Monday, September 30, 2013

Arthur Machen note

From "The Terror", 1917
And how, asks Huvelius, are such wars to be waged? The wise prince, he replies, will begin by assuming the enemy to be infinitely corruptible and infinitely stupid, since stupidity and corruption are the chief characteristics of man. So the prince will make himself friends in the very councils of his enemy, and also amongst the populace, bribing the wealthy by proffering to them the opportunity of still greater wealth, and winning the poor by swelling words. "For, contrary to the common opinion, it is the wealthy who are greedy of wealth; while the populace are to be gained by talking to them about liberty, their unknown god. And so much are they enchanted by the words liberty, freedom, and such like, that the wise can go to the poor, rob them of what little they have, dismiss them with a hearty kick, and win their hearts and their votes for ever, if only they will assure them that the treatment which they have received is called liberty." Guided by these principles, says Huvelius, the wise prince will entrench himself in the country that he desires to conquer; "nay, with but little trouble, he may actually and literally throw his garrisons into the heart of the enemy country before war has begun."


The day of the wedding was quite busy, and only mildly chaotic. The RSVP web site Middle Daughter used swallowed RSVPs without a trace, and we didn't know within a factor of 2 how many people would show up. She did the organizing and made the pulled pork and got most of the food; we supplied the cupcakes and some of the gruntwork and transport. (Youngest Daughter's practice for the cupcakes added a few pounds back on me.)

The "bridesmaid" and "best man" were his daughter and son (in dress and suit to match bride and groom), and they played their parts with a little improv. (He's 5) The flower girl walked carefully up to the front of the hall, and only then started throwing petals. The vows were capped with a session with a poster in which each circled the YES option under "Will you marry me?" (I saw the poster for the first time that morning, and objected that "Will" should have been "Do", but it was too late to change.)

My youngest sister and her husband brought my mother up with them. The trip was harder on her than we expected, but she recovered. Unfortunately my other sister and her husband were both far too ill to travel. I thought of using Skype, but there was no wireless access. Luckily Youngest Sister had brought an IPad, and so the ailing were able to see it live.(*)

I will need a chart to explain who's who among all the new relatives. I have trouble with names to begin with, and the problem gets worse with many people in quick succession met once.

His father died about two weeks ago: vacation time was already allotted and plane tickets to Florida weren't in the original budget. (Apparently there are ultra-cheap tickets where you are guaranteed a seat but you don't know until the last hour which flight.) They had a small poster in his memory there.

All in all a happy time, with not much in the way of speeches--raining drink and snowing food, and plenty of pleasant people. The van still has boxes that need to go back to the newlyweds when they dig out from the other remainders.

And now I'm a grandpa.

(*) Funny what technology makes possible. One of the men in our Wednesday Bible study is Air Force, and when deployed he attended from Afghanistan via Skype.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pharaoh's teeth

I'd wondered why ancient Egyptian teeth were so badly worn--even the rulers'. The bread in tombs was pretty coarse, but that wasn't necessarily representative of what people actually ate. Like the Chinese paper offerings to the ancestors, it may have been only symbolic and slapdash.

Suggestions include sand in the mix to make it easy to grind, tiny bits of the querns grinding off, reed sieves that didn't get rid of the detritus--that sort of thing.

It turns out that some of their querns were granite or basalt (some were limestone) and should have been pretty durable--and I'd expect pharaoh to get the good stuff. But what was the good stuff? Maybe the abrasion was so slow that it just seemed like texture, maybe even comfort food texture. I was all set to try to figure out why they'd use such cruddy flour, but some other folk got there first.

Some archaeologists have been trying to reproduce ancient methods and figure out what ancient grains they used. There were a variety of possible strains of different hardness and variety of different coarsenesses of the flour, depending mostly on how many passes through the grinding it went through. All by hand, of course, since the circular quern wasn't invented until the fifth century BC and I don't know how long it took to reach Egypt.

Oddities abound: convex quern surfaces (transverse, that is), actually work pretty well if you use a rocking motion with the handstone to crack the grains first. Soft grains aren't quite as easy to grind since they moosh up into the grains of the stones and make it slippery. It shouldn't have been necessary to add grit to make the stones work if you use hard grains.

So. Maybe they added grit anyway. The linked article estimates 3 hours to prepare 2kg of grain. Shortcuts would have been attractive, and if you are going to sift the sand out afterwards anyway. (Or at least most of it...)

The Anasazi used sandstone tools and wore their teeth out pretty fast too.

Tooth enamel is about 2.5mm thick at the thickest. Say you wear all the way through that in 40 years, and then start wearing through the soft part quickly. That's less than 0.2 micron per day; not dramatic on a day-to-day basis, though I'd think you'd feel the grittiness. Maybe they didn't make the connection, and liked the texture? Even if someone did make the connection, proving that some other technique was better might take too long--Daniel et al's longitudinal study was only a few weeks, not 40 years.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Radio Yerevan

Anybody remember the Radio Yerevan stories?

BREAKING NEWS headlines (pick a news source, any news source) remind me of this story:

Announcer: We need to make a minor correction. Yesterday we reported that Comrade Dmitri won a blue Lada in Leningrad. It was actually Comrade Yuri; it was in Kiev, not Leningrad; the color was green; it happened last Thursday; it was not a Lada but a bicycle, and he did not win it but he stole it. Aside from that the story was substantially correct.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kenyan mall

To forestall misunderstanding, let me emphasize that the Muhammedan terrorists are not a product of poverty or US policy toward Israel or US policy toward Canada. Infidels are not human and even lax Muslims are suspect. This tendancy in Muhammedanism goes back to its earliest days--rulers might tolerate infidels but popular movements often attacked them. They see Satan and his minions; they kill the minions.

I think Trent is wrong. This Kenya murder spree isn't a tipping point and is not going to cost them much. The Western media outlets are, by and large, frantic to hide away anything that suggests a real struggle. A real struggle puts life in perspective, and the big media make their livings purveying trivia. Even our wars were described as though they were far-off "incidental" actions that needn't involve anybody on the home front: war on the cheap. This won't change much in the West. (*)

In the rest: look at those pictures with other eyes for a while. The death and fear is in among toy cars that cost more than a year's wages; with other luxuries all around. You see the images on a small TV under a canopy, and wish that you could have a chance at some of those nearly unimaginable luxuries. The people you see aren't your tribe--neither the villains nor the victims. If you live near Muslim areas, you may be (quite rightly) worried by the implications of the Kenya attack. If you don't, it will probably seem like no skin off your nose. And "Westerners" were involved (**), to confuse things even more. If anything, you might think people wallowing in luxury deserve an occasional poke in the eye.

All in all, I don't think this will change the attitudes of our elites at all, and of our general population by much. Those in the rest of the world who have Muhammedans for neighbors are probably already worried anyway. A large number of their co-religionists will be impressed.

There's something especially humiliating about being martyred in a mall. The trivial attachments to the world are all around you, and you chose the environment yourself. The last things you see aren't prison walls or howling mobs but a row of barbie dolls.

Granted, I may be biased. Malls are some of my least favorite places. During the great surge of mall building, I was in Africa, and when we came back to the States and went to one to buy clothes I was weirded out. I can't claim any sort of moral superiority--I can spend as long in a bookstore as a teenage girl in a mall; and we both wind up with "just stuff." But the garish wastefulness of it made me almost ill, and still bothers me.

(*) I predict that there will be two major stories that will push this off the front page and the editorials by next Friday: one a moderately substantive DC political story, and the other a celebrity/politician scandal. I don't know what they will be; I'm just convinced they will be there.

(**) At some point other countries are going to start trying to get the US and UK to pay damages for the people we take under our wing and then let loose on the world.

Stove technology

BBC reports on a low-smoke model of cookstove to replace the traditional mud stoves. The model (now open sourced) may well be as efficient as they claim, but 40 pounds is, according to my office mate, about 4000 rupees and a very significant expense. I looked at the website of the firm, and it seems to sell/resell a number of different stoves, including several that use dung. No solar, which probably says something.

Nice idea and all, though I get a faint whiff of press release/ad news story. Smoky stoves are a curse, causing millions of lung problems around the world. If new stoves are less smoky, we have a lot less lung disease.

I wonder what can be done with the traditional material--mud? If the combustion chamber and piping was molded to good tolerances, could the efficiency go up enough and the soot output go down enough to make it worthwhile?

If so, then how about designing pipe and chamber molds so that a village could make a lot of mud stoves off the same mold? Not as nice or easy to clean as steel, but more affordable out in the countryside.

Monday, September 23, 2013


This time I'm trying to resuscitate a VTrak E610f. Half the time our problems are common as dirt, and half the time they're unique.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Artistic table ware

I have long had an un-examined dislike for artistic cups and plates like the one below.

I will stipulate that these require skill to make, and that there is a pleasing randomness to them. I don't see the beauty in randomness of that kind, but I can see that the effect might be analogous to the random distortions in wood grain.

Still, the works annoy me. I should figure out why.

They are called cups, but they can't be easily used as cups. How do you know they're clean? When the first impression I have is of permanent uncleanliness the cups appear to have failed their function.(*)

The tree grew the grain as best it could for the environment it had. But I expect a little more precision from human art--this seems careless, not organic, as though the potter couldn't be bothered to use a ruler. I know that glazes are extremely hard to control, so I'm probably just displaying a sad ignorance of the art. But the deliberately coarse appearance annoys me. It doesn't have the excuse of primitive tools or having to make lots of pots in a hurry for the village.

There are bigger problems in the world. Or maybe this is a piece of a bigger one.

(*) Look at the color of the upper glaze. Old milk?

Shepherd of Hermas by not sure

I finally got started in volume 2 of the AnteNicene Fathers (CCEL makes these available). Shepherd of Hermas was attributed to the early Hermas that Paul mentions and was read in many churches of east starting around the second century. The translator is pretty sure that the Hermas is actually the brother of Pius I and thinks it was written to help counter the Montanists. In other words, we're not sure. It was esteemed highly enough to be bound up in the same volume with the gospels and Paul's letters, but some were dubious and it seems to have vanished from use by the fifth century.

The translator is extremely eager to note the primacy of Grace in the parables--at least in chronological order--to defend the author against a charge of legalism. That's a hard defence to sustain.

The book is a set of visions and meetings with angels who explain the visions, over a period of what seems like several months. The theme is that one must do right, turn from wickedness and bear fruit. Wealth attaches you to the world and renders you unsuitable to be "built into the tower." Purity and more purity.

There are a few inconsistencies: he is told several times that there is no repentence possible after knowing and rejecting Jesus, and also told that the fallen-away may be able to repent unless they denied the faith.

Some things seem more than a little odd: grief grieves the Holy Spirit, and the nature of Jesus seems a little unorthodox. On the other hand, he's also told that he is going to have to suffer because his family (church) is sinful and needs disciplining, even though he himself is innocent--which is a wise observation.

His personal catalog of sins is a bit thin and jars somewhat with the claim of the angel of repentence that he has a lot to answer for.

The format of (vision+repeated questions for interpretation of the allegory)*N is a bit tiring to deal with when you read it in a couple of sittings, but since it was probably mostly read aloud in much smaller chunks the hearers might not have cared. Some of the allegories are fine and some are exceedingly uninspired.

I don't say "read it" unless you have some commitment to reading the early fathers.

On the other hand, I do say read some of it to get a feel for what the early church attitudes were like. It is about as far from Joel Osteen as you can get.

Gluten intolerance

We all see a lot more gluten-free options in the stores, and hear a lot more about it than we used to. This isn't because people used to die from it and not be noticed thereafter.

A close family member developed gluten intolerance recently, after several serious bouts over several years with GI infections. It isn't a matter of better diagnosis--the symptoms are pretty dramatic and we could not have missed that sort of thing.

With physical problems whose frequency grows that fast, we think of infections with an odd side effect. So I looked around.

From back in 2010, some of the genes linked to susceptibility turn out to be associated with the immune system, not the gut (that we know of), suggesting that something that exercises those genes (like an infection) turns on something it shouldn't. Some epidemiological studies suggest that celiac disease (not the same as gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy) has small epidemics and some seasonal variation, which may be linked to infections in early childhood.

And, as noted above, we have anecdotal evidence that sensitivity can be induced (we hope just temporarily).

Another thing to add to the list of topics to watch.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Deep waves

Decades ago when I first read of undersea currents I wondered if they had waves. The obvious answer is yes; presumably slow--but how do you see such things? The waters off Samoa have a narrow channel with a strong current of cold water from Antarctica flowing into warm water, and Matthew Alford's team towed sensors to watch it. Not for the joy of seeing waves--apparently there's been a water mixing problem where the estimated water mixing rates are far higher than anything actually measured in the deep sea.

The group saw waves 800 feet high, and all the turbulent mixing they needed, due to breaking waves if their calculations are correct.

The density differences between cold and warm water are small enough that waves don't break quickly--they say an hour. I love watching and hearing the waves breaking on the beach--a giant squid doing the same deep down would have to be very patient. Maybe life is slower in the abyss.

And what else is addictive?

A little late for inclusion in the previous post: Brain scans find porn addiction.
Compulsive users of pornography show the same signs of addiction in their brain activity as alcoholics or drug addicts, a study has revealed.

In the first research of its kind, scans showed that a central portion of the brain which is stimulated in drug or alcohol addicts also “lit up” when compulsive pornography users watched explicit material. There was no such effect in the brains of people who were not habitual users of porn.

I didn't bother registering to get the rest of the article. I'm trying to imagine the outcome of a study similar to Hart's. If anybody were able to know what they were doing, I think the subjects would show magnificent self-control. Even if matters were arranged so that no human would know, they'd probably still feel watched.

Addiction and self-control

The NYT reports on Carl Hart's work studying the self-control of crack and meth addicts. Maybe somebody can tell me how you get away with a study like this:
Dr. Hart recruited addicts by advertising in The Village Voice, offering them a chance to make $950 while smoking crack made from pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Most of the respondents, like the addicts he knew growing up in Miami, were black men from low-income neighborhoods. To participate, they had to live in a hospital ward for several weeks during the experiment.

At the start of each day, as researchers watched behind a one-way mirror, a nurse would place a certain amount of crack in a pipe — the dose varied daily — and light it. While smoking, the participant was blindfolded so he couldn’t see the size of that day’s dose.

Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was \$5 in cash, and sometimes it was a \$5 voucher for merchandise at a store.

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the \$5 in cash or voucher.

How did that get approved? I'm not saying this was abusive, but it is a little startling.

At any rate:

He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to \$20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash. They knew they wouldn’t receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high.

Dalrymple and others claimed that addicts generally had more self-control than most (including themselves) believe. This seems to validate their observations.

But you can conclude too much from Hart's studies. The population is self-selected, of course, biased in favor of people who have the confidence to deliberately leave their home environments. They are now in a completely new and controlled environment, without any of the normal influences that make up a lot of what we think of as natural choices. (To what extent that environment is a product of your own choices is a more complicated issue. I can't choose family or neighbors, but I chose friends and what I listened to and watched, and that history has to produce some feedback.) And the rewards offered in the hospital are more clear-cut and reliable than the longer-term and chancy rewards of self-control in the hood, where there's a lot of random danger and crab-bucket trouble.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sex jihad?

"A number of Tunisian girls who had travelled to Syria to perform “sexual jihad” there have returned back home pregnant, Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Bin Jeddo said on Thursday." The former Mufti of Tunisia Sheikh Othman Battikh said: "For Jihad in Syria, they are now pushing girls to go there. 13 young girls have been sent for sexual jihad. What is this? This is called prostitution. It is moral educational corruption."

But jihad looks like a magical term, and magical terms trump any analysis. (Remember when the Taliban (then ruling Afghanistan) was trying to get land mines out, and declared a jihad against land mines?)

Prostitution doesn't have to be associated with jihad, of course.

UPDATE: The France24 version of the story doesn't mention prostitution at all. Curious.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blogging oddities

This site doesn't get a huge amount of traffic, and so when a post jumps way up in the stats I wonder about bots.

And when a site jumps high in the referrers' list I wonder about that too.

Let the referrer site have an oddball name, maybe something associated with traffic statistics, to attract the eye of the sad soul wondering about his blog's place in the world.

Who wouldn't click on it, just to see who, for a change, is reading his deathless (undead?) prose? And promptly get inundated with ads and maybe a JavaScript virus or two.

Cynical and suspicious sorts will look the site up first. I guess I'm not very trusting.

But those referrer sites can be a nuisance until "your blog becomes mature and it starts getting real traffic." Or until "you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same."

I get the occasional email saying that on the basis of such-and-such a post I ought to be interested in reading and publicizing their site. The most recent one was for an online math course aggregator; something I'm actually interested in and which looks real--but the "post" they selected as their inspiration for contacting me had zero to do with their topic. Bots again, probably--or else an unlucky typo.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Judgment of Judas

Jesus told the 12 in the upper room (or after the Rich Young Ruler: Matt 19:28) that they would sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel. A number of people have noticed that Judas was present. Was this promise conditional or not? You could argue that Judas abandoned that promise, and that's probably the right answer. Or you can wallow off into the fever swamps where Judas is really the good guy doing his Master's will.

Or we could follow Williams (Terror of Light) and wonder what an apostle in hell would be doing. Judgment without mercy waits for those who have not shown mercy? He had no mercy on himself--he'd be an unpleasant judge to end up facing.

If you wanted to tell a story centered around this, you have several problems. One is simply plotting: who has to face Judas? The obvious approach would have people select him themselves, unexpectedly but appropriately. But then you run into the characterization problem. It isn't easy to assign the "tribes of Israel" distinctive personal or symbolic attributes (Meyers-Briggs?) and correlate them with the 12 apostles. For that matter, we don't have clear character sketches of most of the apostles, at least in modern literature. I don't doubt you could borrow lots of material from Origen, but he isn't part of our background culture and so the story would read as though you were making it up arbitrarily.

So, while (I think) it would be an interesting concept for a story, I can't think of many authors who could make it go. Maybe Gene Wolfe?

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'd give my left flipper for a Q-tip

Apparently blue whales's ear wax keeps building up all life long. Light wax during feeding season, dark when migrating. But Trumble and Usenko realized that the oils might preserve oil-soluble hormones--like testosterone--and a detailed analysis could tell how long it took the whale to reach sexual maturity. And what sorts of pollutants were in the water.

I wonder how far back these things have been preserved. Whales sample a fair bit of ocean, and you could get a little pollution history if you could link samples together and go back far enough. Cool.

I'd never given whale earwax any thought at all--just assumed that the eardrum was protected and that was that. That it build up instead of migrating out seems odd, but I guess it works OK.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Feynman lectures

Volume 1 of the Feynman Lectures on Physics is online now.

Physicists widely admire them, and some teachers re-read sections because his exposition is so clear and clean: especially the first volume. It can help you keep your teaching focused on the main line and not distracted by details.

But I gather it doesn't seem to work so well as a first-year textbook. It is excellent for teaching you what you know, but is hard to climb into when you don't know much about the material.

I remember sitting through Statistical Mechanics, and everything seemed so clear and simple. Then I sat down for the exam: "Calculate the specific heat of copper." Brain freeze.

I think the textbooks that work for new learners stop frequently and make the student exercise what he's learning. You have to keep your eyes on the prize, and Feynman was very good at that, but I have to step through some of those details myself to anchor them--the lucid A through Z lecture doesn't seem to find a resting place.

Unexpected weakness

I've had the usual set of diseases, including pneumonia and malaria, and I'm quite familiar with "weak as a kitten." It is sometimes hard to remember that someone else is too weak for a job, but once I remember I empathize fine.

I signed up for weekend coverage for this weekend sometime back, and I wasn't planning on a nasty cold.

Most of the weekend work is pretty straightforward: if A then B, and pray I don't have to go in to get systems restarted. Users who are way over quota get email (forgot to cc though...). Restart server X remotely if that $$$ software wedges again. Easy provided nothing goes badly wrong.

One production project stalled, and while trying to keep my eyes open long enough to debug the script, I realized that I couldn't focus on more than one line at a time. If A and B then--wait, was A true or not?

I realized I was mentally weak as a kitten. No doubt that's been the case many times before (see pneumonia, above), but it was the first time I realized "This is what it's like not to be able to do math." I hope that can translate into a little more empathy.

I also hope I can clear up enough to replace the stupid code. (I wrote it; it was always just interim code to test the machinery.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013


I caught the tail end of a piece on the radio describing an effort (or a trial balloon) to get 9/11 declared a national day of remembrance. I gather the idea was that it be something like Memorial Day.

I don't know exactly how they meant this. A day to memorialize the civilians who were killed by our enemies might work, as a parallel to the day to memorialize the soldiers who were killed fighting our enemies.

But the shape of our language suggests why this might not work very well. We talk about "celebrating" a holiday: we "celebrate" Memorial Day on Monday. Some people say "observe Memorial Day", just as they "observe Lent", but most of us "celebrate" the time off for official holidays.

If we're going to "celebrate" a day, let's not celebrate Pearl Harbor day but VE day or VJ day. Not 9/11 but 9/12; not disaster but hope.

Granted, we would benefit from a little corporate fasting and prayer and a day of mourning now and then--we've festivals enough and it is good to recognize the other aspects of life. But days of mourning (*) appointed by the government don't nourish the soul very much. Which is not surprising: It's absurd to expect to be spiritually uplifted and inspired by our own machinery.

(*) Such as everyone's favorite?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Spontaneous generation

Have you ever noticed that no matter how many flies you swat, there are always more? Similarly with mosquitoes. The doors and windows are shut, so they're not sneaking in. But when I swat one, hydra-like, 3 more leap startled into the air--from somewhere. Wormholes? Spontaneous generation? Some strange conservation law?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Genesis vs Egypt

In the sermon this morning the pastor pointed out that Genesis was compiled for the benefit of Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt.

It doesn't tell the stories of the different tribes--those they probably already knew (within their own tribes), but it does tell the stories of how the tribes came to be--the uniting story that they may or may not have considered more important than their own separate tribal stories.

The pastor focused on Genesis 1, and how that would be viewed. An aspect of that occurred to me that I hadn't thought of before. There's quite a contrast between one God and the sea of gods in Egypt. (Their natures and roles seem to blur together at this distance, but it may be that at any given time the distinctions were clear and the blurring comes from seeing an overlay of many different snapshots.)

In Genesis chapter 1 one god creates the heavens and the earth. Then:

Second day sky (Nut), waters (Tefnut)
Third day water (Nile: Hapi) and land (Geb)
Fourth day day/night, stars: Ra (sun), Nut again,
Chons and Jah and Thoth (moon)
Fifth dayfish (Hatmehyt; also Ipet for hippos, etc), Horus etc (bird-headed)
Sixth dayanimals (Bastet, Apis, and a whole raft of half-animals: Ra, Hathor, Sekhmet, Horus, Thoth, Anubis, Amun...) Chepre (beetle)

And of course God creates man at the end, and gives him dominion over the rest. So instead of Apis having dominion over man, man has dominion over cows. Everything, even what were in Egypt called gods, are made by one God. (A not entirely alien concept to the Egyptians, but I can't date the story.)

The only thing in the world described as being in the image of God is man. Goodbye hawk-heads.

All of which is familiar to us, but it would be dramatic to people who grew up in such as thoroughly polytheistic world as ancient Egypt. (I gather Akhenaten was some years after Moses, though I hear there's lots of argument.)

Saturday, September 07, 2013

I wonder what it would look like

The other night Eldest Daughter mentioned a fantasy football league some friends were involved in. I asked her if there would be a LARP version of fantasy football.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Using stories

Over at Necat Draco Dubbahdee explores how words and phrases that describe things we haven’t experienced yet can be given content by the vicarious experience of a story.

Jesus told of us things we don’t see every day, and His parables help define His terms, no matter what language we translate them into. The Muslims say the Koran cannot be translated; Jesus’ parables help translate themselves. I know which I judge more universal.

Thursday, September 05, 2013


Bob couldn’t feel the pain eating away his spine any longer, but neither could his hand touch his body in the vacant dark.

“Where am I?” he begged.

“Waiting for judgment,” came the kindly reply.

“So I’m dead?” No answer was needed and none came. “What are my chances?”

“Why don’t you tell me? What did you do with the days you were trusted with?”

He wandered through memories and balanced a sea of good done for him against very little done by him.

“I think I’m going to have to rely on Divine mercy.”

“True,” replied the gentle voice. “But that won’t bypass the question.”

“I was never any good at telling people about Jesus; though that’s maybe just an excuse. I only worked in the nursery once. I didn’t like it—I guess that means I didn’t do any foot-washing. And ... Brother Harold always managed to make people welcome: I never tried.”

“Tell me about Brother Harold.”

“I wish I’d been more like him. He had a good word for everybody, and a smile, and had enough people over to his backyard picnics over the summers to fill a small town. His name wasn’t on the sign outside, but without him there’d have been no church to speak of. It was like Jesus was welcoming everybody; both old friends and strangers.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.”

“Or Janet. She could be hard to get along with sometimes, but nobody worked harder for the kids in her neighborhood. And Tom. Just a hint and he’d be there with a van full of tools, and the latest teenager he was teaching the trade to, and they’d work for hours on a car or a roof.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“And through the years there were the preachers and deacons too, but not me. It seems all I did was complain about the budget shortfall and discourage people. But Sister Ellen was always so encouraging—she’ll pass the test OK, won’t she?”

“You can be confident in the judge.”

“Promise me she’ll make it? She was so good to everybody.”

“Rest easy.”

And faintly in the distance he heard a woman’s voice saying “I never really thought things out; I just jumped in without thinking and made a muddle. It’s a good thing we had Brother Bob to keep us real. He’ll be there, won’t he?”

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Absent Dictators

I didn’t learn much about the history or composition of Libya until fairly recently. But its current anarchic state seems almost inevitable in retrospect. Fiercely tribal and inheriting a giant arsenal, with a central state damaged by civil war and the purges:
Mutinying security men have taken over oil ports on the Mediterranean and are seeking to sell crude oil on the black market. Ali Zeidan, Libya’s Prime Minister, has threatened to “bomb from the air and the sea” any oil tanker trying to pick up the illicit oil from the oil terminal guards, who are mostly former rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and have been on strike over low pay and alleged government corruption since July.

Remember the standard accusation that the US always sided with dictators? Proof positive that the US didn’t care about anything but its own interests, or so it was always taken. And I’ll grant that the powers-that-be don’t care about anything but their own short-term interests, but it seems ironic that supporting dictators might sometimes be humane. A cowed Gaddafi was fairly harmless—he didn’t go in for quite as many foreign adventures after Bush put the fear of the US into him, and seemed (wonder of wonders) willing to cooperate on some things. And life is certainly worse for Libyans with multiple tyrants quarreling instead of one.

Who knows about the long term--maybe the fighters will converge on a new system that everybody gets used to and keeps the place running smoothly with a little liberty and pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it will break up into groups that fight each other for centuries.

As I've said before, I hold no love for Gaddafi--I knew people who'd be alive today if not for his meddling. But the "progressive march of democracy" through the world so in vogue in my earlier years seems to over-reach a little now and then.

"You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you."

Sunday, September 01, 2013

What do you do when your sensor is maxed out?

At Fukushima when their radiation detectors pegged at 100 mS/hour they kept on going.

From the BBC story

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) had originally said the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour.

However, the company said the equipment used to make that recording could only read measurements of up to 100 millisieverts.

The new recording, using a more sensitive device, showed a level of 1,800 millisieverts an hour.

(BTW, that should read "less sensitive device", not "more." BBC science editor strikes again.)

To be fair, most of the readings were undoubtedly lower than 100 mS/hour, and unless they really are hiring "ne'er do wells and petty criminals" to do the cleanup the people should all be well versed in ALARA and the hot spots won't have seriously hurt anybody.

But seriously, if my radiation detector ever pegs, I'm out of there to look for something with a little more range. At Fermilab they had two sets of detectors for hoi polloi, and the simple scanner was switchable to different sensitivities. In theory, if something registered hot we could get a half-way decent estimate for how hot using just the equipment on hand. In practice we were told to just label it, toss it in the bin, and let the techs deal with it later--but at Fukushima the users are the radiation techs.

The hotspots they found may be new, and they may be transient. When you're dealing with reactor-waste levels of radiation, keeping track matters a lot. The 1.8S/hour hotspot would be lethal in about 4 hours, while 100mS for 4 hours would just increase your likelihood of cancer by a couple of percent. And if a crack opens in a tank, an area downstream that used to be tolerable might hit levels lethal in minutes.

Do I have to write about Miley?

I saw a link to this graph allegedly comparing searches for "Miley Cyrus" and "chemical attack Syria". As you probably expect, if you know Americans, the former is an order of magnitude higher than the second. We all know that the flailings of a starlet hoping for attention (that will mean new contracts) aren't life and death issues like poisonings and revolution in Syria. It is almost offensive to compare the two in terms of value or newsworthiness.

I had proposed to ignore the whole business, but it keeps nagging at me. Why make such a fool of yourself, and why that way?

OK, I get it that she was some kind of child star, playing a star with a secret identity as a normal wholesome girl, and she wanted to make it clear she wasn't a little girl anymore. Aren’t there other ways of being adult than stylized sex? (I didn’t see the show, but the inescapable stills are remarkably unattractive. (Is she in training to be a frog?) I don’t say un-sexy because that's not really the same thing: perhaps you had to be there to get it.)

It often seems as though the only distinctive we recognize for adulthood is sexual desire. Is that all there is?(*) Nothing of responsibility, wisdom, authority—nothing but sex? That may not be a surprising news story, but that’s a big deal—if that’s all we want from adults that’s all we’re going to get.

And it seems to be accepted wisdom that a desire is unworthy of the name unless it is overwhelming. If you have self-control, you must have wimpy desires—don’t humiliate yourself by mentioning them.

Self-mastery is tough enough already; if we disparage it what will we wind up with? You need a touch of self-denial to prepare for the future, not to mention to behave responsibly today. Again, not a surprising news item but a big deal—a bigger long term deal for the culture and country than a mindless flailing around with a country we don’t intend to go to war with.

So to prove she was an adult she had to act as though out of control sexually. But, of course, in a way that wouldn’t get her arrested—funny how self-control enters the picture anyway.

(*)I wanted to play that song for a study on Ecclesiastes, but decided it would take too long and break the rhythm of the study time.