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.