Monday, July 29, 2013

World Without Wide Web

The DSL modem went south on us Friday afternoon, and we're not expecting a replacement until Tuesday. Naturally enough we don't have smart phones and so internet connection means going to the library or the coffeeshop.

It makes an interesting difference in the household rhythms. Going camping is different--that disrupts everything. Here we're living ordinary lives at home, but without the net.

We didn't get a lot of news. We get the paper, but that's mostly useful for local news. Not much else: the radio is very abbreviated and we don't get TV reception. Not that TV news is worth much anyhow.

My better half and I spent a fair bit of time on the computers anyway, but it was creating lesson plans and editing and doing long-overdue file cleanup. And it was maybe only half the time we normally do. And we couldn't keep up with email--a longtime friend is having marital difficulties and has needed some help. A lot of our planning happens with email.

When you finish one task, what do you do next? I carry a mental checklist; and various needs of the day, or the time of day, make one thing or another bubble up in the queue. It hadn't sunk in how often "check online" was bumped up in the queue.

The younger ones spent a lot of time with Spore and MineCraft and New Jedi Order (or something like that).

I was planning to monitor some projects at work and start up new job batches when the old passed my checks, but that waited until this morning: lost a few days processing time.

The garden fence is down and bundled for scrap; most of the panels for the new one are built, and a little of the garden edge cleanup is done.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ancient autism

To a recent post AVI commented that autism didn't seem adaptive, and might be a recent development. I googled around, and in among the fever swamps of the vaccine-autism crowd are some suggestions: This paper suggests (cannot prove, of course) that folktales about changelings might refer to parents dealing with autistic children.
The new child—the changeling—is characterised by unresponsiveness, resistance to physical affection, obstreperousness, inability to express emotion, and unexplained crying and physical changes such as rigidity and deformity. Some are unable to speak.

Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried. Most commonly they steal children.

The parallels between changeling tales and autism, have been briefly noted by writers on the history of the disorder. Some of the features of these stories, including the initial health and beauty of the human child, the change after some period of “normalcy”, and the specific behaviours of the changeling (listed above) are well matched to symptoms in some presentations of autism.

This site also speculates:

Autism can be equated with the 'blessed Fools’ of old Russia, “who were revered for their unworldiness. The apparent insensitivity to pain, bizarre behaviour, innocence, and lack of social awareness that these “Blessed Fools” showed, suggest that they may have had autism. ” (Happe). Similarly in almost all cultures one can find anecdotes and folktales about foolish boys (note that it is a boy and not a girl as autism has always been more prevalent in boys) who take what their mother said too literally- word for word , rather than figuratively and metaphorically or idiomatically.

And quite a few people noted that in a small rule and role-bound village, Aspergers isn't a great handicap. Maybe things might get awkward at fairs, but most of the time you know your job and you just do it.

I can't see my way to the "autism advantage", but something like Aspergers might be advantageous in the right environment--some modern children with a bent for programming have proved to be quite focused and efficient programmers.

Ring tones

Ring tones are a wonderful invention. I use Morning (Peer Gynt) for calls from my better half, a bit of Carmen for my opera-fan Youngest Daughter, and so on. I need something appropriately ominous for calls from work. I wish it were possible to lump telemarketers together and assign 4'33".

I also wish it were straightforward to let some numbers assign a priority. When I'm driving it isn't easy to answer the phone (I tried a bluetooth headset but the battery didn't last long). Do I pull over to answer this, or can it wait? Suppose you had a system in which you dial the number and then #*#, and now the caller ID includes a "priority call" flag. If I opted in, so that my phone will accept priority calls from your number, now "The Hall of the Mountain King" is punctuated with whoops when you send a priority call.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Studying primitive tribes

A few years ago National Geographic carried an article about native American culture, lamenting the losses, especially of their religion. One of the letters they got in reply explained that while there had been many problems, the one thing he and his family were grateful for was that their family had been introduced to Jesus a century before.

It's a curious reversal of attitudes. There was a time when it was thought progress if aborigines picked up civilized paraphernalia and attitudes, but now there always seems to be a little groan in the reports about South American Indians explaining why the photos show t-shirts.

People just don't want to sit still for us to study them. Some little prejudice about having their own lives to lead...

The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail.

AVI noted the bitterness of disputes in anthropology. The only one I heard much about was the Margaret Mead vs Freeman feud: were Mead's informants pulling her leg? Or was Freeman following the lead of his mentor's mentor who was Mead's rejected lover? I thought I knew a little about it--when I looked it up for this post I found it was weirder than I suspected.

Maybe somebody should study the behavior of this strange tribe called anthropologists. They have taboos, rites of passage, totems and feuds--should be lots of material.

Strike the set

Ray Bradbury wrote a short piece about the fate of a movie set about to be destroyed in which the caretaker tries to show the company boss how much of their movies' wonderful illusion remains in the tools they used to make them.

Watching Pac-Man eat Mos Eisley brought that to mind.

The sense of loss isn't from remembering the money and effort that went into a one-time tool--we weren't involved in that. Is it because the illusion seems more full and real in the place it was made, and we want it to be as real as possible? Or because losing it means there's no new illusions to be made there? Or because it undermines the illusion? We've seen the place, is part of our world vanishing?

No, it isn't that big a deal to me--other people feel the loss much more strongly--but I do feel it a little, and wonder why. The Phantom Edit was competent. Lucas shouldn't direct his own movies.

In any event, something seems wrong when significant fractions of our shared experience are illusions.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Antibodies and autism

The report studied the possibility that there might be maternal antibodies to brain proteins in the developing baby. (Followed from SciTechDaily) I'm not familiar enough with the methods to decide if their approach is solid, but they do find indications that mothers with certain antibodies mostly have an autistic child. At this point there's not enough known to decide if the antibody reaction causes problems or merely indicates them, nor is this a source of all kinds of autism, but it looks like another part of the puzzle.

Magnetic reconnection

I've mentioned magnetic reconnection before: how twisted magnetic fields can "short circuit" and throw ions and electrons and x-rays around. A couple of NASA sun observers caught such a thing in action. Go watch.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

After pregnancy

BBC posted a story asking Are women's bodies still beautiful after pregnancy?. I'm a little puzzled why anybody would think this a live issue. Even if you don't trust the evidence of your eyes, consider that most women who have one child have more than one.

Puff piece for a new book...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Number worship

David Warren has at the worship of numbers. It is all too easy to believe that if we have a number for a thing we must know it in a more fundamental way. Even if we assume the number is well-measured (usually it isn't), then you have to ask what it means. Just having an equation doesn't make your social theory right; as Pauli said, it may be "not even wrong."

And when a government or quango collects numbers about people, they get delusions of grandeur.

How we live our lives is God’s business, & none of the government’s until we are reasonably suspected of a crime. Their job is to provide for our defence against rapine & massacre by foreign powers & domestic criminals, in return for modest taxes. It is an important job, from which they should not be distracted by their own alien & criminal propensities.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Burning time

We took a couple of youngsters to Indian Lake Park this afternoon. They liked the trail and the views, and discovering new things. One of the signs explained that in Indian times the whole area was prairie, preserved as such by fires. When German settlers started living there they suppressed (or did not set) fires, and trees began to take over the hill--they dominate today.

We've been through a few years of drought, and though there were sporadic fires they weren't widespread. Assuming the climate was the same 200 years ago as now (not always a safe assumption), I estimate that fires would have been more than 20 years apart, which would be plenty of time to get some trees started. (Googling suggests that's a good estimate) So I'm WAG'ing that fires would have been set.

So what was their cue to toss the coals into the brush and take to the lake? Given that some of the plants could grow over 2m tall in a year, maybe it was when the grass got too high; which might be every year or every other year. It seems a drastic way to mow the lawn, but in the event it seemed to work.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

We need some new slogans

"No taxation without representation" is still, unfortunately, a useful rallying cry. Quite a few government bodies can fiddle with fees and taxes without anybody voting on the result.

But more recent events demand new battle cries.

I cannot think of any reason why a citizen (or even a subject, or a corporation) should be compelled to submit to secret rulings made by a secret court. And when a judge can take control of the entire school system of a state and revise it to suit his fancy (including demanding huge increases in funding), there's no longer any pretense that the government serves the people. No legislation without representation!

There are not enough hours in the day to read and understand the Niagara of rules promulgated by agencies given authority by enabling legislation. If it is impossible to understand, it is unjust to demand obedience. No regulation without legislation!

What else do we need?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Tribal sacrifices

AVI notes that "climate change" is a "social truth:" something one is required to believe to be part of the tribe, even if it is not obviously connected to the definition of the tribe.

Youngest Daughter noticed that "climate change" demands sacrifices to make sure the sun comes up correctly. The Aztecs ripped out hearts: we're more benign (I think), war on coal suffices. Freezing is much gentler, I suppose.

The Mayans were more honorable. Most of the time they had to provide their own blood, and only occasionally sacrifice some neighbors.


From time to time I wonder if the writers laboring in the "Taste" section of the newspaper feel pressure to come up with novel combinations.  This morning's tome included a report explaining how watermelon and feta cheese taste wonderful together.

I think Bolcom described it well.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Language of smells

I'd been musing on the question of whether we could more easily distinguish smells if we developed a language for them: that having words for a scent might make it easier to identify. I see a bird and think "bird" but Eldest Son notices details of plumage because he likes to identify the kinds--so he registers things I don't.

I vaguely remembered an experiment in which people were asked to track the scent of some target object dragged across a field, and were remarkably successful (though they had to go on hands and knees to do it).

So I googled for it, and as usual other things turned up. It turns out we do seem to have a good sense of smell after all, and Shepherd beat me to the speculation that we need a vocabulary: "In the enlarged processing capacity for perceiving and discriminating odors, language plays a critical role. This seems paradoxical, for we have great difficulty describing a smell in words."

I wonder how you'd go about such a thing. I guess the first step is to try to collect the work perfumers and wine tasters have done along the way and try to test some "standard scents" (concocting brand new names with minimal associations), and see how far one can get with combinations and how far one has to expand the set of "standard scents". If the set numbers more than a few hundred, only children are likely to be able to learn the new language. Which also might be interesting to look into--can children easily learn scent language?

UPDATE: 8-July-2013: See the New Yorker article about wine tasters. There's a lot of expectation in the evaluation, but we can do fairly well...

Hernandez test

Aaron Hernandez: An Early Warning in 2010 NFL Draft Profile Before the NFL Draft, a Personality Test Raised a Flag; Lowest Possible Score for 'Social Maturity'.

I hope I may be forgiven for wondering why anybody would bother paying Human Resource Tactics for this kind of thing. "While psychological profiles can be subjective and far from foolproof, NFL experts say the majority of teams use them to guide their draft choices." The report said he was 10 out of 10 for focus and for mental quickness, and 9 for receptivity to coaching--which seems nice and clear--but "he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behavior and that he may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team" That's pretty weaselly. What did they know that they based the evaluation on?

Wisdom and the Will of the People

Some things don't seem to change: H.H. Munro wrote this short story in 1929. "Moung Thwa nodded his head gravely, with the air of one who reverenced and distrusted all Governments."

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Ducking problems

We all know about "Greyhound therapy," where a troublesome patient or homeless guy is given a ticket to some other town. Now he's somebody else's problem, and we can breathe easy.

Right. Sure.

I've heard explanations for the pederast priest coverup that range among "protecting reputation at all costs", "lavender mafia coverup", and "applying then-current psychiatric models." I can't guess what the real mix of reasons was, but the effect was the same: shift the problem someplace else.

Last week Middle Daughter was threatened by part of a crew that is due to be evicted in a couple of months--I gather that Section 8 beneficiaries are harder to evict (the father conducts strong-arm extortion, apparently has been teaching the wee ones how to steal jewelry, etc.).

So if the neighborhood can survive until the end of August, all is solved, right?

Who gets them next? Maybe us? Maybe you?

Instead of deciding what we will do with this violent team, we're shuffling them around.

You may say that nobody is irredeemable. Maybe the Greyhound will take the schizophrenic to a place where he will want to take his meds. Maybe the pederast priest will repent. Maybe this neighbor will find honest work.

I believe in miracles, and that anyone can be redeemed. Making that the foundation of policy is presumptuous.