Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking backwards, guessing forwards

Years ago I was so furious with the insanity in DC that I could not sleep (being 6 hours out of sync didn't help any). I knelt and prayed for a quiet heart. To that end I decided to cut out most political blogging. The anger wasn't good for my soul, and even if you are measurably smarter than the fatheads we generally elect and appoint, it isn't good to dwell on that too much.

In any event, most posts on politics are elaborations on what Sir Walter Raleigh said better:

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate:
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

I was tempted to make an illustrated version of this verse, including some familiar faces for each section, but no; the motions in my own mind weren't very edifying.

By the time I get home to read all the news (I still have a little delicacy about blogging during work hours), other people have said pretty much what I meant to say; why pile on? And who wants to read "ditto?" My Facebook status doesn't get updated much either.

I could write on personal matters, but I try not to embarrass the kids. That cut out a lot of amusing anecdotes. Trust me.

I tried the discipline of reviewing one science story a day, but that often took a couple of hours to go through the background material, and it was discouraging to see how far the final headline was from the real work.

I think I'll continue doing more of the same next year, and try to add more science reviews since that's something I can do better than the average blogger.


At Bible study breakfast the question came up: "What would you like your epitaph to be?"

We came up with several answers, but it occurred to me later that you might want several different ones. How would you want to be known in your family, in your church, and in the world? They aren't necessarily the same. Yes, ideally they should all revolve around service, but that's generic: what service in particular?

At home there are so many that perhaps the generic is the only way to go. "He loved them" would be a good way to be remembered. Hmm. Not sure my actions always emphasize that ...

In the church "He helped them see" describes what I want. So I'm doing sound and video--not entirely related...

In the world ... I'd like to figure out what dark matter is, but I suspect that's not going to happen. Maybe "He helped them see" works best there too.

Come to think of it, that's probably the ambition of lots of bloggers.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Picking leaders

A nice algorithm found on the net:

Call a meeting. Ask who wants to be a leader. Ban the volunteers from leadership roles. Adjourn the meeting. The people who stay to clean up are the ones you pick to be the leaders.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas-tide

I hope this story proves true.


Youngest Daughter is fond of the opera Carmen, and we've had several discussions about which interpretation is the true picture of Carmen. It's a testimony to Bizet's skill that her character will bear so many interpretations. Perhaps our explanations of why the opera is so popular are a kind of Rorschach test of our own characters. (Aside from it having great music, of course.)

I think Carmen is a fool. She knows the life she leads will destroy her, but she goes ahead anyway. Don Jose is a different kind of fool. He refuses to see what is in front of him and believes a lie that destroys them both.

The two of them are Everyman; we recognize ourselves in one or both and empathize accordingly.

I wonder what that interpretation says about my character.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Science reporting

Just a quick reminder about those science headlines: They are several stages removed from the real work.

The scientist reports on his work. There's a natural tendency to point up the promising aspects, and what it might lead to.

The reporter writes a story about the story. With rare exceptions, the reporter knows little about the topic (or any topic, for that matter), but does know how to quickly write an interesting narrative, and will seize on those aspects that make for a good story.

The editor decides on a headline. The editor has never met the scientist, and probably doesn't know statistics from library paste. The editor looks for something eye-catching in the story, even if meanings have to be contorted a bit and possibilities magnified still more.

Think of it as a game of telephone in which each player has to restate the message in a more dramatic way.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Science stories

Bethany has begun her series on Internet Science with a post on "how they reel you in," about how "Look, shiny!" stories and images catch your attention and play on your biases. I look forward to the rest.

There are a few things that raise red flags when I see them in headlines. Some of them are easy to describe.

  1. History: I'm old enough to have seen a dozen breathless headlines about how some new scrolls and "suppressed gospels" may overturn our understanding of Christian history. Same old, same old. Whether it's because reporters have no knowledge of history or because editors think we don't, the same old discoveries and breakthroughs appear year after year. Sometimes a quick googling shows that the same researcher issued an almost identical claim 5 years ago, and 4 years before that and... Unfortunately familiarity with the history isn't something you can pick up in five minutes
  2. Paradigm-changing breakthroughs are very rare. Incremental progress is the rule. If it sounds too dramatic, somebody is probably pulling your leg or trying to make a quick buck. This is especially true in attention-grabbing fields: anything to do with weight loss or aging or sex or politics.

    The IceCube experiment announced that they had probably discovered extra-galactic neutrinos, some of which were puzzlingly higher energy than expected. Did you notice the little word "expected" in there? To have spotted them at all is a tour de force, but pretty much everyone in the field expected there to be neutrinos, some from other galaxies. The general public didn't know anything about them, and the news (I hope) unveiled a new part of the world for them. But these are a tool for further research, not a paradigm-shifting breakthrough by themselves. A milestone.

  3. Herding cats has nothing on coordinating scientists. "Every French soldier carries in his cartridge-pouch the baton of a marshal of France." Every scientist seems to have a place on the shelf for a Nobel Prize. If you're head of the team doing the cutting edge research, you are helping shape the culture of the field, but everybody else harbors a "but what if it were like this" question that they'd like to put to the test.

    If the question is simple (special relativity) there's virtual unanimity, but even there you find scientists saying "Have we proved it for every case yet?" If the question is complicated and simulations are hard to do, you should find plenty of discord in the wings. If unanimity is claimed for a difficult problem, be skeptical. Anthropogenic climate change is one good example: the problem is very hard, proxy measurements are not easy to define, and the climate models are hard to test. (They're no good for year-to-year variation, and as for predicting the far future... the Sun monkeys with medium term results, and I'll most likely not be alive in a century.)

    If at all possible, compare the story with what the received explanation is in the field. This is no guarantee (see Lysenko, AGW, etc), but it is generally a good rule that Newton stood on the shoulders of giants and so ought the scientists in the report.

  4. Does the story have some political implications? If it purports to show that Your Team ™ is smarter than the rest, or that some resource is effectively infinite or on the contrary almost exhausted--qui bono?
  5. Is it sociology? Or drug related? Wait for verification. Then wait some more. Sociologists tend to study WEIRD people and have sample sizes that are way too small. Drug test results are very heavily biased in favor of positive results--negative ones typically don't get published. When you only look at the right side of the distribution of results from small effects, things look much better than they really are. Plus, it turns out that lots of promising drugs to treat X wind up causing Y, and are quietly dropped from view.

    Sociological studies that show that people are happier if they are virtuous just aren't sexy; discovering that "Good things come to those who wait" is a sound rule doesn't get publicity or grant money.

  6. Will the world be destroyed? Check to see if the scientist has just published a book--and needs publicity
  7. Take a quick gander at the story itself, which often has a family resemblance to the headline but doesn't support it very well.
  8. If it talks about other universes, read the funnies instead.

Read How to Lie With Statistics.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Driverless cars are getting into accidents faster than human-driven ones. The controlling programs obey the traffic laws, and, for example, get rear-ended when trying to merge on a freeway. Human drivers regard the speed limit as more of a guideline than an absolute law--who knew?

It turns out driving is a social activity.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cargo Cult

The Chicago Sun Times editorial board had the power to choose the headline, so I assume they meant it when they titled the editorial on the school board "Emanuel's pressing CPS task: Ensure diversity on Board".

The problems are well known--bloated administration, students not learning, junk bond status for borrowing, some schools are dangerous... But plainly those are not the central problems--you have to look elsewhere for the root causes and possible cures. It is simple-minded to think that you can improve administration by firing the incompetent and corrupt (in Chicago the replacements would probably be just as bad). Putting people in right relationships is key, and that has to start with personal virtue, systematic review of goals and means, proper ratios of skin color on the nominal governing board. Only a Hispanic on the school board can provide the magic that will make the Black Disciples and the Gangster Disciples make peace with each other.

First Impressions

I was waiting at the bus stop and a jalopy pulled into the strip mall's parking lot. A small grubby man rolled down the window and opened the car door from the outside. His pants sagged a little, and he held an extinguished cigarette in his hand as he limped slowly past with a weary air like that of many of the homeless guys on the Square--he'd have fit in fine. He slowly walked over to the door of the auto repair shop and unlocked it--and two tall men with full tool belts quickly stepped up and followed him in.

Oops. But if he's bumming rides from a friend, hasn't he offered to fix his car door?


Wolfram went through documents by and about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and tells their story.

Short version: Charles Babbage, after years of struggling to build an analog computer, designed an Analytical Engine (never built) which would have been numerical. He was not a good explainer and was difficult to get along with. Lord Byron's daughter, in the process of writing up an explanation of the Analytical Engine, saw aspects to how it would work (programming loops, etc) that Babbage either didn't see or couldn't articulate.

They communicated largely by mail, but with 5 times daily delivery that wasn't nearly as slow as you might think.

There are no dark secrets or thrilling escapades, but it is interesting, and Wolfram tries to imagine what might have been if Babbage hadn't been so prickly and if Ada hadn't died so young.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Rumor of Angels by Peter L. Berger

A Rumor of Angels Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural by Peter L Berger reminds me of the classic cartoon:

The book has nothing to do with angels. He has some interesting insights and some contradictory foolishness bound up the same volume. He critiques modernist critiques of religion, and notices the contradiction in the sociologist’s presumption that his reference frame is the pinnacle of knowledge.

He takes a whack at explaining why one finds so much detachment in the modern viewpoint. The disciplined detachment of someone trying to analyze impartially is difficult and rare; he sees a more culturally driven detachment:

As I have tried to show, world view remain firmly anchored in subjective certainty to the degree that they are supported by consistent and continuous plausibility structures. In the case of optimal consistency and continuity they attain the character of unquestioned and unquestionable certitudes. Societies vary greatly in their capacity to provide such firm plausibility structures. As a general rule of thumb, one can say that the capacity steadily diminishes as one gets closer to modern industrial societies. A primitive tribe does much better than an ancient city. The latter, however, is still far better equipped to produce certitudes than our own social formations. Modern societies are, by their very nature, highly differentiated and segmented, while at the same time allowing for a high degree of communication between their segmented subsocieties.

The reasons for this, while complex, are not at all mysterious. They result from the division of labor brought about by industrial forms of production, and from the patterns of settlement, social stratification, and communications engendered by industrialism. The individual experiences these patterns in terms of differentiated and segmented processes of socialization, which in most cases begin in early childhood. As he grows older he finds he must play many different roles, sometimes quite discrepant ones, and must segregate some of these roles from each other, since they are not all equally appropriate to the different parts of his social life. And, as a result of all this, he comes to maintain an inner detachment or distance with regard to some of these roles—that is, he plays some of them tongue in cheek. … If he identifies his “real” self with his family, he will “only superficially” conform to the mores of his contemporaries; if, as is more likely, he more fully identifies with the latter, he will “only play along” with his family. In either case there will be some roles that are performed tongue in cheek, “insincerely,” “superficially”—that is, with inner detachment.

Most individuals in primitive or archaic societies lived in social institutions (such as tribe, clan, or even polis) that embraced just about all the significant relationships they had with other people. The modern individual exists in a plurality of worlds, migrating back and forth between competing and often contradictory plausibility structures, each of which is weakened by the simple fact of its involuntary coexistence with other plausibility structures. In addition to the reality-confirming significant others, there are always and everywhere “those others,” annoying discomfirmers, disbelievers—perhaps the modern nuisance par excellence.

And there are some nice snippets: “Intellectuals are notoriously haunted by boredom (they call this “alienation” nowadays).” “The denial of metaphysics may here be identified with the triumph of triviality.” “Dialogue can be an alibi for charlatanism, in which everybody talks to everybody and nobody has anything to say.”

The most interesting chapter is the third, in which he looks for signs of the transcendent in human behavior—not in the ecstatics and mystics, but in the common humanity. The first is the belief in order, as exemplified in a mother comforting her child who has had a nightmare. “It’s all right.” You may say that this isn’t true—the world isn’t all right—but this is a universal testimony that we act as though, in the end, it is. In play we make new rules, transcending the here and now, with the goal of joy. Though the guns may shake the building, people still find ways to play. Hope is another universal—even when everything seems to be coming to an end (including one’s own life), we are still oriented to the future—and a better future. Someone who is, for a time, hopeless, is someone we feel sorry for. He invokes damnation rather than justice to avoid the extensive complications of the latter concept—the testimony being that there are some things that, no matter what the excuse, are without excuse, and for which no punishment seems adequate. In a purely materialist universe there can be no such thing—in affirming it we deny that the universe is only matter. And, of course, we have humor; our reaction to discrepancy, and in his view most dramatically our discrepancy with the universe.

Berger wrote that this was an incomplete selection. If I may quote Chesterton, in The Secret of the Train:

"Excuse me, sir," said the stoker, "but I think, perhaps--well, perhaps you ought to know-- there's a dead man in this train."
. . . . .
Had I been a true artist, a person of exquisite susceptibilities and nothing else, I should have been bound, no doubt, to be finally overwhelmed with this sensational touch, and to have insisted on getting out and walking. As it was, I regret to say, I expressed myself politely, but firmly, to the effect that I didn't care particularly if the train took me to Paddington. But when the train had started with its unknown burden I did do one thing, and do it quite instinctively, without stopping to think, or to think more than a flash. I threw away my cigar. Something that is as old as man and has to do with all mourning and ceremonial told me to do it. There was something unnecessarily horrible, it seemed to me, in the idea of there being only two men in that train, and one of them dead and the other smoking a cigar. And as the red and gold of the butt end of it faded like a funeral torch trampled out at some symbolic moment of a procession, I realised how immortal ritual is. I realised (what is the origin and essence of all ritual) that in the presence of those sacred riddles about which we can say nothing it is more decent merely to do something. And I realised that ritual will always mean throwing away something; DESTROYING our corn or wine upon the altar of our gods.

Unfortunately, Berger’s plan involves a kind of ecumenical analysis which, though he professed to admire the incarnational aspects of Christian life, explicitly denies any incarnational aspect to Christ himself. He, in the same deference to modern sociology that he mocks earlier in the book, expects to reject testimony about revelation in a religion based on revelation, and still find important truth in the residuum.

This world is not my home

a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.

Best Buy:

Win the Holidays

No matter how I parse that slogan, it comes out ugly.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mount Horeb

A Mount Horeb school board had a little problem on its hands:
The issue surfaced late last month when staff members at a district elementary school scheduled a reading of "I Am Jazz," a children's book about a transgender child. The staff members said they sought to support a 6-year-old student who had just transitioned from a boy to a girl, and to help the girl's classmates better understand what was happening.

This was met with opposition and threat of a lawsuit. Then the powers-that-be fought back.

I'm told almost all these dysphorias resolve without any problem by the mid teens. Those that don't--I gather the suicide rate is quite high, and that surgery/hormones don't improve the outlook. Statistically speaking--you can always find anecdotes to the contrary, and they'll get full "human interest" coverage. I have some strong suspicions about the character of the boy's mother which I won't darken the blog with. (No father mentioned in the news, for what that's worth.)

So there was a community reading of the book: "The centerpiece of the library program was the reading of “I Am Jazz” by its co-author Jessica Herthel, who flew in from California to support the family." The organizers were stunned, stunned! to find 600 people show up when they expected 15. Of course they paid for the plane ticket, and for 40 books to circulate to the kids, and probably did all the calling to bring people in... Did I mention that Mount Horeb is not far from Madison?

This had the desired effect on the school board. "The new measures grant transgender students access to the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their new gender identities." Not single user facilities...

You can make a case that the ADA requires accommodations, but it isn't obvious that the effect is neutral. It would seem likely to make the normal cases harder to resolve. Does anybody know of any work to distinguish the ordinary cases from the high risk ones?

Monday, December 07, 2015

Perpetual adolescence

From Chesterton:
They are not crying for the moon, which is a definite and therefore a defensible desire. They are crying for the world; and when they had it, they would want another one. In the last resort they would like to try every situation, not in fancy but in fact, but they cannot refuse any and therefore cannot resolve on any. In so far as this is the modern mood, it is a thing so deadly as to be already dead. What is vitally needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind. Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever see the light.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Laquan MacDonald

No, I haven't watched the video of the shooting. I'll take the descriptions as given: the Chicago policeman shot him to the ground, and then kept on shooting. There's no question about MacDonald having a suicide vest that would justify that kind of continuing fire.

"Gangland killing" was what jumped to my mind immediately. Why spend the extra rounds on a dead man unless you're trying to make a point? But why would a cop need to make a point to MacDonald's gang? (I assume he was in one--probabilities point that way.) Was the cop acting as a cop, or as an enforcer for the mob or another gang?

If I'm right, I wonder if we'll ever find out?

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Just... wild.

My intuition was all wrong. I'd have thought it too cold for that kind of geology.

And this looks sort of like what I'd have expected if Shoemaker-Levy had hit something solid. Who knew it would be so lively out on the fringes?

Friday, December 04, 2015

Turning someone in

It is possible that there's plenty of reporting of Muslim bad apples, but that it is carefully and properly kept quiet. I hope so, though it suggests better skill at keeping secrets than I've come to expect. Perhaps the lower echelons are better at it--keeping certain top people in dark, maybe? Would you tell Biden anything you didn't want to see in the newspaper?

If you're going to take the risk of reporting someone suspicious, you want some confidence that the report will be taken seriously. Fecklessness at the top (so Iraqis think we're supporting Daesh? I can see why they'd think so), and CYA cultures all over the place--I'd wonder if a tip would go in the file and forget bin. But maybe this agency is different this time.

Someone suggested that a reason more US Muslims don't report suspicious behavior (at least that we hear about) is fear of retaliation--one thing jihadists hate more than non-Muslims is "bad Muslims," and contrary to the party line it smells like quite a few of these lone wolves aren't that alone. (I also see polls claiming that a non-negligible fraction support the jihadis, but I've no idea how accurate they are.) I doubt that most jihadis stand up in the mosque and call for war--unless the whole mosque does; suspicion rises on more subtle criteria: non-actionable criteria.

So we're going to keep getting "yes, they were on a list" after-the-fact. And no doubt CAIR has a press release warning against a backlash after next Wednesday's attack.


I have never played Call of Cthulhu, but I've heard its reputation. Typically players lose sanity and die. "To gain the tools they need to defeat the horrors – mystic knowledge and magic – the characters may end up losing some of their sanity,"

Trading sanity for arcane knowledge--that reminds me of something. It'll come to me--I should google for a while...

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Curious sequence of jobs

The Liberia Marine Training Institute intended to train people to serve as sailors, but after about a year or so the school closed for Christmas 2013 and never reopened. Goodbye school fees, goodbye personal possessions left behind. 4 cadets had drowned the previous year--I couldn't find any clear explanation of how (the school said they weren't supposed to be in the water yet). The erstwhile students have been complaining and writing letters to their representatives (and getting blown off, sounds like).

The training seemed like a reasonable idea--lots of ships fly the Liberian flag but few have any Liberian sailors. But according to Rev. Dr. Lincoln Brownell "a test was given to the cadets, saying it was an international assessment team that came on maritime education that was responsible for the test and not the LMA. Dr. Brownell said the cadets took the test and none of them passed the test, something that prompted the international team to move to Stella Maris."

This was pre-ebola, but the claim that everybody failed is quite plausible. Of course the counter-claim, that the LMTI only wanted commissions, is also plausible.

The Rev. Dr. Lincoln Brownell was once president of the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary, and was ejected from his post for reasons never clear to outsiders. He sued for back pay, and eventually got a judgement that closed the school for three weeks. In the mean time, he apparently worked as a bodyguard for the Maritime Commissioner. Now he's Director of the Liberia Maritime Institute, though it isn't obvious to me that it functions. And he's leader of Go Ye Ministries(*) Liberia. When we were there one of his hats seemed to be "hotel manager." (We were grateful.) Hmm. From bodyguard to director... Executive factotum?

(*)Looking for the parent organization turns up several different groups with that name.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Blowing smoke

The same article says, without noticing the contradiction, both that "But there is no such thing as a female or male brain, according to the first search for sex differences across the entire human brain. It reveals that most people have a mix of male and female brain features" and "If a neuroscientist was given someone’s brain without their body or any additional information, they would still probably be able to guess if it had belonged to a man or a woman. Men’s brains are larger, for example, and are likely to have a larger number of “male” features overall."

I tag this as sloppy science because of the conclusions they try to draw. The research itself may be fine (I haven't read it), but this doesn't support the far-reaching claim of "non-binary gender."

Phrenology is still not a very exact science.

Leftover turkey, anyone?

Poisons Chemists Hate, But You Just Ate:
So, I thought I'd give a chemist's perspective on four of the many chemicals you just ate. They range from "Yo- Steve, toss me a bottle of acetone," to "Uh-oh. Chemist X is using chemical Y. Run:" Where X = the incompetent imbecile who is most likely to blow up the building, and Y = some nasty-ass stuff. There are far more X's out there than you'd think. Even more Y's.

Example: "Pyridine- Found in coffee. Pretty decent poison if you breathe too much, but this is unlikely to happen because it smells horrible."