Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Youngest Son observed that cats are like hobbits. They like to eat, are not usually energetic, have furry feet, and can go very quietly when they choose. Though they can't throw worth beans, they can usually hit the floor with a vase.

English Reformation

The story is a wee bit more complicated than the writer says--local kings once had the power to specify bishops(*) (per Gregory of Tours), and Henry's first marriage couldn't be annulled without blowups in Spain--but it makes an interesting story. Another little nit: I don't recall being taught that the English Reformation was popularly supported, as I gather Selwood was. The gist I was taught was that it just happened thanks to Henry wanting sons, and everything worked out well in the end under Elizabeth.(**) Our elementary textbooks didn't go into the roles of the barons or of Cromwell; I learned those later.

(*) Bad then, bad under Henry, bad now...

(**) A little like the attitude of 1066 And All That

"How God became King"

N.T. Wright has an article by that title that is well worth reading, starting with
Ever since I was a teenager, I've been obsessed with a question: Why did Jesus live? What, in other words, about everything that happened between the stable and the cross?

I won't try to summarize his history--just read it for yourself. (H.T. RCR)

Monday, May 26, 2014

When you read a dramatic report of a survey

telling about bullying or marijuana use or pretty much anything self-reported, remember that people like to joke.
In a 2003 study, 19 percent of teens who claimed to be adopted actually weren't, according to follow-up interviews with their parents. When you excluded these kids (who also gave extreme responses on other items), the study no longer found a significant difference between adopted children and those who weren't on behaviors like drug use, drinking and skipping school. The paper had to be retracted. In yet another survey, fully 99 percent of 253 students who claimed to use an artificial limb were just kidding.

Not being C.S.Lewis?

AVI linked to a site with a video of a theologian explaining why he didn't want to try to write apologetics like C.S. Lewis. Some of the complaints were stylistic: Lewis wrote as a lecturer, which some find off-putting, and in a voice that isn't so popular. Lewis cultural assumptions don't match the popular pieties (not an "egalitarian" in the modern sense, for example).

The more fundamental problem is that quite a few of the cultural and intellectual assumptions Lewis made are not longer shared in our much more nihilist culture. He tried to start at the lowest level, but the "lowest level" in our culture is a lot lower now, and you cannot assume that people will recognize any connection between assent to some system of morality and any implications for personal behavior, for example. "If you say a modern celebrity is an adulterer, a pervert and a drug addict, all it means is that you've read his autobiography." P.J. O'Rourke

I remember trying to work out an explanation for sin that would be comprehensible to a modern student. The best I could do was "Have you ever done something that if a friend had done it, would hurt your friendship?" That's a bit clunky, and the hearer isn't likely to answer honestly anyhow.

I recommend C.S. Lewis to people who are already Christian but kind of shaky on the whys and wherefores. I tend to agree with Spufford that most non-Christians I know won't benefit much from his approach. I think that's unfortunate, but that's the world I live with--and even the one Lewis lived in too, if I interpret the passage from Screwtape correctly:

Are you not being a trifle naive? It sounds as if you suppose that argument was the way to keep him out of the enemies clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time humans pretty well knew when a thing was proved and when it was not. And if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of the chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we've largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily true or false but as "academic" or "practical" "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless," jargon, not argument is your best allie in keeping him away from the church...The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the enemies own ground...By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason, and once it is awakened who can foresee the result. Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fateal habit of attending to universal things and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."

I gather he wrote for the few who would listen, and did it well. Which is about the best we can do. The new generation needs some new introductions, from new writers faithful in their generation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lighter views of Liberia

Some amusing, sometimes surreal, animated GIFs set in Liberia.

Wyoming notes

Wyoming does not cater to the "are we there yet" set. In Illinois or Wisconsin you'll see signs every so often telling you how far the next few cities are. Not so much in Wyoming: one at the start has to do. Of course there aren't a lot of cities along the way to enter the highway from, and I guess the folks who live there already know the ranges.

If the roads were wide enough to tack on, you might use sail-cars: at least in one direction. You might get some pretty good speeds. I wear hats with a chin strap.

The division of land seems to have given the white man the farm- and graze-land and the Indians the scenic land.

Some ranches seem to have more deer grazing than cattle or horses.

The local Indians have a "Gift of the Waters" ceremony at the Thermopolis hot springs: it isn't related to whatever they used to do there. I looked at the posters and wondered what their old ceremonies had been, and was slightly annoyed that nothing was recorded. Driving away later it occurred to me that "None of your business" was a perfectly acceptable response. Our family has many little customs that can't be easily explained to outsiders--a tribe (stretch a family over generations) would have to have similar sorts of customs, but not things that could be easily explained, because they'd be nearly meaningless without the full context.

Quite a bit of the historical interest in Wyoming revolves around characters you'd not want to hang around with. Belle Drewry (the woman in blue) had mediocre taste in men (two of whom were shot as part of a triangle) and was murdered in revenge when she shot a cowboy in a party that got out of hand. Or to put it another way, just another Chicago Friday night. Though Liver-Eating Johnson might have been interesting to listen to.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie

Yellowstone is an hour's canyon valley drive from Cody, and then another hour on weaving roads before you reach the first major point (with restrooms). Not that there aren't plenty of things to see along the way--river, valleys, cliffs, avalanche fields (with a cannon to spur them on), bighorn sheep requisitioning the road, stopped cars with people trying to see the distant bears, the occasional fumarole wafting its toxins across the road--and bison idling ahead of parades of cars.

The area is dynamic. A fumarole opened under the asphalt of a parking turnoff at the Mud Volcanoes--it's now fenced off. Since the bears recently came out of hibernation and are thus cranky and hungry, a number of sites and trails were closed--but figuring that the open view of the fumarole field was safer than the trails, a number of us went beyond the barricades. Did you know that a bison and a bear look slightly alike from behind?

Cyclists groaned up and raced down 7 degree grades with blind turns and about a foot of space to work with. Most trails weren't open (see "bears," above--also snow), so pedestrians were few. Birds though--bald eagle, ravens (thieves), widgeon, western bluebirds, heron, cowbirds, pelican, and some which look familiar but have alien accents.

And in other accents, we heard Chinese, French, German, Swedish, Hindi, Japanese, Korean (?), Spanish, 'Stralian, Russian or other Balkan, Flemish (we learned and promptly forgot the Flemish word for magpie) and others--and the season has barely begun.

Hot springs flow in a half dozen colors, in small ports or huge terraces, and the huge knob was built from years of deposits by families of hot springs. Two springs next to each other can have different chemistries and temperatures (and different colored algae). A spring may build a dome and then fail, and the dome be either hollow to begin with or dissolve away--solid ground isn't always solid.

From the bison scat I gather that they often come to take the waters--they can't be there to eat grass. Maybe wading in hot/warm water gets rid of parasites, or maybe they're as crazy as people.

A killdeer waded in hot runoff and pecked for invisible insects. How do they stand it?

Old Faithful we saw blow twice--the second time much higher, and a wind shift sprayed us and the camera lens with cool silicated water. (Not sure how to get that off). Anemone sprayed us with hot water. It would be a great one to show kids--about a 10 minute cycle: pool drains, refills, geysers about 6-8 feet and drains again.

There are cascades through canyons tinted by sulfurated gas vents, trees old and after-the-fire young, rivers we met a dozen times at a dozen stages, and where all is green and you least expect it--a whiff of hydrogen sulfide to remind you that the caldera isn't quite dead.

Dunraven Pass wasn't open yet, and since Golden Gate was unpleasantly narrow and precipitous, we asked some rangers for alternative paths from Mammoth Hot Springs. For future travelers, the Northeast exit from Yellowstone to Cody is longer, and the Chief Joseph road is extremely scenic, and by scenic I mean precipitous and tight-winding. It was wider, as promised.

Beautiful, wild and weird place. Some of the mud volcanoes and hot springs reminded me of Mordor, hence the title.

We stayed at Aunt Maud's Place in Cody (part of a house), where the bird dawn chorus was loud and complex. Yes, that's a good thing. Cody is a seasonal town where every fourth store is Buffalo Bill themed, and if you are quiet you can see deer wandering the back streets. The back roads are evocatively wide, and people use small dumpsters instead of garbage cans. I leave winter to your imagination.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Posting, if any, will be sporadic.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


John Wright contributed to a column of SF writers who told which books they re-read to pieces. He began his with "The primary purpose of nonfiction books is either to give us facts, give us insights based on facts, or to persuade or urge us into some course of action based on that insight. But the primary purpose of fiction is to slake the thirst we have for the magical waters which flow from worlds beyond the dry and bitter world of facts, to drink, to bathe, to be cleansed, to be refreshed, and to emerge shining from the baptism of the imagination to return to the dry wasteland of the factual world washed and prepared for battle."

This obviously oversimplifies: One book I have re-read repeatedly is Ryan’s The Longest Day, which is as factual as he could make it, and yet tells as grand a story of courage and honor as any fantasy. But the point is taken.

I looked at the list of books the authors read, and their descriptions of either why or how they were so central, and wondered about my own list and what it says about me.

I wrote out a list, and noticed a few oddities. Some books or short stories I esteem I haven’t actually re-read much. For example, "A Martian Odyssey" by Weinbaum has some of the clearest descriptions of truly alien intelligence I know of, and I recommend it frequently. I’ve read it twice. Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer series I’ve only read twice, but that’s partly because I had some impressionable youngsters running about and so didn’t acquire a copy of my own.

Some books I read very many times (RM), and others merely many (M). The list is incomplete—it doesn’t include some light reading that slips my mind completely at the moment.

Let it be noted that I am typically careful with books, and the “to pieces” aspect may usually be attributed to our offspring.

Biblesui generis: RM
C.S. LewisNarnia (esp Magician’s Nephew and Last Battle), Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, Great Divorce, Screwtape LettersRM
C.S. LewisOut of The Silent Planet, Mere Christianity, Pilgrim’s RegressM
ChestertonMan Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, Heretics, Father BrownRM
TolkienLord of the RingsRM
TolkienHobbit, Farmer Giles, Leaf by Niggle, first part of SilmarillionM
Charles WilliamsnovelsRM
Charles WilliamsplaysM
SimakTime is the Simplest Thing, Way Station, CityRM
Kuttnermany short storiesRM
Bradburymany short storiesRM
CarrollAlice, Through Looking GlassRM
HaggardShe, Ayesha, King Solomon’s Mines, Allan QuartermainRM
ZelaznyLord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Today We Choose FacesRM
BeagleLast UnicornRM
StevensonTreasure IslandM
MacDonaldPhantastes, LilithM
PratchettThief of TimeRM
Pratchetta few other Diskworld, Good OmensM
GrahameWind in the WillowsM
MillerCanticle for LeibowitzRM
BiddlecombeFrench Lessons in AfricaM
deCampIncompleate EnchanterM
LaumerRetief’s Ransom, Dinosaur BeachRM
ChandlerLong GoodbyeRM
vanGulikearly mysteriesRM
vanGuliklater mysteriesM
L’EngleWrinkle in TimeRM
T.S. EliotThe Cocktail PartyRM
RyanLongest DayRM
BunyanPilgrim’s ProgressM
Twainvarious, more often the short stories than the novels M
Nyevarious short storiesM
KellyPogo booksRM
FrankFarley collectionsRM
Aaron WilliamsNodwick collectionsRM

The latter few aren’t exactly great literature, but I don’t always read great literature . . .

Some of these are obviously for the humor: Twain, Pratchett, Kelly, Nye, Biddlecombe

It looks like I have a taste for “worlds within worlds” or “unknown worlds” fiction, and for twists. With some other things thrown in, of course: still quite a few of these are origin or end-of-the-world stories (Today We Choose Faces is a little of both). That seems to show up in my own fiction as well (the bulk of which has not yet been inflicted on a suffering world).

Friday, May 09, 2014

Perverse incentives

HUD's approach makes a very poor long-term strategy. Last year Dubuque (last month a different town; another day another lawsuit), noticing that their low income housing was attracting disproportionately out-of-towners, made residency a very high factor in getting priority for housing vouchers. HUD charged them with discriminating against blacks.
In the summer of 2009, public perceptions attributed an increase in crime to new African American residents from Chicago. Until that time, HCDD provided five preference points to anyone who had very low income. However, in late 2009 those points were eliminated and the voucher waiting list closed, except to applicants who had one of the other preference points, such as elderly applicants. This change in admission policy effectively allowed applicants from out of state only if they qualified for disabled or elderly preference points. FHEO found an internal memorandum indicating that the intent of the policy change was to close the waiting list to out of town applicants in order to address public perceptions on crime.

Note the highlighted word. Instead of "attributed" substitute the more accurate "observed." The problem is real, and not a mis-perception.

Also notice that the town is now paying extra taxes to take on the residents of other states.

Rather than encouraging Chicago to tackle its own problems, HUD is encouraging the use of "Greyhound housing": ship people somewhere else out of your hair.

The policy no doubt has all sorts of good intentions, but the effective incentives are to 1) slow down efforts to take care of the poor in your own community for fear the program will be hijacked to take care of outsiders instead and 2) encourage communities to persuade their poor people to go someplace else--anyplace else.

And I suspect that local assistance to people who are part of the community is more likely, on the average, to be effective than assistance to strangers.

Not exactly a revolution

The Pacific Standard has a little science article suggesting 7 recent scientific discoveries that could change the world. The intro says "Noam Chomsky’s theory that languages worldwide hold to a universal grammar prompted a revolution in linguistics, transforming an almost-archaeological field into a science ripe for examination." which should be enough to make the reader suspicious. I gather that Chomsky's theory, though compellingly obvious, has garnered no actual verification despite decades of research.

Anyhow. This is one of her choices: "Not that we’re some woo-woo skeptics, but it is curious what happened about four to five thousand years ago: Europeans changed. More specifically, their genetics changed completely, and no one’s really sure why."

"The genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4500 years ago, and we don’t know why,” Adelaide professor Alan Cooper, the Centre’s director, said in a statement. What bizarre event precluded this change is unknown (although assuredly the answer is not a Doctor Who-style invasion), but we do know we’re ready for historians and archaeologists to team up and crack the case.

The reference to Doctor Who should provide an obvious clue, but perhaps Jamie and Alan don't read much history.

Friends to brothers

In the Gospel of John, before the Crucifixion, Jesus said: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
After the Resurrection, Jesus said to Mary about those same men: "Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”.

He calls them not friends but brothers. Is that because He had now been through death, and in that taken on the full human condition: not just the living but the dying?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


In between helping prep Middle Daughter's new house and cleaning up after a password cracker who got into our systems at work, I've not had much time to write much. Not that there aren't interesting questions out there: such as why FODMAPS would be poorly digested--enough to imitate gluten intolerance. (Seriously, it sounds as though if you take those foods out you have the Atkins diet. Is this somebody's fad?)

And why not write honest bio blurbs?

Or why can't you "unsee" some things?

Monday, May 05, 2014


One pleasant feature of working in a city centered on an isthmus between two lakes is the bird spotting. A few years ago an eagle was soaring over State Street while I waited for a bus, and last Friday a crane honked his way above the street. (heading in the direction of some mechanical cranes...) Lake Mendota is just a couple of blocks north, and Monona just 6 or seven blocks south, so birds can visit the heart of the city without passing over miles of buildings.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Samaritan, Mary, and Martha

In Luke 10 the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha are separated by at least hours if not days, so they have no natural common context, but they are juxtaposed in the text. So on that relatively flimsy basis:

The priest and Levite were supposed to be serving in the presence of God. Being in the presence of God is what Mary chose--the better part. Serving others, like the Samaritan, is what Martha chose. So can we read these as balancing passages? One emphasizes the superlative value of being with God, and the other the necessity to also serve your neighbor.

On the other hand, the priest and Levite were also supposed to be serving the people as they mediated between God and man, and so their job also partook of Martha's. Too focused on the formalities, they lost sight of the purpose of their service and avoided the man who, if dead, would have made them unclean and prevented their ritual service. Then the passages reinforce each other.

I suppose the question of which is the best reading depends on what are my attitudes to God and to service--am I going overboard one way or another...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Wearing out

Blood of world's oldest woman hints at limits of life.
Born in 1890, Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was at one point the oldest woman in the world. She was also remarkable for her health, with crystal-clear cognition until she was close to death, and a blood circulatory system free of disease. When she died in 2005, she bequeathed her body to science, with the full support of her living relatives that any outcomes of scientific analysis – as well as her name – be made public.

One key point from the article: mutations happen all the time, and from the pattern of mutations they determined that “about two-thirds of the white blood cells remaining in her body at death originated from just two stem cells, implying that most or all of the blood stem cells she started life with had already burned out and died.”

Or, of course, that the mutations in the other blood stem cells made them less prolific. Either way that’s kind of gloomy. The pleasant prospect that we may someday develop some amazing drug to spur rejuvenation seems less and less likely.

The article suggests that you might save up stem cells in your youth, and implant them as you age. Suppose that were actually feasible, and could extend your active life out to 150 years or longer. If someone were to seize the cells, they could cut years off your life without raising a hand to you. Would that be a form of mayhem? Premise for SF, anyone?

Banning leggings

I read this week that a high school was banning leggings, and realized that the garments had been becoming a trend. I don't tend to notice fashions particularly well: I can generally tell the difference between winter wear and late spring clothing, but don't press me hard on more details. But now that the subject came up, yes: there were a lot more of those things around than I ever remember before. In some places. Thanks to the complexities of allocating limited space in the Physics Department, I actually spend most of my time downtown near the Capitol. The costumes on display there tend to be a little different from those on campus: white collar, blue collar, sightseers, and homeless guys on the one hand, vs young kids and middle-aged faculty and staff on the other.

So while waiting at the bus stop on campus I did some quick counting, and about 40% (plus or minus about 15%) of the women wore tight leggings. (The next day was substantially colder and more windy; then it was more like 15%.)

I hear that it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful, or at least to get attention. If my undershorts get stuck that far from battery I look around for a place to inconspicuously adjust the uncomfortable situation. Those have to chafe.

Claiming that leggings cover more than other forms of clothing is disingenuous: they reveal the shapes precisely and without any even the visual boundaries that swimsuits give. As part of a series of layers no doubt they help keep one warm, but by themselves? Worn with callipygous intent.