Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ebola and culture in Sierra Leone

National Geographic has an interesting article on how indigenous funeral rituals were adapted to deal with the outbreak. Good work.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Science Fiction, after a few years

The Happy Bookers by Richard Armour (not his best, I'm afraid) is a 1976 history of libraries and librarians told with his usual mixture of fact, anachronism, and just making stuff up (with lots of puns). It ends with "future libraries" section which came mostly true. He predicted "micro-micro-microfilm" requiring the assistance of optometrists, or perhaps "there will be no libraries and no librarians, flesh-and-blood or otherwise. The onetime library patron will press a button and turn a dial on his TV, whereupon the requested book, in the desired language, will appear on the screen." I have several books in PDF on the miniscule chip in a thumb drive in my pocket, which is surely micro-micro-micro enough, and a laptop or tablet or kindle/nook takes the place of a TV. Not too shabby a guess.

And from even earlier, Dick Tracy's watch is available too. Not for me, though. I've been hard enough on watches that I considered using our project engineer's trick of wrapping rubber bands around the crystal. It was either that or give up and use the cell phone as a pocket watch. Now I just need to figure a way of attaching a chain to the phone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Retrospectives and Memories

My youngest sister collected most of the family slides and scanned them, and gave them out for Christmas. I spent too much time last night looking them over, especially the Liberian ones.

I remembered more faces than I thought I would (per earlier post), and a lot of memories triggered. I'd forgotten that the garden edging brickwork was black with slime mold, and how ubiquitous and slippery that stuff was. (That's tropical rain forest for you.) I remembered the tour of the strip mine--or at least the part where Dad wanted to drive down into the pit and I got out of the car, but pretty much nothing of the rest, though there are pictures that say we saw a lot of things there.

And looking at the scenes now I see details that I missed completely when I was 10. I'd seen the people gathering, but had no sense of why the women dressed as they did--it was just the "done thing." I'd seen the high school boys playing soccer or basketball, and not noticed how the high school girls were "not quite" watching them. I hadn't realized how shabby the floor had been those first years, though I'd actually done my share of peeling up loose bits of tile. And the reason my friend's home felt so empty to me was that there weren't any bookcases.

And, of course, I'd not distinguished one flower from another (still don't, which drives my Better Half nuts when she tries to describe what part of the garden needs tending).

Looking back at pictures of a True Whig Party parade for Tubman and knowing now that a lot of the support was nominal (support the distributor of largesse and jobs) left me wondering: would I have noticed that if I had been present and adult? Or would I have taken it at face value? Knowing what would become of some of those well-dressed men on a beach a few years later makes some of the images unexpectedly grim, though the pictures were usually of celebrations.

I had no idea just how vicious the tribal divisions would later become, and I can't even see it in retrospect (squinting hard); probably because the areas we lived were either mono-tribal or urban. The Americo-vs-tribal division was easy to see: would I have guessed what was coming? Probably not--some things you don't confide in foreigners.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Publication bias

It is an open secret that research publication is biased in favor of favorable results. Suppose you spend a year and a hundred grand testing whether lidocaine helps relieve epilepsy. Journals aren't that interested in publishing "lidocaine didn't work" no matter how helpful it is to the field as a whole. Nor is the researcher that eager to trumpet the fact that he got it wrong.

This can be a serious problem with drug research. Suppose 5 researchers run 5 lidocaine tests and 1 finds that it makes epilepsy slightly worse, 3 find that it doesn't do much of anything, and 1 finds that it makes it slightly better. Guess which paper is more likely to get published?

In a study of whether bilingualism makes you smarter (it doesn't), Angela de Bruin came up with a clever way to get past part of the bias: look at conference proceedings instead.

The rationale was straightforward: conferences are places where people present in-progress research. They report on studies that they are running, initial results, initial thoughts. If there were a systematic bias in the field against reporting negative results—that is, results that show no effects of bilingualism—then there should be many more findings of that sort presented at conferences than actually become published.

That’s precisely what de Bruin found. At conferences, about half the presented results provided either complete or partial support for the bilingual advantage on certain tasks, while half provided partial or complete refutation. When it came to the publications that appeared after the preliminary presentation, though, the split was decidedly different. Sixty-eight per cent of the studies that demonstrated a bilingual advantage found a home in a scientific journal, compared to just twenty-nine per cent of those that found either no difference or a monolingual edge.

Kudos to Angela!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What gives with memories?

This morning at church we spoke briefly to the couple in front of us during the meet and greet. A few minutes later my better half turned and whispered in my ear "$5 says they were in Urbana" After service we discovered that we'd known them from 30 years before. Even with names and reminders I drew a complete blank, and still do. But she remembered them, their names, and the children they had at the time.

I don't do so well.

During my late brother-in-law's last illness, friends took a full size picture of him ("flat Chris") and photographed it in places he'd been or wanted to go and sent them to him. Some were posted on Facebook and I saw them too, in places I also used to visit. Even the places I'd been to many times I barely recognized.

The building with the physics and math offices at SIU-- still there, still the same--I didn't recognize the facade at all. Visual memories seem to go in a dust blender in my mind, and all that's left are fragments of a view here or there associated with some dramatic incident.

I would sometimes see a student walking down the street and think "That looks like X from my high school." When I last looked at a high school yearbook I didn't recognize half the faces anymore, even though I remember interactions with them, or the look in her eye, and sometimes even the conversation.

I must file all that sort of thing in medium term memory, and reuse the space when its been idle too long. Or something.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Williams transformed into other media?

Eldest son made a joke about a Dr Who actor playing in a movie of a Charles Williams book, and of course that got me wondering what of his work could be made into a movie without loss or major transformation. Some books just can't be "movied" without a lot of fiddling: Perelandra comes to mind. Clothes or lack thereof are a form of communication, and lack thereof doesn't convey Edenic innocence. Anymore. But there was a good dramatization of The Screwtape Letters and I gather of The Great Divorce also, so ...

  • Shadows of Ecstasy: some critical moments (e.g. Roger Ingram trying to make sense of what he has seen in the inner room) are interior experiences that need a little verbalization. A few scenes need really good acting plus a little special effects goosing. The whole "dark continent" component wouldn't go over well; we know the rest of the world too well. I'm iffy about this one; the premise is hard to visualize and I didn't find the premise compelling.
  • Many Dimensions: A few minor special effects for the Stone's properties, but some critical moments in Choe's transformation are interior experiences. I think this could work, but the ending might play as a huge downer--the plot might need tweaking.
  • War in Heaven: With a few special tricks here and there for magical effects, and some explanation of what the Grail was, I think this one could make a good movie. You have to get an excellent John, though.
  • The Place of the Lion: A few special effects, but you'd have to motivate the release of the Forms much more strongly, and be explicit about what Forms meant. ("It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them in these schools") I think it could be done--it might turn out better than the book (not my favorite).
  • The Greater Trumps: It needs lots of special effects. A few critical moments are interior (you get different characters' points of view)--voice overs for Sybil? This could easily be a nice dramatic movie with plenty of action.
  • All Hallows Eve: Straightforward special effects for wizardry and the city of the dead, but there are a lot of different characters' points of view--lots of extra dialog to be added. It would be worth trying. Unfortunately a completely unrelated movie exists by the same name.
  • Descent into Hell: It has internal transformations that I think would be hard to portray, especially Wentworth's deepening rejections and the "bearing of burdens". I think it could be done, but I'd be nervous.

For some of these you'd probably only have Williams fans buying tickets, and the purists would gripe. I think The Greater Trumps would be the most likely to appeal to a broader market. I wonder how much you'd have to trim to make a screenplay of it.

If you are in the USA, where the copyright rules were adjusted by a Disney-rented legislature, you're not supposed to click the above book links.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John D. Clark
The book, published in 1972, is out of print and extremely hard to find, and I only learned about it when reading about FOOF (and you should go read now that article now…and the comments).

The book is just what the subtitle says it is. The style is easy and informal, with real world details (such as noting that the discovery that a mixture is hyergolic usually entails somebody losing his eyebrows). The introduction is by Isaac Asimov.

Why was it written? From the Preface:

There are a few texts which describe the propellants currently in use , but nowhere can he learn why these and not something else fuel Saturn V or Titan II or SS-9. In this book I have tried to make that information available.

This book is written not only for the interested layman—and for him I have tried to make things as simple as possible—but also for the professional engineer in the rocket business. For I have discovered that he is frequently abysmally ignorant of the history of his own profession, and, unless forcibly restrained, is almost certain to do something which, as we learned fifteen years ago, is not only stupid but is likely to result in catastrophe…. So I have described not only the brilliantly conceived programs of research and development, but have given equal time to those which, to put it mildly, were not so well advised. And I have told the stories of the triumphs of propellant research; and I have described the numerous blind alleys up which, from time to time, the propellant community unanimously charged, yapping as they went.

For understanding this incident, note that the card-gap test was a test of how shock-sensitive a compound was. A sample of the compound was put in a heavy tube above a bit of high explosive, separated from it by a number of thin plastic cards. The high explosive was detonated and they checked to see if the compound blew too. The fewer cards that were needed to keep the compound from exploding, the less sensitive the compound was, and the happier the engineers were.
Two people can operate the card-gap apparatus, and three operators is optimum. But when LRPL did this particular job (the feather-bedding at Picatinny was outrageous) there were about seven people on the site—two or three engineers, and any number of rocket mechanics dressed (for no particular reason) in acid-proof safety garments. So there was a large audience for subsequent events. The old destroyer gun turret which housed our card-gap setup had become a bit frayed and tattered from the shrapnel it had contained. (The plating on a destroyer is usually thick enough to keep out the water and the smaller fish.) So we had installed an inner layer of armor plate, standing off about an inch and a half from the original plating. And, as the setup hadn’t been used for several months, a large colony of bats—yes, bats, little Dracula types—had moved into the gap to spend the winter. And when the first shot went off, they all came boiling out with their sonar gear fouled up, shaking their heads and pounding their ears. They chose one rocket mechanic—as it happens, a remarkably goosy character anyway—and decided it was all his fault. And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience.

You’re heard the phrase “This ain’t rocket science.” This was, and you start to get an appreciation for how tough it really was.

Me? I tried to make my own rocket fuel in high school—a black powder variant with some aluminum powder to overcome the problems caused by the potassium nitrate’s hygroscopic absorption from the tropical atmosphere. A security lapse resulting in too much powder being added to the mix, and I’d never seen a ring-stand rod bent like that before.

Do not attempt to buy this on Amazon. It is a good book, but not worth $3000.

UPDATE: See it at

The one of the ten

When Jesus healed the 10 lepers (healed as they went to the temple), one returned to thank him, and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus' answer equates thanks to Him with giving glory to God--something I hadn't noticed before.

But I have a little question about the Samaritan. The 10 were told to "Go and show yourselves to the priests." Would the Samaritan have been allowed to go to a Jewish priest, or been turned back? The Samaritan temple had been destroyed over a century before, and Jerusalem was quite some distance away, so I guess they were heading for local priests. Would they have been headed for the same village, or would the Jews have been headed for a village in Galilee and the Samaritan towards a village in Samaria? (Jesus was going "between" the two, so I guess that would be along the river)

Does anybody happen to know?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams

The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams was recently printed by Mythopoeic Press.

When I was in high school and had lots of time to read, a book arrived at our home comparing Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. I knew the first two, of course, but the third was new to me and his novels sounded wonderfully strange. I mentioned this to Tucker Callaway and he offered to lend me his copies, and said he envied me the joy of first reading them.

Since then I've read his poetry (of which he apparently was the most proud), plays (well, what was available anyway--I got permission to copy a book that is still out of print), theology, and history of witchcraft. Some of the work was only recently collected and printed.

Working at Oxford University Press when he was there must have been interesting. These "masques" were performances done by the staff (playing themselves, by and large), with Williams writing the script and the music written by the music editor. I have never been in a workplace that put on original opera for its own entertainment.

A masque in the sense Williams used the term seems to have been based on entertainments of song, drama, and dance performed by guests for a host--the host in this case being "Caesar", the publisher. The old masques were one-shot events, never repeated.

Williams wasn't being ironic when he called the publisher Caesar.

For Williams, as critics have stated, the supernatural was not a separate realm, but constantly around us. Analogies were not invented by the artist, but... discovered. In The Greater Trumps, William's novel about the Tarot, Nancy Coningsby experiences the correspondences, seeing a local policeman as the Tarot card that embodies authority and order, The Emperor.
Indeed somthing common to Emperor and Khalif, cadi and magitrator ... shone before her in those lights ... it was certainly true that for a moment she saw in that heavy official barring their way the Emperor of Trumps, helmed, in a white cloak, stretching out an arm, as if Charlemagne, or one like him, stretched out his controlling sword over the tribes of Europe... and bade them pause or march as he would.

These works are much more light-hearted than his novels, and much more specific than his usual poetry, since they were about the work of the firm. They are The Masque of the Manuscript, The Masque of Perusal, and The Masque of the Termination of Copyright (never actually performed). (plus some poetry written about the masques at the time)

Thumbnails: A manuscripts comes to the offices, the staff take pity on it and publish it. Someone actually buys it. And, as copyright expires and the fate of the book is uncertain, it is republished and the government needs 5000 copies. The title of the book? "I am called A Short Treatise on Syrian Nouns As used in the Northern and Sub-Northern Towns In Five Hundred B.C., with two maps and three charts: By Walter Lackpenny, poor Master of Arts."

The characters are themselves but also their roles and their "forms"--the principle of which the role is an instance.

Although they'd almost stand without the introduction and background material, it helps a lot to know in advance who is the publicity man and who the music editor. I'd not have realized that the changes in portrayal of Phyllis reflected a breakup--but I doubt that I needed to know that in any case.

If you're a Williams fan, I think you'll enjoy it. The poetry is much less dense than (say) Taliessin through Logres. Like this query about an editor's bete noir:

PHILLIDA [making the sign of the magical pentagram] Art though purged as by fire and by water made clean?
THE MANUSCRIPT I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

I wish we had a team like theirs at work.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Smart shoes vs TSA

Researchers have again found a way of generating electricity from walking (I've heard of this before). This won't quite power current cellphones, but might manage other things for you.

Try to describe to the nice man in the uniform at the airport why your shoes have funny electronics in them and your pants have wires.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Natural song lengths?

It seems that most songs on the radio wind up being about 3 minutes long in practice. The link says this was driven by the precedents set by old technology, but a lot of churches select verses from a longer set to keep hymns in that 3-5 minute range.

There are plenty of exceptions, there's really a distribution of times. How much does that distribution vary from one culture to another?

For example, I've been in churches where hymns are sung at half the speed they are in most white American churches, and heard singers go on for an hour (at least--I fell asleep).

I suppose with the appropriate use of keywords you might be able to use Youtube to get a distribution of the lengths of raga songs, but the numbers won't be quite clean (multiple covers, people yacking about songs, etc).

Has anybody looked at that? Is there some natural length for songs, or is it entirely cultural?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Battle cries

I don't think "Je suis Charlie" will be quite as inspiring as Roland's "Paiens ont tort!"

Monday, January 05, 2015


I'm fond of The Last Unicorn, and one line comes to mind a lot these days:
"Ah, love may be strong, but a habit is stronger"

That seems true enough in the spiritual disciplines (it is a bit presumptuous of me to be leading the study), and in (as the poem) looking for the one and only, and even in trying to master some art. The habits of games or facebook or what have you drain away the time which is life from what what somebody really wanted to do.

I remember a short essay from a year or so ago of a child going with Grandma to pick out a vase, and finding it surprisingly hard to do. There were many fine vases, but that one didn't match the curtains, and the other would look strange on the end table, and the third didn't match the cabinet: Grandma's home was full of so many things which constrained the possibilities that almost nothing would fit. The essay likened this to trying to find a spouse after living alone for years, but the problem is more general--to add anything to an already full life requires cutting stuff out.

What are the best lenses to wear to see what is a tradition, what is faithfulness, and what is a habit?

Thursday, January 01, 2015


The Roman Catholic Church has a dislike for capital punishment, an attitude with roots that go back to the early Church (which was in some ways more radical). Pope Francis said a few months ago that solitary confinement was cruel--and no doubt it is.

A state that accepts both rules quickly finds itself in an untenable position. Its first duty is to protect its citizens, even (at some level) its imprisoned citizens, and there are always some people who will viciously prey upon others--even in prison. If you aren't allowed to execute them, and you aren't allowed to isolate them, and you aren't allowed to exile them (nobody else wants them either), and you must protect everyone else from them--there's no solution.

So to do what it is appointed to do, a state has to do the presumptuous work of pronouncing judgment and using force against people in ways that are not obviously loving. Naturally this attracts undesireable applicants, and the power readily corrupts even the well-intentioned. So we have to try to keep an eye on the state (hence democracy), but even the mechanisms for doing that are corruptible.

But what do you do when the machinery of the state appears to start to take the injunctions against cruelty and violence too seriously, and begins to fail to protect its citizens? (I say "appears" because it usually looks as though cui bono finds a simple tribal answer--but God protect us from well-intentioned bureaucrats.)

It isn't exactly my ideal to have to say "Please get on the stick and start killing those people who are attacking us!" Yet that is the duty of the state's machinery, and often the way to minimize deaths. It isn't obviously charitable to say "Either cut benefits or cut immigration--the numbers do not work." But honesty demands these kinds of claims.

It is much more comfortable when the state is doing its job and we can deprecate the evils that flow from even the best government, and hold up high ideals for individuals. Maybe that's even the way it is supposed to work, given the fallen world we live in: prophets denouncing the evils and the state not-quite ignoring the prophets, and the rest of us at least trying to minimize the evils and keep an eagle eye on the state.


When our Eldest Son participated in a Pinewood Derby race, we went out together to buy the kit. I showed him how to clamp the block down, and started the saw cut for him. His enthusiasm waned as he rasped and sanded and painted. I insisted that the axle positions were critical, and showed him he could try to make sure they went in straight.

In the end, he seemed happy with it--after all, he'd done the work himself, albeit with some impatience. It didn't win, but it was well above most of the pack in speed--seemed to slow down a bit with time (Were the axle positions twisting? I never knew.). It was not a thing of beauty, nor lightning fast, but it was clearly made by the boy and not the father, and it was something any boy could make who could afford the $4.50 for the kit and had a few ordinary tools in the house.

I was browsing while waiting in Hobby Lobby last month, and happened upon the Pinewood Derby shelf. The kit itself is the least of it now: you can even buy a special jig to make sure the axle goes in at the right position and angle. Entry level seems to have gone up to about $50.

The playing field was never perfectly equal in the derby: setting aside the parents who did the work for the boy, those who didn't have a saw or rasp or hammer at home were never going to turn out a fast racer, and those who didn't take the instruction's advice and try to arrange their own axle jigs wouldn't either. And there's nothing one can reasonably do to take out the income advantage, unless everybody is making theirs in the same project room with the same gear. Still it seems like an unhappy additional bias.

Plus, of course, the kids don't get the experience of making their own tools.