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.