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....