Thursday, October 31, 2013


While commenting on another site about types of useless books, it occurred to me that the language lacks a useful term for one genre, and so I offer autohagiography. Since ghostwriters allegedly do most of the heavy lifting for these works, probably "pseudo-auto"hagiography would be more accurate, but that's more Entish than English.

It is frustrating to try to debate anything important while using words which have more of a family of meanings than a single value. "God" is one obviously overloaded word, and so is "freedom." But I run into the same confusion when I want to know if something is a good movie or not. A lot of the discussion about the ACA is fuzzed because nobody knew what was in it to begin with, but the fact that the phrase "health care" isn't all that precise makes it even worse. (Does it include mental disorders? I gather the DSM-V really muddies the distinctions. Does it include prevention? Prevention of disorders stemming from lifestyle choices? Does health care mean insurance?)

The phrase "gender roles" is another muddy mess, conflating natural tendencies with caste-like rules.

I get it that sometimes word families are good--such as when writing poetry and you want to be allusive. And when I tell my wife "I love you" I mean it in a lot of different ways, and it isn't always convenient to parse them all out.

But the rest of the time discussion feels like trying to make marshmallow sculptures using rods of cooked spaghetti.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pre funeral last blessing

A man in our Saturday Bible study spoke of a friend who decided to have his funeral before his death, so he could attend. This was taken as a bit odd. Did he want to attend to hear all the nice things about himself, or to let people say their thanks now before it was too late? I pointed out that there was precedent for something a little bit like that in Isaac's and Jacob's final blessings. It seems as though they assembled family together for a final meeting, and didn't necessarily die right afterwards.

I hesitate to recommend the revival of the custom, because I've known a few people who'd use the occasion for a final nasty jab. We don't have the infrastructure of expectations to curb abuses.

Nevertheless I like the idea of having a get-together for a final blessing. It could be a hard to muster the energy to say much, but that's one reason we have microphones. And it could take a long time, with plenty of rests, to talk to everyone. And there could be expectations that everybody get comparable amounts of face time, which isn't remotely reasonable but... And I can imagine expectations that everybody use insincere happy talk. And things get amusing if the dying person recovers to live a few more years (my late mother-in-law was very close to death several times in the years before she died).

Still, if the opportunity is there, it seems a shame not to try.

On a related note, I hope you read David Warren's column about his mother's death.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on using metadata to detect conspiracies

The word for today is combinatorics.

When you are trying to track down spies and conspirators, it seems like an excellent idea to find out who they contact and look for the clusters of connections that suggest that "here be the leaders." If you can find strong connections between known enemies and Joe X, he becomes a person of interest.

The problem with this is that anybody with any tradecraft is going to use cutouts and dead drops, and generally make things as muddy as possible. The old hollow tree is pretty low tech, but it works. I suppose (not being in the business myself) that bulletin boards and comment sections would make very good sites for leaving coded messages.

But, says you, that's just what the metadata searching should help with. If NSA knows Muhammad Smith's favorite web sites, they can look at who else shares those and once had a history of going to jihadist web sites.

How many is that? Suppose Muhammad Bombmaster posts sporadically on 20 different web sites, including the Minneapolis Bayou. Jason Wannabe used to visit jihadist sites, but after a few long talks with his new partners he uses a different computers for different jobs. He visits 10 different web sites including the Bayou. Jackson Nobody visits 15, including the Bayou, as do about 5000 other people. Of that 5000, most live in Minneapolis and maybe 5% have wondered what the heck an al Qaeda web site looked like.

So Jason Wannabe is 1 out of 200. Presumably the non-Minneapolis sites have lower percentages of visitors who've seen a jihadist web site, so maybe the rates are 1 out of 10 instead. So you are watching about 400 different people. Not bad so far. But if each of them is in contact (Twitter, Facebook, etc) with 50 other people, you now have of the order of 20,000 people in the second level, and a million in the third level. OK, say a quarter million--there'll be overlap. In fact, overlaps are just the things you'll be looking for to locate conspirators. Most overlaps will be easy to understand, given time; accidental ones are harder to understand because there isn't a reason. (Put 30 random
people in a room. What are the odds that at least 2 share a birthday? Over 70%)

If your criteria for suspicion are loose, you have a lot of false positives on your hands. If they're tight a little tradecraft will flummox you. Trails peter out in a sea of noise.

I figured that if they're tracing phone calls, there are only 6, and maybe 5 links between me and the Boston bomber. I dunno whether he shared any plans with his imam: all the links may be innocent; I know they are from this end...

The initial claim was that this kind of tracking prevented several dozen terrorist attacks. Then the number was rounded down to 1 or 2. I don't expect to hear honest answers--it might give away useful secrets, or it might reveal that they can't do what they say. I'd not be surprised if the number was 0.

On the other hand it is very much easier to do ex post facto analyses and try to find co-conspirators. If A, B, and C are involved you can look at the sites they had in common and the links they shared and sort through only a few hundred people looking for suspicious activity. That's orders of magnitude easier. But it is also a little late.

It remains to be proven that this vast a tool can be used for the announced purpose.

We were told that some of the engineers used the system to "spy" on their spouses/live-ins. That seems like an obvious way to test the system; try to see if it works with someone you know. If you find that it misses calls you know about, you know the system isn't working. And if there are phone calls you didn't know about--you drill down a bit and find out if they're real, and if they are then there is domestic discord.

Of course there's more than just metadata--Snowden wasn't telling us anything particularly new. Nobody can handle all the raw data for everybody, but they can drill down for an individual suspect, and presumably get a lot of information--online purchases, emails, phone calls, and so on. From this raw material you can assemble the detailed links for a legal case, or for further monitoring.

This is also a useful tool if the individual is suspected of conspiring to be a Congressman of the wrong political party. Politics demands some deal making that constituents might not be happy to read a transcript of, and power attracts groupies--after a few years I'd guess that quite a few people would have some dirty laundry. Maybe not even anything illegal (like forgetting to pay sales tax on online purchases?), but enough to worry them into going along. It wouldn't take large numbers.

We just saw the Republicans go down to dramatic defeat and get nothing for their pains--a few got pork for the home district but there's no budget and no debt limit any more (unless there's a supermajority to vote against raising it), which used to mean that the king could do whatever he pleased. Probably still does.

If I'm right about the spy system we put together, we'll see more of this sort of curious business in years to come, because the system is much easier to use against individuals than in tracking spies. There will always be a temptation to use it against political foes "for the greater good" and we don't typically elect leaders on the basis of their integrity.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I think the devil gets as much, or more, mileage out of simple imbalance as out of temptations to evil. Imbalance distorts our vision and leaves our hearts puzzled and dissatisfied. We're wrong-footed. It lies by what it omits, and lets hazards lurk unseen in the periphery.

Pop music (not including country) has had the focus on romantic love for as long as I can remember. That's nice, but there's rarely any hint of children, and usually not much about work or age. My Little Pony has a nice wholesome approach to friendship, but I don't get much sense of the necessity for judgment and for solitude, or that everything doesn't always end gleefully. Or that there can be plenty of good in less-than-deep friendships. The goth scene seems to focus on loss and pain, but the last time I checked sunrises and Fourier transform could be beautiful no matter which side of the bed I got up on.

Who cares? Everybody knows that romance is only a part of marriage, that friends are sometimes hard to find, and that life is worth living.

Except that what we immerse ourselves in effects us, and if unbalanced will leave us off balance too. If I cannot find deep friendships at work or school even after a few years, should I blame them or me or just call it the luck of the draw? MLP characters can find them in 25 minutes. I've heard people seriously suggesting terraforming Venus and using inertial damping. I'm tolerably sure they hadn't been overindulging in Bill Nye episodes. And plenty of other people have noticed the effects of excessive romantic expectations on the length of marriages.

So how do we defend against imbalance? That's easier in politics than this sort of thing, since we generally don't notice the culture we swim in, while there are political partisans eager to enlighten you. I haven't noticed any striking benefit from multiculturalism in this regard. Maybe there's a PC filter, or maybe we just don't empathize easily. Or both. It isn't always easy to see what's in front of you. It is possible to write a couple of books about the joy of sex and not report on the glaringly obvious--like reporting about the hotels along the Grand Canyon and never mentioning the feature in the landscape nearby.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Rawandan prison

Ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor has asked to serve his 50-year sentence for war crimes in Rwanda, rather than the UK.

In a letter sent to the court that convicted him, he says it would be easier - and less expensive - for his family to visit him in Africa.

He also said he feared being attacked in a British prison.

I don't think those are good enough reasons to want to stay in a Rwandan prison.

The key word I think is stay. Taylor still has plenty of supporters in Liberia, and undoubtedly both large caches of money and munitions at his direction. If sent to Rwanda, how long do you think he would remain in durance vile? Think he'd make it as far as prison before finding a new direction?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Incarnation and texting

I suspect we were put here originally to make love and beauty incarnate and to subdue the wild world into a wild garden. We aren't here just to think about things, noble an activity as that is.(*)

Charles Williams said that in the end, all loves must be physical. Screwtape was content if the patient's love was limited to fantasy--it didn't matter how glorious love was if it never made any difference. I find that my reaction to hearing of someone's illness is to pray for them briefly, think about whether there's anything that should be done, and then move on to other things--but Jesus didn't say "I was sick and you thought about me."

There is something important about investing not just my attention but my body in my works. A text or email message is good, a phone call has more presence, but being there in person means I'm putting my whole self in service to meeting you. (Assuming my mind isn't elsewhere--I remember my school days...) A Facebook "friend" may be the best connection possible between people too far apart, but it is a flimsy wraith compared to flesh and blood conversation. Face to face it isn't just my spirit that is with you, but all of me.

Maybe texting and Twitter are two of the nine rings: they give the illusion of stretching your life to more and more people, but at the price of stretching you thinner and thinner.

(*)Thinking of math is good, but putting pencil to paper to develop it is better.

Matthew 25 again

I think I need to revisit my thinking on Matthew 25. The story of the virgins in particular nags at me this time. Earlier, Jesus said "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." He earlier said "But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say," So the keeping alert does not have to do with preparing your testimony for trials or anything like that. Jesus said that his coming wouldn't be hidden, so watching the sky can't be what He meant.

The parable of sheep and goats says we meet Jesus before he returns, and our everyday reaction to our neighbors is therefore something we need to be careful about. To be alert about?

I notice that my default reaction to some news story depends on what I've been reading/thinking about the previous day. My interactions with people are a little more structured than is probably good for us all, and if they weren't they'd probably also vary. Perhaps the goal is to be alert to what my mind and heart are doing in relation to other people all the time. Put that way it sounds kind of ego-centric.

A friend and I are putting together a series on spiritual disciplines, and I think they play a role here. If we work to put to death the "flesh" and make room to practice the works of the spirit, we change what our reaction is likely to be when the test of the moment comes. We watch by first immersing ourselves in what is good so that we see more clearly what should happen when the test comes.

We cannot just sit back on His laurels and expect that we will be satisfactory servants. The astute reader will notice some overlap between the fruit of the Spirit and the qualities we have to add in order to keep from being ineffective and unproductive.

Gal 5:22-232Peter 1:5-11
God's fruitWe put on
GoodnessMutual affection

I'd read Whitney's book about 7 years ago, and the only change it induced in my life was to cultivate the habit of "never appearing before the Lord empty-handed" but always having something, however small, to give. I also got more systematic in Bible reading, though that wasn't actually related to Whitney's book: it was triggered by waking up too late to catch the bus. In preparation for the series I've been reading much more, old (Practice of the Presence of God) and new (Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Barton--I may report on that one--, Celebration of Discipline by Foster, and so on). I'm now thoroughly convinced that reading a dozen books is of less value than even halting attempts at practice.

"The important things are always simple. The simple things are always hard." Sometimes humiliatingly simple. I was all set to complain that I'd not heard much about spiritual disciplines in church, and then I remembered a little children's song "Read your Bible, pray every day... It will make you grow." Quiet time with God, time of service, simplicity; they were all there, if not fully articulated and explained.

I'll see how well "do as I say" works.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Fullfilling purpose

Imagine you are a car in winter. (Or in a pinch, imagine heavy rain, fog and mudholes.)

You alternately spin smoking wheels and idle as people push on your bumper to rock you out of a snow bank. You inch slowly up the hill, and then realize that you are sliding sideways. The freezing rain turned the unplowed drifts across the road into chunks as rugged as the furrows on a farm. And you realize there is no way you are going to stop this side of the stop light.

And when, after an interminable time, you reach the cleaned and dry highway and cruise into higher and higher gear, you'd feel that this is what you're made for.

Every now and then I know what that's like.

Saturday, October 05, 2013


The musical is coming to Madison, and the ads are all about. I gather it is about murderesses awaiting trial. The ladies in the ads are far more fetching than the ones whose pictures actually turn up on in the crime section.

I presume there's some selection bias at work in the newspaper photography: the rich and powerful can wiggle out (h.t. Steve Sailer), but there aren't that many of them. And maybe brighter folks can figure some way to dispose of the awkward corpse clandestinely, though I haven't come up with any reliably untraceable methods myself. (Detective stories, looked at closely, aren't always very realistic.) But neither category should contribute much to the numbers, which leads to the banal observation the bulk of the criminals look neither very bright nor very attractive.

Maybe police photography uses the same equipment as the DMV, which generally portrays me as a felonious stranger.