Thursday, August 29, 2013

A professional writer's problems

John C Wright is a SF writer, and on his blog he describes a problem I hadn't heard about before:
It (word limit) is established by the bookstores, who limit the number of inches a binding can occupy on the shelf. Any author whose books do not sell through finds his name not on the list of books the stores are willing to buy from the publisher. Nowadays, now that bookstores are large conglomerates, the calculation is done by computer with no human judgment involved, so if a midlist author with a fine record of book sales suffers one book that was bought in too large a number or which made too small a sale, suddenly his books are not bought in as large of numbers by the distributors, and therefore his sales drop again, and therefore his books are bought in even fewer numbers, and therefore his career is over unless he changes his name and writes under a pan name. This has happened to a friend of mine, John Hemry/Jack Campbell who writes the LOST FLEET series.

What happened to me with THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA is that a staffer made a mistake and over-ordered the production — whether it was too many units or the manuscript was too long was not clear — and so I cannot make my numbers unless I sell out every single copy of the book. That is why I am pathetically begging my readers to go out and buy them all, because I have been informed the publisher will not buy the rest of the series. If the book sells through, I have some hope that they may reverse that decision.

Scott Adams wrote of "Powerpoint poisoning" and this smells like Excel bookstore management. Just plug in the numbers and you're guaranteed success.

I've read several of his books and enjoyed them, btw.

UPDATE: Changed the title. Professional as in makes money from it. I liked the ambiguity of real writer/real problem, but it doesn't work well.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


On a grimmer note, I try to figure out what's going on in international affairs by looking at what people say and do and trying to estimate what's not getting reported. (Reporters, by and large, don't seem to be a very well-informed lot.)

Benghazi had some Syria connection, and maybe some Egypt connection as well, and the US administration has been lying like a rug since the get-go. Maybe they have some good reasons for that; trying to cover up weapons shipments to Syrian insurgents. Although some of them ask for US help, I'd suspect most wouldn't be eager to stain their good Islamic credentials by too much public fraternizing with the Great Satan. So to first order I conclude that we've been shipping arms and other goodies to one or more insurgent groups--and if prior experience is any guide we've sent stuff to enemy groups more than once.

So now there's another poison episode, that seems to kill 1/10 of the victims. Other attacks seem to have killed about 1/3, making this seem more like the Bhopal disaster (1/20 killed). Which suggests that the attack, if it was the government using chemical weapons, wasn't well executed. If rebel groups had the weapons they might not know how to use them effectively. Or somebody might be stirring the pot with something that wasn't completely weaponized. Or this was an accident with stolen weapons.

Although the foreign policy of this administration seems to be managed via Ouija board, I still try to see if there's any sense to this. As plenty of people have already pointed out, we're better off if both groups lose. So there's no sense to intervening unless there's some vital interest at stake. And there is one, that isn't talked about: seizing control of loose chemical weapons. "Punishing" or "sending a signal" makes no sense. We know he had weapons already, and we know he already used them. So where's the urgency? Is something slipping? (And do you trust ∅ to keep his eye on the ball?)

University of Liberia admissions

You may not have seen the BBC story reporting that all 25,000 students taking the entrance exam failed. "The students lacked enthusiasm and did not have a basic grasp of English, a university official told the BBC." For those interested, tuition seems minimal: about $1.27 per credit for undergraduates.
From BBC: University spokesman Momodu Getaweh told Focus on Africa that the university stood by its decision, and it would not be swayed by "emotion".

"In English, the mechanics of the language, they didn't know anything about it. So the government has to do something," he said.

"The war has ended 10 years ago now. We have to put that behind us and become realistic."

The school apparently was a bit embarrassed and changed their minds, admitting 1,626 after all, as the story below shows, and also the BBC followup.

Ms (President of Liberia) Sirleaf did not say why the university, based in the capital Monrovia, had agreed to admit 1,800 students after discussions with her.

What happened? I can't quite tell from the test numbers: 50% score in English and 40% in Math seems pretty low, but that's because I'm used to normalized tests. (Usually: Quantitative Chemistry back at SIU had passing set at 40%: it was the flunk-out course for chemistry students, and quite rough.)

I think the 100% failure was due to two effects: one explicit and one that I'm just guessing at. They say they were trying to increase admissions standards. So they based the thresholds on the test averages from the previous year: 49% English and 33% Math. (i.e. 70% and 50% respectively). That should have cut the pool down by about a factor of 20, using WAG numbers for the standard deviation (10). But it cut it down to 0. And when they used 50% English (=last year's average) OR 40% Math (about last year's average), they only got 1600 passing--it should have been closer to 12,000 if students this year were like students last year.

My guess is that somebody took a little extra care about security of the exams this year, and a lot of students weren't able to cheat as usual. I can't prove that, but it seems likely.

DATE: 22 AUGUST 2013
SOURCE: All Africa
(c) 2013 AllAfrica
Aug 22, 2013 (The Inquirer) -- The University of Liberia (UL)
says it will enroll 1,626 candidates who took the university's
entrance barely a day following reports that all 25,000
candidates who sat the test failed massively.

However, at a news conference yesterday, the head of the UL Relations, Dr. S. Momolu Getaweh said the UL Senate reviewed several other scenarios below the benchmarks and thereupon recommended for admission 1,626 candidates who scored either at least 40% in Math or 50% in English in the Undergraduate Programs.

He also disclosed that those to be admitted include 25 for the College of General Studies (Continuing Education), 93 in the six (6) graduate programs, thirty seven (37) for the Law School and 24 for the School of Pharmacy for Academic 2013/2014.

Dr. Getaweh giving the official result of the recent UL Entrance Examinations which were administered in June and July 2013 said the results indicate that no candidate out-rightly earned the scores of 50% in Math and 70% in English previously set by the Faculty Senate of the University as the passing scores for the Undergraduate Examinations.

Dr. Getaweh said, "Similarly, no candidate who sat for the Graduate Programs, Law School and School of Pharmacy Exams earned the score of 70% also set by the UL Senate as passing."

The UL Relations head said holding these results constant, no candidate would have otherwise been admitted to the University for Academic 2013/2014 in the above programs.

However, he noted that in the case of the A. M Dogliotti College of Medicine, where the score of 70% is passing, 47 candidates made 70% and above.

Dr. Getaweh said in view of the above, the Faculty Senate of UL met in two separate and special sessions on Wednesday, August 14 and Tuesday, August 20, 2013, respectively, to deliberate on the outcome of the examinations, and as a result of the two meetings
and several hours of discussions, the UL Senate reviewed several other scenarios below the benchmarks.

He also disclosed that the recommendations of the Faculty Senate have been endorsed by the University as presented with the recommendations that candidates in the Undergraduate division will be required to take two transitional courses one in Mathematics and the other in English. He said both courses will be administered for six hours a week without academic credit.

Dr. Getaweh said, "Candidates admitted in this category will also be permitted to take an additional three (3) credit hour course which shall be determined by their respective Colleges. However, the total hours of academic work for the first semester of
2013/2014 shall not exceed 9 hours a week. The students MUST pass the transitional courses within two semesters, if they wish to continue at the University."

He also said upon admission to the University, the rules governing poor academic performance shall apply and these rules shall be provided the candidates during the matriculation exercises following registration for first semester 2013/2014.

Dr. Getaweh also said the final decision for admission to the Graduate Programs, Law School, School of Pharmacy and Medical School shall be made following the fulfillment of other criteria set out by the Admission Committees of the respective programs and colleges as indicated.

He disclosed that the names of the candidates in all programs will be published shortly in the UL Campus Review Newsletter.

Last academic year 2012/2013, the University of Liberia admitted nearly 7,500 candidates in the Undergraduate Programs because the criteria used for those admissions were quite different from this year. The average scores of 49% and 33% for English and Mathematics respectively were used as the basis for passing.

The university commended all those who participated in administering this year's Entrance Examinations and extended sincere apology to the candidates, parents and the general public
for any inconveniences they may have experienced during the administration of these examinations.

Asking for directions

When on the observation raft over the Kitch-iti-kipi (turn the wheel and it slowly rides back and forth along the cable) one vacationing teacher joked that men don't ask for directions. I suddenly realized that it was her fault. We're carefully taught to do the problems first before looking up the answers in the back of the book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I don't understand beauty

One tree is symmetrical and beautiful, another twisted and ugly, and another twisted and beautiful. Beauty isn't invested in only the symmetric or the useful, it just is. Somehow.

Sometimes I don't appreciate it at first, but then when I look at it right I discover it was there all along. Like math--you don't invent math, you discover it.

Abstracting conversation

When we "chat" or blog we abstract our communication to just words, and I'll bet that there are a few formulaic aspects to the words that we aren't conscious of.

So when you meet the other face to face for the first time, I suppose you might recognize them, but there would be new channels open for the first time.

It couldn't be the same, unless the communication was one sided. Would it seem the same?

With Skype you hear the inflections and pauses that make up one of the missing channels, so it would be more nearly the same.

I've been in phone conferences with colleagues that I only met in person later. They sounded the same, and their gestures did not surprise me, but there was something more to being with them in person. Something that made it easier to interact, ask favors, make suggestions--much easier than by phone or by email.

Power in ordinary people

Youngest Daughter, having read a number of James Bond one-liners, decided to watch a few of the movies. All at once. (School starts tomorrow. No, I was at work and didn't watch any.)

One of the things that makes Bond interesting is watching a lone man run through a deadly puzzle, squeaking through where he must and turning his enemies' weapons against them where he can, and leaving destruction behind. The destruction is needed to stop worse destruction, so he's one of the good guys(*), but we're fascinated see how much influence a single man can have without being bitten by a radioactive spider or becoming a monster. (Wish fulfillment: I'm not Superman, but maybe I could be . . . well, with some training . . . )

There are other ways of having influence too, though I don't think they'll make a lucrative series of movies on her. I remember reading her song when I was young and thinking it too stupid for words. I read the whole poem as an adult and have liked it ever since. (**) In a world of disasters, just a distant touch-and-go and people changed.

Amelie was a little like that, but with Amelie planning her changes (not always with good results). Unfortunately most of the personal problems I know about aren't as easily tweaked--so much for wish fulfillment.

I wonder how extensive an ordinary person's influence actually runs. Maybe more than they expect, and less than they fantasize.

(*) and Bond has good taste, which is a stand-in for being a "good guy."

(**) You probably know a few people this describes:

"... 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 ! "

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cheer up and have a spot of tea

Baking helps treat depression? I like the idea of self-medicating with chocolate chip cookies or a hot buttered baguette.

We can appeal to some famous names to expand the idea even farther:

  • "And, as there is nothing like housework for the troubled soul of a woman, so a general clean-up is good for sailors. I had this from a general petty officer who had also passed through deep waters" (Kipling, Sea Warfare)
  • "There is nothing like housework for calming the nerves" (Miss Bianca in The Rescuers by Margary Sharp)

To be serious about the matter, I'm not a psychiatrist but I suspect that we slap clinical labels on things that don't deserve it. "Theodore Dalrymple" wrote that many people labeled "depressed" are merely unhappy and don't require sophisticated intervention. Not all; I know some who do need help. (I'm not talking about professional judgment but the common language.(*)) I think quite a few of us use medical paradigms, and seek medical help, when older and simpler rules will suffice. IIRC followup work with people who survived 9/11 found that catharsis didn't make for a healthier outcome, but denial and repression seemed to work OK. (There may have been a link to it here, but it is gone now, though Schneiderman discusses the matter. He's a life coach, not a therapist.)

Unfortunately too much sugar isn't good for me. Maybe I need to take up cabinetry.

(*)The common language drives me nuts sometimes when people invoke "quantum leaps" or "energy flows" with no notion of what they're talking about.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


"Copper linked to Alzheimer's disease" says the BBC headline. The story says that while one study suggests copper might contribute to Alzheimer's, others suggest that it might help protect the brain. The headline is a trifle misleading... Technically protecting the brain is a kind of link too, but it strains the usual use of words.

By the way, does anybody remember when aluminum was the culprit, and we were all supposed to worry about our cookware?

Aluminum isn't terribly good for you, and while we need some copper that can be bad too. And maybe Alzheimer's has more than one cause. The phrase "second childhood" is a lot older than aluminum pots.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Culture changing

An exhibit in the Museum of Ojibwa Culture said that one technology they rejected instead of adapting was the grain mill, which made flour too fine for traditional recipes. In Africa there were problems with famine relief Bulgar wheat--none of the traditional cooking methods gave a palatable result and many people wouldn't eat it. We're used to variety--we search for it--but I guess food is tradition, food is family, food is comfort.

And yet a cuisine can move to a new land and use new ingredients and still be recognizably the old cuisine. (One Korean restaurant served thinly sliced hot-dogs in sauce--not quite traditional but it fit anyway.) So what makes changing foods hard? Is there a difference between a traditional set of recipes and a cuisine?

Robin at the counter said an interesting upcoming event was a women's drum circle. Up until quite recently they'd not been allowed to do that. I thought it a little odd that they should be working so hard to retain the old culture, complaining about Pere Marquette et al for "denouncing native spirituality and traditions" and trying to replace the old religious practices--and yet be willing to introduce innovations that flatly contradicted the old ways. No skin off my nose--I'm not Ojibwa and have no dog in this hunt.

But on consideration I think the only thing they're guilty of is hypocrisy, not of being unfaithful to their culture.

A culture comes from the religion a people share, the technologies and roles they share, the language they use to define their shared values, and a family history--and maybe something more.

The Jesuits tried to change the Ojibwa religion. That would have inevitably changed the culture. The shared values would also differ, and the language defining them would include new concepts. They would not change into Europeans, but many practices would change or vanish, and new ones take their place. The same thing is happening in this case--they have absorbed (from Christianity or the bastardized Christianity that is post-Enlightenment liberalism) a new value, and their culture changed accordingly.

I have no sense for what role drumming played in their culture, and so can't guess what "other things" will come along with the change or already happened behind the scenes. Presumably there's been some change in what it means to be an Ojibwa man or Ojibwa woman: a change in their place in the universe. Just as Christianity would do.

I remember reading an Indian legend in Twain. It was tightly compressed and obviously assumed a lot of cultural knowledge (a woman doing X is odd and means Y is likely). The same story was retold recently at 20 times the length with more explanation and using tropes from the Anglo understanding of Indian culture. I wonder how common it is for Indian story tellers to take the Anglo interpretation and use that in their own descriptions and self-understanding.

OK, an example: living in harmony with the world. Praying to the spirit of the deer for "forgiveness." The oldest stories I've read seem less like the Disney Pocahontas ("I know every rock and tree and creature") and more of a nervous animism. You never know what spirit you have disturbed; best to be on the safe side and placate them. Maybe I just read the wrong stories. I've been wrong before. But I notice that many of the descriptions of Indian spiritual life are recent and are not isolated from cultural interplay. It is much nicer to think that your ancestors lived in harmony with nature than to think that they were afraid of malign spirits and living on the hairy edge of disaster. The language to frame it is available, you'd be tempted to use the new narrative. (I do not question that philosophies of harmony existed, especially of harmony between people.)

We seem to try to characterize Indian culture by their technologies. They are the weavers of baskets, bakers of pots, chippers of arrowheads, silent stalkers of deer: whatever. At camp Runamucka you got an Indian name, learned to weave beads, and learned somewhat garbled traditional greetings: "ozhaawashkonaagozi vai!" "miskonaagozi vai!"

Of course the real tribes adopted new technologies when they could. Some mastered the horse and proceeded to master and terrorize the other tribes. (Even horseless groups were perfectly capable of organizing empires and mounting 500-mile campaigns to chase down and annihilate their enemies.) That technology radically changed their culture. I don't know of any tribes that mastered the manufacture of guns or iron (maybe the Cherokee?) and were dependent on Europeans for powder and iron stock. That doesn't seem intrinsically different from trading to distant tribes for flint or copper, but it changed the relative values of different jobs in a very short time. No more autarky--bit by bit you get integrated into a wide-flung market economy. When blankets from the trader are warmer, more durable, and easier to sew and repair than your old hide garments, how can you keep valuing the hide seamstress? Nice to be able to know how to do it in a pinch, but I'd rather use an iron axe than make my own stone axe. Now the fur trapper, he's important.

It seems to be received wisdom in some circles that when women's work was devalued, women's worth was devalued. I'm not acquainted with any examples of this theory, and in any event "mother" is an irreducibly valuable office, but the general idea has some plausibility. We do often have utilitarian attitudes towards each other. I'd expect the social order to change with new technologies.

I wonder what is going to emerge from our chaos. Even setting the idol of multiculturalism to one side, we sling new technologies in the mix as fast as our wallets will stand (despite the complaints of our betters who want to be tribal elders able to forbid sweet sodas and other corrupting influences). Our elite have largely abandoned the traditional religion and acquired some new ones. The legal machinery seems designed to mangle families--not much way to convey tradition that way. The stories are shared, sometimes even between groups, but there have to be new stories every season. Even the shared values I'm not sure are shared that broadly anymore.

Monday, August 19, 2013

People and Peoples followup

I said I would check Psalms to see how it read from a peoples/family perspective, as opposed to an individual perspective. So here goes.

If I were repeating this exercise, I might come up with a slightly different partitioning--not everything is clear cut. But the first distinction is a grammatical one: is this an "I" or a "we" song or does it not appear in English (NASB) or obviously refer to the Messiah?

  • I

    1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 49, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 62, 63, 64, 66, 69, 70, 71, 73, 77, 84, 86, 88, 89, 91, 92, 94, 101, 102, 108, 109, 111, 116, 119, 120, 121, 122, 130, 131, 135, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146

  • WE

    8, 12, 14, 20, 44, 47, 48, 60, 74, 75, 79, 80, 85, 90, 100, 103, 105, 106, 107, 123, 124, 126, 128, 129, 137

  • Neither or clearly messianic (not me)

    2, 8, 10, 19, 21, 24, 29, 33, 36, 37, 45, 46, 50, 53, 58, 65, 67, 68, 72, 76, 78, 81, 82, 83, 87, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99, 104, 110, 112, 113, 114, 115, 117, 118, 125, 127, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 147, 148, 149, 150

The next question is whether the song is best understood as an individual talking to God, or it sort-of could-be a group, or it works both individual or group, or it is definitely "we", or not really applicable to this scheme.

  • Individual

    18, 27, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 49, 51, 55, 62, 63, 88, 131, 139

  • Sort-of group but mostly individual

    16, 17, 22, 26, 35, 40, 52, 57, 69, 71, 86, 89, 91, 94, 101, 111, 112, 116, 119, 125, 131, 141, 144

  • Individual or Group both work

    1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 19, 23, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 54, 56, 59, 61, 64, 70, 73, 84, 90, 92, 100, 102, 107, 109, 121, 124, 126, 127, 128, 130, 138, 140, 142

  • Clearly Us

    12, 14, 15, 20, 33, 34, 37, 44, 47, 60, 65, 66, 68, 74, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 83, 85, 87, 95, 96, 97, 98, 103, 105, 106, 122, 123, 133, 137, 143, 147

  • Not applicable to this scheme

    2, 8, 21, 24, 29, 36, 45, 46, 48, 50, 53, 58, 67, 72, 75, 76, 82, 93, 99, 104, 108, 110, 113, 114, 115, 117, 118, 120, 129, 132, 134, 135, 136, 145, 146, 148, 149, 150

Reviewing the Psalms this way suggests that this isn't as clear a study as I hoped. Though a great many psalms are (and of course have been) used by groups, the themes of group suffering, group longing, group repentance, and so on don't dominate. They're there if you want them.

And as AVI pointed out, identity was thought of differently then.

UPDATE: I left out one little detail: the church is the new Israel, and it could suffer in the same ways as the Jews did, for the same kinds of reasons.

Using money

I know that 19 times out of 20 money I give to one of the homeless guys (almost all men), will promptly be wasted on drugs, alcohol, smokes by the cigarette--wasted at best, harmful most of the time.

That by itself isn't obviously such a great reason not to give--if I don't, will I spend it on a fattening lunch or book I won't get around to reading? Wasted either way, possibly damaging either way.(*)

Encouraging the homeless to hang around and beg isn't good for them or the rest of us, and turning charity into an anonymous financial transaction shrivels it. So there's that. But there they are, and there's Jesus strong words...

I used to give McD tickets (they're not on the Square anymore)--still kind of anonymous, and maybe even a little insulting, but less harmful. Though McD's might have their own ideas about customers who sit in a booth all day.

The one thing I have trouble prying loose is time.

(*)Actually, reviewing the receipt ledger suggests that most of the cash goes to groceries and gasoline.


"We get more done before breakfast than most people get done all day." (US Army ad)

It seemed as though Pere Marquette memorials were all over the place in the UP, though that's probably sampling bias: the crossroads are more interesting places. Reading about all the places he'd been, and missions he'd founded, and records he'd made, I noticed that the marker for his grave said he died at the age of 38. He asked for the assignment when he was 28.

When I was 38 I mumble mumble mumble

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Another "why not"

The North American Indian tribes, with the possible exception of Calusa Indians of southwestern Florida, didn't use sails on their boats. Which seems a little odd; there are plenty of lakes which would be easier to get around on if you had a sail you could unfurl when the wind was right. The Egyptians used them to go up the Nile, and I presume sails would be equally useful going up the Mississippi or the Missouri. (You'd have to learn tacking, but that shouldn't take too long.) Maybe Superior isn't the best place to learn about sailing, but there are other lakes.

But the most famous Indian water vehicle (hardly the only one, though) was the birchbark canoe, which while nice and light for portaging isn't ideal for hooking a mast on. That would require a heavier frame, making the result a lake-only vehicle.

My Better Half pointed out that the Indian fishing methods were shallow water technology, and so there'd be no great need to go out far and deep, where sails would be most helpful. While they made plenty of fishing nets, I don't find any reference to long and deep nets for deep water fishing. If the populations were low enough that shallow water fishing was adequate to provide the supply (but Cahokia or Aztalan?), then the additional effort wouldn't have been worth it. So why bother with sails.

We stalled there. Maybe somebody has more information?

Vacations and recreation

Driving through the Upper Peninsula drives home how central recreation is to the place. Without it most of the place would be subsistence hunting/fishing, since the ore and big trees are mostly gone and most of the soil is pretty lousy. Most boats aren't for professional fishing or transport, but for visitors.

So what do people go to do? Fish. Hunt. Travel around in boats. Walk long distances. Live in primitive conditions for a while.

Making a living by hunting or fishing isn't all that easy, as the older Yoopers and the Ojibwe before them could testify. It was hard work, and even with modern tools it takes time and effort (unless you bait the deer). So tens of thousands of us take a vacation from our hard jobs by doing a different hard job.

Not all our recreations are like that: some are "sit and watch" recreations (watching the boats roll in, watching the Brewers lose, watching reality shows or watching an opera), and others are contests (business league softball games and so on). But sometimes we try to relax by doing completely different work--as in the dude ranches.

Not just any kind of work, but either something exotic (cowboy or astronaut) or something that we can point to afterwards and say "I did that". Sweeping floors is not going to attract vacationers, nor the inhuman job of bolting the rear flange on pump after pump after pump.

But there's probably room (and maybe even a thriving market I haven't heard about) for people paying to spend a week in a woodshop or machinist shop with some pros helping them make something. I do kludge carpentry--better since I invested in a second-hand table saw, but nowhere near what I could do with the space and proper tools (and that wouldn't be as good as the pros). But I haven't the budget or space for a good setup. I don't think I'd shell out for a week with good advisers and use of a good rig, but then I'm not that interested in spending big bucks on a good fishing boat either--but somebody's buying them.

The Soo

"I love work. I can sit and watch it all day."

That came to mind while we watched a 1000-foot ship slowly slide into the Poe lock(*). The giant machine needs only a crew of 25 or so, according to the boat watcher and former ship engineer beside me (and the captain's job isn't all that well paid these days). Hard work, and dully unromantic for those who have to do it; but amazing to the rest of us. Watching it is even rather peaceful to those of us who don't have to worry about 2 1/2 foot clearances.

I heard the obvious joke a half a dozen times

Sunday, August 11, 2013

People and Peoples

There are many things I don't quite understand about how God works. One is what was the meaning of the centuries spent as slaves in Egypt, or the centuries without prophets, or the decades of trouble without any sign.

Some saints experience a dark night of the soul, including such famous saints as Mother Theresa. They say the experience reshapes them and brings them closer to God.

But what about a "dark century of the soul" for a people? God can be interested in peoples as well as people; on the relationships among peers and along the generations. Without losing sight of people an infinite God can also care about tribes.

It is risky to try to explain what we call good and bad in a person's life (see Job), and it has to be even harder to understand God's purposes in something bigger than a single person. What would God be looking for?

I need to go through Psalms and see how it relates to "families:" I always read it from the point of view of individuals.

Not-quite universal hymns

We sang Immortal, Invisible this morning. Have you noticed that a Jew, or even a Muslim could sing it without qualms (provided they didn't know its provenance)? It sings about God's transcendence and power, which all three religions affirm. (Not so Rejoice, the Lord is King, of course.) I don't think a Hindu would, though; since it implicitly denies the existence of any other gods, and emphasizes His invisibility and inaccessibility. It would require some serious mental gymnastics about the atman or else a who-cares attitude.

Even the things we think we can all agree on, aren't always universal.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Amazing mosquitoes--but I still hate them

French researchers figured a way to get microscopic video(*) of mosquitoes biting mice. The mosquito probe wiggles around inside trying to stab a capillary. And the probe is quite complicated, including stabbing blades that latch on inside as anchors, and a dual pipe system with blood getting sucked one way and saliva going the other.

And it seems that people who are "immune" to mosquito bites really aren't. Their systems respond to the bite, trying to clog up the bite hole with white blood cells, but the mosquito just wiggled the probe around to hit a bigger blood vessel.

Go read the article, and watch a video or three.
Thanks to Texan99 "We had a rule for the kids: bugs in the house get stomped; bugs outside you leave alone." Mosquitoes were the exception.

(*)They peeled up a thin flap of skin and took the video through it while the mosquito drank.

Lucky kids

Some 3rd year students at Niels Bohr got time on the Nordic Optical Telescope as part of their course, and the first night they saw emission lines from a quasar--gravitationally lensed in 3 other places. There's a picture here.

A good instructor can give his students a project that is both within their competence and still in undiscovered country, but this group lucked out with something nice and spectacular. The fellow who originally found that quasar, when he heard about the students' findings, got excited and went back and found 3 more images.

This is quite a rich find.

In addition to the quasar itself, you also get other interesting information. A quasar varies in brightness and you can measure that there is a different arrival time for the light from the different observations, because the light paths are not of equal length. In this way you can calculate the geometric model of the light’s path. You can also calculate the mass of the galaxy cluster and you can calculate what is called the Hubble parameter, which tells us about the expansion of the universe.

It has been an incredible experience for the students. “It is amazing to be allowed to participate in something that is relevant to research so early in our education,” says Thejs Brinckmann, whose appetite for a future as a researcher has been whetted even more.

I spent a couple of months on an undergrad project too, but only came up with some minor results in compartmental analysis.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

EAA correction

I spoke to a pilot friend who helped with the pyrotechnics at EAA, and he said they used dynamite, detcord, and gasoline. Three gallons would make a good 2-story-house sized flame that we could feel from half a mile away.

I should have asked how to join the team. Although maybe it is better if I don't. The director is retiring this year--and that may be a good thing. My friend had to put out a few small fires that fell near the setup for the next blasts. A bit too close for comfort.

Mondegreen wisdom

When singers don't have good articulation or when the mix is too instrument-heavy I find when I reassemble the babble into something nearly intelligible it doesn't seem quite relevant to the rest of the song. (I often must look up lyrics online, and I find that songs that seemed muddy back in the 60-70's are still muddy today--it wasn't just the static-y radio.)

I did the same with speech when young and unfamiliar with exotic uses of words, and do the same now that I'm older and people mumble more.

Sometimes the revision is better than the original. A line from the religious controversies of a few centuries ago ran something like: "Confess a man against his will; he's of the same opinion still." Perfectly true; compelling somebody to recite a creed doesn't make him believe it. But when I was 10 I'd not heard the word confess used that way, and I reconstructed the lines as "Convince a man against his will; he's of the same opinion still." That is an unpleasant indictment--and every day we run across that kind of stubborn refusal to see.

A rattle of dishes disguised "self deluded" as "self diluted," which is a polite way to describe lives that should have overflowed with works of grace and kindness--but instead drip self-absorption.

Maybe there are advantages--but I wish people wouldn't mumble.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Courtesy as teacher

I've written at more length on the topic of courtesy before here and here and here.

I've heard it said that if you want to hate a man, do him an injury. Conversely, if you want to learn to love a man, do him a kindness.

If courtesy is a kind of attenuated love, then the everyday practice of it should train me to appreciate a bond, however faint, between me and my neighbor. The everyday absence of courtesy will also teach me something. Will it cultivate dislike for my neighbors, or merely callousness?

Monday, August 05, 2013

A "light" at the end of the tunnel

I looked in the windows of the new library this morning on the way to work. It isn't quite ready yet. There's something lonely and disquieting about looking through shelf after empty shelf after empty shelf. Where there should be thoughts and joys there's nothing.

But, 2/3 of the way across the building through a "tunnel" of empty shelves, a splash of different colors said a bridgehead was established.


I don't remember how old I was when I read Treasure Island, but I remember enjoying it once I got past the obscure references in the first few chapters. I thought a squire worked for a knight, and I didn't understand the social structure the story was embedded in, but the book was fun. When I re-read it a few months ago, I noticed things I hadn't seen the first three times. Fortunately I've not had experiences with pirates, but I knew the environment much better than when a young boy.

My parents, presumably gratified by my interest in the story, bought Kidnapped. Screeching halt. I tried twice to get into the book, but the dialect was too alien and Stevenson assumed that the reader understood a wealth of different things about Scotland and its relations with England. (Only 1/4 Campbell: I don't keep track of clan leaders)

For an adult, the book is worth the time. David isn't the same kind of resourceful hero (as witness his time on the island), and is fairly prickly, but the story works.

I don't know if the picture of the Highlanders is true to life, but it is crisp and lively. If you haven't read it, you'll probably like it.

Once I got past Margaret Wise Brown (I wish I had her wordsmith skills), there seemed to be three classes of books: Winnie-the-Pooh class, Green Smoke-class, and Gulliver's Travels class. (We tended to get more British children's book authors, possibly because it was easier to get them from James Thin than from New York.) For some reason I never was very enthusiastic about Winnie (and Paddington was only a little better) myself, and never read them with our kids. But Wind in the Willows I can still read for fun. Odd that the sophisticated stories and the ultra-simple ones are the ones with better staying power. (There was a bit of a furor when the library pitched Mary Poppins, but when I went back to read it as an adult I realized why nobody had taken it off the shelf in years--it isn't really very good.)

With no TV (only a few hours at night), and radio broadcasts more static-y than I cared to put up with, I browsed the eclectic mix lying around at home. I wasn't Christian and eschewed the obviously Christian books, but Gabriel and the Creatures was nicely offbeat and Manson's Tropical Diseases endlessly fascinating; there was Ayesha, Rabelais... but funny thing: when I started reading Ian Fleming all the James Bond books suddenly and permanently vanished.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

EAA 2013

The Oshkosh EAA week is fun. We went today, with a couple of friends (thanks to the generous donation of someone with extra tickets). We stayed until after Yves Rossy flew.

My favorite part of the place was the innovation hall and environs. I wouldn't have thought that compressed natural gas would have enough power to compensate for the overhead of the heavy tank, but apparently at these pressures it has 38% higher octane than aviation fuel. And there was an ultra-high altitude glider, a display of heads-up display, the new Orion project exhibit (I wonder how often names are reused), and others. I spent quite a while talking with a fellow with a 40-pound electronics crate, used to plug in avionics modules for rocket guidance. That beast was solid. I'd seen how light everything had to be in a rocket, and hadn't realized how rugged some components had to be (outside of the nozzle).

True to its origins, the show offers a thousand ways to buy/build/rent and equip your own airplane. Proud owners show off their accomplishments, hobbyist groups maintain old military craft (including the only DC-3 to actually drop its men in the right spot at Ste Mere-Eglise). Larger tents hosted talks about safety, construction, regulatory nuances, and dozens of specialized topics as well. The big manufacturers were there, and so were a couple of mission groups looking for pilots. (Meanwhile back at the museum, a man who'd spent 13 years in prison after his spy plane was shot down over the USSR gave a talk on spying during the Cold War. I couldn't stay for it all, and English was not his first language so he was reading his PowerPoints. Did you know that spying is the second oldest profession, and the only one enjoined in the Bible? Actually farming is mandated too...)

The aviation show starts with the military bird show; a few overflights and then a re-enactment of Pearl Harbor (Zeros piloted by Americans, and dynamite/gasoline blasts or so we were told; the black smoke suggested heavier oil; maybe FAE). Later airplanes sometimes made "bomb" runs too, including (rather incongruously) a trainer with no bomb bay or weapon mounts.

The volunteer pilots practiced long and hard with their birds, and it showed in the tight formations they achieved. The announcer mentioned their long hours, and it occurred to me that these men had more flight time than the lads who flew them to war. Though of course the latter had to master the art of not getting killed by alert enemies, which is a whole different set of skills.

The acrobats did amazing things with their planes. Some snide cynic said that we go to auto races in hopes of seeing a crash, but that's not so. We want the acrobats to overcome the danger and do the apparently impossible. The danger has to be there, but we want the victory.

Yves rode the side of the helicopter to 6500 feet, and tried to get all the engine lights OK. They finally lit up and he fell off, and after enough of a dive he started his pulse jets. It took me a while to spot him, and I lost sight regularly. The jumbotrons showed the view from a camera on his wing, and when he reached his flight limit of 2000 feet he opened his chute. Which means we could hear the man flying his jets, and see the on-again/off-again contrails, but we couldn't get a good look at him until he reached the ground. He's not a daredevil--developing that kind of rig he'd have been dead already if he was.

Tomorrow the sunburns will be annoying, but today we had a good time.

Friday, August 02, 2013


A post on a tweet about an announcement that doesn't appear online: an interesting idea if true--opening the case for canonization for G.K.Chesterton.

IIRC candidates for sainthood are supposed to exemplify "heroic virtue." Working as a writer and exercising gifts in the life of the mind while enjoying marriage and the pleasures of the table isn't quite the image surrounding most saints of the calendar. Martyrdom, yes. Spending years trying to guide monks or nuns, yes. Fasts, working with the poor, becoming pope; those seem to be more traditional. But recently I gather they've been trying to include more married saints, to emphasize that marriage can be a sanctifying vocation too. (About time)

There's some dispute about the role of saints in the church, but all factions agree that saints can be examples for the rest of us. I could do worse than imitate GKC.

Doing a little tracking: From Facebook
Here is the exact wording from Dale's announcement at the conference:

"Martin Thompson says that Bishop Peter Doyle 'has given me permission to report that the Bishop of Northampton is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for Chesterton.'"