Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dinner and a movie

Isn't technology wonderful? You can combine dinner and a movie, using a tablet and netflix. Be sure to crank the volume up loud enough that people at distant tables can hear every screeching brake.


People have posted movies of Liberia as it was 50 years ago and as it is now, and I'm very grateful. I can learn of what relatives are doing and "see" people I haven't seen in ages. There's a lot of good here.

Rather disconcertingly, I have seen pictures from high school and barely recognized friends.

There's a lot to like.

But Facebook magnifies a weakness in us.

Everybody loves to be first. Reporters and scientists make careers of it in their very different ways, but everybody loves the attention and respect you get when you are the bearer of the hot news.

Your friends haven't yet seen the latest cute kitten video, or the oh-so-telling political poster, so you have the thrill of introducing them to these delights. And who can resist the temptation to overthrow conventional wisdom and pass along the news that Easter was named after Astarte, or that father Abraham was named after Abraham Lincoln, or other marvelous semi-factoids? The important thing is not that snopes agrees that it is true, or that the story accurately represents what the evil political party said--the important thing is that it is new and that you got to tell it first.

If you slow down to do fact checking, somebody else might post first, and maybe your conscience might keep you from posting it at all.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


I won’t be bothering with the movie Noah. They didn’t succeed in interesting me enough to part with my time and money. Even worse, reports suggest that the movie is something of a turkey.

But it got me wondering what sorts of problems Noah would run into with other people...

”So, have you checked everything?”

The chubby inspector wiped his face and reseated his crow-feather hat. “Yes, I think so. We may want to go back and look at some things later. I need to settle down and draw up my report. You should join me to discuss it.”

”Will that help?”

”Sometimes details can be … um … explained, or negotiated.”

”I’ll be happy to help. What do you need?”

”I need a good smooth table in the shade, some clean water and clean fine rags, and a jug of good wine. And I fancy a silver cup to drink it out of—it helps me see better.”

”The rags will take a little while, and we can borrow a cup, but we’ll have the rest here in a few minutes. We’ll set up by the left ramp base.”

The inspector nodded and headed for the latrines.

Twenty minutes later they stood around a tall wooden table as the inspector spread out his vellum sheets and his brushes.

”Let’s start at the top,” he said. “You have no stanchions along the sides. You cannot tie up to a dock without them.”

”We don’t plan to use the docks. This is longer than any of the city docks—we couldn’t fit there.”

”The stone quarry dock is long enough. You built this to ferry stone for the new palace for King Caleb (may he live forever), but you didn’t think it through. You need to build stanchions in—how else can you tow it?” The inspector rapidly and accurately filled in the outlines of the upper decks as he spoke. There were little frowns drawn above the dotted images of stanchions.

”We got the license to start building this 85 years ago from King Jucline, and Ham has gotten that renewed by every king since. He asked for and got a waiver from King Clileb for upper deck furnishings.”

The inspector turned and spat. “Clileb, may his name be forgotten, was a usurper and a scoundrel, and any waiver he gave is invalid.”

”That’s what his inspector told us about King Cable before him. And Cable’s about the king before him. In fact, I think you were there that time. ... King Calib is certainly living longer than his predecessors.”

”Yes, he is (may he live forever), and since he is celebrating the first anniversary of his eternal reign with a new palace, your ark will do very well for transporting stone—with some deck modifications.” He paused. “Though I admit I don’t know how you plan to get it down to the river.”

”You no doubt reviewed the design plan before you came. This is designed to carry food, animals, and plants. The decks aren’t built to handle large stones. And we expect the river will rise to this level and float us off.”

The inspector looked up at him and pointed at the drawing. “Yes, I saw pictures of the statuary and how you meant to distribute the smaller work around the boat. You didn’t make the decks nearly strong enough—the beams need to be 3 times closer together. That’s not negotiable. And since decks 7 and 8 will be carrying stone slabs they need even more reinforcement. Plus new ramps. I don’t know how you got this approved with only one mid-deck loading port. It would take months to unload even with day and night slave crews.”

”Didn’t Ham explain that this is for live animals, not statues? They aren’t as heavy and they move under their own power. Look—would we need gaps and vertical shafts for ventilation if this was just stone? Or the dung shafts and the bucket chain to drain the sump?”

”No, Ham was waiting for an audience with the undersecretary for the Secretary for the Guardian of the Sublime Portal. And anyway, that sump is obviously for retrieving the lubricating slurry you need to drag the statuary.” He put his brush down and stepped back from the table to face Noah. “I’ve been an inspector for fifteen years and I know how boats work.”

He turned back to the table. “By the way, I really like the style of that cup.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Political insinuation: plus ca change

Senator Prince Y. Johnson, hearing "President Sirleaf saying in an interview that if she were to seek a third term, her preferred candidate would be ex-mayor of Monrovia Madam Mary Broh," responded with "Madam Sirleaf, as an incumbent you should be neutral in election process."

He didn't stop there. After a while he really got warmed up behind his pulpit:

"God knows why I was elected as the most senior government official of Nimba County; the chairman is not the boss; I'm the boss of Nimba and nobody can force or stop it. God said it in his word that he will bless those who bless and curse those who curse so if you are chief fornicator don't fight me and if you are alcoholic don't fight because I am not like you no more and if you are a dumper don't fight me. I am a new born creature - be careful how you tamper with the man of God."

Never mind that he is using Liberian English (and I had to correct typos the reporter inserted). Doesn't that sound familiar? How many accusations can he stuff into one paragraph?

The day before he had other words for the president. He appealed to her to resign:

The source said, Senator Johnson said that due to the age of the president, most decisions being made currently were not taken by her. "The senator said that he thinks the old lady was not in control of most decisions. Old age can have effect on people at times. That is why the honorable decided to get to her."

How kind of him.

We have quite the tradition of insinuation and slander here too, as James Callender shows. I'd not heard of him before tonight, but he'd fit right in today--and probably be better protected than in his own era.

Some things don't change much.

A piano study

"The First Quarter-­Second of the Chopin G-­minor Ballade" by Matt Grayson, a commenter on Dorigo's site. If you're not mathematically inclined, don't let the differential equations scare you off; you can follow what's going on without them.

Spoiler--he's looking at the tones produced by the first couple of notes, and in the process learns about effects from the piano wire structure. Nicely done.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Private armies

I do not know if Cliven Bundy is in the right, though it is trivially obvious that the BLM indulged in horrifying overkill. That this sort of intimidation is what you expect from despots and not from servants of the people is also obvious, and others have dwelt on it at length elsewhere. The country was designed on the assumption that you can’t trust the powers that be to keep within bounds; that they would always try to accumulate greater and greater power. This incident fits that pattern as we watch nearly every agency assemble its own private army.

But why is the administration allowing it? I understand appeal of having your own armed forces to cut through red tape and enforce bureaucratic rules as though infractions were crimes.

But hasn’t it occurred to anybody that these federal armies aren’t going to be coordinated, and that down the road there are going to be conflicts? We have enough trouble trying to get the Army, Navy, and Air Force to fight the same enemy in wartime, and they have the same mission. As the agency leaders become more accustomed to using their private armies, they are going to step on each other’s toes. Who gets to seize the property of people accused of making meth on federal property—the BLM or the DEA?

Whoever gets there first with the biggest group of fighters.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Repost: Between Good Friday and Easter comes the Sabbath

I don't usually re-post things, but this one struck me again.

On Good Friday we have the sacrifice and the dereliction. On Easter Sunday we have the resurrection and the joy. What's the Saturday in between for?

Imagine if you were there.

It was the Sabbath, when no one was supposed to work (except God, busy maintaining the world). OK, maybe you had to rescue the farm animals stuck in the ditch, or care for the sick, but otherwise everything went on hold. You had to wait to finish the schoolwork, wait to conclude the deal, wait to finish painting, wait to finish the preparations of the body for burial. The disciples had to wait before trying to skedaddle out of town (they could only go a Sabbath-day's journey), though the Sabbath gave them a slight break before the authorities would start hunting for them.

On that Saturday/Sabbath, there was nothing they could do. They probably didn't know what to do anyway, except lie low and wait.

One of the lessons of the Sabbath was "you don't hold up the world." For six days you work and for one day you rest and realize that the results depend on God.

Lots of life is bound up with waiting. A boy wants to be a fireman, but he'll have to wait. A couple want a baby--they'll have to wait. Why can't you learn to walk right away? Travel takes time. Growing takes time. Ripening takes time. Wisdom takes time. Even drying clothes takes time.

And God makes us wait in other ways. We read of many prophets, but there seem to have been spans of time with no prophet--especially the four hundred years before Jesus. "You have enough for now, follow what you know and wait." How long have we been waiting for Jesus' return? And, I suppose, how long has God been waiting for us to finish reaching the world?

Plant the crops and wait for rain. Mend the fishing nets and wait for the rain to stop.

Newlyweds find a monthly interruption to nuptial delights--and it lasts a week, too. Why? I don't know: Waiting again.

Someone said that 90% of life was showing up. That's kind of a primitive way of looking at it, but a lot of life is spent being there and being ready and waiting. And I guess God wants it that way. How to faithfully occupy our time while waiting is a matter for another meditation.

But for this Saturday/Sabbath, we wait, as they waited; for Easter isn't about what we can do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I'm a little puzzled. There are ancient Platonist threads in Christianity, in which the physical, though created good, must be left behind as the soul reaches for God. The idea comes across to me as almost gnostic.

We were created, and therefore have a nature and form. Perhaps that form, like a caterpillar's can change to something else, but that in turn will also be a form.

To be united with God, therefore, happens through a particular form.

That does not have to limit the depth of the union: consider Jesus as the ultimate example. He had the form and nature of a man, but was also fully God.

So there's no intrinsic reason why divinization demands that we abandon our physical bodies. Some austerities may be required along the way (and in this fallen world almost always are), but they are only a secondary means. That we cannot know God as He knows Himself ought to be obvious, though we doubtlessly need regular reminders.

That all seems pretty straightforward. But quite a few Christians through the centuries hold pretty much the opposite.

What am I missing?

UPDATE: If the process of union were our operation instead of God's I could see a reason for the focus. But since divinization is God's doing, we should expect the miraculous and look to the examples we know: Jesus.

Microcracks to prevent cracking?

With a hat tip to the CERN Courier, look at a story about making glass less brittle by micro-grooving the glass and filling in the grooves.
Here we report the implementation of these features into glass, using a laser engraving technique. Three-dimensional arrays of laser-generated microcracks can deflect and guide larger incoming cracks, following the concept of ‘stamp holes’. Jigsaw-like interfaces, infiltrated with polyurethane, furthermore channel cracks into interlocking configurations and pullout mechanisms, significantly enhancing energy dissipation and toughness. Compared with standard glass, which has no microstructure and is brittle, our bio-inspired glass displays built-in mechanisms that make it more deformable and 200 times tougher. This bio-inspired approach, based on carefully architectured interfaces, provides a new pathway to toughening glasses, ceramics or other hard and brittle materials.

Unfortunately the site wants fees (unless your university has already paid up), but the pictures and the abstract should give the gist of it. It can surely be scaled up to small objects, though I don't know about windshields. Cool.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


When I first put this uniform on,
I said, as I looked in the glass,
"It's one to a million
That any civilian
My figure and form will surpass.
Gold lace has a charm for the fair,
And I've plenty of that, and to spare,
While a lover's professions,
When uttered in Hessians,
Are eloquent everywhere!"
A fact that I counted upon,
When I first put this uniform on!

I said, when I first put it on,
"It is plain to the veriest dunce
That every beauty
Will feel it her duty
To yield to its glamour at once.
They will see that I'm freely gold-laced
In a uniform handsome and chaste" -
But the peripatetics
Of long-haired aesthetics,
Are very much more to their taste -
Which I never counted upon
When I first put this uniform on!
William Schwenck Gilbert

I don't clearly understand what my better half sees in me; though I'm profoundly grateful that she does find something attractive. So perhaps it doesn't make a lot of sense for me to spend any effort trying to figure out why women seem attracted to men in uniform. But

Gilbert emphasises the flashy aspect of the uniform, and I've heard others say it is the "safe bad boy"--somebody dangerous but disciplined; strong for you and strong for your children and likelier to have strong children with. The latter seems a trifle reductionist, but it probably plays a role.

BTW, I'm talking about the ideal of the soldier, not the real one the woman gets to know later. We can all find plenty of exceptions--or at least those of us who actually know policemen or soldiers can.

Another aspect occured to me yesterday. A soldier or policeman takes on an open-ended commitment. So does a parent or a spouse. (So also, whether they want to know it or not, does someone who becomes a Christian.) The ideal soldier is someone who is capable of commitment--a creature a little scarcer on the ground that he used to be. I'd think that would appeal to both sexes, but the effect in men is probably swamped by other preferences. Someone who has the sense of adventure and trustworthiness for the long haul is a good catch.

Monday, April 14, 2014

When the big one goes off

--which it will, eventually, somewhere--what should you do?

Back when I was in 6'th grade the school library had The Effects of Nuclear Weapons on the shelf and a couple of us read it. I know that doesn't match the current reading level rules, but we were too ignorant to know that the best authorities are sure we couldn't possibly have understand it, so we studied it anyway. If it had been part of the curriculum that might have been another story... It was fascinating reading. Nobody we knew had fallout shelters--nobody was going to bother nuking Liberia, and it wasn't in fashion back in the States.

People are still thinking about these things--more so as more and more countries decline to trust their erstwhile allies. (There's been a rumor for decades that Japan has all-but-final-assembly parts in hand, and if I were running Japan I'd have looked at Obama and completed the assembly.) Some are going to come loose, and some will be deniably shared with loyal partners.

So, what should you do?

Homeland Security thought about the most likely target (DC) and most likely weapon (small), and came up with some common sense suggestions. (Livermore helped) Don't run; hide for a day until the fallout dies away. The blast damage from a small bomb isn't gigantic. If you survive that OK, and your house doesn't catch fire, the biggest threat is the fallout--most of which decays to harmlessness in a few days. One day is what they suggest. One hour minimum sheltering where you are, and then getting into a place with thicker walls if it is really close by.

A car breathes (or else you'd suffocate on a long trip), so it will suck radioactive dust into the cab as you drive to escape. Plus, the car walls are kind of thin, and don't offer as much shielding as you'd like. And sitting in the worst traffic jam in DC history while radioactive rain goes pitter-pat on the windshield is probably not good for your blood pressure.

I'm not used to reading radiation safety discussions with doses this high--if your dosimeter shows 10mrad exposure people start asking questions about where you were and what you were doing. 10rad...

FWIW, chemical weapon defense is not too dissimilar. Hunker down someplace sheltered while things dissipate and don't run.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

San Francisco protests

You've read of the protests against Google buses and of the tipping of smart cars. Assume the second is related to the first, though maybe vandals just noticed how easy it was to do and the idea caught on.

At first blush it looks like an ugly case of envy and an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

At second blush, it still does.

But set aside the nonsense. I think they have reason to be angry. What is there for people who aren't that bright to do? We honor work that makes someone rich, work that makes someone famous, work that makes someone powerful. But when was the last time you heard of a business section feature highlighting a freelance handyman? We boast of automating away any work that isn't intellectual (and even some of that). Sci-fi has dreamed for years of humanity evolving into pure minds--those who aren't so bright weren't on the horizon at all. Brave New World is one obvious exception.

So if many of the simple jobs are automated, and cheap foreign labor is imported to do most of the rest, what kind of work is left? We're made to work and serve, and bread and lolcat circuses don't satisfy. Google isn't a villain for treating its employees well, nor is it to blame for what we as a culture have decided to do. The prejudice against manual labor is decades older than google. We've systematically reduced opportunities for whole classes of people. I don't think it was deliberate, mostly.

If that's the real problem, what's the real solution--or better, an improvement, there being no perfect solutions?

I know, I know--it takes a little chutzpah to think I might know their problems better than they do, and disregard what they actually say. I don't like it much when people explain to me how my consciousness hasn't been adequately raised to make me fully understand and bewail my "white privilege." Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander--see how they like it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Through the Looking Glass

I interpret the stories about Al Sharpton a little differently from the way his fan base does. If it is true that he worked as an FBI informant against the mob, I say that even a race-baiting demagogic extortionist can show courage and a love of justice. His fans say that the great leader would never stoop to such a discreditable practice as fighting crime alongside the FBI.

We may live in the same planet, but I'm not sure we live in the same universe.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Bits from non mainstream news

In an article explaining how the Liberian embassy's bank is closing their account, this bit:
The closure of the account has arisen fears among diplomats at Liberia's mission in the U.S. with some wondering how the decision would affect their salaries, rent for the office, phone, gas and heat bills and other related expenses. Employees are paid every three month period: January-February-March payment have reportedly been made already with the next scheduled payment set for April-May-June, a source told FPA.

That kind of payment schedule seems calculated to maximize uncertainty and hedging via under-the-table deals.

Ebola made an appearance in Liberia. This outbreak came from Guinea, not from a local reservoir, but some government officials are trying to be extra safe--and running into push-back.

Monkey, one of the animals listed as a carrier of Ebola is a favorite bush meat for many Liberians, an aged old food and convincing people to stay away from a food they have been consuming for years is proving difficult.

As quoted later (dry meat is, if I recall correctly, smoked bush meat; in this case monkey):

"They said the sickness came from Guinea and people in Guinea do not eat dry meat so they just trying to spoil our business," said Ma Tenneh.

"During the war, they were eating human beings, that one na make them sick, that now they say that meat making people sick. They are spoiling our business and it is our living. The people who are eating dog meat, what they will say about them? They are just complaining about dry meat, people eating itchy dog, it is not killing them.They know how far the sickness coming from before they lying on meat."

The language may be unfamiliar, but the sentiment is very familiar: the bureaucrats in charge don't have a clue. ("lying on" = telling lies about)

In Guinea where the outbreak began this would be a reasonable precaution, but the Liberian cases were different:

Noting that the result has shown that the virus exist in the country, Dr. Gwenegale further said the two results indicated a lady has died from the virus in Foya Lofa County while her sister taking care of her was infected.

He explained that the infected sister who contracted the virus had ridden a taxi late Sunday evening, and slept in the home of the taxi driver who is thought to be suspected of catching the virus.

That suggests a possibly more effective angle for control. FWIW, private cars are not common and taxis are not terribly expensive, so this infected driver doesn't just expose the rich.

Is it my imagination

Or does the Fleur-de-lis look like the end of a pike? Maybe I've an overactive imagination, or maybe the symbols were overloaded. Why couldn't it be a flower and a threat at the same time?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Crud. Too late

I postponed making a phaser pointer too long. This one is ridiculously small, though. (The price of models was off-putting: that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

A few exercises...

Tall and tan and young and lovely,
The girl who looks so Swedish goes jogging,
And as she passes each one she passes goes "Ow"
Oh, but her knees knock so badly.
How can I tell her of biomechanics?
Yes, I would give advice glady.
But I thought it would be impertinent. And when she finally stopped to walk, and her walking stride also had the same feature, I was glad I hadn't made any suggestions...

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Grail hunters

The two researchers, Margarita Torres and Jose Manuel Ortega del Rio, authors of the book, "Kings of the Grail," believe they found conclusive evidence from ancient Egyptian scrolls documenting that Muslims stole the infamous cup from Jerusalem and took it to Egypt. They say it was then disguised with jewels and eventually given to Spanish King Ferdinand I as a gift.

How do I doubt thee? Let me count the ways...

The story came out yesterday, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Reporters are apt to get details wrong, and also (for example) not notice that the researchers are promoting a book. They are often very trusting souls. But I'm kind of surprised the editor didn't notice that ancient Egyptian scrolls are unlikely to describe Muslim activities. I think the (much later) Muslims of the area would have been more likely to write on codices, but maybe I'm wrong. Still, disguising the cup with jewels, and then giving it to the infidels they'd be hiding it from? And most unlikely of all: a gold cup? In the hand of a carpenter in a group of fishermen (and a retired tax collector), after Judas griped about wasting money on frivolity?

And for those for whom it is significant, can even the original be more important than the cup we receive?