Sunday, December 25, 2011

Changing churches

Several years ago I started worrying about the striking ignorance of the church youth, who seemed to be graduating and heading out into the world with only a superficial understanding of what the faith was about. (On closer inspection, it wasn’t just the youth.) So, finding nothing handy to address the issue, I started writing a book. I am not a theologian or historian, but I figured something was better than nothing—we could work out details later.

The church was going in for the current fads: small groups would handle teaching and pasturing and outreach, the service would be seeker-friendly and accessible, and the focus would be on addressing felt needs. The usual suspects.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the church started imploding: 2/3 left in a few years, and an intervention with the leadership didn’t seem to help. The last straw was when a friend with a wonderful servant attitude was told to keep his objections to himself or leave; he left. So did I. I’d stayed out of a quixotic idea that I could help, but forgot that I was obligated to try to give my children a worshipful place to meet God.

We found a new church, but I’d started asking questions about what had gone wrong. The old church wasn’t doing the right things, obviously; but what were the right things to be doing? Come to think of it, this church wasn’t all that much like the Baptist churches I’d grown up in, either in the US or in Africa. I’d not been a Christian in those early years, and so wasn’t tuned to the inwardness of what was going on there, but the external forms had certainly changed a lot over the years.

Questions have a way of ballooning into unexpected regions. Whether I took the humble approach of looking at what churches through the ages have done, or the ab initio analysis from the Bible myself, it was clear that a lot was missing, and some claims that at first seemed perfectly reasonable were flat wrong. The Lord’s Supper, the purposes of teaching in the church, the role of the congregation in worship, the structure of the service, the role of scripture in the service—quite a few things didn’t seem to line up.

Take teaching, for example. The mega-church wannabe didn’t want to spend resources on adult education, and not all that much on youth either. It is easy to see why: the adults were a mix of levels—some quite familiar with the Bible and the faith, and others not sure if Romans was a book or a TV show. One class doesn’t suit all, and we weren’t so huge to be able to have classes for all. So the compromise was to drop official church education and rely on small groups to handle it. Which they didn’t and don’t, of course; you need to plan that sort of thing. So the result was that the church’s intellectual depth was about an inch shallow. Never mind that their heritage was rich and deep—there was no contact with that, except for the few who took courses at Bible colleges.

But on reflection, on reading a bit in Paul’s letters, and on watching some of the people in our group, I realized that education was not only shallow, it was restricted. I said church education ought to cover the three T’s: charity, clarity, and purity. Being able to tell Azarias from Abednego didn’t seem to correlate with living a holy and loving life. Both ought to be teachable, though the latter might be better thought of as an apprenticeship than a classroom course.

So we were missing catechesis, missing connection with Christian history and thought, and missing apprenticeships in living well. (Remember that book I mentioned in the first paragraph? The chapters on history and different denominations just keep growing and growing.) And that’s just in the teaching ministry of the church.

Worshipers were supposed to be doing something besides sitting on their duffs listening to a sermon illustrated with pop movie clips, and trying to sing now and then in the teeth of an over-amplified band. But what? Either we needed a more liturgical format, with the service having a well-defined shape and roles, or else something Pentecostal and spontaneous (but even they have an implicit form to the service). And my experience with Pentecostal services was less than inspiring; they didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for clarity or connection to the main stream of Christianity. So structure is the way to go. Does a liturgy need a priest? So far I don’t see it—so I’m not converting to Eastern Orthodoxy anytime soon.

But about the time that I’m pretty sure I have a few good answers and am ready to make suggestions, I tend to run into one of those old saints and remember how much I have to learn about the things that matter most.

I’m still working on that book, and a couple of us are planning a short series on church history, with an emphasis on understanding why Christians did things they way they did. We’ll see what happens.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Tonight I remember something I wrote 5 years ago, about Joseph:

He took on the responsibilities of being the husband without being the husband yet. He took on the responsibilities of being the father, without being the father--yet. He unexpectedly took on the ludicrous role of protector of God.

In the great drama he was not going to be a central character, though he probably expected to be important, and didn't know he would completely vanish from the scene. Mary was to be the archetypal Christian. Joseph was more like John the Baptist: she must increase and I must decrease. Or perhaps like Martha, with the necessary lesser duties.

I imagine Joseph outside the stable with the livestock, keeping an eye on the displaced beasts that panic at the smell of blood, waiting and hearing the pain he cannot protect Mary from. Wondering how he's going to try to raise a prophet and Savior. And now and then wondering how he's going to pay the midwife. For he was a just man.

How would you try to raise a boy you'd been promised was going to "save his people from their sins" ? How do you teach him and what do you have him practice? And can you keep the vision alive through the ordinary years, or will you forget in the daily urgency of making a living, regretting that you had to spend that windfall on an unexpected trip to Egypt?

I was given no such promises about our children, and I'd do many things differently if I had the chance--those daily crises took front and center too often. (I don't know if it would turn out any better, though.) I imagine Joseph at night, remembering the angel and wishing he'd been more patient that afternoon--and wondering how just long it was going to be before his son began to save the people.

Imprecatory Psalms

CS Lewis confessed that he had some problems with the imprecatory Psalms. It was jarring to him (and to others like Kathleen Norris) to be asking God to destroy enemies instead of forgiving them. Lewis admitted, IIRC, that he was not one of the oppressed and that for them the matter might look different.

But horrors like this are right under the surface, and not just in distant dictatorships; the cannibal view of humans as useful meat appears in editorial pages and research labs in this land too, masquerading as medicine as easily here as there.

We’re told to pray for healing; disease wasn’t part of the plan. Jesus wept at the death of his friend; death wasn’t part of the plan. Cruelty wasn’t part of the plan either; may we pray for justice as freely as we pray for healing, so long as we understand that God may have a better idea and find a way to reconcile? Put down the mighty from their seat and send the rich empty away; but not my will but thine be done?

Of course it is very easy to conflate justice with "prosperity for us", and I hardly think God honors that.

Perhaps there is a balance, but I don't know how to define it. Jesus was quite clear about forgiving enemies (do it or you won't be forgiven yourself), but he was also quite clear about judgment and punishment; and we pray that he will return soon, bringing reward and punishment. Traditional worship keeps both in a kind of tension, regularly reminding ourselves to pray for our enemies, and now and then praying the psalms to remind us of justice; and that is probably wisest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Iranian Schindler

If the news and pop "news" the past week has left a bad taste, refresh yourself with the BBC's story about Abdol-Hossein Sardari. A sample:

The story he spinned to the Nazis, in a series of letters and reports, was that the Persian Emperor Cyrus had freed Jewish exiles in Babylon in 538 BC and they had returned to their homes.

However, he told the Nazis, at some later point a small number of Iranians began to find the teachings of the Prophet Moses attractive - and these Mousaique, or Iranian Followers of Moses, which he dubbed "Djuguten," were not part of the Jewish race.

Using all of his lawyer's skill, he exploited the internal contradictions and idiocies of the Nazis' ideology to gain special treatment for the "Djuguten", as the archive material published in Mr Mokhtari's new book shows.

High-level investigations were launched in Berlin, with "experts" on racial purity drafted in to give an opinion on whether this Iranian sect - which the book suggests may well have been Sardari's own invention - were Jewish or not.

The experts were non-committal and suggested that more funding was needed for research.

I love that last sentence, btw.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Animate and the Inanimate by William James Sidis

AVI asked me to have a look at this work by an alleged genius.

He starts by devising the thought experiment of a universe where time goes backwards. Naturally it follows the same sorts of rules as our own, modulo the sign change in time. If you imagine that it is an identical copy, even things like the forces will be the same (a little dimensional analysis: time appears squared in force, so the sign stays the same).

What doesn’t stay the same is entropy—the second law of thermodynamics. A famous illustration of this (not his) is of a movie of a man eating a steak. Run the movie backwards and the steak is un-swallowed, un-chewed, removed to the plate and assembled into a whole hunk of beef, un-cooked, un-butchered, and eventually un-slaughtered into a live cow. This is fairly old news, of course; people have been arguing about what makes time special for quite a while.

The author is a bit careless in his description of heat, but we understand what he means anyway. However, consider this section, which is the heart of his argument:

Tracing backwards, we find that, in the past, the farther back we go, the more we get a larger percentage of available energy in the universe, increasing at an ever greater rate. Therefore it follows that we must arrive at some definite time in the past—and that not at an infinite time back—when the available energy was 100% of the total energy of the universe. At a time probably not much farther back, all the motion in the universe must have consisted of molar motion of masses which, as we go back, must have increased in size till we arrive at a time when all the energy must have consisted of the energy of two halves of the universe moving together, each half of the universe being at a temperature of absolute zero and all its parts moving side by side at exactly the same velocity. This possibility, it is true, is somewhat corroborated by the fact that at present the stars are moving in two opposite directions, in two opposite currents, as it were, which may be supposed to be the remnants of the two original large groups of stars whose collision formed the present universe according to this hypothesis.

First, the stars don’t act like that today. Second, there is no reason to assume this sort of initial symmetry—there are other possibilities, with internal energy states. Kinetic energy isn't the only kind there is.

At the same time the two original halves of the universe cannot have been altogether mutually impenetrable, for in that case the result of the collision would but have made them rebound, though producing a great amount of internal heat-energy in each, and possibly breaking some small pieces off each. It would seem, then, as though the original halves of the universe must have consisted of separate dark stars, with a structure somewhat similar to the present universe. At the time of the collision, all the stars, even all the particles, in each semi-universe must all be moving together at the same speed and in the same direction.

He has to posit dark stars because emitting light is going to increase entropy. Once again he is assuming a symmetry that is one of many possibilities.

The second law of thermodynamics, then, must date from some sort of Great Collision out of which the present universe evolved. But what happened before this Great Collision? The answer would have to be, everything was at a temperature of absolute zero, there were two semi-universes which were moving towards each other, in each of which there was not even a trace of relative motion. Although each of the two semi-universes were in motion, yet within each there was no motion, no internal energy.

Once again, why this? Why not internal energy? It is reasonable to ask what happens before the "Big Bang," but not reasonable to demand an answer from physics.

But if such was the situation at the time of the Great Collision, it cannot have been so for an eternity past, unless we conceive of the law of gravitational attraction not to have been true in those times. Taking each semi-universe by itself, its reverse universe will also show the same conditions as we have already described, except that the semi-universes are moving away from each other, so that we can proceed in peace without danger from the impending Great Collision. Each semi-universe may, for the purpose of internal occurrences, be regarded as at rest. Gravitation will then draw all the stars of each semi-universe towards its center of gravity, till all of them fall in there. Reversing once more, so as to obtain the process as it must have been supposed to happen, we get the following result: Each semi-universe originally consisted of one great body; suddenly, somehow, that body exploded into pieces, which formed stars, each piece, though, remaining at a temperature of absolute zero. Finally, in each semi-universe. mutual gravitation of the stars slowed them down to relative rest. Just when this relative rest was reached, the two semi-universes collided, and out of this collision came our present universe. Thus we trace a little farther back to the Great Explosions; but these explosions cannot possibly be traced back any farther according to the known physical laws without violating the second law of thermodynamics. In consequence, if we wish to preserve the second law of thermodynamics, we must either dispense with some of the other physical laws, or as some physicists have done, intersperse a creation. In other words, the second law of thermodynamics cannot have been true for an eternity past, though it may be true for on eternity in the future. And even the assumption of a creation would be assuming a process different from the processes coming under the ordinary physical laws.

The model is goofy. The conclusion is fine. One way or another, the physical laws were different in the past. It is actually rather hard to avoid the conclusion that there was a creation—multiverses only shift the problem of where the rules of the game came from.

In other words, we come to the inevitable conclusion that the subsistence of the irreversible second law of thermodynamics in the same universe as the reversible laws concerning the motion of particles is a paradox, both from that point of view and from the fact that this second law, pushed to its logical conclusion, leads back to a mysterious creation which denies all physical laws whatever.

No. He did not show entropy to be a paradox "from that point of view," and pushed to its logical conclusion it shows not paradox but incompleteness.

You can think of entropy in terms of the number of possible states for a system of particles in a closed system. (The log of the number, if you want to get technical.) If you have many particle states with equivalent energy, a little interaction will share out the particles in lots of those different equivalent states. Why we experience time the way we do is not known, of course, but it agrees nicely with the "arrow of time" defined by increasing entropy, which has led some to speculate that this is the reason we see time happening as we do.

In Chapter V he asserts that

To help us towards a solution of this paradox, we must first find out what the probabilities actually lead us to conclude. We have already seen that, in a given case, the chances are even as to whether energy will run down or build up. There are also small chances of a neutral condition, in which energy remains, on the whole, at the same difference of concentration as before. But the probability of this neutrality is negligible, and we may say that the probabilities are, that in 50% of the cases the second law of thermodynamics will be obeyed, and in 50% of the cases it will be reversed. If such is the case, the universe as a whole will be neutral; that is, taking all the occurrences over all of time and space, there will be no tendency in one direction or the other.

We have not "seen that … the chances are even as to whether energy will run down or build up." On the contrary, we simply have a risible model and some bald assertions. He may claim this as a possible model, but he may not claim that he has proved that this is possible, or even likely.

In chapter VI he asks how we would observe pockets of 2nd Law reversal, and concludes there are two: regions where effects seem to precede causes in a teleological way (does he really mean that entropy is reversed if there seems to be purpose in events?!!) or if "small causes" produce big events (because energy would be gathered rather than dissipated).

In short, we may say that, in general, events in the reverse universe appear as though they were living phenomena; and the general events of the reverse universe may be taken as the type of negative phenomena, of the reversal of the second law of thermodynamics. … We may therefore conclude: first, that inanimate phenomena, when reversed, become animate: second, that animate phenomena, when reversed, lose the appearance of animation; and third, that animate phenomena, when reversed, lose this appearance because, when reversed, they tend to follow the second law of thermodynamics. The logical conclusion from these would be: that inanimate phenomena are positive tendencies, and follow the second law of thermodynamics, while animate phenomena, on the contrary, are negative tendencies and tend to reverse that law. Thus we have found where our part of the universe contains reversals, and come to a solution of our paradox.

OK, full stop. Sorry, but this is weirdo land.

UPDATE: I should be more specific. First, a "reversal of entropy" is perfectly possible if the system is not closed; and a living organism typically acquires energy from outside in the form of food. This is elementary, and has been understood for a long time. Second, he uses the completely undefined weasel word "tendency" which leaves you with no way to quantify what he is talking about, and therefore no way to physically test to see if what he is saying is true. If he were talking about love or philosophy I'd use different criteria for evaluating what he says, but he claims to be talking physics; and we're all about measuring physical things in this part of the campus.

Chapter 8 shows no particular understanding of nuclear fusion or nuclear stability. The date of the book being 1920, perhaps this is not so surprising.

Chapter 11 discusses theories of the origin of life on Earth, without a hint of a suspicion that both the theories he favors and those he doesn’t alike fail to explain the origin of the life ours is supposed to have come from. The panspermia="cosmozoa" is particularly silly in this respect: how is "life on Earth comes from meteors from Mars" an explanation?.

The online copy is defective: Chapter 12 points to Chapter 11.

Chapter 13 is about astronomy, and includes howlers such as that a nova comes from nowhere with no pre-existing star. He apparently knows better, as his description of a 1902 nova shows, but he concludes that the star "had all the necessary heat, but that, until that day, the second law of thermodynamics was, for some reason, not operative on it." To be fair, Eddington's work on stellar fusion wasn't until later that decade.

Later chapters are predicated on the assumption that life is a reversal of the 2nd law. How exactly this is to be arranged on a local scale he never explains.

In the Conclusion he admits that "I may also state that I cannot supply any satisfactory answer to most of the objections stated in Chapter XVIII." That is an understatement.

My conclusion is that he knows how to use big words and namedrop, but his arguments are lacking, there's no effort to translate generic concepts into testable math, and he gets into crank-land when he starts in on the nature of life. I'll forgive his not knowing future details about stars and quantum mechanics, since I suspect his memory, like mine, only works one way in time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Alternative (s to) Medicine

Retriever has a daunting list of sites on her sidebar, and I cannot find time to follow them all. But there I found this article from the British Medical Journal on alternative medicine, which is definitely worth your time. It describes a novel but fundamental approach to reflexology.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Higgs or no?

Other people have already commented on yesterday's CERN announcement of Higgs exclusions, and argued about whether the look-elsewhere-effect is correctly applied.
If you have enough random distributions based on the same underlying probability distribution, you will find 3-σ "bumps" (or dips!) in one or more distributions--that is, a change big enough to make you think "There's something there!" So to understand the true significance of a "bump" in the (eg) mass distribution, you have to do some statistical analysis that takes into account how big the region is that might have a random bump, and de-weight the significance of your distribution accordingly. The broader the range, the more likely you are to find a meaningless statistical fluctuation that gives you a nice-looking peak, and therefore the less meaningful your bump is. This is the Look-Elsewhere-Effect.

We saw a "more significant" peak than this melt away already this year, and so aren't claiming anything yet. And the fact that both CMS and Atlas, after each excluding a large swath of possible masses, see a small bump in about the same spot lends a lot of weight to it--it reduces the look-elsewhere issue. But...

The only channel that shows it is the gamma-gamma decay mode--there's nothing much in b-bbar. That's not unexpected; the background is higher for b-bbar, making the signal muddier and harder to see. But there could be something else happening in gamma-gamma that we haven't accounted for correctly, that gives both groups a bump in the mass plot. Of course that would be something new also, and good to learn about; perhaps new physics and perhaps better models of the old. So we'll keep at it, waiting for both a better gamma-gamma peak and some verification in another channel.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Another one bites the dust

Oh well, so much for that idea.

Resizing a ring to be larger isn’t too hard—you’re basically stretching it, tapping it down over a long iron cone. Resizing it smaller is harder—they cut out a chunk and solder it back together. Why not squeeze it? Wild idea: use a hot mold with a hole for the ring; the cold ring snugly fit in the hole; the mold cools and squeezes the ring. Bingo, smaller ring. Except…

Unless the shape of the mold matched the shape of the outside of the ring, you’d tend to flatten it, which is probably not what you want. And it turns out that the squeezing is really rather small: you’d need about 10 differently sized molds to reduce a 20mm ring by 0.5mm.

So: this is doable with latch-able molds, provided you have a small furnace and that all the rings you deal with are the same shape; but it’s labor-intensive and you’d need a lot of molds.

Yes, I finally lost some of the weight. Why do you ask?

Atlanta 1

Traveling again, this time to the sunny South.

I found that a Kindle (el cheapo model with ads) in horizontal mode works very nicely in an airport if you can get away from the distractingly loud CNN semi-news loop. The cover is ugly as homemade sin (guilty—I’ve better ideas now, but no way was I going to fork over $40 for one) but I only look at the screen; other people have to look at the cover.

The Delta seat was somewhat less comfortable than some planks I’ve been on, but my luggage arrived with me, which is more than other airlines have accomplished. I was feeling under-exercised, so I walked instead of taking the train; and just barely caught my luggage as the assistant was wheeling it away from the carousel. They charged me for a full tank of gas the last time I used the pre-pay option, so I declined, but I hadn’t realized how awkward roads are near the airport. Saturday is going to be complicated.

25 miles to the hotel, and the training center is just walking distance away. Maybe I should have gone with a taxi instead. (Or MARTA? That’s pretty close too.)

The woman in the adjoining room is a bit vocal in her afternoon bedrocking. Absolutely quiet all night, though

I found where the center is, and padded about a little looking for restaurants. I get a better feel for where I am on foot than trying to watch cars and road and points of interest while driving an unfamiliar car. It isn’t even 7 my time, and I’m already beat.

But it’s nice to be above freezing for a change.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Hypocrisy and repentence

"Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue." Fran├žois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld

"If you say a modern celebrity is an adulterer, a pervert and a drug addict, all it means is that you've read their autobiography" P. J. O'Rourke

From Pippa Passes by Browning:

Your friends, Natalia said they were your friends

And meant you well, because, I doubted it,

Observing (what was very strange to see)

On every face, so different in all else,

The same smile girls like us are used to bear,

But never men, men cannot stoop so low ;

Yet your friends, speaking of you, used that smile,

That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit

Which seems to take possession of this world

And make of God their tame confederate,

Purveyor to their appetites . . . you know !

Can we long for a little hypocrisy? OWS incoherently protests the shameless greed and cronyism of the banks (and prescribes the hair of the dog, but that’s another issue). The paper carried an interview with John Waters today, in which he shamelessly calls himself a purveyor of filth. We seem to find no shame in abandoning family to "find yourself," or in any excess or perversion, or in drugging yourself into soggy rubble with chemicals or games. Call it "self medication" and people nod tolerantly, or say "it’s just the way I am" and they’ll indulge—unless you tromp on their toes. No shame means no blame, right? That hateful smirk of boundless self-conceit...

We all have our problems, and mine are as damaging to my soul as anybody else’s sins, but the special curse of the serpent in our time tries to barricade us from that morning when we look in the mirror at the wreckage that should have been a man and weep: and start to hunger to change.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Sometimes it is personal

At dinner I brought up the subject of the bomb in the Rhine because an amusing error found one US newspaper reporting it as a 1.8 ton bomb (clearly they'd just read the wire story and "corrected" the spelling). But my better half actually knew the place: her high school orchestra tour had boarded a Rhine tour boat there, and had unknowingly chugged over the old bomb on the trip. She remembered best from the excursion seeing a Japanese man in full kimono spending the entire boat ride with his camera at his face--always photographing and never watching. (So, of course, she took a picture of him.)