Sunday, June 29, 2014


This is getting closer to home. I don't recall spending any time at the ELWA hospital, but we've been by it.

Kits are being distributed, and instructions, but it is hard to get information or reliable bleach supplies upcountry were people don't speak very good English. I wonder if they've got some plans for quick and dirty isolation units in villages far from hospitals. Maybe the village can throw together some kind of shelter made of mats that they can burn when the patient is done, with triple layers of fabric to tie it together (burned or bleached later?). If the local folks get a clear understanding of the nature of the risks they can probably work up some mostly effective kludges. Not hospital quality or reliability, but orders of magnitude better than nothing...

Ebola is horrible and frightening, but malaria and dysentery kill more, and probably will still be the big killers even if ebola spreads.

Those who come after

may differ from us as radically as we from those before us.

C.S. Lewis The Allegory of Love

'Love', in our sense of the word, is as absent from the literature of the Dark Ages as from that of classical antiquity. Their favourite stories were not, like ours, stories of how a man married, or failed to marry, a woman. They preferred to hear how a holy man went to heaven or how a brave man went to battle. We are mistaken if we think that the poet in the Song of Roland shows restraint in disposing so briefly of Aide, Roland's betrothed. Rather by bringing her in at all, he is doing the opposite: he is expatiating, filling up chinks, dragging in for our delectation the most marginal interests after those of primary importanc have had their due. Roland does not think about Aide on the battle-field: he thinks of his praise in pleasant France. The figure of the betrothed is shadowy compared with that of the friend, Oliver . The deepest of worldly emotions in this period is the love of man for man, the mutual love of warriors who die together fighting against odds, and the affection between vassal and lord. We shall never understand this last, if we think of it in the light of our own moderated and impersonal loyalties.

We must not think of officers drinking the king's health: we must think rather of a small boy's feeling for some hero in the sixth form. There is no harm in the analogy, for the good vassal is to the good citizen very much as a boy is to a man. He cannot rise to the great abstraction of a res publica. He loves and reverences only what he can touch and see; but he loves it with an intensity which our tradition is loath to allow except to sexual love.

AVI described creating a time capsule and realizing only a few years later that some of it seemed irrelevant already. My Better Half is the family historian (she can remember names, I can't), and tries to do a core dump of what she knows of the remoter ancestors. But there's too much detail about nearer kin; and who knows what aspects will fascinate the great grandchildren the most? My father: WW2 Navy (didn't see action--spent his tour mustering the rest back home), accountant, missionary, teacher, business manager--analytical, efficient, very wide interests; pick an aspect; it is going to be a "capsule" summary.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What will our descendants think of us?

At the BBC Tom Chatfield wonders "What our descendants will deplore about us? His musings are pure "Spirit of the Age" stuff (they'll be vegan, etc) and not very reflective. He asks other people for input.

Lovelock worries about food and energy shortages. Raworth thinks they'll deplore our linear thinking about climate change, economies, education, etc. He seems to mean that we shouldn't be measuring things in terms of cost and benefit, or have border controls. Seeger believes they'll think poverty and animal abuse are evil. Krznaric thinks they'll bemoan the loss of social cohesion due to urbanization and that they'll develop training in empathy. Bostrom worries that we'll overlook some major disaster and get wiped out. Pinker seems to think we'll nuke ourselves. Armstrong wonders how we can rebuild after a disaster (like the Manual for Civilization?).

I wonder what the future generations would admire.

Take the Roman empire. For centuries after the Western part collapsed, people looked back on it as the golden age for law and legitimacy and trade. I don't know how much they blamed the Romans for their civil wars and horrific economic and political screw-ups, and how much they blamed the "barbarians" who "overran" them. If the generations after Western Rome fell were like a lot of the people I know, they'd tend to think that the way things are now, however bad, is more or less normal, and dream of times it was better--but not assign a lot of blame.

The modern West would look like a Golden Age to most people: almost everybody has food, water, leisure, and (outside of a few centers) some security and the rule of law--and the means to support large populations.

Our more thoughtful near-term descendants might have some things to say about us, depending on who and where. Farmers on land that now gets water from elsewhere will complain about our lack of care of the land. People worried about bandits will wonder how we managed to squander our social capital so completely. Others will wonder why we let the "barbarians" in. The descendants of the "barbarians" will probably wonder why we let things go to pot. Historians may wonder why we went in for so many civil wars. (If you think of the West rather than the nations, we've had quite a few. Today's the anniversary of the trigger of one of the dumber ones.)

I say "barbarians" to emphasize the parallel with Rome. Civilized/barbarian is the sort of category division people tend to use--the modern West is unusual in officially deprecating it. There's also the distinction "our tribe/dubious tribe/enemy tribe." It takes a lot of faith to claim this will never come back, especially since it never entirely left.

And, Chatfield and the Spirit of the Age to the contrary, I don't think they'll admire our sexual mores. The future belongs to those who show up, the descendants of those who think barrenness is a bad thing.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey.

Executive summary: read it.

You don't need something like this to follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit can point you at what needs doing in your life, and in the end what you do matters more than what you know.

Nevertheless, looking at the parables from within the Middle Eastern culture sharpens the picture somewhat. For example, in Luke's parable of the talents the people don't want the master to rule over them: read "beginnings of a rebellion." The three servants are to use their master's money in an environment where the master isn't well liked.

Imagine a scene in which the Shah of Iran, in his last days in power, summons ten of his servants and tells them "I am going away to take a little vacation. I have $5000 for each of you. I want you to open shops in downtown Tehran in my name... Never fear, I will prevail and return."

The servant who buries the money seems pretty rational--and not loyal enough to take risks for his master.

Bailey is a bit skittish about punishments (as in the fate of the rebellious people here, or the murderous tenants of the vinyard), but let that slide. The situations Jesus was in or described are often more startling than at first appear. Find the book and read it.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Easily solved problem

So hippos like Columbia rivers? I suppose it makes sense, and the story suggests that they are breeding and spreading rapidly.

There is an oddity or so in the story:

The respected El Colombiano newspaper recently reported that children in a school near Hacienda Napoles are sharing a pond with the animals, and having direct contact with hippo calves at home.

"My father brought a little one home once," an unnamed girl told the paper. "I called him Luna (Moon) because he was very sweet - we fed him with just milk." Another child, a boy, told the paper: "My father has captured three. It is nice because you have a little animal at home. We bottle-feed them because they only drink milk. They have a very slippery skin, you pour water and they produce a kind of slime, you touch them and it's like soap."

Elsewhere I read that mother hippos protect their calves; which is sort of what you expect. So maybe the newspaper was exaggerating just a little. And that "little animal at home" gets a bit awkward pretty quickly...

Though Valderrama asserts that the ideal solution is to relocate the hippos, the obvious solution is (for some bizarre reason) labeled as "radical:" "barbeque them." Once the hippos have done enough damage, or killed a person or two, the local folks will take the hint and, no matter what the distant elites may command, supplement their diet. (That may be the subtext of the story of the three pet hippo calves.) Hippos taste like pork.

Pheromone stories

Had Enough Therapy said
For a woman, of course, hair matters. It matters enormously. The reason is simple: something like 70% of a woman’s pheromones—her sexual attraction hormones—are in her hair. That is why some women let their hair grow out.


The nearest thing I could find about this was this article, which although it says " produced by the skin's apocrine sebaceous glands, which develop during puberty and are usually associated with sweat glands and tufts of hair" and that these appear everywhere on the body, does not include the scalp among the 6 main sources. There's a 1984 IRC paper everybody references, but I can't get at it online and UW doesn't have a paper copy (not that I have time to go to the hospital to read it).

Other sources speculate that long hair makes a good pheromone delivery system (and then quote each other), but I couldn't find any references (not counting sites trying to sell shampoo or other confections) that would substantiate that.

It sounds nice and plausible, but looks unsupported.

Monday, June 23, 2014

IRS story

"News outlets Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." There are, after all, celebrities waiting to be written up...

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Plates, that is.

I saw a dark blue Wisconsin "Milwaukee Brewers" vanity plate Friday with the letters GOP4CK (Green Bay Packers, of course). This efficiently illustrates loyalty to two teams at once.

The DMV censors proposed vanity plates that have offensive language or seem likely to cause problems. One hypothetical example offered (dunno if anybody ever actually tried it) was KKK 1.

Would they have rejected a "Milwaukee Brewers" plate with the legend GOCUBS on the same grounds?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Human skull and fists

The story that human skulls evolved to withstand human fist blows and fists evolved to hammer human skulls was all over the science news recently. It seems unconvincing on at least two counts. (I'm not an expert on skull impact damage; they may be all wet there too.)
  1. Remember Travis? For all-out fighting, a somewhat different skull shape is more useful--one that has projecting jaws and attachment points for muscles strong enough to bite off someone's face. He could hit, and kick, but also bite.
  2. We've had a couple of concussions in the family (fall, auto collision). If the average hominid skull took so many blows that it would evolve some stronger structures, why wouldn't it also evolve a few cushions inside the skull to keep the brain from rattling around so much? They'd be just as useful--maybe more so. Such would certainly have saved us some trouble.

Color me dubious. Very dubious.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Purifying water

It looks like Kamen's plan is better. I was tinkering with a low tech BFI approach that used a couple of large tanks and lots of tubing (focusing on local construction and repair), but he went with an electrical system. Harder to repair, but with Coke's delivery infrastructure that doesn't matter so much.

Nice to hear.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Kindness practice

Through Grim I found the Atlantic article on Masters of Love.

Short summary: a happy marriage is built on habits of small kindness, two of the key ones being "scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right" and "turning toward" (responding positively to) interruptions from the partner. Their example is when the husband says "Look at the goldfinch!"

It is not so much a matter of some people being better than others at this, than that some people practice these kindnesses, and that the kindnesses grow.

The "turning toward" point makes me a little uncomfortable. I always listen and respond, and try to be positive(*), but I've had a long habit of multitasking while responding, so I may not look away from the stove or the newspaper or the computer when answering. I suspect that's not quite as welcoming as it ought to be.

Not too late to work on that...

(*) Well, I try to make being accurate as positive as possible...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Manual for Civilization

I thought XKCD was joking about the contents of the Manual for Civilization project of the Long Now group. I looked it up. Urk.

Some of the contributors suggested for technical works, to rebuild the physical infrastructure (Backyard Blacksmith for some starters, and The Drill Press and Minerals for Atomic Energy for later; Merck Manual). Some thought of history (how come Gibbon and not the Durants? They had a much broader sweep), literature (Shakespeare, Hobbes), and so on.

But Munroe isn't exaggerating that much. Asimov: Foundation Trilogy; Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49; Bright: X: the Erotic Treasury; and others like these show up too.

It seems as though some want to reboot the culture of the modern West, or at least the last several years of it. The Iliad and Gilgamesh are there, but not the Bible. It is kind of hard to reboot Western Civ without the Bible. It is hard to develop a culture without a religion too.

Earlier this year they had this breakdown:

  • 484: Mechanics of Civilization
  • 420: Cultural Canon
  • 225: Science Fiction
  • 299: Futurism

Do I need to point out that a "Futurism" category is worthless for restarting a civilization? If the collection serves its intended purpose, the future is not what was expected.

Alexander Rose's post has a graph of technological progress that is triply wrong: it leaves out interactions with India and China, doesn't notice the technical collapse during the Roman empire, and has a hole for the "Christian Dark Ages" that is incorrect and slanderous. However, he has some good book suggestions (Slow Sand Filtration).

The Great Books set makes a nice shortcut for a lot of western culture, especially if you overlap both editions. They too left out the Bible, though it is included in their guided readings, because they said they expected every home would have one.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, anyone?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


BBC reports that scientists have bred mosquitoes that crank out 95% males.
Flooding cages of normal mosquitoes with the new strain caused a shortage of females and a population crash.

The system works by shredding the X chromosome during sperm production, leaving very few X-carrying sperm to produce female embryos.

In the wild it could slash numbers of malaria-spreading mosquitoes, reports the journal Nature Communications.

From the paper: "Resistance in female mosquitoes was often swiftly selected for, indicating the prevalence of natural resistance alleles." Surprise! In other words, the crash didn't work for long.

If you can achieve this sort of thing with sprays (without unintended side effects), you might get a short-term crash, but you can't exactly release these into the wild and expect them to outbreed the natives...

Monday, June 09, 2014

A second try?

So far I have declined all opportunities to go to high school reunions. A recent report by family members who did go hardened my disinclination: there'd have been nobody there I knew and the main focus of interest was the booze. And noise--I gather the purpose of a DJ is to prevent conversation.

At a wedding some years ago, while fantasizing about cutting the power cord for the DJ's mixer, I tried to come up with some icebreakers people could use in the sudden silence. The one I liked best was: "If you could go back in time and talk to your senior classmates for ten minutes, what would you say?"

That leads to "what else would you do?" and, recalling that I would be mentally older than my parents were at the time, heads straight into Something Wicked This Way Comes territory. You haven't read that one? Do. Now.

But speculating just for fun: what would I do if my current mind took hold of the senior class me, and I got the chance to try the rest of my life all over again?

Plus side: I get to fix some dumb mistakes. I made a lot of them. Some fixes are fairly generic and easy: get serious about exercise. Read less and listen more. The thing is, one of the mistakes was a choice of school: the right choice was over a hundred miles away. Changing the school makes a whole raft of other situations never appear. One of those situations was meeting my wife. Would I be able to stick it out wasting a couple of years? Worse yet, our age difference would be huge: would the intoxication be quite the same? Would other women be more like my Better Half as she is now than as the earlier version of her would be like the current version?

You'd think I'd be able to avoid the mistakes with the kids, and know the problems much earlier, but the kids would be different kids.

Minus side: I already know that stuff. Getting the necessary college degree would be horribly boring. Yes, I could be a star pupil, and get a better crack at the top jobs, but that might be over-reaching a bit.

I'm a researcher. We try to find out new stuff, right? If I already remember it, what's the point? Maybe I would take a whole different career direction: math instead of physics, or maybe a different branch of physics that I haven't kept track of so well, so that life would have a few surprises for me there.

I recall enough of the shape of history to avoid the big pitfalls, buy generally the right kinds of stocks (nothing in the mid 70's I didn't have any money then anyway, Cisco later), and be materially comfortable, but not rich. I don't think I could change history in any important ways.

And I think that after fixing the first major gaffes, I'd go on to make a whole new set of screw-ups. Maybe if this "going back in time" deal were iterative it might work: each time get a little farther along before screwing up too badly. Of course, what I think is the best life probably doesn't match very well with what God thinks.

Watching you

I wonder if Orwell ever dreamed that there'd be no need to plaster telescreens on every wall since we would happily carry them with us. You do know that hackers figured out how to start that little camera on your laptop, right?

Saturday, June 07, 2014

What do we owe?

I take it as obvious that the family, tribe, and nation rely on successively more attenuated affection. In “tribe” I include your church, whether this is a classical religion or a modern ideology. Modern ideologies direct your responsibilities to the institution rather than to your neighbor, but otherwise both ideology and classical religion demand similar loyalties and provide a framework worldview.

Within a family you readily sacrifice to provide for and protect each other. If a son is crippled in an accident, you don’t leave him on an ice floe, you try to arrange responsibilities in the family so he can be cared for and still have a role. The infant will have a role one day, and the aged and infirm served their role already; in between you try to find something for everyone. If it isn’t possible you suck it up and support them anyway.

OK, sometimes Uncle Ted makes you want to throttle him, and there are sots and shrews. But by and large the family works well. A nuclear or a blenderized family is not very robust dealing with problem characters: the extended family is stronger here.

Within a tribe there’s still sacrifice to provide and protect, but this is neither as intimate nor as strong. You’re fine with cutting food up fine for your aged mother, but not so keen on doing it for somebody else’s mother. That may not sound very Christian, but last time I looked the world wasn’t populated by perfect saints. Within a Christian church you might find more people willing to do this than average, but still not very many.

In a tribe you inevitably find parasites and predators. Shaming only goes so far. The tribes may have to exile or destroy, and you may have to help. But don’t let an outsider try that.

A nation is also characterized by “We’re all in this together,” but the factions and interest groups are much more prominent and the sense of responsibility substantially less. Trust is less too. And the sense of solidarity can evaporate, leaving a civil war or an empire (held together only by force).

That seems fairly elementary. It is almost as obvious that none of these institutions coheres without some understood framework of right and wrong, responsibilities, and fairness.

If we use “just” to mean rewarding or punishing someone according to the benefit or the offense, a well-run home is not particularly just—and they want it that way. The parents work the hardest, but the 13-year old boy probably out-eats them both. The same offense results in different punishments for the 10-year old and the 5-year old. Things are tailored to the individual.

This kind of tailoring is impossible at even the tribal level. The best you can hope for is uniform rules. You can try rudimentary tailoring to circumstances with jury nullification and letting judges decide sentences out of a range of possibilities, but this doesn’t address rewards at all.

Here, and more especially at the national level, we have the problem of what we owe to the less-than-excellent. Within the family we try to provide support and a role—people need both. But on the larger scale you have to use rules rather than tailoring, and any set of rules is going to be incomplete and problematic.

There’s no dodging the issue using faith in education and early nutrition. Those can help people who suffer from some deficiencies, but we are always going to have the dim as well as the bright. That’s life with the bell curve.

The bell curve and the knowledge-based society

I'll borrow the terminology from Brave New World, but in my own variant. Let Alpha represent that section of the population with outstanding gifts in something: raw intellect, musical ability, or other art. Beta is those who are good at something, Gamma the average—which is most of us. Delta are those who need guidance to work, and Epsilon those who need guidance to live.

I take it as given that the value of an individual does not depend on their gifts. Their economic value does, but history shows what horrors results when economic worth is mistaken for human worth. Our culture has plenty of problems with this already.

I also take it as obvious that top-down social changes rarely work. My focus will be on what individuals and communities can do, not what sorts of scrambled legislation the feds may disgorge on us. You, your family, your church, your neighborhood—those are the real centers of change.

Whatever we do or don't do will have unintended consequences. Knowing upfront what some of the bad consequences might be would be very useful, so I want lots of eyes on proposals.

Begin with illustrations. You really want your doctor to be at least a Beta, but the truth is that with modern technology and resources quite a few Gammas can be adequate—provided they spend the time to look things up. Teachers, likewise. Some jobs like cleaning and simple repair a Delta can manage quite well. Researchers are Alpha or Beta, and similarly planning administrators should be—though as Scott Adams reminds us they often aren't even close.

What we owe: encouragement in virtue

The most gifted Alphas aren't always the most productive or fastest—other traits besides giftedness determine whether their gifts ever flourish. That's a whole other set of issues.

One of the most important variables (after health) determining how useful the gifts prove is how virtuous the person is. Recall that laziness is a vice, and that seemingly radical claim becomes obvious. It turns out to be easier to encourage people to become worse than to become better, but all the same we should try to make sure we don't encourage vices. As a case in point, our schools promote slogans encouraging respect, but substantial subsets of our pop music (e.g. much rap) encourage disrespect.

You probably know plenty of people who have screwed up their lives with stupid choices. Some will say “Their life, their choice” and in some sense that’s true, but we owe them some warning about what won’t work, and some model roles that usually do. Choices about intoxicants and sex seem to cause the most damage. The broader culture is willing enough to offer guidance about drugs, but serious suggestions about disciplining sex are considered offensive.

I know how difficult it is to run counter to the culture: within the church, and even within the family, it is hard to persuade people that the classic sex roles actually work very well in courtship and marriage.

The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich.

But when the poor emulate them in vice, as they emulate them in most things, the result is disaster: not a man at the club, mooching a claret from his friends, but a man in the ditch, or behind bars.

So in Dickens we have the miserable corpse-robbing thieves at Old Joe’s pawnshop, and they are but Scrooge himself, and his money-hungry class, shorn of top hat and watch fob and man-of-business etiquette.

You can probably come up with more than one set of parallel lives, where each made similar choices but the impact was much worse on the one with less money or less intelligence. You can rely on the old man’s money: perhaps, but it is cruel to pretend that everyone can.

What we owe: education

We owe each other is the opportunity for education appropriate to one's gifts.

This doesn't mean a college degree. I'm not sure what a college degree means now. Credentialling for some kind of engineering skill, mastery of some body of knowledge, successful apprenticeship (MD or researcher), familiarity with the liberal arts, or certifying an OK IQ and patience—pick one. Some of those are suitable for almost everybody at some level: the liberal arts for example. IQ certification would be cheaper than college if that's the purpose.

Continuing education can be inexpensive when self-directed—we have lots of resources already. Entertainment is a much more popular substitute. This is exactly where family, friends, and church have impact—by example and encouragement. Maybe one group will be reading Herodotus and another Treasure Island: each learning according to his ability.

If I recall correctly, one of the works of mercy is to instruct the ignorant—perhaps your church has some adult education program? A lot of people need repair to their education, or something more suitable to their gifts. There are a lot of ideas floating around universities (e-learning, etc), but I suspect that changes will have to be driven by people outside the incentives to maintain the status quo.

What we owe: home

The next thing on my list is a “home” or the opportunity for one. Some small fraction of us are too crazy or too addicted or too vicious to fit in, and I don't pretend to have any answer for what to do with them in general. This group is outside the scope of my discussion.

A “home” does not mean independence, or solitary life. Most of us live with family among mutual responsibilities and care. Ideally those not capable of independent/solitary living, and most of those who are, should live with family. The luck of the draw means that some have no competent family, or a toxic family. We need some additional arrangements for mutual living and support that allow for some degree of mutual responsibility. The most obvious grouping is a grouping of siblings, but since some families are problematic, a grouping of friends should also be made straightforward. These arrangements will not always be of equals: one might have guardianship of another, for example.

Here I seem to break my rule about no top-down solutions: this probably requires some changes in statutory law. However, experimentation starts at ground level.

Some distinctions are fairly easy. First order responsibility for children falls on the parents, and fallback responsibility on near kin. Thus in a partnership of siblings, children of one are owed second-order (fallback) care by the others, but in a partnership of friends, children of one are not owed fallback care by the others. Designing asymmetric partnerships will involve some trial and error: I leave to your imagination how someone like Manson could abuse them. (In fact he needed no outside support to dominate his clan, so maybe the worry is moot.)

There's a complicated problem when a Delta has a family to support, and the income is not steady or large. We have to have inexpensive housing available, and neither zoning nor builders are our friends in this. Builders put inexpensive housing in high-density environments that seem to make crime easy, and zoning drives up the complexity and cost of housing.

What we owe: work

People need to be needed. We need some work or role to play.

Here we run afoul of the Spirit of the Age which dreams that a “knowledge based economy” is the wonderful wave of the future. That's great for Alphas and Betas, sucks for Gammas, and leaves Deltas in the trash or moldering on the dole with no purpose. (Epsilons always need help anyway.)

Exceptions abound. Erdos, one of the finest mathematicians of the 20'th century, was never independent because he could not understand something as simple as taking a shower with the curtain closed to keep from flooding the floor.

A bas der Zeitgeist, then.

What roles or jobs can we imagine in our families for our own Deltas? That's usually fairly simple—there's almost always some set of chores you can find. I've seen this happen automatically, though if the family is so relatively rich that they have servants this might prove hard to arrange.

Expand a bit. What can your church do, not to provide subsidies, but to find or arrange for work? Network freelance opportunities? Encourage members to hire within the church? Repair jobs, maintenance jobs, construction jobs? Freelance gardening? At one church I was a member of one such man was the moving committee. When someone needed to move this man called up a team of volunteers and vehicles and arranged it.

Will you spend a little extra to have local tailoring or local music from your fellow church members? Economies of scale price out the small local guy, and exposure effects mean you're more likely to hire a DJ playing known songs—unless you know the hardware store owner or the pianist.

And that is exactly the point. Is knowing the people personally—enough to care about them—enough to make a difference in how you spend your money? In a church or neighborhood, maybe. I don't see how this can scale beyond that small circle, though.

How will people react?

Freely ye have received—freely give: whether native gifts or charity?

If the role/job comes impersonally, you can't easily work up any gratitude. If it stems from superiority rather than “you're one of us” it will rankle. I can't guess how anyone will react; people are funny that way. But unless Gamma and Delta people are valued as people just as much as Alpha or Epsilon, we'll have a sense of inferiority/superiority dividing us. It will be even worse if different populations have different Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta/Epsilon distributions since this will be taken as evidence of bias.

It might be better if there wasn’t a sense of gratitude because there was a sense of belonging.

Castaneda's witches

Some family discussion that touched on fake interviews reminded me of Carlos Castaneda. I read his books back in the day. They were fun, but less and less plausible as the series went on, and as the previous link or the Salon story show, don Juan was fictional. Apparently Carlos spent his time in the library instead of in Mexico.

At any rate, he dropped from sight, and I had other things to keep track of.

In the meantime he died, apparently followed shortly thereafter by at least the three top women (called the "witches") in the secretive cult he established. One was found and is assumed to be a suicide, and two others vanished and are probably suicides.

From time to time I've read claims that it was considered to be an honor to be selected to die as part of the entourage of the dead king or Viking, and that some sati were voluntary.(*) It is easy to assume that this claim was self-justification by the perpetrators, but stories like Castaneda's, or Heaven's Gate's, or Jim Jones' tell me it isn't always fake.

At least, it isn't "fake" in the sense that some of the victims really believe that it is an honor, and choose their fate. They're wrong, and in that sense it is fake. I'd guess this, like most evil, is a twisting of some natural impulses, here probably the impulse to serve twisted out of all proportion.

I wonder if there are some commonalities among the people who follow into such a death cult. Some people have personalities I can't imagine blending in, others: well, it's a stretch, but maybe...

(*) This isn't related to martyrdom. The martyr's ideal is not that he die for the faith, but that his would-be executioners repent and accept the faith. I admit that some martyrs seem to have regarded it as a shortcut to heaven; a lot easier than living out a righteous life.

Journalism dictionary

If you have ever wondered what jargon from the newsroom actually means, that link explains some of it. For example: "Jump: The part of the story where everyone stops reading."

Friday, June 06, 2014

What is a senator?

A headline today said that Michelle Obama was being considered as a possible senator; rather like Hillary Clinton before her.

How does being the President's wife qualify one for the office of Senator?

You or I might naively think that there is no connection: a Senator is supposed to deliberate with the others on the proper nature of legislation to be enacted, and to represent his State's interests as far as is consistent with the good of the Union. Being related to a powerful person has no obvious bearing on this.

But the Powers That Be (PTB) seem to have a different understanding of the nature and role of a Senator. It is not actually necessary to have any connection with the state you represent (Hillary didn't). Nor does it require skills in law or negotiation or modeling outcomes of proposed laws. Reading a teleprompter is the only skill you really need.

Although there is nominally some power associated with the job, it seems as though the PTB regard it as an honorary appointment, offered to a loyal courtier. Since most of the seats are securely in the hands of one party or the other, a party decision suffices to appoint the favored person to office.

Given the character and (lack of) qualifications that some of the "appointees" have shown, I gather that the PTB aren't worried about their pets actually doing any damage; suggesting that the PTB think the centers of power are elsewhere.

Are they right about that? They should be in a position to know, but history is full of self-deluded elites, so I can hope they're wrong. But as devotees of Peter Singer spread I wonder how long before we have a triple-crown winner as senator. It would be a great honor for the jockey, of course. Perhaps honoring each other's flunkies is part of a status game among the backers?

When a cotter pin falls off a truck

the street is blocked off. The picture was taken with my cell phone from my office; sorry about the resolution. Nifty little robot, though.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

1493 by Charles Mann

One advantage of being too sick to either go to work or focus well enough on it from home is that I have time to read.

Mann's model in 1493 is that Columbus and successors effectively put Pangea back together, with plants and animals and pests and people moving back and forth around the world again, with consequences wonderful and horrific.

AVI already reviewed it recently, so I won't retread the old ground.

Mann goes into detail about African/maroon pockets of rebellion with a lot of history that got marginalized along the way. A few points might need a little tweaking...

In Haiti after the successful revolution he suggests that an embargo caused the economy to collapse. Other narratives say that working in the sugar industry was never popular and efforts to goose the economy by compelling people to go back and work in the business hit serious resistance.

His description of the difference between African slavery and American plantation slavery leaves out a little detail: slaves in Africa were sometimes used for sacrifices.

In other curiosity, the importation of slaves into South America was larger than into the north, but seems not to have generated proportional african ancestry populations. From Roll Jordan Roll, p 5.

Of all the slave societies in the New World, that of the Old South alone maintained a slave force that reproduced itself. Less than 400,000 imported Africans had, by 1860, become an American black population of more than 4,000,000.

Part of this is accounted for by racial mixing which is much larger in (e.g.) Brazil than in the USA, but even so the modern proportions seem to match the importation proportions so poorly that I have to assume a large fraction of the slaves in the southern hemisphere died before having families, probably not long after arrival. Although West Africans have a relatively better tolerance for malaria, it still kills a lot of them.

(FWIW, other sources noticed that the vast number of African slaves imported into the Middle East seem to have left little impact. Those sent to the mines probably died, and the men kept for domestic servants were probably mostly eunuchs, but that leaves quite a few women who should have made some mark on the gene pool.)

The description of Chinese money policies has some horribly familiar parts (inflation by printing more paper money: and then doing it again, and again without learning a thing--yes, I'm thinking of you, Bernanke) and some novel (new emperor mints coins with his name and declares all old coins worthless), and then the reactions got weirder.

Go read it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Feral dogs

Something was niggling at me about the population drops described in 1491. The Indians had dogs. Unless the plagues hit the dogs too, a massive depopulation should turn loose lots of dogs, some of which would organize into feral packs which are, I gather, not easy to get rid of. They should have been a nuisance to the anglo settlers moving in--and to the surviving Indian tribes as well.

Maybe the intervening years let wolves wipe them out (and breed them out), or maybe the sick were served dog meat and so there weren't a lot to go stray. Or maybe the surviving tribes were methodical about trying to wipe out feral dogs. Or the population crash was usually slow enough that there weren't excess dogs. (In some places it was quite fast.)

Sunday, June 01, 2014


I finally realized another reason Wyoming roads seemed different. Around here, you can look out and in the distance see, or maybe just hear, another road. Until you're out in the North Woods, you are immersed in a network. If some road breaks, there's a way around somewhere, and you're never quite alone. But when there's only one route it feels more isolated, even with the same amount of traffic.

1491 by Charles C Mann

I'm a little late to the party, but finally got around to reading this, in the second edition. I'd heard a lot of details of one aspect or another (the great earthworks in the Amazon, for instance), but never all in one place.

His thesis is that the American Indians were here longer than thought, and had made greater changes to the land and built greater civilizations than the usual histories allow for; that what the later colonists found was often the residuum of a collapsed culture.

Reading about some of the earlier collapses (e.g. the Maya) got me wondering if the African rain forest holds monuments from similarly forgotten collapses. They'd have to be earthworks: stone would have been discovered already and wood vanishes very quickly. I wonder how cheap it is to do remote sensing of the jungle floor. I have a stone sculpture of a type Liberians sometimes find in the fields: they have no idea who made them.

I gather people have been experimenting with teosinte since 1896: has anybody tried a full-fledged replication program? They claim modern breeders could get a proto-maize in 10 years; I'd love to see them try. Granted, it would cost a bit. But the practice would be useful: next they could try with some other old crops, to get easily harvestable yields from something like maygrass.

One of the key claims in the book is that disease destroyed up to 90% of the Indian population in a few years. De Soto and LaSalle might have been traveling through different lands if you just go by the description of the people. That rate seems pretty high: dang few diseases have mortality rates that large. If one disease after another rolls over an area you could do it, but the toll from the first one would reduce the contact rate and the spread of subsequent diseases. But maybe...

The claim that part of the Amazon was planted as an orchard is interesting. The devil is in the details though. Do the trees ripen at different enough times, and can storage be reliable enough in a rain forest, to sustain people all year round? I've lived in a rain forest, and pests are ... well ... serious pests.

Fire, fire, fire. Poor Smokey the Bear. Whether by calculation or convergence on a working strategy, North American Indians seem to have kept the landscape smoking a lot. And in the Amazon too, which of course puts environmentalists in a bind: do we preserve the habitat as it is, or as it was, or in some wild guess as what it would have been if there'd never been any people?

I'm a little vague on what happened between the era he describes in the 17'th century with Indians and colonists living nearby, and later observations where the most common description of Indians is "drunken." Possibly the colonists had already set up a society that demanded a revenue stream, and people outside the system couldn't maintain property. I dunno. Family tradition says that Grandpa's house in Mississippi (a haphazard telescope house) contains as its oldest portion the home of an Indian; and if so the Indian in question had fairly decent housing for the time. (Don't ask; Katrina did a number on it.)

If you haven't read it yet, do. I ordered 1493. And somehow I have to see if I can find hickory milk...


I'm not an economist by trade, and don't know if this has already been studied, but after keeping my eyes open a few years I'm pretty sure the following statement is true.

Given any two competing businesses, an arguably neutral regulation can be devised that penalizes one in relation to the other.

The implications for lobbying are obvious.

Examples abound.


I wondered if the Land of the Pure (Pakistan) was as enthusiastic in their zakat as they are in being more anti-infidel-than-thou. The latter is cheaper, as a rule, and if you get a mob together there's virtually no risk involved.

It seems that the zakat is collected by the state at a rate of about 2.5%: not exactly voluntary. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations put the US voluntary donations to charity at 2.2%, not counting "charity" funded through taxation. I'm not sure if the quantities are exactly comparable: the ultimate usage patterns may differ. And a simple search didn't turn up any numbers for voluntary contributions in Pakistan over and above the legal requirements.

Interesting that the numbers are so similar, though...