics--too many for the time allowed. One that caught my eye was a proposed new course Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt, to be based on the book by Marshall Onellion and Steven Fortney. Onellion had worked with a lecture series at the library on faith and reason; one of whose speakers was Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists. Red flags immediately--Hedges, to the best of my observation, lied.

The proposal met a fairly cool reception--lots of worries about hassles from upset students, is this the department for this kind of thing, etc.

Afterwards I looked up the book. Onellion and Fortney take the position, if references can be trusted to describe it accurately, that any dogmatic position whatsoever is evil. The only useful religions are those that have no "dogma," which curiously enough included Buddhism. Any sort of Christianity or Islam or Judaism that makes propositional statements, as opposed to filtering everything through mysticism, they hate.

A course on science and religion might be useful, but this one isn't going to help any.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Translation music again

On Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin tonight he played both the French and English versions of "Les feuilles mortes" / "Autumn Leaves" by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert (English by Johnny Mercer). I'd commented earlier that you could tell the original language, but it wasn't true this time. I think this may be because the melody is so forgiving--extra syllables slide in naturally. Both sound fine, neither seems more awkward than the other.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield

I saw that Pressfield had written another book, so of course I read it. This one is about Alexander the Great.

As usual, he has the protaganist tell the story to someone else at the end of events. Of course nobody knows exactly what Alexander thought, but Pressfield's imagining of it is probably not too far off base (though once again I think he fails to grasp the religious dimensions of the ancient world).

Alexander tells the story of his life (skipping the conquests of the Levant and Egypt) and why he loves war and feels himself impelled by his daimon; and how bitter it can be. The battles are well told, and you get some understanding of how such a small army could have managed such amazing feats.

Go read it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lazy Sunday

We went to church last night instead of this morning, so that we could take some neighbors whose car doesn't work (and whose Sunday is fraught). So this morning was a sleep-in down-time day. I finished Pratchett's Making Money and rested.

I made some beignets from the French Market recipe. They're good, but the kind my mother used to make puffed up hollow, which made them ideal for scooping up loose powdered sugar. (Just don't inhale when eating!) Middle Daughter is alergic to the oil vapors from frying, so we've not had these in years. The double batch didn't last long. I held off on one tray until Oldest Daughter had lunch break. Apparently butter isn't a good substitute for margarine--it browns too quickly. This recipe results in risen dough that floats from the get-go. I'll try this one next time. BTW, a wok is really nice for this sort of thing: you can set the dough on the side and slide it in rather than dropping it into hot oil and splashing yourself.

I finished pulling out the contents and shelving from the storage corner in the garage, and stuffed the last of the fiberglass batting in between the studs. Cutting up the plywood to cover this new section will have to wait a few days more, but then that wall will be finished. The garage door seems to work just fine with styrofoam in the sections. (That construction adhesive doesn't want to come off your fingers!) Of course the roof is completely uninsulated, but with some cleverness in the rafters I think we can keep the garage a little warmer this year, and presumably that side of the house as well. And in the process, quite a bit of stuff is moving out to the curb.

As I type this, Youngest Son is downstairs watching Star Trek videos. The heating ducts carry sound all over the house, so there's really no such thing as solitary video watching. TV reception in the basement is abysmal, and we don't get cable; so videos are about all we see.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

This is the latest Diskworld novel. Moist has a new assignment: the Post Office is going well enough that he's not really needed there anymore. The title should tell you where.

Type of Diskworld novel: Moist and Vetinari (maybe too much Vetinari; best not to show too much of your hand) and old Ankh Morpork families; wizards play a role and the Watch has cameos. It is better structured than Thud, and full of the wonderful sly descriptions he's famous for. What happens when a golem has a crush on her employer?

Is it easier to list the complaints: The character Cosmo is a bit too crazy, and Bent's revelation almost works, and Vetinari appears too much. And I hope Pratchett isn't planning to write the book Vetinari gives a teaser for at the end.

Aside from those minor points, the book is quite enjoyable. I suggest the reader be already familiar with the Diskworld series, but aside from that I recommend it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Why not local history?

I noticed in this article from the Isthmus that Madison was Copperhead territory during the Civil War. Certainly an interesting, if not especially noble, aspect to the history of the town.

Why shouldn't the history of the town you are living in be part of the curriculum in school? It wouldn't have to be a very long course: a couple of days would probably suffice for Sun Prairie; a few more for Madison. This would have to come after American history, of course, so that things could be put in context. A history of the state should also be taught. I wonder how hard that would be to put together? Some contentious details might derail the course, especially if powerful figures clash. Still, it seems reasonable.

And, FWIW, I think a parallel American Indian history would be good to learn also--provided it isn't whitewashed into "Red Man good, White Man bad" propaganda. Where else on earth will anyone learn about the Crow? They won't teach about them in Burma...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Shed preconceptions about mental health maintenance

This is brilliant.

Monday, November 12, 2007

State and Family

Youngest daughter had an interesting insight last night. In China, the baleful one-child policy didn't just create "little kings." It created a society without aunts or uncles or cousins or neices or nephews. It skeletonized the family.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Funny how you can tell

I was pretty sick of the rap that came on every time I started the rental car, and couldn't figure out which button turned it off permanently, so I punched a couple of other channel buttons. They were preset to digital radio stations, and one was "Nostalgie 2" or something like that: devoted to "oldies" or at least to the novel notion that the lyrics should be clearly heard above the guitar. Oddly enough the first couple of songs were American, and then I heard some familiar chords and new words: "Et maintenant, que vais-je faire?"

Funny how you can tell--I could hear immediately that this was the original, and "What now, my love?" was a translation. Same dramatic orchestration, same meaning--but the English version's lyrics always felt slightly clunky. The musical phrasing was meant to fit the French, and the English that fit the musical phrasing was a little forced.

"Seasons in the Sun" was another such: the English phrasing was a little jerky, and even nonsensical ("the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach"), but Brel's French version fit the music much better.

I wonder how often a translation comes out better. Probably has to be "unfaithful."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Did they mean that?

In Chalmonix we saw a store called Amazone Lingerie on Ravanel la Rouge. You do remember the legends of the Amazons, who cut off the right breast so it wouldn't interfere with the bowstring when shooting, right? Somebody didn't.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

25% of Germans...

Drudge Report linked to a hysterical poll report saying that 25% of Germans found some good in the Nazi government. For a change, you can actually see how the question is worded (albeit in translation).

Pollsters for the Forsa agency, commissioned by the weekly magazine Stern, asked whether National Socialism also had some "good sides (such as) the construction of the highway system, the elimination of unemployment, the low criminality rate (and) the encouragement of the family."

A more interesting question is not why 25% of Germans thought that roads were a good thing, but why 70% couldn't think so. Either the Green infection is horrifyingly widespread, or some people don't realize that you can hate and work to destroy something that actually does some good now and then. Must be nice: no hard choices to make, just demons to oppose.

Yes, I know Adolph and his supporters came pretty close to filling that bill, but this attitude carries over into less clear-cut quarrels as well.

Non-dancing men

In the US airports there's a man with two glowing pointers guiding airplanes into the gate. In Brussels, there's nobody. I wonder if this is featherbedding in the US or a real safety issue.

Dancing Men

The Ethiopian airlines logo looks like the Dancing Men from the Sherlock Holmes story.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Despair or envy?

A friend from our old church said there was to be a special church meeting last Thursday. Saturday there was a big tent up, which was odd, and on Sunday there were 4 or 5 men guiding parking in the newly renamed “Heartland” church. My wife and I talked about that briefly, and I thought there must have been a merger.

I was sort of right.

September 28, 2007 (Rockford, Il) — Mark Bankord, Directional Leader of Heartland Community Church, announced today that the elders, Board of Directors, and Leadership Team of Heartland, after prayerful consideration, have agreed to accept the gift of the assets of the non-denominational, evangelical Pathway Community Church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Effective Monday, September 24, 2007, Pathway has changed its name to Heartland Community Church and offer Heartland’s “different way to do church” to their community. “Based on counsel from True North 128, Inc., a Christian Church Consulting firm, the elders of Pathway approached us with the idea,” said Mark Bankord. “They are gifting the assets of their church to Heartland and adopting the Heartland name and model. They will rely on the leadership of Heartland here in Rockford to help them positively impact their community.” Pathway, a 29 year-old church that owns 40 prime acres near Madison, has been without a senior pastor/leader for the past five months. The desire of the Pathway elders and the members has been to determine the best method available to grow their congregation and to reach out to their community. Heartland’s Leadership Team in Rockford will duplicate the methodology that has been in place since the church was founded in 1998.

Apparently the Heartland methodology is to rely heavily on video lessons.

The Thursday meeting was an announcement, not a discussion: typical of the elder board, I fear. Their ambition has been to grow the church into a “megachurch” using the currently fashionable worship and ministry models. Along the way the elders alienated over half the congregation, including most of the mature and experienced members.

I'm startled to find them choosing this option, though. Perhaps they were overwhelmed with the quality of the Heartland model and materials, and figured that piggy-backing was the only way to get started fast. Or perhaps they looked around at the number of workers left, and decided they needed help from outside.

Years ago the elders decided they weren't very interested in adult education, and canned everything in the hopes that small groups would do the job instead. It looks like the Heartland model will let them just pop in a video tape and sit back.

Better than nothing, I suppose. But the plan has that attenuated “tele-church” feel. Does a video-taped speaker count as one of the “two or three gathered in my name?”

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Travel reports

Middle Daughter is used to noise, but not the noise of her new host family in Dakar, Senegal. She met them last night, and knows 5 names out of the fifteen or so going in and out. She also has not figured out who is an in-law, a younger child or an older grandchild. She sounded a little dazed. We tried calling the number she gave us, but the message said it was disconnected

About Red Oak: It's in North Aurora, IL, along the east bank of the Fox River. I hear that Jim the manager is still there after 20-odd years. I used to take Eldest Son and Eldest Daughter to see the six foot bull snake and the raptors waiting for their wings to heal. The beehive's glass case is built into the wall, and Eldest Daughter always looked for the queen bee. Middle daughter wouldn't remember it, and the younger ones have never been there.

Our apartment complex was then at the edge of civilization. We took plaster casts of deer tracks and turned in some of our discoveries, such as a fox skull, to Red Oak. The lot was home to half a million caterpillars. I once had to chase a muskrat out of the hall; the door didn't close properly until after the muskrat had wandered in, and he was not happy. Right after we moved back to Wisconsin, the bulldozers came through. The Pick-your-own-raspberry farm with its petting zoo and ice cream shop, our half million caterpillars, and a lot of Illinois countryside disappeared in a hurry.

Red Oak's trails were short enough for toddlers to handle but long enough for them to find something interesting. There are now longer trails and a bike path.

Hello Crow lived in an old grain bin, just off the trail around the bend from the nature center. People had been greeting him with "hello" for years, and so he would always hop to the edge and croak, "'Ello, 'ello, 'ello." He was a very friendly bird. One day we didn't see him and I asked Vince, the assistant at the time, where Hello Crow was. Vince said blandly, "Hello Crow died the other day." Later, with the kids out of earshot, he told me that some teenagers had stabbed the bird when he came up to greet them.

The nature center now has a lobby, an auditorium, and office space. The office space Jim used to use is now serving its proper function as a storage closet. The old raptor room has reptiles and amphibians, including a delightful fat salamander and a huge Florida king snake. The bees and the play-with-it table, with deer antlers and fox skulls and snake skins, is the same as before, except for new paint. I'm glad we took the detour.

Mrs. James

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Her keys are in a box on the bookcase

We dropped her off at O'Hare, together with her friend also going to Senegal; had a hug, said a prayer, and she dragged her huge suitcases into Terminal 3 in search of Iberian Airlines. Apparently she was able to get the one problematic one on board with an overage payment; I was afraid it was going to exceed the absolute limit.

We worry, of course. The malaria suppressants didn't prevent one attack on the earlier trip. And accidents happen frequently in places where cars are ill-maintained and stars serve as street lights. And she doesn't always suffer fools gladly.

She's lived away from us for a long time now, but we'd usually see her for dinner every other week or so (me more often, since her student job was in the same building I work in). But this will be 10 months, or more if there are strikes (and there will be: teacher strikes and student strikes and random strikes).

We'll miss her, though I'm glad to see her fly.

I called it an adventure last night. Adventures are “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner.” She's going to be 10 months late for dinner.

The better half and I and her older sister didn't go straight home, but went to Red Oak Nature Center, where her older sister and brother used to watch the bees and snakes and owls and walk the trail by the river. The almost tame Hello Crow was killed years ago. Some things were the same, but 18 years makes for a very different perspective—in all senses, and Oldest Daughter had to get down on her knees to see the bees the same way she used to. Just like Ricks had shrunk for me.


Apparently when I was elsewhere the fellow trying to hit on the young lady used a different line; considerably coarser. He only talked politely when I was around. And the Green Beret/Marine/Army fellow had to be persuaded at knife point to back away from blocking one man's exit from a bathroom stall. Wish somebody had mentioned little details like that to me earlier...

Monday, September 24, 2007


I knew days before we went that we'd have uninvited guests, and we'd have to feed them. That was pretty obvious from the location; and the Luke 14:16-24 reading from the night before had been a pretty clear reminder.

Middle Daughter heads to Senegal next week to study for a year, and a send-off party was in order. She posted the announcement on Facebook and had 5 replies in 2 minutes. At least 37 friends from high school, from college, from work at college, from frisbee league, from church and old friends and family RSVP'd—and showed up.

On only 3 weeks' notice, and constrained to find a picnic shelter downtown, the only place available was Brittingham Park. Its a beautiful spot by Lake Monona, with spacious grounds, a nice shelter, and bike path by the lake. Why hadn't somebody else snaffled it earlier?

Because that's where the bums and the drug dealers hang out.

The better half made Jolof rice (veggie or lamb) and curry, made tomatillo dip, bought veggie trays and chips and soda and the other trimmings. (One of Middle Daughter's friends brought beer and hard lemonade later.) All was carefully packed in the van, together with brooms and cleanser and paper towels.

When we arrived there were about 20 black men hanging around the shelter, and several other men sleeping on benches. One offered to take charge of getting the place set up for us, and did. We offered him food, and he and his assistants ate and left—sort of. He came back later requiring “change,” and I was able to truthfully claim to have almost none on me. Over the course of the afternoon he became more and more bombed (not on stuff from our party, though) and a nuisance. He wound up with 3 plates of food, the last two piled up in a revolting mess. I don't think he learned that in the Marine/Army sniper group he claimed to have served in.

After about 40 minutes or so the first guests started to arrive. They weren't hungry. MD was having a good time talking with them, though. More started trickling in, and then a few more. I'd no notion who most of them were, of course—do fathers ever know them all?

Then Eldest Son brought the two youngest kids for an hour, and the food consumption started in earnest. A bleary gentleman with a bike importuned some food (though he disparaged all forms of processed sugar (at length)), and tried to chat up one young lady with the conversational line that she should hang out with boys her own age and not old guys like him. He required a substantial amount of my time. He called me Boss-Man, and explained the virtues of having a street name—because then you could honestly tell the cops you didn't know the real name. After I'd run interference a few times he asked me if I was prejudiced. Some of my wife's family were just arriving, so I told him No, I grew up in Africa, and learned a lot of things there. One of them was to take care of your family, and I was going to do that. Now. He got the message, and slowly took his fried brain elsewhere.

I wished I'd taken notes on how my father dealt with the importunate and marginally present. He was the original “Boss-Man” back in Liberia.

Several people called MD for directions. The party was in the section of the shelter facing the lake, and from the road all people could see was the drug dealers (who didn't bother us, fortunately).

My better half's father and cousins came to celebrate the adventurer, and three old friends from church. In and out went various homeless guys asking for food, which they got, together with a quick lesson on African food in America. More of MD's friends came and went, and seemed to be having a good time talking together and meeting people they'd only heard about.

A squat fellow with squint and glassy eyes tried to buttonhole guests. My wife enlisted her father's help, who proceeded to collar him and talk to him about the plan of salvation. Not quite what he expected, I suppose.

A duck that must have been a cross between three different strains of wild and domestic wandered about, and a couple of immature ones waddled through and between looking for spilt bread and chips: a very helpful and amusing cleanup crew. One of MD's highschool friends is afraid of ducks, unfortunately.

A classmate of Middle Daughter's from Yoruba came by just as we were about to end the festivities. He'd been an economic consultant. One day he asked himself why he was doing this dull job when he had no family to support, and joined the Peace Corps, then went back to school. He's older than I, and hoping for a PhD.

One of our old friends walked around the shelter, to be met with the greeting “Hello officer.” Which rather surprised her, since she hasn't worked as a police officer for many years, and she's not very tall. Must be something about her bearing, since the dealers agreed they'd not seen her before nor she them.

We rolled up the sidewalk at 6, but weren't able to clean up properly because a Korean student group (not scheduled) showed up and started putting their stuff all over the benches. The remaining veggies and pop my wife arranged that the homeless men take. We weren't quite out of food, but almost. We'd have had to take home a lot more, and much would have gone to waste, if not for the homeless men hanging around the place.

We left. MD hung around talking with friends until the mosquitoes came out.

The party seemed successful, on the whole.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Overheard conversations 2

The seats in airports are close together, and when there's a lull in the announcements you can sometimes hear other people. One lady, I guess in her early to mid thirties, was complaining that all the interesting men with either “gay or taken.”

Whee! What a can of worms. I assume that when she said “interesting men” she meant husband material, since one can usually discuss art or philosophy with someone else's spouse. So she's wondering why she can't find potential husbands.

The two classes of men she mentioned are easily understood; though there's a third class she didn't mention and an underlying question she didn't think of. Homosexuality is currently popular, and appears to be more popular among the higher income and education levels—which are groups more sensitive to fashions. And eligible men who are willing to marry aren't likely to wait around a few years to find a better Miss Right: if they find one they'll probably marry her. (I don't believe the notion that there's a one-and-only somewhere in the world; I think there's a pool to pick the one-and-only from.)

She didn't mention a third class of men sometimes called “Peter Pans” who don't want to grow up and are afraid to choose. I hope this was because she didn't find them interesting. I gather they are fairly common, though I know very few. I guess not many are willing to make the commitment of years of study either.

There's an underlying issue as well. It seems to be true that a wife needs to be able to look up to her husband, to understand that some quality about him is exceptional, admirable, superior. (That's a dangerous word—but understand that we have many qualities, and superiority in one doesn't mean one is a superior being. If you don't understand that point, don't bother complaining about this essay.) Common traditional qualities are that the man is strong and a good provider. Others qualities (sometimes to the dismay of parents) are that the man is a creative artist, or adventurous, and so on. Whatever it may be, she apparently needs to feel that there is something valuable in him that she lacks enough of. The husband presumably notices that there are qualities in his wife that he admires, but the subject here is the woman's complaint.

OK, here's the catch. The traditional “good provider” quality generally translates into “good income” these days. If she is well educated and has a good career, the pool of men with a better income than hers, or a better education than hers, is substantially smaller. Not only is the pool smaller, but the rate of homosexuality is higher (fashion sensitive), and the competition for the attention of men is higher and so the chances that an eligible man will already be taken is higher. This isn't a new observation, by the way, but it does seem to rouse vicious antagonism. Of course there are divorced men, but they are obviously poor risks.

You can chalk up the smaller pool of men as an unintended side effect of the woman's career, or you can ask what it is that the woman values. Is it possible that she might value and take comfort in a man's superiority in something other than money-making? It is obviously easier to be comforted by the sense that the man can take care of you, but we've always had a minority view that some other qualities are also important.

If that's the answer for her, it isn't a comfortable one.

Overheard conversations

I was near enough to hear, but not to become a part of, a conversation involving some people I knew and a number of graduate students I didn't. The conversation turned to marriage, and the grad students started batting around statistics, including those that said that men lived longer and women shorter lives when married. So why, a couple of them asked, would a woman want to get married? The answer seemed clear enough: Achilles' choice (a short life with glory or a long life and be forgotten); but there was no way for an outsider to jump in.


The US hasn't switched to metric yet: from lack of litership?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Geneva and CERN

The Meyrin site feels a lot like old town Geneva. The streets are narrow, curved, and short, the buildings seem randomly aligned, and entrances surprise you. When you feel you can't get there from here, know that somewhere is a hidden alley or doorway that the natives understand. In both the land runs up hill and down dale, the cobblestones of the city reappear in the edging of the walkways, and much seems old.

But it is much more like what old town Geneva must have been: not aswamp with tourists but with workers and carts going to and fro. A few places are for refreshment, but most is for work; and the farms are very close.

Fermilab spreads itself. It seems more like a collection of small villages than a city, with acres to roam in. Even the center, with its high-rise and a ring of accelerator buildings, feels rural, with woods and lakes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I haven't forgotten.

I wonder at how eager men are to believe lies. Old and thoroughly discredited, or new and absurd; anything at all will do.

I wonder about how porous our security really is. We keep getting probing attacks, and bland assertions that the incident was benign, with apologies to the offended probers. Not a trivial concern for me, since I fly from time to time (Saturday).

I wonder how the history books a hundred years from now will describe us. They may not describe us at all: after all, important history only starts with the "end of the age of ignorance."


AP reports that "an Erie cancer researcher has found a way to burn salt water," "using a radio frequency generator he developed to treat cancer". "The discovery has scientists excited by the prospect of using salt water, the most abundant resource on earth, as a fuel."

I suppose they couldn't resist a story like this: free energy and a cancer cure in the same article. No doubt it clears up acne and grows new hair too.

Friday, September 07, 2007

On Killing

The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col Dave Grossman

The subtitle tells the point of the book. Why do so few soldiers kill, and what happens to them when they do?

The first clause may seem counterintuitive: quite a few soldiers were killed during the Civil War, WWI and WWII, what is the author referring to?

He brings up the Napoleonic wars as evidence as well, and tries to reference the wars among the Greek cities (though he's on very shaky ground there). If you use the accuracy of the Prussian soldiers (measured at firing ranges), count the number of men in a square who can fire at any one time, and see how close the enemy soldiers were standing; you estimate a casualty rate several orders of magnitude higher than what actually appears to have been the case. From this he concludes that most of the soldiers were “posturing” (firing in the air to frighten) because they couldn't bring themselves to kill. In this case there's another explanation: the smoke helped conceal, and, as Devil Anse Hatfield pointed out, it isn't all that easy to hit somebody who doesn't stand still.

His Civil War inferences are more solid: the same problem of far more shots than casualties; but in addition there's the tidbit that when scavenging the battlefield afterwards for discarded muskets, almost half were not just loaded but double-loaded. Your buddies beside you can't quite tell if you shoot, but loading was done standing up, and everybody could see if you were reloading your weapon. A few muskets had been reloaded almost to the muzzle! Misfires could not have been that common—it wasn't raining.

World Wars I and II were conducted with a lot more attention to effectiveness, and after-the-war interviews disclosed that in WW II only 15-20 percent of men in combat fired their weapons.

So how come so many died? Napoleon thought the answer was artillery, and it was certainly lethal during the Civil War as well. In WW I the answer was the machine gun—which is a remote weapon manned by a crew. It would be useful to cross-check this with casualty reports from army hospitals, but this the author does not do. Were most injuries/deaths from infantry rifle bullets or machine gun bullets or artillery damage? The data is probably available somewhere.

Aha. Found something. An essay on medical care in WW I. “In the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), 20,420 men were treated for wounds inflicted by rifle balls, a combined 51,226 were treated for wounds by either shrapnel or shell and an additional 74,883 were treated for wounds by an unspecified gunshot missile.[14] The Surgeon General's post-war report concluded that, "Taken as a whole, the percentage of wounds from exploding missiles probably varied, from 50 to 80 percent being the highest when battle conditions were most stabilized, as in trench warfare."[15] This differs significantly from previous wars, such as the American Civil War, in which the Minie ball caused 94 percent of all battle wounds and artillery shell and canister approximately six percent. “

”The most prevalent battle injuries admitted into Medical Corps hospitals involved the lower extremities; 78,032 men were admitted with these injuries, with 5,722 (7.33 percent) eventually succumbing to their wounds. A list of the causes of these injuries, with the concurrent fatality rates listed in parenthesis, shows the emergence of artillery: rifle ball, 10,582 (3.69%), shell, 9,371 (9.10%), shrapnel, 18,182 (5.64%), and not specified, 39,897 (8.65%).[34] “

This does not deal with fatalities, which of course could result in a major bias in the data, unless rifle shots are relatively randomly aimed. (Gas killed about 3%, and can be ignored here.)

The Army took this to heart, and in Korea the rate was 75%, and in Vietnam 90%. Now whether this meant actually shooting at the enemy is an open question, as the author emphasizes. Current training is far more realistic, and American soldiers are significantly more effective than before.

Which, of course, means that they are more effective and accurate at killing. (And not killing when the they're not supposed to. I've used that shoot/no-shoot police training system—you have a fraction of a second to tell danger from innocence. They get good at it. Our group wasn't.)

At a distance, where there's no personal interaction, it is quite easy to kill. When surrounded by comrades running a war engine (as in artillery or machine guns) the social pressure is high and the guilt is divided (and the distance is usually large as well). Closer up, it is more traumatic for most men, and a common feature of the stories he quotes are of soldiers going off somewhere to throw up for a while.

The result, except for the 2-3% who are not empathetic, is a strong sense of guilt for those who had to kill an enemy close up, especially if they watched him die or found some humanizing details (family photo, etc) about him. Sometimes they could suppress this feeling of guilt, and sometimes not. The stress of guilt, lack of sleep/food/shelter, constant danger, and sense of hatred by enemies generally makes psychological casualties of soldiers after a few months in constant combat, which is why we do lots of rotations.

So what do you do with them when it is time to come home? He says many cultures demanded a purification ceremony first, but does not pursue this very interesting possibility. Instead he mentions the salutary effects of: spending a few weeks coming home with the buddies you had spent your time with, so that you could talk through things with people who understood; and being celebrated (parades, etc) by the population at home. Vietnam had neither. Soldiers were moved around quickly, did not apparently spend substantial time together in the field, much less on the way home; and the welcome they received is notorious (and apparently every bit as bad as was claimed).

OK, let's think about that “purification” angle again. The idea seems promising: a soldier feels guilty and needs a transition from “killing-ok” to civilian life. The first problem is that we as a nation do not have a single culture anymore, and any given religious ceremony of requesting/granting forgiveness, while it might be very beneficial, won't be understood/accepted by most of the troops. You would need many such types of ceremony, and the large chunk of effective atheists would be left out.

It is possible to train your population and soldiers to regard their opponents as subhuman, and this makes it much easier for them to kill, and to kill without guilt. Of course it means they're more apt to commit atrocities as well, which often work against you in the long run. In the short run, terrorism works quite well—much better than bombing from a distance.

It is also possible to desensitize your soldiers, so that they are not bothered so much by shattered bodies. We do this to some degree in training; other armies have been much more deliberate about it. The child soldiers in Africa are required to kill someone (preferably a family member) as part of their initiation. The SS were required to kill the pet dog they had trained.

And, as the author points out, our movies and video games are admirably designed to desensitize us (and especially impressionable youth) to violence and gore. This is intuitively obvious to any observer, but is also backed up with considerable research, but apparently we just do not care as a society that we immerse ourselves in extremely brutal violence. What you are immersed in affects you; advertisers know this quite well.

One major difference between the Friday the 13th desensitization program and that used by the army is that the latter includes discipline: when not to shoot. It will not surprise you to know that violent crime rates keep rising even though overall crime rates have fallen recently.

I suppose I should get back to that 2-3% of non-empathetic folks who kind of like killing. It turns out that they can come in several flavors. Some are the psychopaths who make ordinary life hell for everybody else: wolves. Others are disciplined sorts--“lawful good” for the gaming crowd--who like downing baddies: like sheepdogs. They're useful and good to have around.

Since various subsections of the book are meant to stand alone, there is a lot of repetition in the book. His anecdotes are compelling. (He describes himself sitting in a swamp eating live frogs as though this were the most natural thing in the world.) The book is not for the squeamish. If you can't read it, at least think over some of the problems he mentions.

UPDATE: See a later post about some problems with the numbers Grossman relied on. I don't think it invalidates his work.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky

Lossky was called “one of the best Orthodox theologians of our time.” I'm trying to learn a little about Orthodoxy, and figured this might include some helpful explanations.

Well, sort of. It wasn't quite what I expected. It is a collection of related articles on aspects of Orthodox theology; some of them grimly punctuated with Greek and some (such as the one on Mary: Panagia) more devotional than didactic.

He attempts to explain the use of Tradition, which in Orthodoxy includes even the icons. One theme is the distinction between the public preaching and the secret (unspoken) teachings. He constantly references the Trinity as a way of understanding aspects of the Church and of persons, and puts a heavy emphasis on the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The importance of paradox receives attention also.

To put it briefly, let us say that a person can be fully personal only in so far as he has nothing that he seeks to possess for himself, to the exclusion of others; i.e., when he has a common nature with others. It is then alone that the distinction between persons and nature exists in all its purity; otherwise we are in the presence of individuals, dividing nature among themselves. There is no partition or division of nature among the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The Hypostases are not three parts of a whole, of the one nature, but each includes in Himself the whole divine nature.

He has a noble goal, but I think it is pretty plain that trying to use qualities of the Trinity to define lesser natures has some pitfalls. For instance, he says that it is impossible for a union of persons to also be a person, by the very nature of personhood. A moment's thought should dispel that argument: the union may be of a different nature, acting in a different, non-overlapping framework.

I wish some of the results of higher math were better known. It might keep people from making false dilemmas.

No, he didn't make a Russian Orthodox out of me.

I don't recommend the book unless you've a burning interest in Orthodoxy, and even then I suspect there might be better ones out there. Some parts had hair-splitting so detailed and (frankly) presumptuous that I found his criticism of dry and barren scholasticism ironic.

Old Habits

My father taught me to part my hair about a half inch above the corner of the side of the head, and I've been doing that ever since. However, I've acquired the secular tonsure, which runs into hair again about an inch from the corner, so when I part I'm combing about a half inch of nothing much across a bald spot. It looks silly, but since I rarely comb in front of a mirror I keep forgetting. 40 years worth of automatic motion seems to find its way into the muscles...

He also bought me a Norelco electric razor about 30 years ago. It's been in for new bushings and heads a couple of times, but parts are no longer available, and so when the switch went bad I shorted it out. It starts the moment I plug it in. But for thirty years, twice a day, I've been raising the instrument and thumbing the switch simultaneously, and I still try to turn on a running razor.

If my mind starts slipping when I get old, I suspect old habits of body will still be working; with gestures that used to be useful, but which then will only perplex.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Belated answer

I forgot to include the answer to the question I posed earlier this year. The answer is: England in the 1800's, as described by a Muslim writer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Eldest daughter called last night to remind us of the eclipse, and we went out to see. When we came back in, we were loudly reminded that a cricket had somehow migrated to our bedroom. It must have entered when flood-damaged rugs were being dragged out of the basement. We'd spotted the critter earlier, but the wiley beast got away. This time, though, there was a stack of unused homeschool materials handy (they were too workbook-y for our kids). There was no escape from the flying LifePAC of death!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Covenant Marriage

Sunday School was a little unusual at the church we visited. The teacher is a very talented raconteur, telling the old stories in new ways, heavily relying on The Message. But the talent in the class itself is even greater, with retired pastors and missionaries and seminary professors; so it seemed a little odd to have no to-and-fro.

The lesson was from Malachi; first addressing the priests who didn't take their job seriously (and then where does that leave the people who relied on them?--but we didn't get into that question), and moving on to divorce.

At which point the talk went straight into fog. Was she referring to the command to put away foreign wives in Ezra? To the injunction not to divorce unbelieving spouses if they were willing to stay married? She didn't say, though perhaps these things had come up before and the class knew what she meant. And then came a reference to “the one God meant for you,” which only seems relevant in Genesis (“Madam, I'm Adam”). And then a reference to “covenant marriage.”

The phrase was new to me, and set off the old alarm bells. Marriage is a covenant, and except for common-law marriage is an explicit one; so what's with the coinage? I get nervous when people start qualifying words like that; the result often stands on its head: like “People's Democracy.”

Wikipedia is your—well, not “friend,” exactly. Acquaintance? Covenant marriage is a marriage that requires premarital counseling and limits the grounds for divorce (abuse, adultery, felony with jail time). In other words, something rather like what we thought marriage was in the first place. Although in practice all you have to do to evade the provisions is go to a state that doesn't recognize it (47 don't) and dump your spouse there.

”No-fault” divorce was advertised as a way to keep lawyers out of a painful process that few would want to try. Both clauses seem to have been lies: lawyers are still involved and the divorce rate is now staggeringly high. The word marriage stayed the same, but the legal definition changed under it to make marriage the most easily abrogated contract we have, so long as you don't argue about property or custody. (Although it is sometimes easy to cancel a magazine subscription.)

For someone who wants a binding contract, there aren't many options.

I think the name “Covenant Marriage” is less than ideal. The “covenant” part certainly got some people's underwear in knots (they seem terrified of any hint of religion). Perhaps the coinage “Real Marriage” would be more accurate. Or maybe “Marriage Classic,” along the lines of a famous soft drink.

”Hard cases make bad law.” No doubt some people's lives were better thanks to no fault divorce, but it seems to have been an overwhelming disaster nonetheless. I'm not sure that enacting the possibility of “covenant marriage” is going to help the national divorce rate much, and if it does it will take decades. On the other hand, repealing no-fault is by now politically impossible. Even logical mild modifications, such as a probationary period (longer if there are children), may be out of reach. The culture has ratcheted its understanding of marriage into a paradigm of “rights” rather than one of union, and people hate to give up anything they conceive of as a right.

I started puzzling this out deeply suspicious of “covenant marriage,” and I still think the name is misleading, but perhaps this is a good idea. Perhaps it can grow a grassroots alternative to the semi-marriage the laws have left us.

I know there are objections that this reflects a Western, and thus Christian, and thus “unacceptably parochial” view of marriage. But even in the land of triple talaq marriages are not so unstable as here; even in France there's a probationary period. Our current situation is a mess. We have to choose some standards for family law; why shouldn't we permit one with extensive precedent and cultural roots, that was the standard within living memory?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hot hiking

We reserved time at Turkey Run months ago. Since we're unlikely to be going back anytime in the near future, we had to take advantage of it while we could. No way will I sit in the cabin and watch TV (??), even if it is air-conditioned (ahhhh!). Sleep, yes :-) So we went hiking in the cool of the morning (85) and the evening (95), and just after we got there the first day (98). True, we were under tree cover, so the sun didn't bake us, but those temperatures are “in the shade” values. I wore a cloth hat to keep the ticks and sun off, and squeegeed a half teaspoon of water from the chin-strap. Was it the haze or delirium that made distant objects fuzzy?

The place is beautiful, the trails well-laid-out, and when they say Very Rugged they don't mean wheel-chair accessible: they mean you have to climb on a ledge or wade in a V-shaped rock stream-bed. No machetes required, and kids can handle it; but I took it easy and only got a few twinges from the knee. The runs are microclimates unlike the surrounding countryside, with trees you only find farther north.

We saw caves and a coal mine and fossils and walked a stream bed underneath a rock ceiling. The bird feeder at the nature center gathered about 20 hummingbirds, goldfinches, a squirrel and chipmunk and a couple of groundhogs, a tufted titmouse and juvenile cardinal, pigeon and lizard and some other things I didn't recognize. A microphone picked up their sounds so we could hear them indoors. I got a shot of 4 hummingbirds all sitting still at once on a feeder.

Rain soaked the place the day before, but left only a little mud in strategic ledge locations and a small trickle in the streams to remind us. The ladders were a little muddy too. In high water trail 3 would be a very tricky walk—demanding some kind of walking stick to keep you from slipping.

Much of the work was done by the CCC, just like Lincoln's New Salem. In fact, Lincoln's New Salem only lasted a few decades, and was reconstructed a hundred years later. Which means the CCC reconstruction has lasted almost 3 times as long as the original, and in a few more decades will date from longer ago from us than New Salem was from the CCC. If the Republic lasts, we'll probably see chunks of the walls they built sitting in museums.

A covered bridge (go through “at a walk”!), ravines and ledges, a suspension bridge, a sign saying “70 steps” down to the river (actually only 67), a young fox trying to catch a squirrel (must have been desperate), and dozens and dozens of “unofficial” trails. It is close to Indianapolis—must be swamped on weekends. (The outdoor pool is only open on weekends this late in the season.)

Delirium daydreams: what would people wear for hats in Eden? Birds, of course! Trained to spread their wings to shade you, or fan you when needed, bred with smoother claws for a gentle scalp massage, and ready to eat any ticks that landed on you...

Nice breakfast, even if some finicky people wouldn't touch sausage that had been on the same plate as eggs....

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Barry Bonds breaks Aaron's record

making him the home run king. At least in America. He has a long way to go to reach the Japanese record.

No, I'm not a big baseball fan, but we hear enough of it in the house that it seems appropriate to take notice of events from time to time.

From the family Cubs fan, who is 90% scar tissue (to borrow a line from George F. Will), and who was born during Hank Aaron's 1957 World Series:

Barry Bonds was the best all-around ballplayer in the game when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He could hit, field, steal, make tough plays look elegant and easy. He very likely would have been ticketed for Cooperstown before he decided to turn into a slugger, and he would have been a shoo-in. With no asterisk in sight.

Now he's a surly s.o.b. with a permanently sullied record. If he didn't cheat, he's gone way out of his way to look like he has.

Meanwhile, Sammy Sosa has cleaned up his act. In 2004, Sosa managed to squander years of goodwill in Chicago: the corked bat, the steroid rumors, the boombox driving his teammates crazy, the entourage, the ego as big as Lake Michigan. In Spring 2005, the Cubs unloaded Sosa on the Orioles. He endeared himself to Orioles fans, all right: his first public performance in Baltimore was a snit because the team didn't send a limo for him at his hotel. It went downhill from there, and the Orioles dumped him. Nobody touched Sosa for the 2006 season. Nobody.

He stayed in shape, he kept knocking on doors, and finally the Texan Rangers let him come to 2007 spring training with the following stipulations: no steroids, no corked bats, no boom box, no entourage, and leave his ego at home. He is earning somewhat more than a journeyman infielder would. In Texas, Sosa has been respectable on the field, if not spectacular. He hit his 600th career home run (against the Cubs) in July. He may yet get to Cooperstown.

Mrs James

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Do they speak English?

Fliers stapled to phone poles sport a cross with HOPE emblazoned. Across the top it reads "Homelessness Outreach Prevention Effort." A clever acronym, but it doesn't quite mean what they think it does...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Looking East from CERN

Moment by moment the light changes on the layer cake ridge, playing over scree fields taller than any Wisconsin peak; on ledges and valleys that only cloud shadows display.

It is glorious.

But by it broods the dark presence of a mountain, that distance doesn't quite make small. Strong nose thrust in the air, it makes the ridge feel small and almost easy.

Grand it seems--but then the mid clouds part and past them above the clouds--the real mountains.

Distant, cold, and always there behind the veil; they daunt, and are hidden again--so huge, so far!


Look down.

The grandest peaks are tiny flakes on the vast globe we were already placed atop.

Monday, July 23, 2007

True but

I am becoming convinced that there are things that, while strictly true, are not good to talk much about. A husband may say of his wife: "She is mine." That is true enough, but it is much safer to say "I am hers." Likewise "Mother of God" is a true title for Mary, but a dangerous one to try to use. And a Christian, given God's Holy Spirit, with a changed and increasingly sanctified life, may truthfully stand to pray "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men"--but I wouldn't recommend it.

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware

I decided to try to fill in some gaps in my chuch history and knowledge about denominations. Since Orthodoxy isn't a big player around here it wasn't anything urgent, but I really should have looked earlier. The book is from 1960, and so the description of the Iron Curtain churches is now thankfully obsolete.

I see now that Charles Williams borrowed heavily ideas from Eastern Orthodoxy.

I use the term model in the physics sense of a logical construct applied to reality. We use them to describe a system, figure out where to make measurements, and predict what the system will do.

And I think I get a little glimmer of what they mean when they say that icons are central to Orthodox faith. They are used in services, but the model of "icon" is applied to many aspect of life and faith. A physical icon is an image of Jesus or some saint, of course: not the saint himself but a window, almost an incarnation. The church is an icon of God, and completely one even if there are many instances of it. The state is an icon of the heavenly kingdom. Each gesture of the liturgy is an embodiment of some aspect of worship. God was made flesh, so the body is holy also.

And, of course, man is to be deified. That sounds blasphemous stated so baldly, but it does come out of Scripture, and is hedged about with reminders that God is utterly unique.

I knew already that the Orthodox and Catholic were quite similar: that the Orthodox were like Catholics who thought the Pope was too big for his britches. Of course over a thousand years of divergent history resulted in some additional differences, and some very bad blood because of some seriously nasty incidents (like the sack of Constantinople). I see there are a number of subtleties involved too. And I really don't understand why the filioque was supposed to be a good idea. There's a startling amount of chutzpah involved in assuming that you understand the inner workings of the Trinity well enough to go beyond the statement in Scripture.

Orthodox history is grim. The "icon model" is good for hope and working to sanctify body/mind/spirit, but it has several consequences that are less pleasant, not to say crippling:

  • "The state is the icon of heaven" means that the church is a national church, and gets involved in politics. Heavily. And in very unedifying ways. And the state gets involved in the church, also in unedifying ways. This got much worse when the Turks took over and established the Patriarch of Constantinople as the offical head of all Christians in their empire, and collected heavy fees from those appointed to the office.
  • National churches conflate their state's interests with divine imperatives, which makes relations between them problematic.
  • The adoration of icons is very much closer to the Hindu adoration of images than is altogether comfortable, and it is inevitable that idolatry is an issue with the less well-instructed. The author does not go into this, but we've all run into it before.
  • Icons are static. Orthodox missionaries were laudably determined to translate Scripture and worship into the native languages, but languages changed. The liturgy didn't always adapt. Men died rather than make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of the traditional two. The icon had become holy itself, rather than pointing to the holy.

Of course an Orthodox Christian might inquire who died and made me God that I should be judging his Church and Tradition. I call history to my side here. It is obvious that men calling themselves Christian have seriously disagreed, and anathamatized each other, and still preached the Gospel and looked after the needy. Logically somebody is at least partly wrong, and having some "apostalic chain" doesn't make you right--many of the parties could provide such. So I have no choice but to analyze to the best of my ability the evidence, the theory, and the practice.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Some family members have not yet read this, so I'll be brief and obscure.

If you have read the previous 6 books, you know the style and what to expect. This climactic book describes the resistance to an evil wizard bent on domination, and naturally has a very high corpse count. In fact, the death rate is still too low to be realistic, and Harry survives more concussions than Tom Swift, but this is minor nitpicking.

Rowling weaves many of the threads together from the earlier books, and does a good job of it. I wish that fans would quit assuming that every book must have perfect continuity, and generating complex backstories to explain inconsistencies. I'm glad Niven put a logical end to his Ringworld series--it was getting creakier and creakier as he tried to explain and tie together all the details. That sort of thing gets in the way of telling the story--which is the book's first duty.Rowling tries to tell the story, and not worry about getting every last detail straight.

It is not possible to talk about the book's themes without introducing spoilers, so I'll postpone that. Obviously one central question was going to be "How could Dumbledore have been so wrong about Snapes: or was he?" And of course, would Harry survive?

"It is a floor wax and a dessert topping!"

I don't need to say "read the book." Those who've read the first 6 will, and those who didn't get into the story and gave up won't. I liked it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"More tolerant?"

From The Australian, an article with subhead "A STUDY of newborn babies and preschoolers has revealed that language may be the root of prejudice - and the way to avoid it."

I hardly know where to begin. This is supposed to be science?

US and French researchers have found that the language babies hear spoken in their first six months of life leads to a preference for speakers of that language. The preference is so entrenched that by age five youngsters prefer playmates who not only speak the same language but do so with the same accent. A key implication of the findings - reported in the US publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Science - is that children exposed to different languages grow into more tolerant adults than their monolingual mates. Linguist Stephen Crain of Sydney's Macquarie University tended to agree: "I've always thought it would be beneficial to expose our children to more than one language," he said. "If they no longer have a prejudice against people who don't sound the same as they, they may be more accepting of people from different backgrounds who don't sound the same," Professor Crain said.

"A key implication of the findings:" except that it is not an implication, but an add-on assumption.

And what has any of this to do with prejudice or tolerance? There is no prejudice in loving your family more than strangers, and being more comfortable with those you understand most easily. Nobody can be good friends with the whole world (there aren't enough hours in the day): we all live within circles of decreasing intimacy.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducted a series of experiments with Harvard doctoral student Katherine Kinzler and Emmanuel Dupoux of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. They judged the preferences of three groups of children. Five-to six-month-old infants looked at native speakers longer than non-native speakers. Ten-month-olds selected toys most often from native speakers, and most five-year-olds chose native speaking playmates over children with an accent. According to Professor Spelke, the most surprising result came from the group's experiment with five-year-olds. "The findings suggest that (the preference) has nothing to do with information, the semantics of language, but rather with group identity," she said. If so, Professor Crain said that may answer the mystery about human languages: why do they diverge yet retain common structural properties? "One obvious answer is the differences are the means by which people segregate themselves by speaking a language which can't be understood by people from the next community," he said.

"Segregate themselves?" Certainly youth segregate themselves with language; that happens all the time. But diverging language is something that happens within every family. The shared experiences include something so hilarious or sad that a private phrase is coined to describe it. Outside the family nobody knows what "Batchu batchu batchu" means, and why should they?

It sometimes seems as though everything has to be filtered through the lens of multiculturality. It reminds me of "socialist science" from the Soviet Union. I feel ill.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


There's no question that our decisions can be thwarted. That experience is universal.

But what do you call it when you thwart your own decision?

Take an example: Before I go to bed I set the alarm for 5 so I will be able to exercise for a while before I must go to work. I then stay up until 11 reading a book. When the alarm rings I'll face a little decision: Do I exercise now and droop at work midmorning from lack of sleep, or sleep another hour and a half and put in an honest days work? I made a decision the night before, but thwarted it myself.

Or consider another example: I decide that I need to lose weight. The first order of business is to cut out all between-meal snacks. That simple discipline should cut my food intake by 20% or so. Of course, while I'm programming I get hungry, and raid the fridge for some bread. I get thirsty, and down a tumbler of juice. A couple of slices of toast before I go to bed, and it becomes pretty clear that my decision didn't mean much of anything.

For contrast: My experiment decided that new programs would be written in C++. They arranged for a speaker to come and give a week-long introduction to the language. I had other obligations (a new baby, if I recall correctly). I didn't give up: I decided that I had to teach myself the language, and got a book and read it. Since I didn't even know C, it took some getting used to, and when I was done I realized that my understanding was going to be ephemeral. So, I picked a project that needed doing, and started writing the code in C++ instead of Fortran. It took quite a bit longer that way. And then another, and another. Today I'm a competent, if not sophisticated, C++ programmer.

Is there an intrinsic difference between my decision to learn C++ and my decision to cut out snacks? Both were marked by a moment when I said: "I will do this thing." Both times I thought I meant what I said. Both involved substantive changes in the way I did things. But in the one case I repeatedly re-ratified my decision, and in the other I ignored it.

I'm not convinced that a decision is always something made once-for-all at some point in time. Sometimes it is, but ... Has anyone ever chosen to become an alcoholic? Surely no one would wake up one morning and say to himself: "I'm going to get addicted to alcohol!" But the day by day small decisions: a little here, a little more there; ignore the warning signs: they add up to a big decision. You can't look back and say: "There was the critical moment," but you can say "This was the path of the decision."

This fuzziness about timing a decision makes me a little itchy when a churchman talks about a decision made "on a particular day." Certainly some people's commitment to Christ has been of that nature: one day they change their minds about Jesus, accept His salvation and lordship, and spend the rest of their lives in the struggles and triumphs of obedience. But I've met others who can't point to a single moment, or for whom it is long lost in their early years, but whose lives testify to a commitment to Jesus.

Think back to that alcoholic example. We're broken, and a choice to fall into a trap is quite easy to make, especially if it is nice and slow. Once caught, it is very hard to break free; though sometimes a man will try. And on any given day it may seem as though he is trapped by his addiction. But if you look at the path of his decisions you might see something else--caught but trying to break out. This isn't something we can easily see, and only God can judge fairly. But just because someone keeps falling doesn't mean they haven't decided to change. And that's repentence, even if we can't see it.

All Paths

"All paths lead up the same mountain" goes the "which religion doesn't matter" slogan: coined by somebody who hasn't been around mountains. For those of us not rope and piton climbers, there are darned few paths that don't stub out in front of impossible slopes. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough that your path will circle around until you reach the way. Perhaps not.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Rival Liberia police

BBC reports that national police had a little set-to with the port police. The port police threw stones at the national police who came to rescue their police director.

Some things I understand well enough: the port police undoubtedly get a cut from port thefts. The national police are reported to have been smashing doors and assulting port workers later in the day: I doubt that that was part of the wonderful new police training program; but since so many of the trainees quit to get jobs as security guards I suspect the remainder of the force consists of a lot of hard boys.

I don't quite understand why the rock throwing, though. I think something is missing from the story: clubs, maybe? There's also no mention of how many of the 22 injured officers were national and how many were port police.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Dirk Gentily's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Those familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will already have some idea of Adams' style. For those not, from the academy dinner in chapter 4 (which reminded me somewhat of Sayer's Gaudy Night and somewhat of a Physics Department meeting):

the newly appointed Head of Radio Three, who was sitting opposite . . . had already been ensnared by the Music Director of the College and a Professor of Philosophy. Those two were busy explaining to the harassed man that the phrase “too much Mozart” was, given any reasonable definition of those three words, an inherently self-contradictory expression, and that any sentence which contained such a phrase would be thereby rendered meaningless and could not, consequently, be advanced as part of an argument in favor of any given program-scheduling strategy. The poor man was already beginning to grip his cutlery too tightly.
Or when a seriously stood-up lady calls:
“Hello Michael? . . . You said I should call you if I was free this evening and I said I'd rather be dead in a ditch, remember? Well, I suddenly discover that I am free, absolutely and utterly free, and there isn't a decent ditch for miles around. Make your move while you've got your chance is my advice to you. I'll be at the Tangiers Club in half an hour.”

The cover blurb in this edition (1987) garbles the story premise: ignore it. The story partakes of the nature of a mystery, with clues for the reader to catch, and other characters that actually don't enter into the solution. It would therefore be rude of me to explain which two subplots don't really contribute that much to the story. The Electric Monk is a little too much. And the world is rescued: no extra charge.

Nice light fun. Read it, and pay attention to the clues.

Monday, July 02, 2007

American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman wrote a fantasy set in contemporary America. A man (Shadow) just out of prison finds that his wife and best friend have died, and now without either home or job prospects agrees to work for a mysterious man who calls himself Wednesday. Nope, this isn't a remake of The Man Who Was Thursday: Wednesday turns out to be Votan. It turns out that there are quite a few down-at-heels gods around, including some newcomers who are modern gods of the plane and of the TV and of the dot-coms and so forth. Votan foresees a war between the old and new, and is trying to organize the battle. Gaimon's gods live by sacrifices and belief (like Norton's original idea), and wherever the believers in some god traveled and continued to offer sacrifices, there the god wound up also. These gods are powerful and “immortal” but can be killed, and also fade away completely when all forms of worship vanish.

Shadow has a little trouble getting into the swing of things, so to speak, and his dead wife isn't making things easy for him either, though she doesn't stop by often. To describe much more gives away too many discoveries in the plot, but Shadow does start to figure things out and start making mysterious decisions on his own account.

Gaiman is a good writer. The story flows well, the characters seem realistic—up until the rather unconvincing climactic battle scenes. The Lakeside townspeople are a little over-the-top welcoming (a subplot that might better have been trimmed), and there's a bit too much irrelevant sex.

It is gratifying to find a writer who has bothered to look beyond the usual mythologies to the way the old cults were actually practiced. There's an amusing scene in which Wednesday interrogates a Californian self-proclaimed pagan, who of course knows nothing at all about worship. And Gaiman tries to be faithful to the characters of the mythological creatures as shown in both the Bullfinch mythologies and in the implications of their cults.

Willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far, though; and in Gaiman's America Jesus is less relevant than Horus. Even if (per Gaiman's setting) Jesus were merely one of these non-supernatural creatures, he'd still be far and away the most dominant of the gods, second only to the god of the TV.

For all his research Gaiman seems to have no feel for why people worship, or why places were associated with gods (which makes the buffalo-headed man's last comments rather silly). I suppose the story would have to be completely different if he brought that in.

Mostly well-written, but on balance I don't recommend it. From the number of Wisconsin references I gather he spent some time around here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Day of rest continues

FWIW, I think the day of rest helped. I think I cracked the problem that afflicted the DAQ. I'll check it out in the morning.

Day of rest

On a day of rest

It being Dimanche, I decided I needed a day of rest after the 16 hours yesterday. The oompah Spanish band played until after 1 in the morning (not on CERN grounds, I think), and so I had trouble getting up at 9. The Baptist church's services started at 11:45, so I had plenty of time. And after the services I could look around and listen: today is the last day of the 3'rd annual Geneva music festival: Free music at about 30 venues.

I remembered the camera for a change, and finally got a couple pictures of the Geneva buses. They're very nice--not so tightly crammed as Madison ones, jointed in the middle, sign and an LED sign in the front tells the next stop (ours also played public service videos, including an anti-SIDS one with a small ball that crushes everything in its path and keeps growing), and 4 entrance/exit doors. Loading is very quick! (Of course that means tickets are on the honor system: with spot checking.)

The Meyrin road is pretty ripped up--reminds me of East Washington. I gave up taking pictures out the window: construction isn't all that informative.

Got off at the Cornavin station (mistake 2: mistake 1 was not making careful street by street notes of where to turn). Geneva is friendly to pedestrians. Over the bridge (wrong bridge) and on my way.

My landmarks are pretty clear: the Promenade of the Reformers and University of Geneva. I head down in search. Over to the east there's a big parking lot-like area with tents and band shells--but it doesn't look much like either a University grounds or the Reformer's park (mistake #4).

Off to the west. I can't find the street names on my tiny map, even with my glasses on. I'm not unduly surprised, until I find a small bridge crossing a small river that isn't anywhere on the map. I'm by the bus garage. The streets are festooned with trolley power lines.

Back east. This time I pick out a moderately solid street name as a marker. This isn't as reliable as you might think, because street names change. It is quiet; most shops are closed. Found the street and off into old town!

Oops. The streets in the old town are mostly pedestrian/bike only, are very much up hill and down dale, and I'd forgotten where the actual street names were put (on one building of the 4 choices at an intersection, about 10 feet up. The signs posted on poles at the corner refer to distant destinations.) Very colorful area, narrow streets and small shops, but I'd have hated to try to maneuver through it before the paving bricks were put in. A little rain would turn some of those streets into toboggan rides of mud.

By the cathedral a band shell has a large number of young kids getting lined up and prepped. Aha! A map! So if rue Tabazan is over there, then I just take this street until it intersects a big one and loop back.

Nope, I'm at the back side of the wall of the Reformers, instead; and the friendly security man has no idea what street I'm talking about.

Back to the map. Must have north/south mixed up. Go the other way. I'm already 10 minutes late.

Most places a pedestrian walkway is marked with yellow stripes. Some places use speed bumps for the purpose (about 10 feet wide).

By the time I get back to the map I'm 30 minutes late and I give up. I find some shade by the cathedral as the children start singing. They sound very nice. I can make out 1 word in three, and can't tell if they are singing about playing in the yard with their mothers or UN refugee policy. (Is this the group of orphans? No, it is the choeur d'enfants DIP division moyenne) After about three songs, I decide to pay a visit to the archaeology under the Saint-Pierre cathedral.

During renovations back in 76, they discovered that there were the remains of several older structures under the cathedral, including a tumulus burial dating to the first century BC. Looks like the chief got to be seriously revered after his death, because a shrine was built almost a century later and maintained in one form or another for another couple of centuries. Somebody even went to the trouble of digging a hole to excavate the guy's skull: presumably to put it in some above-ground monument. Anyhow, near the end of the Roman era Christians acquired the site and built a church. Geneva was a site of a bishop, so this was a cathedral.

The folks who wrote the captions and recorded the tour audio seem to be surprised that a building might need to be rebuilt a few times over a couple of thousand years; and they were fascinated by the irony of a modern cathedral centered over the burial of an Allobrogian chief. The baptistry had to be rebuilt many times over the short few centuries it was in use (not really a surprise to anybody who's had to deal with swimming pool maintenance), and the picture showing the use of it had the waiting men and women standing around naked to be dunked with towels waiting for them afterwards. I don't think that was quite the way it was done :-) UPDATE: They were baptized naked and clothed in white--the waiting line seemed not quite right, thought.

A huge mosaic floor must have been impressive once, but a thousand years or two turned the subfloor into waves and holes.

The archaeologists have done a fascinating job, and so have the modern architects who have shored things up so that the cathedral is standing with a hollow excavation underneath.

8sf. Go if you can. I skipped the cathedral tour--I don't do heights well.

The cathedral is beautiful. Of course it has been a Protestant cathedral for quite a while--even has Calvin's chair. There was an organ player in the balcony, and another much smaller one in front. Stone slabs against the wall were grave markers that had been in the floor before, and in the cross arm portion is a large sarcophagus and statue in an alcove. At the right were some seats in what we'd use as a choir stage: folding chairs, with a small dragon guarding the door into the box area. I don't think I'll complain too much about airplane seats after seeing those, and remembering how long Calvin's sermons could get. And no, almost none of my pictures came out well.

Moseying outside I found what I guess was a Klesmer band. They were fun to listen to, but I couldn't make out anything at all, except Sabbat and ein/zvie/drie. I decided to try to find that confounded rue Tabazan anyhow, in case I stayed two weeks again and had the opportunity to go again. Instead I ran into music coming out of the Eglise Lutheran (celebrating 300 years) that I'd also thought of trying (discarded the idea: their web page wasn't too encouraging. Among other things they proudly depicted an image of Jesus one of their members had made. I found out that it was suspended by a string, making the torso and arms look like some weird ghost floating in the air reaching malevolently out at you) The musicians were practicing.

So I sat down and waiting, and heard an hour of violin/viola/bass/flute music of Mozart, Hayden, Beethovan, and somebody else that was a last minute change to the program. People came and went, of course, but the group was very good.

Ok, sidetracked no more, I went to find the church--with a better map this time. Hmm. Roads go at two levels here! In the park on the other side of the street a long man in a band tent played a series of unfamiliar pieces--not techno, not harsh at all, but warped sound somehow. Seemed like 4/5 of the audience was sleeping teenagers.

Back up the road again, take the cross street, and lo and behold, the missing street splits off from the cross street.

And wonder of wonders, the place is open, with a festival number on it! ( and not all that far from where I met that friendly security man, either) The street walls are solid-looking and imposing, but once through the big wooden doors, and up the stairs there's a large garden area, with the church to the left and a classroom building across the garden. The church is full, and wooden, so I walk as softly as I can into the balcony to hear 45 minutes of piano and harp music.

When they're done, I leave. The streets are now so crowded that I hardly recognize them anymore, but I fumble my way back in the direction of the river--through new territory and transformed lanes.

I cross at a different bridge and head west along the river. I don't see the bridge I came over on: I must have been way out of the way. Once I find it it'll be a straight shot back to the train station, but I'm getting kind of impatient.

Short cut. And as I go, the 9 CERN comes up behind me! There's no bus stop yet, but I watch the way it goes and mosey that way until I find one. Buy ticket, wait, catch the bus, and off I go. The driver is courteous: one man races up to buy a ticket to get on. He punches buttons, tosses in coins, fumbles and fumbles and fumbles and fumbles--and the driver waits till he's done and aboard.

Back "home" again. The day was hazy, but I could see Mont Blanc in the distance.

I'll try to get out again if I can. Maybe schedule things to eat downtown instead. (I've also got to schedule laundry, and a trip to the Balexert stop, and try to get the DAQ running...)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Radiated power--and somebody's nuts

The BBC reported on using radiated power to power portable devices. The astute observer will notice that the light bulb in question is connected to a rather large coil--not entirely portable. There's a fancy name for the technology: WiTricity, but one of the people (Prof Pendry) they have explaining it is quoted as saying

"Ordinarily if you have a transmitter operating like a mobile phone at 2GHz - a much shorter wavelength - then it radiates a mixture of magnetic and electric fields," he said.

This is a characteristic of what is known as the "far field", the field seen more than one wavelength from the device. At a distance of less than one wavelength the field is almost entirely magnetic.

"The body really responds strongly to electric fields, which is why you can cook a chicken in a microwave," said Sir John.

"But it doesn't respond to magnetic fields. As far as we know the body has almost zero response to magnetic fields in terms of the amount of power it absorbs."

As a result, the system should not present any significant health risk to humans, said Professor Soljacic.

Somebody doesn't know what he's talking about. I suspect the reporter. Changing magnetic fields produce electric fields. You're not going to get current to flow in the laptop without electric fields. You can get power to transfer more efficiently at resonance, but there still have to be some kind of electric fields.

The fields are probably harmless in any event, since the E/M fields can be small, but the explanation is wrong.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

At the concert

One of the singers was a man with the general build of a Tolkien dwarf and a bald crown. Another was a pale thin hollow-cheeked woman who seemed to tremble a bit. A third was a grumpy young black man who kept tilting his head to the side as though he had a toothache or was trying to listen to a ball game on his radio.

This was the high school choir concert. There were various choirs, with the freshmen going first. One choir ditched their robes to do a pop number. Their robes made them look more dignified and mature. In their street clothes (well, one of the dancers had a skirt slit almost all the way up--not quite street clothes) they looked much younger. (and the male soloists needed some power in their voices)

The pop medley was lively, and the Gloriana competently done. The choir director's child was a senior that year, and she picked the Gloriana Masque partly as a salute to her husband--they'd had it in their wedding.

Route 66 and "What shall we do with a drunken sailor" and "Three little maids from school" and "Somewhere" (by Jasmine Christian, one of the students) reflect a little of the variety. The traditional salute to seniors ("May the road rise to greet you") was nicely done.

A good time was had by all: possibly because they made up an exclusion list beforehand. I saw the "do not admit" flier for the ticket seller, but didn't get the names. Some kids had apparently brought stink bombs before, but some preemptive action saved the day.


Irregular verbs are the bane of language students, but the textbooks ignore some other important conjugations completely. Herewith some simple examples:

First personSecond personThird person
I am frugalYou are a penny pincherHe is a miser
I am adventurous in bedYou are kinky He is perverted
I am wittyYou are funnyHe is a joker
I am justYou are strictHe is harsh
I am empatheticYou are emotional He is gushy
I am apprehensiveYou are fearful He is a coward
I am eloquentYou are wordy He is bombastic
I enjoy lifeYou overindulge He is dissipated
I am flexibleYou are fickle He is unreliable
I am colorfulYou are salty He is coarse
I am unconvincedYou are doubting He is cynical
I am stableYou are prosaic He is boring
I am virtuousYou are ethical He is strait-laced
I am generousYou are lavish He is extravagant
I am nobleYou are dignified He is a snob
I am playfulYou are a trifler He is not serious
I am pertYou are flippant He is insolent
I am courageousYou are a daredevil He is reckless
I am authenticYou are transgressive He is hateful

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Youngest daughter was assigned this in school, so I read it. It is classed as a Young Adult book.

Ed is a taxi driver with no prospects and no ambition, with a mother who dislikes him, friends without ambition, some of whom are on the dole, and a platonic love for a woman who is afraid of love and so substitutes sex. The book opens with him face down on the floor during a bank robbery by an incompetent bank robber, whom he soon finds himself capturing. In the flurry of publicity, he receives in the mail an ace of diamonds with the lines 45 Edgar Street, midnight; 13 Harrison Avenue, 6 pm; and 6 Macedoni Street, 5:30 am.

He investigates and finds that, Amelie-like, he is to intervene in the lives of others. When he finally finishes, another message arrives.

The plot is pleasantly surreal, the language (first person) is grungy, and how he eventually figures out what to do on each occasion is left mysterious. An almost supernatural insight points him to his targets, and he (after watching and figuring) seems almost supernaturally guided into the right thing to do. I missed a detail or two, and thought for a long time that the story was set in Britain (actually Australia). The story arc is the maturing of the hero.

The story has some flaws. The priest he is supposed to help seems a bit uninterested in the supernatural, but perhaps that's the kind they get in Australia. Keith and Daryl seem to represent some kind of karmic balancing, but they don't mesh in the story well at all. The biggest howler is the penultimate chapter in which the author makes an appearance, wrapping up the mystery by saying that he managed everything. Perhaps Zusak is trying to make some point about God and omnipotence here (author=God), but more likely he is being self-indulgent.

You could do worse. I don't plan to buy it.