Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the lighter side

For those familiar with Dilbert, a corporate version of "I am a gentle bunny" circulated Usenet some years back. Example:
I am a gentle bunny. I will listen and think on everything a person says, not just the parts I wish to fight with or the parts with which I already agree. If I find that everything presented is utter fantasy and absurdity, I will still carefully consider that this is, after all, my employer, and that in fantasy one may sometimes find humor, especially in schedules.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Believing in anything

Berkeley's public library will face a showdown with the city's Peace and Justice Commission tonight over whether a service contract for the book check-out system violates the city's nuclear-free ordinance.

Only the ritually pure will be allowed to live in the land of Berkeley, and only the ecclesiastics of the Berkeley PJC can give absolution to sinners like 3M. The library has to be kept clean of any defilement, whatever the cost.

I reserve the right (no, I have the responsibility) to pass judgment on religions, including the flagellant sect that rules Berkeley and much of Madison. "Professing themselves to be wise they became fools."

I wonder

Did Rapunzel braid her locks on a family heirloom?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

NY Metropolitan Opera Broadcast

This week's was a 1-act version of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. It sounded nice and melodious, but it was introduced as "Live, from the MET, Orfeo ed Euridice." I thought the whole point of the story involved one of the characters being dead.

It turns out Gluck changed the ending: he wasn't so revolutionary a composer that he'd challenge the then-current happy-ending conventions. Euridice ends up brought back to life a second time.

The original is an interesting myth, illustrating how desire can interfere with the fulfillment of the desire. A happy ending spoils the myth. But it had some nice music.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Executive Orders

So Obama is "closing" Gitmo. Except he isn't, really--just kicking the can down the road a year. And, incidentally, delaying a few trials that were in the works. Details. The devil is in the details. Funny that headline-type campaign promises don't work out in simple ways. I don't think a deadline was advisable--it weakens our hand when negotiating returns--but it will probably turn out to be a little elastic.

And no more waterboarding, either. Which hadn't been in use for a long time at last report, but never mind that.

The only thing I thought I knew for certain about Obama was his unwavering embrace of abortion, and unfortunately he didn't surprise me. So now we get to pay to kill babies around the world again--on purpose. There are no issues of "collateral damage" here; the killing is intentional.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

True Love for a Lifetime

Brain researchers claim that contrary to their expectations, married couples can in fact still be passionately in love 20 years after the wedding. I'm not as convinced by brain MRIs as they are, but is this result really really a surprise? It was to some people:

Aron said when he first interviewed people claiming they were still in love after an average of 21 years he thought they were fooling themselves: “But this is what the brain scans tell us and people can’t fake that.”

I remember being told years ago that a large number of speech pathologists had had speech impediments as children. Maybe psychologists are similar. Perhaps unhappy people are drawn to the profession; people who are unhappy themselves and don't know many happy people.


From this morning's sermon "My 401 is now a 201"

Beats being a 404, though.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mars Rovers

They've been running for 5 years now: 20 times the design lifetime.

Who says American manufacturers can't make long-lasting vehicles?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shelling the UNRWA headquarters

The news this morning says Israeli forces shelled the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza city.

My first thought was to see if this could be used as a way of measuring the error rate of Israeli attacks. Their stock in trade here has been accuracy. There's always an error rate--perhaps we can estimate use the number of high-profile sites in Gaza City, together with the number of high-profile non-militarized targets, to estimate the failure rate. I supposed that information might be available with a little searching: maybe GoogeMap for the former?

But then it occurred to me: this was the UNRWA headquarters. Given the UNRWA's track record in the area, maybe this was a warning shot. It set two buildings on fire but didn't kill anybody--luck or targetting?

Riddle me this

After running the car's heater to defrost the windows, why would I turn it off again and drive the last mile or two in -10F weather with the windows open before parking the car for the day?

Those of us in the frozen lands know: your breathing humidifies the air, and all that moisture is going to freeze on the inside of the windshields during the long cold day and evening--and it is a royal pain to scrape the inside as well as the outside. Bringing the cold air in from outside pushes out much of the warm moist air and dries out the rest. Less scraping!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A new record: 4930.3 nb^{-1}

What's the secret for recording a record luminosity for one shift?

Easy. Inherit a new, hot beam store with the run just started. Then, nothing goes wrong for the rest of the shift. (Except a couple of tiny glitches that resolve in a few seconds, and a failure in a few channels that wasn't worth restarting the run for {according to the expert we paged for the occasion}.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Andrew Jackson's Inauguration, Revisited

Jackson invited the public to attend the White House ball celebrating his inauguration. The crowd overwhelmed and began to damage the building, and the crush was only relieved when assistants poured punch in tubs outside to lure out the celebrants.

When I was in Louisville after Christmas I heard reports of preparations for Obama's inauguration. One shocking little detail was that only a few thousand port-a-potties were being brought in. This would result in lines to use them being of the order of 20 hours long.

I hope the planners are starting to think about the significance of the inauguration. There will be a lot of people coming to see, even from a distance; just to be able to say they were there. There's going to have to be extremely aggressive crowd control, with traffic closed through the city and multiple TV venues. Take the estimates of the largest crowd to date and triple it, and assume that huge numbers of the city folks will show up as well. It'll be faster to walk into town than take public transportation--there are just not enough seats available.

We'll need lots of large TV's, lots of port-a-johns, lots of benches for the infirm, lots of food and water, lots of nurses, and as many policemen as you can bring from all over the nation--plus National Guard to bulk it up a bit. Get every church group you can find to set up food/soft-drink stands, with maybe some music. It's going to last a long time.

Think about it: About 1 to 2% of the population are criminals. If you have a crowd of 3 million people, that's between 30,000 and 60,000 serious troublemakers. And if you don't manage the crowding and provide the simple services, even usually law-abiding citizens can get caught up in a crowd spirit and trash the place.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Culture of Contentment by John Kenneth Galbraith

Galbraith is a theorist. I mean that in a bad way. He analyzes economic, political, and even cultural trends from a purely economic viewpoint.

His thesis is that the country is run for the benefit of a powerful elite, who benefit from things like low taxes and high interest rates (used to keep down inflation instead of Galbraith's favorite higher taxes). They are able to so run things because they have enlisted the middle class, who also benefit from these and from government programs designed to prop up the economic well-being of the middle class.

He is worried that this is shortsighted, considers it hypocritical that it doesn't work harder for the poor, and is not hopeful that it is robust against the inevitable (he claims self-inflicted) crises.

Reasonable evidence can be marshaled for these points.

Unfortunately he overreaches. He, trying to make the point that the military industrial complex is self-perpetuating, feels compelled to denigrate any risks to the world from communism, going so far as to claim that you couldn't have communism without capitalism first (claiming Marx as his authority). Either this very highly educated man never heard of Mao or he is being disingenuous. I suspect the latter, but other glaring (though less vital) errors make me wonder.

In a section devoted to proving that only government is "disrespected" he claims that the term "bureaucrat" is only used of government functionaries, not corporate or military ones. This could only be said by someone with little experience of either. True, some of the complaints about the military I've heard have used phrases of more Anglo-Saxon origin than "bureaucrat."

He assumes that only economic motives lead someone to join the army, and introduces as evidence Harvard with no students at all joining the First Gulf Campaign. The notion that there might be cultural reasons does not seem to cross his mind. (Harvard was just as rich and elite a hundred years ago, when they did provide officers to the armed forces.)

His approach to the middle class is excessively snide. It seems not to have occurred to him that an economic system that prospers 80% of the population is an unprecedented achievement, and not something to be dismantled without care.

If he'd spent a little more time with the people he purports to be concerned about, he might have written something less theoretical, more humble, and more useful. Skip it.

True, I sometimes indulge myself in analysis where I follow some particular theme to see where it leads, without trying to introduce too much complexity. I don't generally suggest policy on that basis, though. I was perhaps a little uncharitable to Galbraith, but after having read a far more insightful book I wasn't in the mood for overly simplistic models of the world. Looking back on yesterday's post: I still don't recommend his book.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Acedia and Me

by Kathleen Norris

Subtitled A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life

It is telling that the spell-checker doesn’t recognize acedia. Norris tells us about “the noonday demon,” mostly forgotten today; even though it is arguably the dominant vice of our age.

Acedia is the “not caring” attitude. It sometimes manifests in obvious sloth, but sometimes in an irritable search for distraction. Acedia and pride were the principal vices of my childhood; and they’re sometimes considered the worst of the bunch.

Norris starts with the desert monks of the 5th century. Yes, they’re quite relevant.

It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or rather—in a process much commented on by the desert monks—a quick succession of thoughts that distract me from my right mind. I’ve been working too hard and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I’m too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations, and of being good to myself. If I manage to read one book, and then return to my other obligations, no harm is done. But often, one book does not satisfy me. My “rest” has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don’t check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them.

I may have begun with a well-written novel, but soon I am ingesting whatever I can get my hands on. Morbidly conscious of the time I am wasting, I race feverishly through a book so preposterous and badly written that it nauseates me. If I pick up a more serious book, something that might bring me to my senses, I am likely to plow through it as thoughtlessly as if it were a genre thriller. I have become like the child I once knew who emerged one morning from a noisy, chaotic Sunday-school classroom to inform the adults who had heard the commotion and had come to investigate, “We’re being bad, and we don’t know how to stop.” In this new, repulsive world I now inhabit—and indeed, have created for myself—I sleep fitfully with the light on, waking at intervals to read the same sentences over and over. My days are not lived so much as wasted in compulsive reading. I stop answering the phone and getting the mail, ignoring everything but the next page, the next book in the pile.

Your mileage will vary—this is one way it appears in a writer’s life.

Somehow the Romantic poets came to be associated with ennui and despair, and it has been a popular attitude for writers to take ever since. Writers are expected to find life too coarse or dull for their refined tastes, I guess. Norris shows how this spiritual vice crippled some of them.

Acedia bears some superficial resemblance to depression. Kathleen illustrates these differences with moving stories from her own and her late husband’s lives. Depression is often biochemical, and can be (sometimes: research she quotes suggests less than half the time) treated chemically. Therapy is sometimes useful (it was for her) but not terribly often. Acedia, since it is a spiritual condition, needs to be addressed with self-knowledge and action. Monks of old afflicted by this demon of noonday were told not to try to move away or change jobs (it doesn’t help at all), but to focus on physical labor and concentrating on the obligations of the day. There’s no “magic bullet,” just grace for the day and the hope of winning through to peace.

That faith and love operate best through the humble means of boring everyday occupations is a thoroughly biblical perspective, for its stories repeatedly remind us that God’s attention is fixed on what we regard as unimportant and unworthy. The Scriptures depict God not as a Great Cosmic Cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but as a creator who loves us enough to seek us in the mundane circumstances of our lives.

She likes the old desert fathers’ list of the “eight bad ideas” better than the “seven deadly sins,” since the thoughts are prior to the actions. And

For Evagrius it is acedia “alone of all the [bad] thoughts” that is “an entangled struggle of hate and desire. For the listless one hates whatever is in front of him and desires what is not there.” If we cannot rein in this thought and the depredations it brings, we become, in Evagrius’ vivid phrase, the playthings of our demons, no longer able to distinguish between what will enhance our lives and what will destroy us. “Like an irrational beast,” he writes, we find ourselves “drugged by desire and beat from behind by hate.” As always, however, there is a remedy, and it is close at hand. “Endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God.”

She is right that this is one of the characteristic vices of our age. Those who “don’t care” restlessly hunt new amusements, new fads, new “save the world” schemes; never looking honestly at their own motives or open to real changes of life. We are afflicted with anomie and hopelessness in the middle of unexampled wealth and power.

I’m also reading Galbraith’s The Culture of Contentment. His theoretical economic analysis doesn’t hold a candle to her book.

The book is not a “linear” book. Some of the stories she tells are intensely personal and painful, and some are beautiful, and some assume the reader isn’t going to be overwhelmed by a few literary references.

Read the book. Rumplestiltskin has a lot less power when you recognize and name him.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sign Juxtaposition in Janesville

On the way home a few signs by the highway in Janesville caught my eye. Appearing as though they were right next to each other were "Hooters" and "Get It Now!" The latter I guess is a rent-to-own place (you'll pay lots of $$$ in interest!) and the other a famous restaurant chain featuring nicely arranged young women in abbreviated uniforms.

The signs go together well (at least for men). Do you want a beautiful woman to pay attention to you? It is faster to go to Hooters and leave a generous tip than it is to try to win a lady's affection. (And faster than, having "won fair maid," awaiting her pleasure; for she has obligations too.)

Of course, a few smiles and a photograph with the waitress is substantially less satisfactory than a hug from your lady. So is paying \$1200 to the rent-to-own place for a \$500 sofa.

No good shortcuts...

Gene Discovery!

Are you a reader of the Dr. Boli web site yet? He has a great article on the discovery of a very special gene. I'll not deface his prose by paraphrase.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Guilty :-)

I post a post into the air disparaging mocking, and of course I'd indulged in it myself a few posts earlier, making fun of Illinois' Gov Blague. (*)

The governor isn't trying to amuse us--he wants us to think he's serious and important, even when he's corrupt and foolish. I think a little mockery (in moderation) is a reasonable reaction. What I worry about is the culture of mockery in which everything is attacked, whether it deserves derision or not.

(*) Oops, I did it again.