Friday, December 31, 2010

Frazier Museum

As we drove to the Louisville Science Center, there were grumblings that we always went to the same place and there was never anything different except the traveling exhibit. When we discovered that the traveling exhibit was "Sesame Street explains the body" and the place was chock-a-block with little kids, the grumblers won the day and we walked a block to the Frazier History Museum.

It is mostly an arms history museum, but much of it is very well done. My eyes glazed over at the displays of paraphernalia of Kentucky Civil War officers (on both sides of the war). But the dioramas and reconstructions of famous battles and how weapons and tactics changed were quite interesting. The top floor is British history, the second American, and the first floor has some lecture areas and hands-on spaces. They provide a long list of interpretations--you'd have to come rather often to see them all. We saw Annie Oakley and a demonstration of sword fighting with blade and buckler. The latter was taken from an illustrated manual from the 1200's in which a monk is teaching a scholar (and on the last page an 8'th century female saint) how to fight. A buckler is a metal shield about the size of a dinner plate with a large boss in the middle. You have to be fast with it...

Kliban cat

I used to think that Kliban's wild-eyed super-saggy cats were caricatures. Jezebel is my mother's calico cat. Aside from the coloration, and smaller paws, she could have been Kliban's model.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

We saw the movie for the first time last night.

Charles Taylor was the successful warlord who overthrew Doe (who assassinated Tolbert), and got himself a nice veneer of respectability by getting elected President of Liberia. His involvement in Sierra Leone's "revolution" (diamond mine warlords) and general mischief in West Africa was well known. He maintained his own private army parallel to the national one, got rich, killed opponents, and attracted another revolutionary group: LURD, which banded to destroy him.

The "armies" were ill-disciplined, to put it mildly, and lived off the land; and civilians suffered, fled, died by the tens of thousands. To be of the wrong tribe in the wrong place was death. Rape and torture and useless murder and kidnapping were pervasive--even in the refugee camp in Monrovia, nominally protected from the fighting.

A group of women decided to protest for peace--both Christians and Muslims. They started a gathering dressed in white at the fish market which Taylor rode past every day. It grew, and grew, and as the battlefield reports got worse Taylor agreed to meet with them. They wanted him to join peace negotiations with the rebels. There is no great question of government legitimacy--although Taylor was elected there wasn't really a lot of choice, and it didn't make much difference which bloody warlords you wound up with. He agreed.

The women went to Sierra Leone where several of the rebel warlords were living, and swarmed them demanding that they too join peace talks. They thought this a good idea.

In Ghana, the warring parties met at a nice hotel for talks. They argued a lot, and talked a lot, and had lovely dinners, and urged their respective armies to fight harder. And with imbecilic timing the ICC decided to indict Taylor for war crimes. He left for Liberia, of course.

So nobody had any reason to hurry. Except the women of Liberia. Thousands were refugees in Ghana, so some of the organizers collected money to go to Acra, where they organized a sit-in blockading the conference. (The Nigerian president, exasperated with the Liberian negotiators arguing over who was to get which lucrative government post, was sympathetic.) When the police promised to arrest them, they threatened to strip naked--and it is a curse to see your mother (by extension other old women) naked. The police warned them to blockade the window, since some delegates were getting ready to jump out.

This protest got more media attention, and the international groups funding the conference threatened to cut off the gravy train. The negotiators got to work and hammered out a deal: cease fire, interim government, new elections, etc. Taylor agreed to step down to take refuge in Nigeria. UN troops came in to do peacekeeping. And in the subsequent elections, Ellen Sirleaf won instead of one of the warlords.

That is the bare bones of the movie, but it is told from the point of view of the women who organized to demand peace. Their stories make the movie what it is--which is a moving documentary of the pains of war and the prayers for and demands for peace. And their victory. And their promise to come back if it isn't satisfactory.

They are courageous women. The movie may give some people nightmares, though. See it.

I fear the movie was too upbeat. The women berated the UN for an idiotic disarmament plan (have armed men wait in line for hours with nothing to do but drink and do drugs?!?), but I think they praised the final plan too much. The UN claimed 100,000 citizens turned in weapons, but this (by another report) only represented about 30,000 actual weapons (some turned in ammo, etc), with no breakdown of how many of these were military and how many were civilian (shotguns, machetes). Since other estimates (also UN) were that 60,000 fighters might turn in weapons and that there were 3 weapons per fighter, you can easily see that most stuff was cached somewhere. And contrary to some opinions, the military weapons are not at all equivalent to civilian tools: the attackers' tactics and villagers' responses are different. A small boys unit armed with single-shot shotguns wouldn't have gotten far, but with AK47s or AK74s they terrorized.

Godwin's Law, A Corollary

Godwin's Law, A Corollary

Godwin's Law says that any internet discussion, if it lasts long enough, will eventually involve one party accusing another of being like Hitler. Almost always, at that point, intelligent discussion is no longer possible.

This is ironic, because the Nazis tactics were old familiar ones; used all over the world to this day in places like Azerbaijan and by people like Mugabe and Taylor. Arrest or kill anybody who objects; Build up race/class/religious hatreds; Censor or shout down your opponents: these are a tyrant's ABCs of holding power.

At public hearings for enlarging the access to a major road, an opponent called the project "environmental racism." No, the phrase does not seem to make any more sense in context, but the magic word "racism" appeared, and he somehow thought made his pronouncement important.

In general any discourse in which one side accuses the other of racism has likewise passed the point where intelligent discussion is possible. Since "racism" is now possible without your being aware of it, without actually disliking anybody of other races, and is proved by merely disagreeing with policies of a politician of some special ethnic group, it is clear that the word is used merely for abuse. Which is unfortunate, since race hatred is alive and well and is many demagogues' favorite tool.

Praise Choruses

Assistant Village Idiot hits in the bullseye again with a proposal that churches try singing choruses from Handel's Messiah.

"It sounds thrilling for a congregation. Handel’s choruses are what all praise choruses hope to grow up to be: single verses of scripture, repeated with variations, sung vigorously."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Humility and Infancy

Via The Anchoress, I found this Christmas article by Esolen. A fragment: "The stories of Bethlehem remind us not to put too much stock in the grimly serious business of being grownup and wise in the world."

Nature and disposition and character and action

I am weary of foggy meanings.

I am a scientist. For the honor of truth I must admit that most of what I’ve done for the past several years has been programming and code maintenance, but I’m a scientist still.

So, can you say that this is my nature?

I wouldn’t. I think this breakdown is clearer:

  • Nature is those aspects of me that I share with other humans; the things that make me human and not (for example) feline. "Form," if you want to get all Greek about it. For example, I need to be with other people—humans are social. (True, I also need to be alone sometimes, but this is also part of human rhythms.)
  • Disposition is the set of distinctive aspects I came with. I’m diffident. I’m a quick thinker; good at spotting key features in things. I was born with a strong and healthy body.
  • Character is what I made of these: with training I became good at analysis, and at figuring out which things were measurable and running the numbers; cross checking with a disrespect for pronouncements. In other words I’m a scientist. I’m also the one standing at the side in the party. And because I liked reading more than active play, that "healthy body" is overweight and I’m no good at sports.
  • I discovered over the years that people weren’t always interested in hearing someone run the numbers on their blue-sky ideas or point out the logical flaws underpinning their political fashions. So I don’t always apply my training and my characteristic inclinations. Sometimes I even strike up a conversation with a stranger at a party—if the %*#& band isn’t overamped. So my actions don’t always represent my character.

So: sometimes I act like a scientist. My character and habits are those of a scientist. I am disposed for analytical thinking—but I could have been something else besides a scientist. And my nature is like yours.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An example?

Thinking over Jesus' miracles, I notice that, although He shows Himself perfectly capable of healing at a distance, He didn't do much of it. A crowd comes wanting healing for themselves or loved ones, and for some reason He doesn't just say "Be healed" to the lot of them as He did with the lepers. The healing is, as far as is recorded, requested one on one, and dealt with one on one. The feeding of the multitudes didn't involve bread landing in everyone's lap, but was handed out one on one via the proxy hands of the disciples and possibly others.

From one point of view it is important that people come to Jesus, and so being healed in bulk at a distance is the wrong parable. But if we are to be Jesus' body in the world and do His work, does Jesus' one on one approach constitute an example for us? Feeding the crowds was a corporate endeavor, but ... on the whole our primary focus should not be the charitable organizations but what we can do one on one.

Which gets complicated with beggars on State Street. Do you give cash to someone who will promptly spend it on drugs, or drop it in the Salvation Army kettle for better controlled charity? Or give out McDonalds coupons? Or (and I've only done this once, I fear), take the guy to lunch together?

Homeless shelters are going to concentrate folks with problems in one place for efficient service, but at the cost of losing one on one contact, and at the cost of increasing the fraction of people with mental or moral problems. That doesn't make a good environment for learning to do better for those very people with mental problems, and makes it fairly toxic for the merely out of luck. So, what would work better?


Again. Just for keeping track.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

TSA report

I said I'd report on my experience with TSA. In Madison there is no "naked scanner" and the personnel were, as usual, polite and efficient. The return trip had me go through Chicago, which does have them. I didn't go through one, and the personnel were polite and efficient.

Looming weather was a constant theme through the travels this time, and in the event actually made my trip easier. The snow in Madison was pretty trivial and I got to the airport OK, and Chicago was pretty clean. The snow in Geneva had mostly melted in the rain when we got there. Brussels got rain instead of snow. The flight from Brussels to Chicago left a bit late but arrived on time--but some other flights didn't, with the result that the Immigration line took less than 5 minutes and the security line about 6, which had me early enough in the concourse to observe that the 14:00 Madison flight hadn't left. I dashed over to L concourse, and got on standby for the flight where I discovered that half the passengers hadn't arrived in O'Hare thanks to bad weather elsewhere; so I got to Madison 3 hours earlier than planned, and was safe at home when the storm hit.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


In the course of an essay on what use people would make of a new planet, Dalrymple includes this:

This is perfectly obvious when you look at pictures by artists of heaven and hell.

Hell, whatever else may be said about it, is always extremely interesting and lively.

It has the kind of monsters in it that would be endlessly fascinating to anyone with the slightest interest in his surroundings. There is always plenty going on in hell, as much going on in fact as on the multiple screens displayed in large pubs these days. Anyone who likes nightclubs will love hell. Moreover, hell is probably easier to get into.

Russia and the Cote d'Ivoire Elections

BBC reports that Russia is blocking a Security Council resolution asserting that Ouattara won the election last month. They say this exceeds the mandate of the UN in the matter.

The Election Commission says Ouattara won and the Constitutional Council says the incumbent Gbagbo won. Smell a rat or two?

Set aside the question of who fouled the results. Does Resolution 1528 actually give the UN the mandate to decide the winner in a contested situation? Clauses m and q-10 might be stretched to fit: "prepare for and assist in the conduct of ... elections", "demands that the parties fulfill their obligations under the Linas-Marcoussis agreement". But "assist in" doesn't mean oversee or certify.

So on the face of it, Russia is correct. The UN can (and probably should, though I don't know all the details yet) say that the election results are botched and urge CdI to figure it out themselves or submit to arbitration, but they have no mandate to decide the results.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Everything old is new again

From Tremendous Trifles in "Prehistoric Station" by that old newspaperman Chesterton

Modern writers have often made game of the old chronicles because they chiefly record accidents and prodigies; a church struck by lightning, or a calf with six legs. They do not seem to realize that this old barbaric history is the same as the new democratic journalism. It is not that the savage chronicle has disappeared. It is merely that the savage chronicle now appears every morning.

Or from "Birds who won't sing" in the same volume:

If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank? As the train flew through the Kentish gardens, I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen. Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

"Up my lads and lift the ledgers, sleep and ease are o'er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting: 'Two and Two are Four.'
Though the creeds and realms are reeling, though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches, Two and Two are Four."

"There's a run upon the Bank--
Stand away!
For the Manager's a crank and the Secretary drank
and the Upper Tooting Bank
Turns to bay!
Stand close: there is a run
On the Bank.
Of our ship, our royal one, let the ringing legend run,
that she fired with every gun
Ere she sank."

Or from "Glimpse of My Country"

If you have the good fortune to really talk with a statesman, you will be constantly startled with his saying quite intelligent things. It makes one nervous at first.

Although I'm not persuaded

Thursday, December 02, 2010


How did they build it? Dragging big stones around is hard and leaves traces, so there must have been an easier way to move them (sometimes 200 miles!). Two "new" ideas are that they created wicker cradles to roll them in, and that they used stone balls as ball bearings in wooden troughs to make it easier. The latter method has some obvious problems when dragging rocks uphill, but they don't seem insurmountable. It should be possible to try to verify the method. Some fraction of the stone balls should have spalled and become unusable, so they should look for marred balls in among the rest. Oak balls or roller dowels don't last so long, unfortunately.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA misapprehensions

I don't fly much: 4 times a year to Switzerland mostly, and my last encounter with TSA was before the more rigorous rules. I'll let you know if anything is odd with next month's trip.

But I think I've already spotted quite a few errors circulating.

  1. There's radiation danger from "nude scanner." Not really, this isn't X-rays.
  2. It won't find crotch bombs. True enough, but not relevant--it was supposed to be good at finding non-metallic weapons. Whether it really works or not is a different matter, and it might be worthwhile to figure out who benefited and find out if everything was on the up and up.
  3. TSA are just doing their jobs. True enough, but I've already spotted several folks who enjoy the exercise of power a little too much. And, as I said, I don't fly much.
  4. At least we'll be flying safely. Not really. Watch how the plane is loaded and how the scanning works. If you can't figure out at least three ways of circumventing the system you're not thinking.
  5. If we profile like Israel does we'll be better off. True. But where on earth would we find that many trained screeners? We have several orders of magnitude more air traffic than Israel.
  6. The searches are an excuse for groping. I don't know for sure, but it seems unlikely that there's a lot of that. Some, yes.

Lots of jokes suggest that soon we'll all be boarding the plane nude, but that's not happening. We'd be issued a thin disposable gown and a nice warm robe that they'd wash once a week (just like the blankets). And still nobody would be checking the food service for bombs.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Camping for God

Look at Leviticus 23:33-43, with special note of verse 42. The people are not to stay at home for the celebration, but spend 7 days "in booths:" in temporary shelters. They are to camp out.

This is, as the text says, a reminder of what God did for their forefathers as they escaped from Egypt.

But it has other effects as well.

They empty themselves of the bulk of their possessions for a season—they become poor. This reminds them of what is really needed for life. With a clearer picture of what's vital, they might be more ready to give; digging deeper into the pocket because they know what they can really get by on.

It reminds them of their equality before God. You find no huge house and tiny hovels—everybody is in a makeshift shelter.

It empties them so they can be filled again. Each new gift is a great joy for a few weeks, and then we get used to it and its only a minor joy, or part of the background. But if we leave it all behind, and then receive it again, a little of the original joy comes back too.

Though they could not know it yet, it empties them as an echo of how Jesus emptied himself for us.

Suffering together (even if only the mild suffering of camping), can bond people together, as soldiers and schoolchildren can testify.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hell in Heaven by Modou Gueye

A Senegalese man left behind his wives to come to the USA. When the US embassy asked him how long he would be staying, he said two weeks. This short volume is his observations and advice from his 19-year stay in the USA.

You should read the book to get a flavor of a different perspective. Unfortunately, he is not a very reliable observer:

"Certainly, we can see two major different groups of people: The first group includes the rich, politically called Republicans, and movie stars, athletes, and entertainers. Unfortunately they are the most exposed to the justice system, which treats them very harshly when they are found guilty of ...." What planet is he talking about? Three groups, not two; most of the famous rich are Democrats; and the justice system is almost always very tender with the rich and famous.

His understanding of Christianity is as poor as most Americans' understanding of Islam; he takes up the "America is racist to the core" line; and he follows the usual a-historical tropes about the source of all the woes in the Middle East. But, inaccurate though this is, it represents what a lot of the world thinks.

He is a Muslim of Sufi flavor, and though he doesn't go into a lot of detail he cites famous Senegalese Sheikhs--which most of us (myself included) have never heard of before--whose message isn't quite the same as the Saudi-based imams or the Egyptian schools.

I gather that he spent most of his time in New York, which may color his view of the US as being exceptionally violent. He is generous with advice; explaining why the African ways are better. Not infrequently, they are.

Hell in Heaven? The USA is the heaven, the promised land; with endless opportunity. Except when it isn't, and you have to sell fake watches on the streets of New York to make ends meet because you haven't a green card. (He never actually says what he was doing during those years...)

Magnet House?

We've always had rabbits running around outside, and two months ago a woodchuck decided the garden looked like a nice place to stay. Last night we found a young muskrat in a window well.

He is now in the tall weeds at Patrick Marsh. The plank that allowed him escape from the hole had a livetrap conveniently placed beside it--he could try to walk on the wobbly "trampoline" far end of the plank, fall back in the hole, or go in the trap. He chose wisely. You don't see how amazing their feet are unless you can get close enough to look--and he clung to the inside of the trap like a monkey when we tried to empty him out by the pond.

What next? And what is it about our house that attracts these critters?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wandering Minds

New research claims that "A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

This has been noticed before:

"All man's miseries come from not being able to sit quietly in an empty room." --Blaise Pascal

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Elections without TV

Funny how different elections look when you don't watch TV. The governor's race here was alleged to be vicious. (The incumbent, Doyle, wasn't running.) I read up on the candidates. Walker, the Republican (and eventual winner), was generally agreed to be easy to work with and a nice guy. The Democrat, Barrett, had his hand broken and head injured when he jumped to the defense of a woman being attacked last year. (Unfortunately he's pro-abortion down the line: a pity; a brave man deserves a better political party.) Without a TV it looked like a contest between two fellows of good character.

One issue in the election was the train: Doyle was pushing hard for it, trying to get all the contracts signed for the $810 million deal with the Feds before the election. Walker won, and one of his planks was that the railroad was a waste. The next day, instead of pushing to further lock in the deals, Doyle canceled the railroad plan. I don't know his motives, but I'll attribute it to courtesy: no point in wasting resources just for politics' sake.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

These two books: The Knight and The Wizard tell the story of Able of the High Heart. It is nominally a long letter to his brother Ben back in the USA, but that never interferes with the storytelling.

We open with his arrival in Mythgarthr—or at least the time he is first aware that he has arrived. (By the way, skip the introductory who’s who list and follow along with the hero as he discovers things—it is more fun that way.) He meets Parka (one of the Fates), and is given his new name and destiny—he’s to be a knight.

As usual in a Wolfe novel the setting is detailed and many threads weave in and out of the plot, and the narrator isn’t 100% accurate. His hierarchy of worlds brings in everything from dragons to the Fates to the Valfather (one eyed, goes around with ravens…) to the archangel Michael, and his re-imagining of elves is very good.

Explaining why Able isn’t an accurate narrator would give away parts of the story; suffice it to say that we discern very early on that he’s a man (OK, a boy for the first few pages) with a mission. He’s supplied with what he needs for the job, including a dog that can become a monster, special powers, and sidekicks, some poor and some magical. But what is that job? Is it enough that this landless commoner can become a knight and acquire a magic sword?

The second book finds him more powerful still, but unable to use most of his power—for honor’s sake. His squires and assistants become more prominent in the story, and his mission is finally revealed—and it feels slightly anticlimactic, though it shouldn’t. (Could have been just a little more carefully drawn there…) And it ends with him giving an implicit rebuke to Michael and the Valfather.

Not everybody likes Wolfe’s style, which can be complex and layered. Read it.

Volunteer by Michael Ross

How does a Canadian end up working for Mossad?

Well, you start by traveling, and settling down in Israel for a while, and falling in love with an Israeli woman. If you convert and become a citizen to marry her, and distinguish yourself in the right ways during your stint in the army, you might get a phone call. And if you pass the battery of tests, you might become an apprentice. And then…

It turns out to be rather difficult to make a story about spying exciting. A successful spy gets information and nobody finds out. And even when he manages to arrange for some kind of violent action, sometimes the game gets called off for worries about political fallout.

I assume that Ross ran the book by his former employers before trying to publish it. It is therefore impossible to say whether the picture is quite accurate, and whether it was sanitized. I suspect it wasn’t sanitized very much. And he’s pretty hard on himself when describing his efforts to scare a couple of Iranian agents out of South Africa.

Iran is very much on the scene throughout the book, and you get an agent’s eye view of what they’ve been doing—not revelations to anybody who’s been paying attention, though.

For several years he was liaison to US intelligence agencies, and his assessment of the CIA and FBI is harsh. The CIA is solidly careerist, home-based, and insular, the FBI is worse than useless, and inter-service interference is scandalous and a national liability.

When I began work with the Mossad in 1988, my instructor Oren told me that each agent is like a box of matches. One by one, the matches are burned up, and there is nothing left but ash. Some of us have more matches than others. But we all have a finite number

And he retires. But..

Whatever they say, however, I believe that the world needs to hear these stories. A storm is coming, and it would appear that those of us who cherish life, liberty, and the goodness in our way of life will have no choice but to endure it.

I decided not to wait for the inevitable. I volunteered.

Read it. Especially read it if you’ve never heard a good word about the Mossad—you need the education.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


When we read of the God-Kings of ancient civilizations we smile a bit at the thought that a commoner ought not look at the king, or that everything the king touched had to be special, or that he could not touch the ground.

I'm not snickering anymore. For his state visit to India, coconuts are being removed from the trees lest they should fall on him, a special tunnel will keep him from being seen, and the $200 million per day trip includes a flotilla of 34 warships to prevent attacks from the sea like the one last year. Closer to home, they advertised for actors to fill out the hall where he'd be meeting the public, and all questions are vetted in advance. Nothing is permitted to get close, or in any way defile the sacred image.

I suspect much of this would be the same for state visits by a Republican president too, although our previous president would sometimes make unannounced low-entourage visits to war zones. The President isn't yet an unapproachable divinity. But he's getting there.

The $200M/day apparently was sourced from an anonymous Indian official, and is denied. The 34 warships is also denied, but isn't so obviously out of line: warships can include very small vessels.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa set up this after the power handover, and from all reports it has been largely successful in bringing a measure of closure to old injustices: sometimes by justice and sometimes by mercy but always with clarity about the nature of the old crimes.

Liberia put together such a thing too. I remember thinking: "OK, sounds like a fine idea" and not examining the issue much. Then I read some complaints from Liberians saying "don't muddy the waters, this is too close, this could be trouble." Perhaps it was reporting bias, but it seemed as though those in favor were often relatively mobile elites and those opposed were people on the ground in Liberia.

A little further thought reminded me that the situations weren't really all that parallel: in South Africa nobody seriously thought the old regime was at all likely to return in a coup, but in Liberia everybody believed that the warlords still had arsenals ready to hand and were able to start fighting again with little preparation. The legislature is alleged to be chock-a-block with partisans of the various warlords.

I didn't spend the time to do a detailed review of who was who on the commission and what their backgrounds were, but decided that the default position should be that alleged to be of the people in harm's way: don't push this. This isn't South Africa and another civil war is going to be worse than failure to bring justice. Or, to put it another way, criminals are going to get away with murder because there is no robust framework for bringing justice; and there's no use pretending otherwise.

Earlier this year the TRC announced a report calling for the President to resign, not because she had committed any crimes or because she was a warlord or even a current partisan of a warlord, but because she had supported one faction years ago. Red flags went up for me: this isn't about crime and justice, but about politics.

And so it seems to be. If Gbaba is speaking for them all, they are calling for disbanding the government and instituting an interim government. They don't specify who they think should be running it, but I think I could nail it in less than three guesses.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I will not be posting details of the wedding until after I've circulated pictures and notes to family.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I complained a while back that the simple model of DNA in popular thought ("Let's clone a mammoth!") wasn't good enough. It turns out I didn't know the half of it. The article is about what DNA looks like and how it actually works--as far as we know. Sections include: Genomic Perplexities, From Junk to Living Organism, The Dynamic Chromosome, The Dynamic Space of the Cell Nucleus, Metamorphosis of the Code, DNA’s Many Languages, Meaningful Form, The Sensitive Nucleosome, and The Nucleosome as Mediator.

I knew things had to be dynamic, but I had no idea how many different factors interplay in expressing a single gene. Go read it. Maybe you'll need more than one sitting, but go read it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Caricature and Attraction

When I was young and wanted to be an archaeologist, I was fascinated at how ugly the Egyptian women’s stylized makeup was. How could anybody think it attractive?

Now I understand how it works. I’ve lived long enough to see it in action.

Apply just a little exaggeration to the features of beautiful women, and make them the standards to emulate. Advertising campaigns or being Pharaoh’s daughter both work fine.

Give people a few years to get used to it, and then, a few fashion cycles later, deepen the exaggeration just a hair’s breadth. If you can saturate the media you can make the look the new baseline. Children will pick up on the message: this is needed to make you attractive. After a few years the symbol will start to dominate. Look at some of the eye shadow used in recent ad campaigns. Just sharpen the boundaries slightly instead of feathering them out, and it’ll be almost Egyptian, although without the little tail.

Symbolism and stylization can go very far. Think of Indonesian dance, or a huge swath of Chinese painting genres. They’re unintelligible to outsiders, because they’re dominated by symbolic movements or shapes. One angry-looking Chinese mask is a monster, and the other is a beneficent defender against monsters, and the difference all comes from tiny symbols and color choices that I know nothing about.

Or, closer to home, consider the pole dance. We’ve all seen clips--one played in a show on the flight back the other day--a woman clinging to, rubbing against, and climbing around a pole on a stage. A scantily or un-clad woman is erotic, especially when in motion; but for the pole to add anything to the scene you the viewer have to come prepared to think of the pole as a stand in (symbol) for yourself, for her swinging her leg high to be a symbol of her offering herself, and so on. If you don't accept those symbols, her exaggerated motions look creepily unnatural, and for her to be wasting her caresses on a chunk of iron suggests an unattractive confusion. But the dances are popular enough to have "found their way" into other entertainment, like a TV medical show. A lot of people have been trained to accept the symbols.

I wonder how often we wind up preferring symbolic to realistic action. I know politicians rely on that, but those kind of odd choices show up in other areas of our lives too. Its not hard to notice other folk's strange decisions; I don't know a simple rule for identifying my own.

Friday, October 22, 2010


This still says it well.

You might say sentimental, you might say sappy; but sap is what makes things live. God bless you, daughter, and new son far away.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Songs and Memories

Some music provokes a deep reaction from me. The strongest reactions are the oldest, from songs I must have heard on the radio in the kitchen in California. I hear one passage from one of Tchaikovsky’s works and I’m back sitting at the table while Dad listened to the radio. Serenata by Leroy Anderson sings of lost opportunities and a different, warmer path than the one I chose: a melancholy reaction to such a cheerful piece. The Route 66 theme evokes exactly what it is meant to: the rhythm of the wheels on the road and the turning off to the goal (not home). Long before I learned to drive it defined the experience for me. I only saw part of the show when the family visited friends once, but somewhere I heard the tune.

Sometimes just a fragment of a song is all that it takes: "Once there were valleys where rivers used to run" from Greenfields by the Brothers Four—not so much the rest of the song, but that line resonated with the "cat who walks by himself." Or "I hear the music from across the way, across the bridges of my mind" (not so much the rest of "Music from Across the Way") calls up the ghost of a dream of walking down 2am streets with the streetlights that shine like grubby winter, past the mansion of music to an alley of pointless errand.

The wedding march 30 years ago was the carillon from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne, but although the memory is fond the music isn’t visceral in the same way; perhaps because that day was supplemented by 30 years worth of other days with other incidental songs.

The Uses of the Trivial

John Reynolds wrote on looking for entertainment and the importance of trivial things. A sample:

Finally, the trivial engages one part of self and allows other parts to shine. Playing Risk is no great pursuit in itself, but it allows a social setting where fellowship can take place. Playing the card game "hearts" was one of the great learning times of Bible College, though "hearts" should never appear in any curriculum. While we were dealing the cards, we talked about everything and somehow achieved an honesty that would have escaped us if we had nothing to do but sit and talk.

"Let’s talk" shuts many of us up, but "let’s play cards" opens up many a mouth.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


The Ancient and Noble Order of the Masters of IT works an esoteric ritual known as "backup." I do not doubt that the Iranian branch still performs this traditional rite.

Granted, the government's interest in secrecy may keep the number of backups small, but I'd guess that restoring the main systems is no more than a few days, and restoring the auxilliary systems no more than a couple of weeks. All the PCs with important information will have to have their disks combed in a clean environment, and that demands some expert time (and user time) to retrieve the vital stuff, but all is quite doable.

Work will have been lost, but it isn't a catastrophe or a showstopper. Probably pretty much everything the media has said about it is either a mistake or a lie.

What is going on?

  • It could be a coincidence. Stranger things have happened.
  • It could be a test weapon that got away before it was ready to be used.
  • It could be a feint: for example to focus Iranian intelligence on computing at the nuclear plants rather than personnel at the airports. Anybody else notice that several high ranking Iranians died in air crashes in the last few years?
  • It could be meant to panic them into buying new network gear to isolate the control systems, gear that somebody has put backdoors into.
  • It could be a coverup to keep attention away from real spies in their nuclear facilities.
  • It could be meant to panic them into a spy-hunt in their facilities, which could tie things up worse than a worm.
  • It could be a probe to find out who's really in charge of some division.

One thing I'm pretty sure of: the announcement of a name in the code that might link to the book of Esther was meant to mislead. That's a pretty far-fetched link, and did you see the code? Me neither.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"God's Perfect Plan for Your Life"

I've always had a contrary streak. Even after I became a Christian I didn't think much of this phrase. "Plan?" Does God have a minute by minute checklist? Does anything in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth care which shoe I put on first in the morning? Do I have to pray to ask whether I should go to work again today?

And if you admit the possibility that there can be a variety of freely chosen actions that are all perfectly acceptable in the plan, then the Plan begins to assume a very different form. Not a checklist or a schedule, but a form and a framework.

Perhaps you have a special calling: you must be a missionary; and perhaps you've been given a special message: "Come to Macedonia and help us." Perhaps you've been told to run alongside a chariot and eavesdrop. These tie in very nicely to the model of a Plan as a schedule. But what about deciding that you will work nights as a tent maker rather than ask for support? Paul testified that he had flexibility in carrying out his orders. For him the Plan was a set of objectives, and not a detailed daily list.

WWII Officer Candidates' School: The officer in charge of a bunch of candidates gave them a test. The question was how to raise a 20-foot flagpole. In the scenario they were given a block-and-tackle, a sergeant and six men and asked how to get it done. Each man came up with a set of diagrams, math formulas and various theories. The officer then said, "Gentlemen, you are all wrong. The correct procedure is to turn to the NCO and say, "Sergeant, get that flagpole up."

"Paul, get the gospel preached in Macedonia"

"The Best of All Possible Worlds" is the same confusion in a different form. Who said that universes had to be orderable in that kind of way? You can easily conceive of less-good universes, but also of classes of universes which are equally good.

Within that kind of flexibility, I suspect that it often doesn't even matter who you marry—within some general guidelines, of course. You don't need to be a prophet to predict that certain personalities are going to conflict more often than necessary...

Jesus' life seems to show this flexibility. I've heard the miracle at Cana taken to prove that Jesus was willing to modify his schedule to suit his mother, and that therefore we should ask her to twist his arm for us (never mind John 16:26-27). But look again. Over and over we read something like "He had compassion on them and..," and over and over He told the healed to not tell anyone about what He'd done. If that isn't showing flexibility in the schedule, it sure looks like it.

Of course He didn't lose sight of the main objective. And we (OK, I) have a tendency to be flexible in the direction of maximum personal comfort, which doesn't follow Jesus' example very closely.

Wet Wedding

After I got a clear schedule for when the repairman would arrive to fix the water heater, I went over to the atheletic club for a soak. From one urgency to another I hadn't gotten to it since the water heater croaked, and I was kind of achy.

The therapy pool had a photographer (one of the lifeguards), a boombox playing Mendelssohn's famous march, and about twenty elderly folks standing in it holding large balloons and making arches with fanoodles, under which the curves of which the bride and groom walked to the front. The bride wore a kind of lace half veil, and everyone was in swimsuits.

I did not intrude or gawk, but as I walked away one person seemed to be asking them questions, and a few minutes later there was cheering. Perhaps they met in a therapy class, and thought this would be a cute way to involve everybody.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Political Crowds and Me

President Obama will be visiting UW Madison this afternoon--the first president since Truman to visit. That makes it "historic" in the loose sense newspapers use the term.

I'm not bothering to go.

It would be inconvenient, though not overwhelmingly so, but even if it was a snap to show up and get a reserved front row spot, the spot would stand empty.

It's not just because I consider the man a misguided empty suit. I'd offer the same somnolent enthusiasm to a similar visit by President Bush, a man I came to respect.

Does anybody remember John Anderson? Back in 1980 he came to the University of Illinois as part of his presidential campaign. I'd heard the buzz about him, and I went to hear him. He unburdened himself of his standard stump speech, tailored for UI, and left.

If the purpose of the effort was communication, it utterly failed. I'd heard it all before. I concluded that day that if I wanted to find out what a candidate thought, going to campaign rallies was inefficient, and also probably the most boring method available. The script was going to always be the same, with fill-in-the-blanks for the football team and the local pols. There'd be no "Churchill at Westminster College" moments.

I've not attended a campaign rally since. I've talked with a candidate or two running for local office--that's much more interesting and perhaps even useful. But for President, or Senator, or Congresscritter? The speech has nothing much to do with the candidate's real goals--it's been polished by spin doctors and PR people to sound as nice as possible without saying anything substantive. Possible dissenters in the crowd are cordoned far away so that no hint of disagreement taints the love fest. What's there to learn?

But of course that's just me. I'm an Apollonian sort in a rather Dionysian culture; one who just gets a headache from football cheers and just can't seem to care much whether the Cubs win the championship this year. I assume they will sooner or later--Dante told us the lowest circle of Hell was frozen over.

Which leads me to wonder what purposes rallies have. Maybe there's something I'm leaving out.

First and foremost, the rally is an opportunity for the faithful to commit darsan with the illustrious visitor. Laugh, but we all do it--I'd go see Neil Armstrong, even if I knew I'd not get to meet him.

Second, the rally gets everyone together to hear the message. As I said this is terribly inefficient, which makes me think this really isn't a major function anymore.

Third, it is an opportunity to be part of a community enthusiastic about a cause. You come blase, and leave excited ("Oh whip me, whip me into a frenzy with your cries and cheers and freighted words!"). I'm not a huge fan of manufactured enthusiasm, but I can imagine that connecting with other people is good even when shaped like this. The key for me is not the community, but the cause. Is it worthy of my enthusiasm and devotion? Getting pol A elected instead of pol B generally isn't. Defeating slavery or abortion, or championing safe working conditions--yes.

Fourth, it is an opportunity to encourage others in the cause--to make them feel as though the support is great and the victory inevitable. Once again, the cause makes it or breaks it for me.

Now meeting somebody in person; sitting down for an hour or two over dinner--that's a whole other ball game. I'd be happy for the chance to have an unscripted chat with any of the presidents, provided the talk wasn't about politics. (I really don't want to hear kvetching about how X couldn't get along with Tip O'Neill, who famously got along great with political opponents) For most of them I think we'd find something to talk about.

But "historic" visits? Eh. The tea party rallies are a historic movement also, and I've not been to any of those either--and they, being more local, would be more interesting.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Knock Knock!

Sight of the day: a downy woodpecker hammering away at the entrance to a birdhouse in the backyard. There are no chickadees this time of year, so nobody's being disturbed, but I've no idea what he thought he was going to find there.

Yesterday we had a young woodchuck in the front garden; probably told to leave the nest a few blocks away. When he showed signs of wanting to take up residence we shooed him out of the foliage, tossed a basket over him, and guided him into a live trap. I don't want any unscheduled excavations.

Friday, September 17, 2010


"If ever it should happen that the system of English athletics should vanish from the public schools and the universities, if science should supply some new and non-competitive manner of perfecting the physique, if public ethics swung round to an attitude of absolute contempt and indifference towards the feeling called sport, then it is easy to see what would happen. Future historians would simply state that in the dark days of Queen Victoria young men at Oxford and Cambridge were subjected to a horrible sort of religious torture. They were forbidden, by fantastic monastic rules, to indulge in wine or tobacco during certain arbitrarily fixed periods of time, before certain brutal fights and festivals. Bigots insisted on their rising at unearthly hours and running violently around fields for no object. Many men ruined their health in these dens of superstition, many died there. All this is perfectly true and irrefutable. Athleticism in England is an asceticism, as much as the monastic rules. Men have over-strained themselves and killed themselves through English athleticism. There is one difference and one only: we do feel the love of sport; we do not feel the love of religious offices. We see only the price in the one case and only the purchase in the other."

From Twelve Types by GK Chesterton.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"I say its spinnage, and I say the hell with it."

A headline on a newspaper this evening said: "Gender pay gap smallest on record."

Somebody tried to find a nice way to say: "a lot of good jobs went away leaving a lot of men unemployed." Trying to put a happy face on news like that edges some distance into dishonesty.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Not a new problem

"It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhumane, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly even touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach."

From the "Twelve Types" by Chesterton, the section on Pope.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday on shift

I came in for shift. For the first time I traversed the route I had in mind: didn't have to make last minute corrections when I realized I was lost. On the other hand, I stalled 3 times--in daylight with no steep hills. Unlike yesterday, when I was in the middle of Cessy trying to turn left without crunching the car behind me while pointed uphill onto a half-blind intersection. I stalled there 7 times, and rolled backwards (and got honked at) 4 times. I suspect riding with me would turn your hair grey. I have come to detest roundabouts: I feel like the can in a paint shaker after driving through St. Genis.

Shift started and so did the alignment meeting and so did a bunch of configuration questions and the DCS shifter asking "Why is the DCS monitoring of your detector halted?" and the main shift leader asking when we'd be done flashing our firmware. (It turns out that the Xmas monitoring system that is under CSC control can and does stop the DCS monitoring of chamber voltages. And restart it again without burdening the DCS shifter with details. Actually, I suspect that every subsystem has some skunkworks method of bypassing DCS. Probably makes life very interesting for him, since he's nominally responsible for monitoring the safety of the whole system.)

After the chaos and flurry, it is dead. ECAL isn't working, and they've tried several times to start new runs--failing each time. The warnings are not beeps and wheeps as at Fermilab, but clips of pop songs: "I think its stupid and sad that everything turned out so bad" or "Don't stop me now, I'm having such a good time." and "Its a kind of magic" I gather the last one is for starting the run, and at least one of the first two is for a run ending.

Actually, CDF's beeps and wails are for subsystem warnings. The Run Control's messages are computer-generated and nearly unintelligible readings of text error messages. You can imagine how acronyms come across.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


French drives me nuts sometimes. A conversation rattled down the hall this morning, and the only clear phrase by my door was "EEL AH PLU" He has more? Than who? Of what? Oh. It rained.

Yesterday I sat by a group of ladies discussing the dynamics of different cultures and tolerance and immigration. I got that much. I couldn't for the life of me tell whether the main speaker was pleased with or criticizing the situation. Just a few key words went missing, or went sideways.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Noise canceling headphones

Even Hearos soft earplugs start to hurt my ears after about 7 hours, and the flight from Chicago to Brussels is 8 hours. (The return trip is 9) You can buy a basketful of earplugs for the cost of a Bose, so that was never an issue. But a cheaper on-ear set from Able Planet seemed like it might be worth an experiment.

I tried them in a few settings: my office, my office while making a conference call, a flight (by themselves), and a flight (with earplugs as well). I'll try them with the table saw later. Will I be able to hear the telephone?

  • They are comfortable, and the cord disconnects so you can just use the bare headset if all you want is sound cancellation.
  • In my office they cut out a lot of the computer fan and AC noise, which was a pleasant relief. Conversations are slightly muffled but not enough to interfere.
  • The headphones were annoyingly static-y for the conference call. They will not be very suitable for work with the monitors--and they may not block the drums anyway. I suspect a more expensive set would work better, but I'm not going to try.
  • I felt a slight pressure in the ear when using them on the jet.
  • They do not block as much sound as earplugs; on the other hand earplugs cut conversations too and the headphones don't. Much.
  • They seemed to block more of the middle and upper range frequencies.
  • They are lightweight and adjust comfortably.
  • After 4 hours the inside (not the outside!) of my ears started to hurt and I felt a buzzing in my ears. I switched to earplugs at this point.
  • After an hour or so I added the headphones again. This cut the sound even more. There's probably an irreducible minimum sound level that comes through bone conduction.
Mental stimulation and Alzheimer's

Some recent research suggests that mental stimulation does stave off the onset of Alzheimer's, but the final deterioration is faster. This would be consistent with the disease beginning at the same time in both samples (mentally active and inactive), but that the mentally active group's brains "rewire around" the damage until it becomes too great. We know the brain is somewhat "plastic," and can reorganize to a surprising degree: see an early story and the followup on London cabdriver brains.

It might be interesting to compare brain activity and development between other different groups: parents and the childless (not involved in teaching or care); police and assembly-line workers; and so on.

I was going to write "police and nurses" but it occurred to me that both professions demand extreme attentiveness to details of other people's actions and appearance. The element of personal danger is much higher for the policeman, but an empathetic nurse might feel the danger to the patient too.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

Somebody was hard at work in the Amazon: "they have also found vast orchards of semi-domesticated fruit trees, though they appear like forest untrammeled by man."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obvious unspeakables

We have a weekly pizza lunch in one corner of a lab, and a former employee brings in old magazines. The cover of a journal I'd never seen before (Spin) quotes a singer I'd never heard of (Hayley Williams) to the effect that “sexy doesn't have to be a tan blonde girl showing off her goodies.”

Hurrah for the resoundingly obvious! "Sexy" means capable of exciting sexual desire, and if the number of babies in the world is any guide it is a quality shared by those "tan blonde girls" and by stout middle aged African women and by elderly Japanese women and so on around the globe. Perhaps each one she passes doesn't go "Ahhhh," but she has it where it counts.

What people seem to mean by "sexy" instead is something more like young and available, which is a dirty linguistic trick to play on unsuspecting minds, especially in conjunction with the implicit assumption that "sexy" is what makes a woman valuable. It follows that to be valuable you must always be young and always available, or at least apparently available.

And it is so obviously wrong...

Another unmentionable fact is that by the time a child reaches kindergarten he has learned to speak, to walk and run and play games, moral rules, the ways of the neighborhood, and probably his letters and numbers as well. From observation and imitation he has learned more than you realize--if he could reach the pedals he could pilot the car down the block. Of course he'd want to play bumper cars too. Teaching him how to use the toilet took effort. All taught by his parents (probably mostly mommy). The credentialed educators aren't going to be teaching him nearly as much, nearly as fast, or nearly as well. Why kowtow to a teaching certificate? The hard teaching jobs are at home, and so is expertise (except for class management). But we have such great respect for degrees and credentials that what grandma advised never shows up on the radar. Did she enroll everyone in Little League, or tell them to get out of the house and go play until dinner time?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Is that how that works?"

We helped give some international students a tour of Madison this Saturday, ending the tour at a host home where we narfed goodies and chewed the fat. I talked for a while with an earnest young grad student from India, who was concerned about the poverty rate in his home country and what to do about it. The conversation went on to what we'd been doing the previous day, and I said I'd been fixing things and doing household maintenance--the usual sorts of things you have to do when you own a home. He seemed a little surprised: "We have a maid to do that sort of thing." I pointed out that salaries were a little higher in this country. I wonder if he made the connection to the poverty rate he was worried about...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Infinite Campus

Youngest Son's math teacher emailed us that we ought to sign into "infinite campus" to keep track of his grades this semester in high school. Perhaps the phrase is meant to convey the impression of unconfined learning, but I was in high school myself long ago, and instead it conveys a whiff of "Hotel California:" you can never leave.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ground Zero

I think I agree with Shrinkwrapped: this whole tempest would never have gotten out of the teapot if we’d actually started building something to replace the twin towers. The obvious absence advertises a lack of something on our part: confidence, vision, will, ability—and it seems to be a very sensitive sore point.

And it does seem to be much ado about very little. The site isn’t at ground zero and apparently was planned a long time ago.

The list of claimed purposes of the site starts with such gems as

  1. Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people
  2. Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities
  3. Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the international reality of our interconnected planet

I often see lists like this. They serve more like pleas for attention than serious plans. The imam seems to have accomplished point 3 in his list, though.

The Orthodox church troubles in rebuilding their destroyed church seem to partake of a "he said she said" quality. I can believe that they overreached in trying to get funding to rebuild, but I can also believe that the city of New York was throwing up obstacles. Absent further information I can’t tell what’s going on, though I’m less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the heirs of Tammany Hall.

French Grammar

I made my weekly foray into Facebook this afternoon, and Middle Daughter’s fiancé turned out to be on at the same time and struck up a chat—the first time I’d chatted on Facebook. He is a Senegalese student (almost Masters) of French grammar, whose spoken English needs some serious work, though his written English is understandable.

Most of the chat went on in French, he using a few “text-message” shortcuts and I using my inimitable mixture of French and English. I can never remember when to use "passé simple" and when imperfect, so I generally use "passé random."

I figure the best rule is to speak with courage and throw in English when I don’t know the French.

Pawn shops

When I went to Champaign to study for a doctorate, I found I needed a few tools, and there were a couple of pawn shops nearby. One offered a cheap socket set. I still have it, though the common sizes wore out and were replaced by Craftsman sockets when I could afford them. The other shop had a “Going out of business” sign outside, which it still wore when I got my degree years later. I visited both from time to time, but rarely saw anything I cared to spend my scarce dollars for.

It wasn’t until later that I wondered how the second shop managed to make any money—perhaps it was the jewelry, or perhaps something not quite legal; but the merchandise I noticed didn’t move quickly.

Once I had a family of my own (and wasn’t using stacked boxes as a dresser anymore) I started to get a more personal understanding of the sometime need for funds and lack of need for an old TV. I never pawned anything myself, but I started to see the shops as a window into the culture and what was really going on at the bottom rungs in town, and developed a little curiosity about them. I think regular visits would tell something interesting about the changes in a town, and there’s a local flavor to them. The shop I visited in Montana was, as you might expect, more stocked with horse gear and guns than the Illinois shop.

A chain opened in Madison recently, and I decided to pay a visit. The parking lot was crowded, the pawn windows were busy, and there was a huge store to go with it.

It has a huge selection of cheap CDs and DVDs, and I shudder at how little the previous owners must have gotten—10 cents on the dollar or less. Since this is a chain, they doubtless ship excess merchandise from place to place and I can’t draw clean conclusions about Madison. But one aisle was grim: almost all of it was well-used pneumatic nailers, with a few pneumatic wrenches and other items of power construction gear.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Could be?

Is having a bad credit rating a fate worse than debt?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eastward to Tartary, Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Robert D Kaplan
There is no better example than the story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia to show that Shakespeare is a better guide to politics than political science.

The book is from 2000, and of course much of the Middle Eastern and Balkan political landscape took new faces since then. I got it out of the library on the recommendation of Assistant Village Idiot, because my knowledge of the Balkans is meager and of the Caucusus even worse. Kaplan doesn’t pretend to give a systematic history of the regions he traveled through—this is a travelogue with history to explain what he sees and why he stops at certain places, such as Merv, which made the mistake of trusting Tuluy (one of Genghis Khan’s sons).

Kaplan says several times that he hates describing people in terms of national characteristics, but that he’d have to be obstinately blind to deny the facts on the ground and the way the people describe themselves and each other. But

The fact that national characteristics were undeniable did not mean that they would always be so. The fact that the Near East was a battleground of power politics did not mean that power politics could not make a positive difference. It was the impermanence of bad governments that gave me hope.

Ancient history (think Assyria or Genghis Khan) rhymes over and over through the area, where tribe is vital and megalomaniacs build cults to themselves and exterminations are part of the background.

Anarchy in some form or another, as I had seen, was almost everywhere in the Near East. Thus far in my journey I had found vibrant institutions only in Turkey, Israel, and, to a lesser degree, in Jordan. Even in Romania and Bulgaria, the countryside was anarchic, while the situation in the Caucasus was much worse. Syria was like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union: instability kept at bay by a stultifying sectarian tyranny. Meanwhile democracy—which offered the best hope for building and sustaining vibrant institutions—was facing serious obstacles when one considered Romania’s seamy coffeehouse politics; Bulgaria’s corruption; Lebanon’s company-run state; and the various power vacuums in the Caucasus. History shows that only states with the unity and strength to preserve themselves remain sovereign, and I had seen few o f those in my travels. The rest would be likely to be absorbed into some new imperium—unless they disintegrated to the point where nobody cared. Herodotus had recorded cycles of autocracy, freedom, chaos, and autocracy once again.

He describes areas so poor that the police don’t even bother to demand bribes from travelers, considers Shevardnadze the unsung hero of Glassnost, and interestingly bemoans the partitioning of “Greater Syria” as resulting in the creation of a severely unstable Syria. The legacy of the Soviet empire is everywhere, and almost always horrible—but the natives often judge that there are things worse than an oppressive empire. They’d rather be governed by one mafia than several competing ones.

I think we need to rethink our model of the nation-state. I’ve thought so looking at Africa, and I’m certain of it after reading about the Caucasus.

Read the book.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Science with a Smile by Robert L Weber

This is the third in the series of collections of science humor that began with A Random Walk in Science.

There are a few gems in here, such as how to deal with bureaucracy ("MAXIM 3: Every organization is self-perpetuating. Don't ever ask an outfit to justify itself, or you'll be covered with fact, figures, and fancy. The criterion should rather be, "What will happen if the outfit stops doing what it's doing?" "). It also features medical humor and an interesting chapter on hoaxes. And don't forget:

The phases of a project are:
  • Enthusiasm
  • Disillusionment
  • Panic
  • Search for the guilty
  • Punishment of the innocent
  • Praise and honor for the nonparticipants

Alas, the pieces tend to be longer than in the earlier books, and with a somewhat lesser humor density. He generally got the best stuff in the first book.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unorthodox massage

This year we've a plague of Japanese beetles, a voracious little invasive that loves grape vines and roses and similar things we prefer to beetles. Rather than spray we decided to set out hormone traps: beetles fly to the smooth plastic rig, walk around, slip and fall through the funnel into a receiver. When we've collected a few inches worth the thing makes a faint eerie rustling groan.

We found the simplest way of disposing of them was to dump them out into a box or plastic bag, close it and stick it in the deep freeze. An hour later, we pour them out on the lawn as a free meal for the birds.

Youngest Son has been wondering about how to use them, suggesting that perhaps one might find a way to render them into biofuel. Yesterday he poured a quart's worth of catch into a plastic bag, and noticed that it wiggled curiously under his hand. He suggested to me that it would be interesting to make a cushion of these to sit on as a massage chair.

Obviously this wouldn't work, because you'd crush them; but I suggested that it might work as a "blanket," and that with the appropriate "Life Energy" jargon you could probably make a mint in California offering earthworm "massages."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Newsfeeds and the Commentariat

Give an ordinary man a day to write an article, and he will remember the things he has really heard latest; and may even, in the last glory of the sunset, begin to think of what he thinks himself. Give him an hour to write it, and he will think of the nearest text-book on the topic, and make the best mosaic he may out of classical quotations and old authorities. Give him ten minutes to write it and he will run screaming for refuge to the old nursery where he learnt his stalest proverbs, or the old school where he learnt his stalest politics. The quicker goes the journalist the slower go his thoughts. The result is the newspaper of our time, which every day can be delivered earlier and earlier, and which, every day, is less worth delivering at all.

G.K. Chesterton:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chernobyl and the Creatures

A new report described by BBC says that biodiversity is less in the Chernobyl exclusion zone than it should be. I wonder if the apparent tolerance to radiation I theorized on before is related. The environment is hostile and perhaps some species aren't as able to tolerate radiation damage because of the metabolic cost.

Friday, July 30, 2010


I sometimes wonder why anybody in a war zone would offer to help out the USA. The chances of having your identity revealed to your personal enemies would seem to hover near 100%. If I were an Afghan I'd keep my distance from Americans. There might be short-term benefits, but the likelihood of having my cover blown, and the certainty that they wouldn't be sticking around, conspire to make the long-term effects of helping out rather bleak.


It doesn't seem like very many years when you write it like that.

That holds thousands of ideas and plans that never went anywhere, and a handful of things I kept going with.

The constellation of little decisions that make up each day seem to flash in all directions: here a luncheon indulgence, there sitting down to answer algebra questions, here sitting back to daydream, there sorting the laundry. Any detail by itself doesn't generally signify much--no great crimes or astounding charity--but the collection over the years paints a pointillist image, with perseverance the brush.

From time to time I get a little sense of what that image holds. There's still time to change a few things, right? Right? I've known friends who persevered in service, and others who persevered in futility. I've done some of both.

Perseverance in a marriage draws an image of something bigger than I could have guessed. There aren't good words for it, but you can sense it around you.

There are wonders in the world that take a little while to see.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mainline Church notes

The Patheos site (hat tip to the Anchoress) is hosting sets of articles on the future of the world's religions, and this week is "Mainline Protestantism." I've been perusing the articles, and ... um ... maybe I should look at earlier weeks' articles to see if they're in the same style.

Let's see.

  • I can't make head or tail of what Sam Alexander is writing about, and I don't think he knows either.
  • Jim Burklo hails "progressive churches" in general but without much particulars.
  • Jerry Campbell wants the church to act like the good Samaritan and build bridges.
  • Phillip Clayton calls for a new ecclesiology rather than new theology, to be found by experiment I hope he overstates for effect.
  • Monica Coleman thinks most black churches are conservative and horrid and wants black people to walk out.
  • Kenda Dean thinks youth ministry will allow churches to evolve into new paths I agree, and shudder.
  • James Davis thinks mainline churches can infuse civility into the national debate by reaching the "muddled middle" (and thus shoots down his own proposal).
  • Bruce Epperly doesn't believe the God who created spacetime knows the future.
  • Greg Garrett is hopeful that modern culture will find mainline denominations more congenial.
  • Larry Goodpastor thinks the future of the UMC lies outside the US.
  • Anne Howard wants to serve the common good embracing the "politics of compassion" (as opposed to the "politics of purity").
  • James Kang writes a letter to an imaginary daughter's ordination in 2050 extolling some innovative groups and running down everybody else.

It is getting late, and the chaff to wheat ratio is pretty high; I don't think I can go much farther tonight.

Many of the authors remind me of the churches who keep American flags at the front and preach on how great the US is.

Bailout cash abroad

Sounds like I was right about where bailout money was going. We were shoring up foreign banks too. In for a penny, in for a pound--if it was necessary to shore up Goldman and AIG, it was also necessary to shore up some European partners too.

Of course that leaves unanswered the question of why banks were allowed to get to be "too big to fail." Nothing is so big or bureaucracy so well-vetted that some stupidity can't bring it down--and one day will.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


We went to the Madison Savoyards' production of Pinafore this afternoon. It is easier and quicker to list the problems: Josephine should have been miked--in delicate passages her voice couldn't overcome the strings. So should Deadeye Dick, who had to sing against the rest of the chorus a couple of times.

On the other hand: the music was well-played, the singing was good, the set was well-done, the acting was good, the stage play was creative (a cousin fetched a box for the short Sir Joseph to stand on to face the Captain, etc), and of course the story and music were Gilbert and Sullivan at their peak. Sir Joseph's climb to the top is as relevant now as ever. Result: much laughter and good music.

I didn't recognize many people this time, though as we left one of the singers recognized Oldest Son, who'd played with the group a few times before. Schedule conflicts forbade any of us from trying out this year.

The Savoyards are partly volunteer and partly pro, and they put together quite respectable shows every July. Youngest Daughter got to see Patience when only a few months old, and didn't get frachity (and then was easily calmed) until the end.

See them if you can.


So Wikileaks has discovered that Pakistan's ISI is still supporting their creation, the Taliban. I'm not sure who's supposed to be surprised by what's been common knowledge for years. State has to pretend that the government of Pakistan speaks for the country, but everybody knows the place is split 6 ways from Sunday Friday.

The "White House" (I wonder who actually approves these statements) calls the leaks "irresponsible," but the ISI part of the info dump seems tailor-made for backing out of Afghanistan. Make a fuss, Pakistan gets their dander up and cuts off supply lines, we leave.

I'm not perfectly clear on what our goals there are right now. I suspect that whatever our goals may be, they depend rather crucially on the intentions and "sway-ability" of no more than a hundred influential Afghans and Pakistanis. And humint is not exactly our strong suit in intelligence.

With wicked problems like Afghanistan, the strategy of "Go in, rip the bad guys a new one, and leave" (repeating from decade to decade as needed) seems the least bad of a bad bunch. I gather that option doesn't satisfy the criteria for recent formulations of a "just war," leading me to suspect that whoever is doing the theorizing left a few bits out of the analysis.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reporting on Obama

When Obama first started to appear on the national radar, some of my kin were interested in him. I predicted to them that he would enjoy a lovefest from the media for a few months, and then muckrakers would look for, and magnify, flaws; and swarm around like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Little seems to give a reporter as big a rush as finding the clay feet on heroes.

I was wrong. You saw adulation, but hardly a breath of any dirt-digging; and what little there was never went far. I didn't understand why. Was group-think that entrenched among reporters, or were the big media editors nipping off potential stories? I thought reporters loved discovering things.

Now we're beginning to find out. Apparently the answer was both: groupthink and behind-the-scenes collusion to squelch embarrassing stories.

That's discouraging. Perhaps it is a side effect of the consolidation of media empires--a few people can wield startling control over what people hear, and they do.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Assistant Village Idiot contemplated the role of tribes in American culture and politics in a number of posts, but he points his readers to an essay by Codevilla and tells that us Codevilla says it better. (Well, perhaps more thoroughly, though without AVI's personal anecdotes)

I don't know a great deal about Woodrow Wilson, and so had not heard of things like:

Woodrow Wilson began this double game in 1919, when he assured Europe's peoples that America had mandated him to demand their agreement to Article X of the peace treaty (the League of Nations) and then swore to the American people that Article X was the Europeans' non-negotiable demand. The fact that the U.S. government had seized control of transatlantic cable communications helped hide (for a while) that the League scheme was merely the American Progressives' private dream.

Codevilla neatly describes our ruling class (hint: elections don't matter nearly as much as they used to) and how it formed and is maintained, and then goes on to warn that merely organizing a political party to throw the bums out will not be an adequate solution: that tends to replace one corrupt party system with another machine, and the well-connected will still get the goodies. The only long term solution combines a pruning of government with a decentralization of power and a regrowth in initiative. If the public keeps growing dependent, we will be subjects of a ruling class, and not citizens. The first reform is of ourselves.

I think he has the diagnosis and the history down. How to get out of the hole is the question.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Our church's parking lot is terraced, with green slopes in between parking areas. One of the resident killdeer made a nest in a green space, and this morning was going slightly nuts. Her two 2 1/2 inch high chicks were racing around at not-quite-adult speeds; big enough to clamber over the curb into the pavement but not big enough to climb back over into the grass again. Momma was chirping to beat the band but not moving around much: the old broken wing trick wouldn't be much use here. And there were cars and huge two-legged strangers all around. One of the latter captured an escapees and brought it back to momma, to the tune of raucous abuse from momma. The escapee promptly headed back to the curb and toppled its way over into the parking lot again.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Just a clarification: it was definitely NOT me standing on the Genie railing. I have a little trouble with heights. In fact, I can sometimes get vertigo looking at a picture of the view off cliffs.

It isn’t just me. When I see my wife or one of the children standing at the edge, I start sweating and my heart speeds up just as though it were me standing there.

Strange that I don’t get vertigo in airplanes, but fortunate, given the amount of traveling I have to do.

(*) No, I never saw Hitchcock’s movie. Which perhaps explains why I gave up on High Anxiety halfway through.



On my thesis experiment at Fermilab, every now and then a channel in a NIM module would fail. If there were spare channels, we'd reroute cables and if not, we had to get the module replaced. Fermilab supplied these, and perhaps repaired some of them too, but that could take a few days and we were getting beam now, so several of us learned the art of “midnight acquisition.” Another experiment in the same area was in hiatus, awaiting funding for a new incarnation, and some of their apparatus was in storage. Somehow a key was acquired, and a swap made. Presumably when the other experiment was reassembled they found some defective modules, but they had plenty of time to get Fermilab to replace them.

I shudder to think what would happen these days.

About 15 years ago the national labs were told to address safety concerns, and told Tiger Teams would be visiting. Brookhaven blew them off, and wound up shut down for a while. Argonne got the message, but the teams still found lots of problems. Fermilab panicked. Lead bricks, those ubiquitous doorstops, had to go, even if wrapped in duct tape. Papers stacked 10 inches high on tops of filing cabinets—bad bad bad.

The big safety basics had always been in place—interlocks for the radiation areas, procedures for handling radioactive sources, mandatory OSHA training courses for university teams with members fond of standing on the railing of fully-extended Genies (That was a very dull week. I still have the book.) and so on. But that wasn't enough.

Years later, the Tiger Teams are gone, but the committees are going strong. There are safety courses for driving, recycling programs out the wazoo, and paperwork.

That paperwork is scary. It isn't enough to be a good carpenter or painter—you have to be skilled at filling out forms too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Grand Tour Revisited

A few weeks ago I chanced on a blog post complaining about a politician I'd never heard of. Said pol had felt the need to claim that his many years in Europe had "made him more of an American," and the blogger was taking him to task for being disconnected. I think. I just glanced at the post, which was a tangent to a tangent to a tangent from my usual orbit

Certainly it is true that years away from your potential constituents tends to isolate you from their needs and their values. And, America being partly an ideological nation and partly tribal, it is possible to hold values that are antithetical to American ones. Unhappily for the blogger, one of those anti-American ideals is that someone should get the power to judge which ideals are American. I will cheerfully argue that sharia is utterly incompatible with American liberty and democracy, but so is a committee to officially say so.

It is also possible that the pol, spending so many years abroad, has become cosmopolitan; which is to say homeless.

Let me be a little contrarian here.

The Grand Tour of Europe that well-to-do Englishmen used to take was a many-months-long road trip. This had a number of beneficial effects

  • It showed that you were fashionable and had adequate disposable income
  • It gave you a working knowledge of several other languages
  • It challenged you. If you could still convey an upper crust air of superiority when you couldn't speak as well as a toddler, you were set. If you couldn't, a little humility was good for the soul.
  • It acquainted you with other laws, customs, and cultures. These were related closely enough to your own that you could understand them, and different enough to startle you.

Not that all cultures are equally good--God preserve us from such nonsense--but some are, and different people value different courtesies.

On the last trip to Switzerland we stayed at a hotel which served breakfast. I overheard one of the staff explaining to another guest that they had not brought out refills because a Japanese group (?) was there, and when they brought out refills they found that those groups would eat them all up. Dueling courtesies: in one case a guest feels he should eat what he needs and leave the rest for others, and in the other case a guest feels he should show enthusiasm for his host's hospitality by eating everything set before him.

That's a simple kind of issue, but think about this: if pretty much everyone valued the same courtesy at the table, the staff would know what to do and other guests would not go hungry. Without that shared courtesy, you need extra rules ("One plate only: no seconds"), and then little exceptions ("Can I take some rolls back to my sick wife?") and on and on.

This interplay of rules and courtesies is as invisible as the air to you when you grow up with nothing else. What you need is a new vantage point to view them. History is one such, but often a little attenuated because so many details never got recorded. Spending time (not just a few days, or just eating in ethnic restaurants and watching foreign films) in another culture is better.

Especially if you are going to be making laws, you need to intimately understand how the courtesies and values and laws interact. Sometimes you get a vicious cycle: eroding courtesies require more laws, and more laws leading to less sense of personal involvement and less courtesy. Sometimes it works like a champ as courtesies and laws mesh smoothly. Switzerland's traffic laws strongly restrict traffic when a pedestrian is in the walk, but the courtesy of pedestrians keeps them from tying up traffic excessively. "No traffic from either direction when someone is even stepping into any part of the walkway" wouldn't work in Madison. I know a few people who'd make a point of sauntering as slowly as they could.

So yes, spending time abroad could make you more aware of what goes into the American culture, and "more of an American." Assuming you haven't become disconnected from your constituents....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mythic Image

Youngest Son is very interested in computer animation, and recently showed me a video made with open source animation software; called Elephants Dream. The animation is well made, but the movie is cruel and unpleasant—but there's one evocative scene in which Proog is dancing in the air. Wherever he swings his foot, a support rises to meet it, so that he never falls or misses a beat.

Years ago I had an image of a blind girl running through the woods—never knowing what lump or hole lay before her foot but always adjusting her stride to meet what she could not see. Stepping to the left without knowing of the tree, lengthening the step and meeting the only rock in the stream; running blind but protected.

That same kind of abandon—running into the unknown not knowing where the next meal will come from but certain that it will appear—I fear and long for, and see in men like Francis of Assisi.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


I'm saving up larger denomination Swiss coins for use in the TPG machines. A stack of 2sf coins hefts a little, but they're just decorated disks of metal--plus something. In a sense I'm looking at little promises, and a kind of embodied trust. Not "in God we trust," but trust in the other Swiss; trust in their fellowman to trade effort for effort in an understandable way. Trust that you can wait until tomorrow before getting what you need: work now and be able to eat next year. Trust that someone else will tangibly value your effort.

Dante put forgers and coiners in the second-lowest circle of hell, next to the traitors; and they are a species of traitor too. Earlier, and perhaps not foolish, centuries put them in boiling oil. The forgers, whether amateur or official, destroy trust as they debase the money.

The official forgers rob from everyone at once on a huger scale, and history considers them villains--villains and traitors they surely are. But most of them went into the business with a "only a little bit won't cause problems" attitude: 4.5grams of silver or 4.4 grams--what can such a little difference do? It is only a little bit of robbery--but it is a lot of breaking trust.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

π = -π

I just got email from a grad student asking why two groups disagreed about the default angle for a chunk of hardware: One had π and the other used -π.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Sometimes Afghanistan seems a cursed land. It is cursed with endemic tribal wars, cursed with manipulative neighbors, cursed to have boundaries not commensurate with the real tribes of the area, cursed with the presence of an especially malignant form of Muhammadanism, and now cursed with mineral wealth. Anyone watching the world knows mineral wealth by itself means more war, and more corruption, and more social chaos.

It doesn't matter if the ones controlling the mining are big business or government; they and their friends get the money and the "shortages are shared among the peasants." Unless the state doesn't actually need the windfall, the windfall is bad news. You need an existing social and economic infrastructure to manage these things. Some culpably naive folks claim that a democratic government(*) will use windfall mineral wealth fairly. Observation says otherwise--unless (as in Alaska) the money isn't actually essential or there's a very strong culture of all pulling together already in place.

It might almost be better for a business owned by a single person to exploit the resource, because there's a chance the owner might develop a conscience. A board of directors or government bureaucracy never will.

(*) What stranger incantation is there than the phrase "democratic government?" It conflates a form of selecting particular government officials, the liberty of the people, and a constellation of sensed responsibilities. Just have right form of government, and everything happens by magic.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


The World Cup is on, and there's now a projection TV in the CERN cafeteria. At dinner time the games were over and the sports wrap-up was on.

If I ever flatter myself that I'm starting to hear french, all I need do is listen to a sports broadcast. They speak so rapidly, with jargon and metaphors--I can make out one word in 10, and that's usually something trivial. It wasn't until the replay that I understood that the Swiss team had won.


We bought our house 16 years ago, from a woman who no longer needed to fix it up since she was getting married. The previous tenants had been three early 20's guys who specialized in parties. Some earlier owner had been a contractor who'd tricked out the place using this and that (including a central AC unit that never worked, basement paneling and an out-of-square basement room). Somebody had done some motorcycle work and painting in the basement. The short wrought-iron railing along the basement stairs had bar spacing more than wide enough for small children to slip through, and it was low enough that inebriated guests of the party-ers had more than once taken tumbles. (We replaced that with a wall surmounted with a lattice.) On a 90 foot long lot there had been 8 trees--only two remain. None were suitable for tree-houses, least of all the Russian olive.

Repairs and gardening are archaeology. Traces of aluminum siding were buried in the window frame. In inaccessible corners drippings of the old bright yellow paint liven up pipes in a bathroom. Behind old molding was 80's era cereal box toy cards. As we've dug the gardens we've found a little metal car, toy soldier, and marbles. On Thursday we found an old torn tablecloth trimmed with lace holding the bones of a small dog.

Nowhere is there enough to tell what those who lived before us were really like--just traces.