Sunday, September 30, 2012

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury

I’d heard of this vaguely somewhere before, but on the recommendation of Texan99 and John C Wright I found it in the library. (Malevil is also available, but I'm too lazy to tackle that--my French isn't smooth enough. There has to be a translation somewhere handy...)

I'll steal the description from Wright: "it was like a Jack Vance novel written in AE Van Vogt pacing." I like Vance's avalanches of creativity.

The thesis is that humans colonized a planet that had lots of life (no animals above insects mentioned), apparently out of desperation. The problem Kingsbury noticed is that the native life won’t have the same DNA and proteins, and no matter what it looks like it won't be good to eat. And getting our native plants to grow is way trickier than it seems, since down in the dirt it depends on lots of microorganisms that may not get along well with the native population. Result: very insecure lives, and the most important class is the bio-engineer types (called priests). (All quite logical, and I'd not thought of it before.)

The story opens with a cannibal feast at the death of the leader. (Food doesn't get wasted.) Three brothers are survivors of a crèche (3/4 of children there fail tests and are eaten). The story opens with the three brothers and their two wives (one marriage) being told they can't marry the woman they want (a brilliant physicist), but for political reasons have to marry a heretic in another tribe who teaches that people shouldn't be killed like that.

The various tribes are breeding for intelligence and strength and "kalothi", and by the end it is fairly clear that they are smarter than normal humans (except when somebody has to be tricked for the plot's sake).

On the plus side it has, as Wright said, Vance's creativity with good pacing. The reader is introduced to strangeness, and you have to think carefully about what is really happening. What is and isn't possible in the environment is also well thought out. On the minus side, the history they learn partway through induces too-rapid changes(*), and the subsequent quotation mix is a little jarring. And the characters are inhumanly sexually easy; only one shows anything like jealousy and that only intermittently. And I think the food energy budget is a little off, but that's a quibble.

It is well written, well thought out, overall well-done; and yet... I didn’t like it very much. The themes and background were off-putting enough to make it unpleasant.

(*)I work with people doing cutting edge stuff, and can assure you that Skylark-type "prototype to production model in 6 months" is wishful thinking. You discover things the manufacturer didn't know about your components when trying to make something new.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Church and state

AVI asked what the relationship between the culture and Christianity is, and whether it is better if the culture supports it.

I'm going to duck out of the question of better or worse. And I'm going to duck out of Christianity and culture questions for the moment.

C.S. Lewis suggested that pantheism was the default religion people settled into. Watching how politics seems to play out here and abroad I tentatively conclude that having a chief/king is the default form of government people settle into.

It also seems that a union of religion and state is the default relationship between the two.

I'm not such a fool as to believe that all religions or cultures or forms of government are equally good or equally valid, or that the default is necessarily a good option.

Most of the small tribes I remember much detail about were led by a chief who was also one of the major religious figures in the tribe, though not necessarily the most important.

That has a kind of logic to it. The tribal culture defines what things are valuable, are to be sanctioned, are to be reverenced; and it provides legitimacy for the ruler. The cult is part of the culture, so the ruler is at least indirectly supported by the religion. Since the ruler represents the people it makes sense to involve him in those rituals that involve the tribe as a whole, so he would tend to be regularly involved in ways ordinary tribe members aren't. And since he is powerful, and since animist religions tend to look at things from a "who/what is powerful" angle, if he is involved in different ways than ordinary those ways will be important; maybe even the most important.

If instead the king's tribe rules a kingdom of other tribes, there may not be a single religion. I gather the Greeks tried to consolidate religions by equating their gods with something in the other nation or tribe's pantheon that was at least within shouting distance of being similar. I suspect that pantheons arose from accreting the different gods of different tribes into a single structure (presumably at the cost of devotion), but I don’t know where one would find evidence for this. (Did isolated tribes have more gods than trading ones?)

At any rate, the pagan king is apt to find more than one religious center. If it is possible to create an overarching pantheon, it is in the king's interest to encourage it in the hopes of generating a "we're all in this together" sense among the diverse devotees of Vishnu and Kali. Once again the king can represent all the peoples in ways nobody else can, so he should be important in the religions in ways nobody else can be, so there's some unity of religion and state, though because it is a more complicated environment who is more powerful isn't predictable. Nebuchadnezzar tried to institute a common religion, and so did the Roman emperors; presumably for the same reasons of imperial unity.

Now introduce into this kingdom a monotheist religion whose adherents won't join in the unifying rituals. If they don’t support the king they're soon gone, so assume that they do support the state, just in a different way.

The new/minority religion inevitably has different values and produces a different subculture. We can look at Jews or Gypsies to see how well-liked these groups tend to be. They find toleration sometimes, oppression and expulsion other times (especially if the group regards the majority as marks).

What happens when they proselytize, or when the cultural side effects of their religion (or its rationality) are clearly superior to those of the pagans around them? In China Falun Gong is, as far as I know, supportive of the state, but the Chinese state cannot put up with any organization or religion that does not derive its legitimacy from that state. Even if the minority religious culture is attractive and superior to the majority culture, the ruler may want to control it also, and get rid of it if he can't.

From the king’s perspective, he has two integrated sources of power in his role as king and his role as a religious leader. The growth of a new religion has to decrease that. It may not matter: "It's good to be the king." It might even help in political disputes with other cult leaders. But the more seriously he takes his religious duties the greater the risk that his representation of the people will seem inadequate when he doesn’t speak for all of them at once.

If on the other hand the kingdom is already ethical monotheist or dualist, the religious leader/king's religious duties take on a moral edge. For the safety of the kingdom and also of those the new religion he must point them to the correct path.

In Christianity or ancient Judaism or Islam the leaders can be appointed by God, and is therefore once again potentially a part of the religious order. Christianity says all leaders are so appointed, even the non-Christian or evil ones, so there's some barrier there, plus Jesus' words about Caesar and God--but even so if the leader is Christian there’s been a tendency to integrate him into the religious order of things.

In the past century various ideologies have acquired a scope previously only granted to religions. They generally don’t say much about the supernatural world, but they are emphatic that salvation comes through the state. For example "Green" environmentalists have a fairly complete set of parallels, with their versions of hell, sin, indulgences, and so on. Mere obedience is not always enough; you must not question the true faith that man is a burden to the world or that "alternative sexualities" are equivalent to traditional marriages or that the state can make all things better.

Religion and state seem to have some mutual attraction.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Room temperature superconductivity?

I missed this story. Graphite doped with water superconducts? Well, maybe. There are several tests for superconductivity and so far the material hasn't been tested to see if it repels magnetic fields or really-and-truly conducts with 0 resistance. Instead it passes a more esoteric test, which is related to but may not guarantee the rest of them--which are the ones we're interested in.

Trying to make a wire out of doped graphite is going to be an interesting exercise. Maybe baking can fuse flakes together--but then you may change the molecular structure that gives it the (for the purposes of argument) "superconductivity."

"Vampire Squid"

Go watch the video as it looks like the "squid" turns itself inside out to eat. It looks like they have remora-like parasites too, but you don't get a really close look.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Toxoplasmosis again

I'd asked before how toxoplasma could change hormone levels from within a cyst. There's a new report in the European Journal of Personality that says yep, they do.
We found that Toxoplasma-infected male and female students had significantly higher extraversion and lower conscientiousness. The conscientiousness negatively correlated with the length of infection in men, which suggested that the toxoplasmosis associated differences were more probably the result of slow cumulative changes induced by latent toxoplasmosis, rather than transient side effect of acute Toxoplasma infection. The existence of this correlation also supported (but of course not proved) the hypothesis that Toxoplasma infection influenced the personality, rather than the hypothesis that the personality influenced the probability of the infection.


The final sample consisted of 181 Toxoplasma-negative and
30 Toxoplasma-positive female students and 95 Toxoplasma-
negative and 17 Toxoplasma-positive male students.


The important difference between the present NEO-PI-R personality profile and 16PF personality profiles of infected subjects was that the toxoplasmosis-associated differences relative to Toxoplasma-free subjects in Cattell's personality factors were mostly in opposite directions for men and women, whereas the differences in NEO-PI-R factors were generally in the same direction for both genders.

I must say I'm not excited about their Table 1. Yep, there are differences, but the standard deviations are pretty large.

But I had a look at some pictures and maybe the cysts aren't quite as impermeable as I'd have guessed. So they may be onto something, though unless I miss my guess this study doesn't show it. There just aren't enough statistics to look at the tails properly.

Clouds of hot gas

If you are standing in the waterfall, how can you tell whether the sky is foggy? There's too much spray in your eyes and mist floating around you to see clearly. But if you see sharp-edged shadows, the sky is probably clear.

Gupta et al used the Chandra X-Ray Observatory data to do something just as difficult. Here in our Solar System we're in not quite the heart but certainly the swirl of a large galaxy, surrounded by hot gas and cold dust and magnetic fields every which way. Look outward, and see hot gas wherever you look.

They did something clever. They were looking at absorption lines of oxygen in X-rays emitted from distant galaxies. Chandra is accurate enough about direction that they can look only at the kinds of galaxies that will be bright in X-rays but not too wild and wooly, and be sure they're not picking up too much stuff from galaxies nearby. The X-rays are emitted with a broad spectrum. Some of the X-rays are absorbed by oxygen in distinctive wavelengths: some absorbed at the distant galaxy and some absorbed nearby.

Here's the cool trick. Galaxies are moving away from each other, so the absorbing gas is moving too. They picked galaxies far enough away that the speed at which we are moving apart is great enough to make a large red-shift in the light spectrum. Therefore the gaps in the X-ray spectrum due to absorption by oxygen in the distant galaxies are red-shifted to longer wavelengths. The gaps due to absorption by local (our galaxy's halo) oxygen are where they ought to be.

The researchers can tell the difference, and conclude that there's a lot of local (and quite hot! 1,000,000 degrees K) oxygen in a kind of cloud around our galaxy.

If the proportions of hydrogen and oxygen are like those elsewhere in the galaxy (ie. lots of hydrogen and only a little bit of oxygen), then the cloud around our galaxy has to include an awful lot of hydrogen we can't see with this method. In fact, there should be as much mass in the cloud as there is in the galaxy itself!

If this is correct, then one annoying problem with models of big bang evolution may be solved: the models predict about twice as much baryonic (ordinary) matter as we seem to see in the glowing galaxies.

If the cloud is that large and that hot, it should have some interesting effects on galactic magnetic fields. I'm not sure how easy it will be to see the hydrogen.

I look forward to hearing more.


Catholic in Germany? Pay your church tax in Germany or face loss of the sacraments. At least so says the BBC's report of a German bishops' announcement. I don't read German or I'd try to verify this one: BBC is not famous for accuracy in stories about religion. To be fair, neither are pretty much all the other news companies. But see the CatholicNews version which emphasizes the public renunciation aspects of Zapp's announcement.

There's history involved, of course:

All Germans who are officially registered as Catholics, Protestants or Jews pay a religious tax of 8-9% on their annual income tax bill. The levy was introduced in the 19th Century in compensation for the nationalisation of religious property.


Catholics make up around 30% of Germany's population but the number of congregants leaving the church swelled to 181,000 in 2010, with the increase blamed on revelations of sexual abuse by German priests.

Alarmed by their declining congregations, the bishops were also pushed into action by a case involving a retired professor of church law, Hartmut Zapp, who announced in 2007 that he would no longer pay the tax but intended to remain within the Catholic faith.

The Freiburg University academic said he wanted to continue praying and receiving Holy Communion and a lengthy legal case between Prof Zapp and the church will reach the Leipzig Federal Administrative Court on Wednesday.

"This decree makes clear that one cannot partly leave the Church," Germany's bishops' conference said last week

From an American point of view one problem is obvious: churches should raise their own money. Then, presto!, there is no Zapp scandal any longer. His protests are now only between him (and the thousands like him) and his church. Caesar isn't in the picture any more, except for punishing crime. And the church finances still get the hit Zapp wants them to endure.

Money comes off the table entirely when talking about sacraments. Unless the bishops want to revive "So bald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt", which I hope they are wise enough not to dream of... Zapp's declaration would have to become more clear cut; right now it takes on a hint of tax evasion.

Hat tip to Maggie's Farm, and yes, I googled for Tetzel's rhyme: I don't even know that much German. I notice that the additional tax (waived for non-religious) is quite a bit less than 10%; only about \$300/head on the average or maybe \$1200/family_income.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us ed by John A Armstrong

This is made of 13 essays on various topics about "One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church" and "Roman Catholic Theology Today" and "Evangelical and Catholic Cooperation in the Public Arena" and so on.

"Roman Catholic Theology Today" asserts that after Vatican II much of Catholic theology went rapidly in the modernist direction as "a consciously post-Enlightenment theology, the basic presuppositions and concerns of which are the same as those that have motivated Protestant theology in modern times." If true it certainly helps explain some of the things I’ve been hearing about Catholic universities.

Many authors complain that many Protestants churches have become terribly sloppy with doctrine, to the point of Pelagianism or worse: "therapeutic Christianity."

Much of the rest is fairly well summarized by "We agree on a lot of things, and can and should do a lot of things together, but Trent is still in the way."

In other words justification is either a "forensic" imputation with no human effort or a process that in the end depends on human effort and compliance. The latter is officially tied in to support Purgatory, and in popular theology (as opposed to the magisterium's version) became and still becomes a "salvation by works" doctrine.

Balance is difficult, and while I'd hope it is possible to think of justification with a little human cooperation without getting tied up in works-and-merits, it isn't clear that this works out very well in practice. In any event, Rome doesn't seem too eager to ditch the merits of the saints though I gather they've decided to be a little fuzzier about Purgatory.

I tend to a somewhat different view, though I haven't worked out the implications. Justification, sanctification, glorification, etc. look one way from a human time-based perspective, and must look quite different from the eternal Now. It is therefore risky to rely on time-based distinctions when talking about God's action. Likewise it is difficult to include both Divine knowledge and human choice in the same model. So rather than try to build a conceptual framework that handles both, look instead at what is required of us in one model, and look at what happens to us in another one. Requirements: 1) trust Jesus for salvation, and 2) try to obey God's rules to be fruitful in His world, and 3) when you sin review point 1. What this looks like from the eternal perspective is more like God turning vermin into gods.

Jesus and "wife"

I saw the story about the text fragment, and it seemed a bit odd (4'th century or 2'nd? What gives?) so I searched around a bit. I should have googled for the principals instead; it would have been faster. Karen Leigh is on the Jesus Seminar, an organization that rewrote the gospels by voting every verse with miracles or authority "off the island" (almost as though they had an agenda). Round file.

I know that even the devil tells the truth from time to time, but some groups have earned the reverse of "benefit of the doubt." If a Muslim Brotherhood rep wants to talk about Jewish conspiracies, I have better things to do than listen. (If he wants to talk about food prices that's another matter.)

It is a big deal to set that kind of default, and I try not to do it lightly. Political differences are too low a threshold to trigger it; though "How can you tell when a politician is lying?" isn't as huge an exaggeration as we'd like.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Senate update

Earlier I noticed that Senegal was thinking of getting rid of its Senate. Sall got his way. One detail I'd missed before was that the lower house is more heavily allied with his party, and the Senate more with opposition parties. Another is that half of the Senators are appointed. They also got rid of the office of Vice President, though that won't save any money since there hasn't been one yet. I'll try to keep posted. (Prediction 1: there will be smoke and mirrors about how much money is actually spent on flood control.)

FWIW, I tried to find out if Senegal was on the list of countries where France closed its embassy. Along the fruitless way I noticed that the logo for France Diplomatie reminds me a little of that for Major League Baseball.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Before you buy a ticket on a warp drive craft

Once again we discover that faster than light travel is a little less impossible than thought. Except that the devil is in the details. Wikipedia has a more detailed history and description. You can skip the math, it doesn't help much unless you're ready to delve into families of initial conditions and solutions. I'm not.

The short answer is that all you need is some unobtainium (to give the negative energy density), which is possibly tachyonic (try and catch me!), built into worse than microscopically thin rings, and precisely calibrated so that tidal forces don't tear your spaceship apart. And I'm not quite clear what happens when you run into space dust along the way--it might mess up your careful tidal balance. And the pilot has a little trouble steering.

But hey: this time you don't need > mass of the universe energy available, or even mass of Jupiter energy; all you need is the energy of a bunch of H-bombs. So it is now "a little less impossible."

Resisting the temptation to connect the attitude with magical thinking by ... Must resist ...

A pity. I'd love to see Sag-A'. Though even if the drive worked there'd not be cheap passenger fares in my lifetime.

Update: Maybe I should have made this shorter:

Before you buy a ticket on a warp drive craft

Be sure you won't hit dust clouds on the way

For when your unobtainium ring bends back aft

Tides will shred your life support away

Just going to get worse

Wisconsin is a "swing state" and we've been getting phone calls. Hoo boy, have we been getting phone calls. It has been getting so bad that I hung up on a human being last night. I usually try to be polite, but ...

No, I don't do phone opinion polls: they usually turn into "Did you know that..." pushes, and in any event I want them to live in uncertainty. Just for laughs, let the candidates try to say what they mean rather than what they think will poll well.

And the assumptions behind the calls are rather insulting. Do they think I don't try to keep posted? That I can be swayed against intellect and conscience by smoke blown in my eyes?

Soon comes the deluge of glossy fliers that don't actually say anything. This year I'm going to save them and see how much they mass.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Creativity and Love (and doodles)

I’m composing this at Beaver Creek Valley, where about half the campers are Chinese and half are here for the archery season--with a lot of overlap. I saw one group running a blowtorch next to the grill cover, presumably to burn the crud off. It is noisy as all get-out and wasteful, but undeniably cool. But--why not add oxygen to the feed and make the flame strongly oxidizing? It would be faster and more dramatic--you’d have to worry about damaging the grill. This morning I moseyed over to the next campsite (they came in late and did the same thing while we were trying to sleep) and asked to see the result. Oops. I should have been wearing my glasses. Turns out they were cleaning squirrels; it is squirrel season too. Still, I like the grill cleaning idea. I’ll try it if I get the chance.

I remember overhearing the conversation between two brilliant scientists (one went on to win a Nobel prize) batting ideas back and forth. It was a joy to listen to, and also to participate in my own smaller way in similar discussions with friends. So what if most of the plans needed work, we could deal with the details when we picked a plan. (FWIW, both men were royal PITAs to work for. This may seem to sabotage my conclusion below, but the joy they had and I shared was real.)

Creativity can serve evil ends: history makes that overwhelmingly clear. But set that prospect behind us for now and think about other forms of creativity.

My experience and observation are naturally limited, but they are at least worth something. I find two forms of creativity.

One form is creativity oriented to some goal--getting a mouse out of the ventilation duct, or devising a faster way to clean the grill.

The other is creativity oriented to no immediate or even perceived goal--doodling a rocket ship in the margin of your English notes. Depending on your bent you might try to make the details aesthetic or functional, but my urge (and that of most I've watched) is to fill it out and not leave it schematic--unless that schematic has a beauty or completeness of its own. (Cartoons have their own aesthetic.)

I hesitate to call this "purposeless" creativity. The word "purposeless" is freighted with implications of randomness and waste. Neither corresponds with what I sense I am trying to do.

I'm composing this on a pad originally used by my youngest daughter for math. The inside front cover has a doodle of Legolas. She revised it here and there to make it more accurate. At the time she was captivated by Orlando Bloom as Legolas in Jackson’s movies. This had nothing to do with math, and she already had other and more accurate images of him—but she wanted to create something.

It seems as though creativity of this second sort is a fundamental urge or characteristic that isn’t derived from other thing--isn’t composite. In fact the first form of creativity--creativity aimed at some goal--is the composite, of "raw" creativity and filling a need.

At first glance goal-oriented creativity is easier to understand. I could try to define it as "If I have a need X, I think through the processes A, B, C that I know about to see if any of their goals or side effects can fit into a process that will achieve X." On closer inspection you sometimes have to define "process" so broadly that the description isn’t useful, and you wind up being circular with "creating new problems that solve the old."

You might sometimes look at non-goal oriented creativity as "make a problem and then solve it" where the problem is "This paper needs an image of Legolas" or "How convoluted an image can I draw in this margin without lines crossing?"

However you try to parse the definitions, creativity of any sort puts something in the world that wasn't there before. That shares in divine creativity, though we use an existing "something" to make our new things.

But creativity as we know it also comes with an impulse to do the thing well, whether that means beautifully or accurately or thoroughly, and we feel a lack when it falls short. The doodle among the English notes may have little time or care invested, but we’d really rather it looked good.

We want to make something new, something outside us, that we can make good, be happy with, and have affection for. Most of the time we will toss aside whatever resulted from the almost-aimless activity; judging it (correctly) not of the quality or importance to continue with, or perhaps a blind alley. But as for me I'd prefer that the margin's rocket design lack only the quotations for parts, and that not just the single dandelion I hold but the entire field explode in a whirlwind of fluff.

So creativity (as we know it) is generous--to the created thing. It seeks the best--of the created thing. It therefore--at least for human creators--partakes in the nature of love.

Given the rich detail of the world it isn't too far fetched to extrapolate that the creator of the universe created something outside himself that he could make well and be generous towards--be loving towards. (It doesn't matter if the creator is merely a gnostic demi-urge; the same extrapolation applies to whoever created the demi-urge up the fabulous gnostic chain.)

Is it possible that "God loves" is something we might have concluded from "God creates," in the same way that we might have (but didn't) conclude that God has the aspect of suffering servant from noting that God is just and that He hadn't destroyed us already? Some revelations seem needed to get through into our thick heads, and only after the fact can we say "of course!"

Friday, September 14, 2012

Time for a break

camping for a few days in Minnesota to rest and bird watch with Eldest Son.

The non-ancient non-Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" seems to have landed on us all, but "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" and all that. I can't spend 24/7 standing athwart history and yelling "Stop!"

We all need a little quiet time to make sure we're centered on God, and not nudged askew by the Prince of the Power of the Airwaves (and the net).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Astronomy" videos

These videos by Alex Parker are fun. The "Supernova Sonata" puts notes to a sky map of novas. I'll bet you didn't realize there were that many.

Obscure vanity

A Wisconsin plate read 84MUNU. This is what I thought of immediately, but I couldn't think of anybody involved then who was in Madison now.(*) Google didn't help a bit: perhaps it is from another language? Or perhaps someone misread the license application: someone I knew tried to put his name on the plate and an O was misread as a U. Obscure whichever way... Vanity plates are maximum 7-character tweets.

LVTHEM is easier to figure out. Or SUEM (in a law firm's parking lot).

(*)I was still in grad school; I joined later.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rabbit grimacing

A UK team studyied whether analgesia was useful when tattooing a rabbit's ears.

The sample size is tiny (8 rabbits), but you'd think it wouldn't require an army of rabbits to figure out whether something hurts or not. They measured pain/disturbance in a number of ways (heart rate, rate of grooming afterwards, etc), and compared tattooing with handling and fake-tattooing, and found that (surprise!) it hurts unless you put some analgesic cream on first.

That's more of interest to 4H groups: what caught my eye was the idea of measuring the rabbit's pain by its grimace. There already existed a method of measuring mouse pain by mouse grimaces; this has been adapted to rabbits, and it looks like it works, at least for low levels of pain (they didn't try to inflict anything harsh).

So, is the rabbit squeezing its eyes shut, or flattening (sucking in?) its cheeks, or V-ing its nostrils, or laying its whiskers or ears back? Something is probably hurting it.

Did it just go into full kick and jump mode? You goofed trimming the nails...

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Categorizing people

At "Beyond Label or Category" Dan Dick describes a young lady who briefly chatted with a group at a coffee shop:
One morning, a cute, perky, deeply dimpled blond woman — maybe 21 or 22 — dressed in shorts, a tank top, and carrying a pink Hello Kitty backpack bounced in and joined the group. See chatted for a while and departed, and awhile later the whole group broke up and left. When I prepared to leave, I noticed that the young woman had left her backpack. I took it to the cashier and asked if he knew the woman, he said he did not, so I looked in the backpack for identification so we could contact her. Here is a list of the contents of the backpack:
  • an iPhone
  • a wallet, with an “Icthus” fish emblem
  • a set of headphones
  • two tampons
  • a strip of seven condoms (five opened and empty, two fully intact)
  • a well-used Bible — heavily annotated and underlined, with about two dozen bookmarks with yarn tassels marking favorite places. The Bible was held in a protective cover, and the cover had the following four stickers on it:
    1. "Abortion is murder"
    2. "We stand with Scott Walker"
    3. "All means all — Support Lesbian and Gay Rights"
    4. "Capital Punishment is a Hate Crime"
  • a pint of Raspberry vodka, two-thirds empty
  • a .22 caliber handgun

Okay, quick now — liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? Would this young woman be comfortable in your church? Would she be welcome? Does she "fit"? Is she the kind of young adult we have in mind when we say we want more young people? Is she "normal" in today’s world?

There's been very strong correlation between views on economic and moral issues, but part of this is due to "ethnic cleansing" in the political parties. You can generally tell what someone's views on abortion are by asking about whether the rich are taxed enough, but that's partly because the Democrats have tried to purge themselves of anti-abortion figures, and not so much because the two beliefs arise from a coherent philosophy.

This lady represents a different clustering of values.

  1. She is a Christian who is deeply devoted to studying the Bible.
  2. She's interested in social justice as exemplified in trying to retrieve the levers of power from entrenched public sector unions.
  3. She has at least a modest amount of disposable income, and follows fashion trends.
  4. She believes (it is the fashion!) that people are entitled to have sex independent of marriage or children. (Homosexual "marriage" follows from this disconnect.)
  5. She believes that it is evil to kill the unborn.
  6. She believes she is in dangerous situations from time to time and wants to protect herself (but apparently hasn't asked for advice).
  7. She believes that the state has no right to kill, though.

I recently put together a quick-and-dirty history of early Christianity for a church class, and found it interesting to compare our current divides with some of the early church (first few centuries) attitudes, and see where the young lady fits in.

Her attitudes
thinks are
thinks are
Early church
would think are
1: BibleGoodGoodGood
2: WalkerVery BADProb OKWho cares?
3: moneyGoodGoodBad
4: sexProb OKVery BADVery Very BAD
5: abortionBadGoodGood
6: self defenseBadOKBAD
7: punishmentGoodBadYou kidding?
Don't cooperate

Yes, I know, I can think of exceptions to some of the judgments among all three groups, but the descriptions are close enough.

So, where does the lady fit in? The second century church would want her to show an amended life for a year before they'd take her. I suppose the modern churches want her to amend her life too, but they disagree on what the amendation should be.

Of the three, in which would she be more likely to find the grace to amend her life?

Antibiotic side effect?

The Washington Post reports on a pair of reports suggesting that just as meat animals grow a little faster with some antibiotics in their diet (I didn't know that!), people and mice do too.

One of the studies is a longitudinal (ALSPAC) study of 11K infants in the UK. The executive summary:

Exposure to antibiotics during the first 6 months of life is associated with consistent increases in body mass from 10 to 38 months. Exposures later in infancy (6-14 months, 15-23 months) are not consistently associated with increased body mass.

In their discussion they describe other factors: maternal weight, smoking, and other things that can correlate with infection rates. They found "remarkably weak" correlations with those variables (when you have such a large population you can segment by maternal weight if you want to).

The other (Blaser's) study was on mice:

Blaser’s team treated young mice with low doses of antibiotics and found that while the treated mice did not become larger overall, they were, in fact, more obese

Treated and untreated mice had different populations of gut bacteria.

The scientists then did a genetic analysis of the bacteria’s metabolism and found that some genes responsible for fat synthesis showed a higher activity in the treated mice. Overall, the scientists concluded that the treated mice had bacteria that were more efficient in digestion.

It is notorious that antibiotics mess up your gut bacteria, and there've been some reports suggesting that gut bacteria change the blood chemistry slightly (with things that mimic hormones, perhaps?). I'm not sure how much of fat synthesis happens in the gut, but if any does then a change to a different and more efficient population could change the input ratios of sugar and fat in the blood. I assume the body compensates, but long term that might make a difference.

You are what you eat, I suppose, but also what meds you take/were given. Notice that for the kids the major factor was whether they got antibiotics in the first six months; later didn't matter so much. That's a little odd, unless these sorts of bacteria have a gut habitat that tends to keep antibiotics out.

They didn't have good information on the types of antibiotics used (this was with parental questionnaire), and so that detail isn't included.

It should be straightforward to check those farm animal growth rates and see how much of that is increase in fat (well-marbled steak, anyone?). I should ask somebody over in Ag.

Friday, September 07, 2012


AVI notes that psychological twin studies have a weakness: different home environments within the US are not as radically different as researchers might hope. Our home is saturated with books (you often have to move them off chairs to sit down), while a neighbor's is almost bare of them, but the Zeitgeist is the same for both, and that shapes attitudes and expressions in both households.

I didn't play modern pop music at home; I played what I liked. The kids picked up a taste for modern pop anyway. The "air they breathe" is similar around the country, and there were more than a few things that made us cry "Where'd they get that?" We didn't have the TV on much--but the kids watched at their friends'.

As he says, "imagine running into an an age-mate from rural Laos and trying to find a point of connection in childhood reminiscence." Or in attitudes.

Galactic Haze

The Planck Cosmic Microwave Background satellite telescope has verified that there really is a haze of higher energy photons than expected. They infer a spectrum of electrons that falls with energy as 1/E^2.1, which is quite a bit harder than the run-of-the-mill supernova shock electron spectrum which falls as 1/E^3.1 . I love hearing about the kind of work in which supernovas are ordinary background.

Pavel Naselsky is quoted as saying "The radiation has a spectrum which has the same form as that of synchrotron emission, which originates from electrons and positrons circulating at high energies around the lines of the Magnetic Field in the center of the galaxy, and I believe that there are quite strong indications that it could come from dark matter." I think he has in the back of his mind the 130GeV spike in the spectrum found by another experiment (but not verified; quite a few groups are looking), because I don't quite see how the Planck results suggest anything like dark matter.

If dark matter could annihilate with other dark matter to produce electrons, you would get a lot of high energy electrons curving in the galactic magnetic field, emitting relatively high energy photons as they go. So they're consistent with one model of dark matter, but that's not exactly evidence.

Something is certainly different about what is going on in the "bubbles", and the paper is worth looking at if only for the pictures of the bubbles above and below the galactic core. I'm afraid my eyes started to glaze over while skimming the discussion of all the different models being compared to the data. That's a vital part of their research, and similar things are critical in my field also, but vital doesn't make it exciting.

FWIW, the primary cosmic ray spectrum looks like 1/E^2.6 at the high end (Auger), so maybe it isn't dark matter but some similar acceleration processes at work. That would get my vote.

In the meantime, we have a shining haze where nobody expected it.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


I was reviewing the news of the DNC (I haven't watched any part of political conventions for years), and of course the Entrance and March of the Peers played in my head.

But as the lyrics ran on they came to the chorus, and the line "Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow ye masses."

Disdain for tradesmen is an old tradition among the nobility and the would-be nobility. And so it is today. It isn't just Walmart they disdain and try to rule over and squeeze money from.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Gadarene Swine

The story shows up abbreviated in Matthew (and with 2 demoniacs instead of 1), so I’ll use Mark’s and Luke’s versions. It is different enough from all the other stories about unclean spirits that it needs a little review.

At the obvious boat landing spot there’s a noisy and dangerous man who can’t even be chained up. He lives naked among tombs and cuts himself.

The man’s problem is demon possession, and possession by quite a number of evil spirits. It isn’t fashionable to consider that real, though sometimes one is allowed to mention that you saw some very odd things on a trip to South America once. Nothing in the story structure makes any sense if demons aren’t real, though.

Jesus tells the evil spirits to leave the man, and they don’t. Instead they beg him not to torture them. Odd. The rest of the time they just do as told.

Then instead of commanding again, Jesus asks the name, and they answer Legion because there are so many—and continue begging Jesus not to make them leave the area/go to the Abyss. Why does Jesus care about the name(s) of the demons?

Then they beg to be allowed to go into the pigs grazing on the hillside. Would observant Jews raise pigs? They’d not eat them, and at least one authority cites the Talmud as saying "Cursed be the man who would breed swine." (I can’t tell how old this prohibition is, but it cites an incident from the invasion of Aristobulus). This happens in the Decapolis, which was probably mostly pagan, so the swineherds were probably pagan. So the demon-possessed man probably was too.

Jesus gives the demons permission to infest the swine, and the pigs promptly commit suicide. Was that what they had in mind, or was that just the working out of their effects in a simpler creature than a man? And where do they go from here, now that their hosts are dead? Wander about, or head for the Abyss they were so worried about?

The next detail we all recognize: when the townsfolk come to verify the swineherds’ story they find it true—and beg Jesus to leave. Never mind the healing and that the danger is gone: those pigs were more valuable and they don’t want to risk any further loss. Jesus doesn’t seem to care tremendously about pigs or a torn-up roof, people come first.

So Jesus leaves; he doesn't force his presence on people who don't want him around. The formerly demon-possessed man begs to come with him but Jesus tells him to go back home and tell people what the Lord had done for him. Of course if Jesus had had pagans among his disciples nobody would have listened to him, but this wasn’t the only time he told people to go home. He only called some, though not all of them followed.

If I were making up stories about Jesus, I’d be interested in showing his power. OK, making a legion of demons go away is pretty dramatic, but why would I specify that they didn’t obey at first? And why would I make the townspeople so unhappy about a dramatic healing? And since I’d be Jewish, I’d try to make sure that it was understood that the demon-possessed man was Jewish. (Jews could get a little bent out of shape when reminded that God worked with gentiles too: Luke 4:23-29.)

Instead we have a story of a Jesus who even seems to care about what happens to demons and doesn’t worry about private property; a story which raises a lot of never-answered questions as Jesus heals a gentile. Jesus doesn’t fit neatly into little boxes. (And I don't think WWJD is a very good rule of thumb.)

Saturday, September 01, 2012


Texan99 pointed me to an interesting web site concentrating on building resilient communities. This article is titled "How to Bootstrap a local barter economy", but that's misleading. The financial model of human relationships applies well enough in the larger society, especially among strangers, but it doesn't apply to families, and not very well to friends. The nearer the relationship, the more important non-monetary exchange is.

At any rate, the critical element of "bootstrapping" is the "Connector" who makes the first links, "to reach out to people in need with dignity and grace, and in return, those people return with what they can offer." There'll always be some moochers in the neighborhood, but they'll tend to get left out of the network after a while. If it works.