Thursday, April 28, 2016


While I'd hate to be facing this thing when it let go, it looked like a huge pain to load. The Tredegar Iron Works was an interesting place to visit, BTW.

I'd love to see somebody actually exercise the thing; uncranking the back, loading each of the barrels, buttoning it up. Without special tools it must have taken a whale of a long time. A different version with only 15 barrels is loaded and fired below:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Arms cache

The picture is not of "a huge quantity of both AK and M-4 ammunitions" but the report seems encouraging. I was morally certain that the warlords had not turned in anything remotely close to all their weapons. It looks like one of the LURD caches was discovered in an old well.

Prince Johnson's (one of the old warlords, with quite a record!) comments about Boko Haram waiting in the wings are less happy. I hope he is just shooting off his mouth.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


St. Benedict devised a rule requiring vows of stability, conversion, and obedience. "Conversion" means "renewing your mind" on a daily basis, and "obedience" we understand (and typically resist). By "stability" he meant that he didn't want the monks to be peripatetic and unruly beggars, but there's much more to stability than that. One aspect is reliability: you are always there when you are needed.

A Mennonite Benedictine oblate Gerald W. Schlabach quotes Scott Sanders:

The national culture is wrong when it tells us that "the worst fate is to be trapped on a farm, in a village, in the sticks, in some dead-end job or unglamourous marriage or played-out game." "People who root themselves in places are likelier to know and care for those places," he insists, "than are people who root themselves in ideas." In our hemisphere, people rooted in ideas rather than places have been the ones who have committed the worst abuses against land, forests, animals and human communities — and hardly without shedding their bigotry. Those who do not value their own places are unlikely to value others', he argues. For unless one is "placed" one merely collects sensations as a sightseer, lacking the local knowledge that grounds and measures global knowledge. "Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet."

I like to say that "cosmopolitan ≅ homeless."

Do I need to emphasize the importance of stability for children? Consistency and faithfulness in parents must be really big deals, because the lack of them shows up in all sorts of misbehavior in the kids.

I know the economic machinery likes to use portable atoms, but sometimes we should try to dig in our heels.

Friday, April 22, 2016

That word .. I do not think it means ...

Am I the only Firefox user who wondered, during its February campaign, whether Mozilla understood the meaning of the word "privacy?"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Education erosion

AVI has some interesting thoughts about the "erosion" of the core curriculum.

He links to an essay by Patrick Dineen, who asked students how many things from Western Civ they knew about.

I went over Dineen's list; I count 21 questions (e.g. who was Saul of Tarsus, have you read Paradise Lost). I'll grade myself harshly--if I knew roughly what something was but hadn't read it (e.g. Federalist papers) that's a no. Reasonably bright, voracious reader, with no TV, lots of books in the house, and not many nearby friends--I knew about 15 off that list when I entered college. (And also some things from STEM that Dineen apparently doesn't think are part of common culture--but they are.)

ACS was populated by children of embassy staff, aid workers, missionaries, visiting engineers--fairly right-side of the distribution. Most of my senior class wouldn't have done half that well on his list--say 6 items or less (there were exceptions). Everybody in class was doing an equivalent of the Grand Tour--which is an education hard to ask yes/no questions about.

My sample is from 43 years ago, with a less flexible curriculum (4 years English/Science 3-4 Math, Language, Social Studies, PE--that sort of thing). Perhaps there has been, as he asserts, an effort to dry up our connection to our past--some replacements leave me glumly suspicious--but it would be tough to prove it by my senior class. Or, as AVI pointed out, by Lewis. A long checklist will show us all badly wanting. like those "100 books every literate person should read" lists

Perhaps it is inevitable that the endless writing of many books(*) will attenuate any core. Among the waterfall you'll find books of equal caliber with the ancient ones. Over time, and certainly while they're in fashion, these new books will have great influence too. So why pick the old ones? (**)

I think "for historical reasons" is precise and accurate. If we are to be of the West, with any confidence that being Western is a good thing, then the history of Western culture belongs in the core of education. But St Johns College spends 4 years learning the core--that's way too much for the rest of us. How much can we pare down and still keep a sense of the flow of it all?

I think we can get something, but don't expect more than a sampling--Dineed asked for too much.

I know the arguments that we are now a multi-cultural society and the curriculum needs to reflect this. I get the claim, but I deny the strong version of it: we have to put first things first. Other cultures should enrich, but not supplant--I really don't want to live in the Balkans. Or, I gather, California, which seems to be halfway there already.

(*) guilty of writing but not publishing

(**) Maybe for the footnotes, he said: not entirely facetiously. Aristophanes' Greece is pretty alien to us--different values, different tribal markers, etc. The Great Books are multi-cultural already!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Wooden skyscraper

London may get a wooden skyscraper.
The obvious worry for most people is, of course, fire. However, timber buildings are famously good at standing up to flames – columns and beams will char in an inferno, and that charred surface can actually stand up longer to heat than exposed steel. While steel heats up and buckles, wood first loses its water weight, then chars and resists the flames.

Umm.. When I look at the picture, I see a wooden chimney.


The NYT link will decay (via Maggie's Farm) has an article on "The Sexy Bride Look" and the gown designers behind it. I suppose they want this to be another "thing," and one bride said "I thought I was going to die at the end of the night with the corset, but I loved how I looked."

The pictures struck me as a bit odd. The gowns are flattering and all, but they are worn by models, not brides. Not one of them looks remotely happy. Risk; flee.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

You have to take symmetry into account

XM25: The article loosely describes a new kind of grenade launcher designed to have the projectile explode where they want it.
The U.S. Army is introducing a new shoulder-fired weapon that has the potential to change infantry tactics and revolutionize infantry warfare in a way unseen since the Battle of Königgrätz in July 1866. That battle, which marked the beginning of the end of the line infantry attack, saw Austrian troops carrying muzzle-loaders outgunned by Prussian infantrymen carrying breech-loading needle guns.

It's big and heavy, though apparently effective. They puff it nicely: "No longer will our Soldiers have to expose themselves by firing and maneuvering to eliminate an enemy behind cover. Our Soldiers can remain covered/protected and use their XM25 to neutralize an enemy in his covered position."

Maybe so, if you have enough of them. But I assume that the other side will have some too. Then what happens to your protection? Maybe it does mean new tactics, but it won't be quite as pretty as they make out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Finished reading The Gbandes

A bit more from The Gbandes by Benjamin Dennis:

There’s an aspect or two of polygamy I hadn’t thought of.
”Where there are young ladies, there will the young men go.” For this reason, a chief who has many wives will also have many young men in his service. Such young men are supposed to keep their love affairs with the chief’s wives a secret as a sign of respect for him, although he is very much aware of their activities.

There are one or two wives who are absolutely reserved for the chief.

If they get caught they have to publicly humble themselves and pay a fine to the husband.

Another aspect, among the Gbandes, has to do with marriage order. If a man marries an older sister, he can go down the list marrying younger and younger sisters without a problem. But if he is careless enough to marry the youngest first, the older sisters are automatically his mothers and ineligible to be spouses.

About dance: “It is usually an acrobatic celebration in which the accompanying musicians must follow the dancer rather than the dancer’s following a set musical pattern or rhythm.”

Witches essentially become infected with witch-ness, and are typically unaware of it themselves. Dr. Dennis notes that eating from a joint pot, or drinking from a joint bowl with a common ladle, are therefore hygienic practices intended to prevent a person from accidently ingesting “witch-ness” and becoming a witch—and thus becoming a danger to others and himself (witch-ness can kill the witch, too). Sorcery is a trait acquired deliberately, as opposed to witchcraft. Cremation (done for those found after death to have been witches) precludes reincarnation.

The mother and often the father take the name of the firstborn child: e.g. “njee-mother.”

Ancestral spirits sometimes transform into the shape of strangers to test the character of their descendants in how they show hospitality.

These elders firmly believe that Western types of laws are unenforceable by their courts because those laws are based on individual rights. The Gbandes consider this a calamity for any society; for them, there can be no individual rights per se, only individual rights based on tradition and approved by the group. Only the group has rights; but since these rights become rights supported by every member of the group, they become individual rights because of their reciprocal nature. …. Western peoples are looked upon as makers of many laws as well as breakers of many laws.

Theft (which does not include eating other people’s food without permission when you are very hungry), is potentially a capital offense; “He who steals is one who is also capable of killing and lying.” These days (and despite the author’s protestations, I suspect earlier as well), theft from non-Gbandes isn’t so bad. Selfishness and lying are also grave offenses. Rape could incur burning (no reincarnation) or banishment (cut off, destroys your identity). Laziness also ranked as seriously evil.

A culture that focuses on reciprocal duties doesn’t blend well with one that focuses on contractual duties, with one person always in partial authority over another. Once his objectives are met (earn money to buy X), a Gbande would not always consider it his duty to keep showing up to a job—after all, he has other things that need doing.

I was a bit disappointed that although Dr Dennis deprecated non-African descriptions of African history, and though he said that the Poro taught Gbande history (and he went through the Poro), he didn’t include any history in the book, with the exception of the story of Prince Haale who offered himself as a sacrifice to spare the people from a strange disease, and whose sons have been chiefs ever since.

It was beyond the scope of his book, but I wonder how the cultures (Gbande and quasi-Western) interacted, as each side influenced the other. People at the borderland pick up a little from across the way. I have a gut feeling that the bad characteristics, or those that present badly in the opposite culture, will tend to be picked up first—human cussedness at work. Maybe one place to look is at the Indian/French interactions in North America: If you can find a non-PC analysis.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Project Starshot sounds interesting. If you didn’t see the proposal, the idea is to use postage-stamp sized probes attached to light sails, powered by an array of lasers producing O(100GW). Their numbers said they could get the probe accelerated to .2c, which would make the journey to Alpha Centauri a 20-year trip. The acceleration phase would take minutes. Once the infrastructure is there, you can fire off thousands of them.

Yuri Miler introduced the program, then handed off to Hawking, who spoke of using technology to transcend human limitations. Freeman Dyson said the interesting part of space exploration isn’t the planets but the other objects—which is an important point for this project, because the chances of getting close enough to a real live planet to get any info are essentially nil. Druyan started talking about how prescient Sagan was, and I had to be elsewhere (missed Loeb). Jenison had a touch-feely talk about the world learning to work together (I suppose the proper rituals must be done), and Warden spoke of exploring our own solar system first—which is a very good point, and a project that might actually be completed.

You’d have to fire off thousands. When accelerating these things you are essentially balancing a small sail (size not given, but it will be flexible!) on a pillar of light and trying to get it aimed to better than two tenths of a milli-radian—if you want to get as close to the star as Pluto is to the Sun. It sounded a bit like using a shotgun to try to hit the 200 yard bulls-eye. But maybe my intuition is wrong.

They plan to beam back the images captured by the probes. Assuming the sails are still in good enough shape to gather energy from the star, beaming it back seems a little fraught. I’d think you’d need to fire off a cloud of re-transmitters behind them. I don’t have the numbers for signal strength, or for the background rates, so I can’t estimate whether that makes sense or not.

Even if there’s something important to look at, the probes won’t be slowing down to chat. At .2c, they’d cover the distance between the Earth and the Sun in 40 minutes. All decisions have to be made on the spot (9 years to get a reply back from Earth!).

On the other hand, it might be handy to send various kinds of probes through the Solar System on the cheap. True, you won’t get gorgeous pictures, or get anything in orbit, or get anything to land. But getting out where the comets live, if the camera resolution is good enough, might give you enough parallax to spot more of the beasties. There are lots of things one could try.

UPDATE: An official list of issues

Saturday, April 09, 2016


From the book by Benjamin Dennis (I'm not finished reading it):
The grandchildren are thought of as the grandparent's parents who have been reincarnated. Therefore, as children, they occupy the same position as the grandparents, but a little higher than the grandparents because they are supposed to be their seniors. However, the older a child becomes the more he takes on his own identity and the further he becomes removed from the position of seniority. When he becomes an adult, he occupies a position of less respect or honor.

And seniority is a really big deal.

A Gbande proverb: "He who is wise is one who listens to his wives."

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Dating things

Our group went over Proverbs 31 last week. We were unanimous that we'd all found ourselves a "virtuous wife," and wondered what differences there would be in a list of attributes for a "virtuous husband." Probably not that many, though from the list I gather that the wife is the administrator.

Some scholars try to date the gospels very late. Try to imagine yourself writing about Jesus as He talked about "not one stone left on another." Could you resist the temptation to add "and so it is to this day?" Me neither.

Ecclesiastes never mentions games. (We laughed at the idea of what the Preacher would say about basketball. I know people who've watched Star Wars a dozen times, but who watches basketball re-runs?) By the same rule, that makes it pre-Hellenist. "Runners race to reach the end, and they end where they began; this also is vanity." No way he'd have omitted it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

It must be there, just unconscious

Princess Ojiaku wrote "The studies just keep coming. Unconscious racism is pervasive. It starts early. And it creates a deadly empathy gap" She cites study after study purporting to show a lack of empathy between races (but not, oddly enough between white and purple). It all sounds fairly interesting, until I hit
Some of the best evidence comes from Peking University, where scientists used fMRI to scan the brains of Chinese college students as they viewed images of Asian and Caucasian faces with either neutral or pained expressions. Before viewing the images, some students were primed with rapidly flashing statements specifically about death, such as ‘My body would rot after death’. Others were primed with negative statements unrelated to death, for instance, ‘The coming exam makes me uneasy’.

Later, researchers examining the data found that Asian students who were primed with thoughts of death had greater empathetic response to the pain of other Asian faces than to white faces in two specific regions of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the nearby mid-cingulate cortex, reflecting work that came before. The study, published in NeuroImage in 2015, documented the powerful impact that thinking about death, otherwise known as 'mortality salience’, has on the empathy gap between races, a chasm with obvious relevance to police on call.

If that strikes her as the best, in view of what's been learned about priming studies lately, I harbor deep doubts about the accuracy of the rest of the studies. And the further claim that tribal differences don't seem to matter just adds to my skepticism.

Does anybody know much about the methodology and reproducibility of these things?

Dumpster diving

Neel Patel wrote Dumpster Diving Outside the Large Hadron Collider. He seems astonished that scientists would be scrounging for cast-off equipment. Umm. We've been doing that as long as I've been in the field. "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp." There's never quite enough money to instrument as much or test as much as you hope. There's always one more thing that needs checking.


When my daughter and I arrived, there were 5 lines, for different chunks of the alphabet. Two were empty, one had one person waiting one had two, and A-F had 35. (It looked as though the registered voter binder was bigger for A-F than the rest, too.) Lots of signs said that they weren't there to debate the law but to administer it, and please have your ID handy. Everybody did. My jaw did not hit the floor.

We had plenty of time to strike up conversations about the weather, the tattered basketball on top of one of the gymnasium fans, and the groups of middle school kids brought in to see the zoo.

Wisconsin presidential primaries: pick a party on the ballot and mark whoever you like. Or dislike least. Seesaw: back-room deals to pick candidates based on favors rendered and promised isn't very pretty, so let the voters decide. But which voters, and on what basis ("if you do read the newspapers you are misinformed")? That doesn't look very pretty either, especially when the voters pick a candidate that doesn't have much to do with the party (and thus won't get much done). So add super-delegates that are party stalwarts. That kludge makes voters unhappy too and some may sit out the general election in protest. Nothing is going to work perfectly, and I have a suspicion that we'll be drifting back to greater party control soon, and then years afterwards, assuming we still keep up the formalities, back to voter selection.

Back in '03 I tried to figure out a plan for a binding "None of the Above" on the ballot. I still think it is worth a shot.

As we left, a woman with a slightly grumpy two-year-old on her hip came out of the gym. "No, they didn't have any suckers for you," she told him.

Monday, April 04, 2016

A little space for liberty

Apparently at least one Dell call center in India gives technicians a little freedom to express themselves. The name one woman goes by is "Wishbringer," and she tells us that she is an "XKCD/608 certified technician." (That would be this, I think.) I like it.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Hijacker selfie

Maybe the "selfie" with the hijacker is a bit tasteless, and as the "purists" note, it wasn't a "true selfie," but the idea seems like a stroke of genius.

Somehow or another the man, and presumably others, engaged the hijacker in conversation; even getting him to pose with the man. The vest was a fake and the hijacker despondent, so it was easy. If it had been real -- calming the hijacker is on the todo list.

I wonder if that was Innes' intent. Shall I give him the benefit of the doubt? that silly grin...

I'm not one of the Twits, so I missed most of the furor

Alawite surprise

I figured that with his Russian backers clobbering the Syrian rebels(*), Assad's star would be on the ascendant. But Alawite leaders issued a statement partly distancing themselves from him.
They wanted to make clear, they said, that members of all Islamic sects in Syria were "brothers and sisters" - and that the Alawites "should not be associated with the crimes the regime has committed".

The document claims that Alawites are not Shia, and

The leaders also acknowledge that Alawites have incorporated elements of other monotheistic religions into their traditions, most notably Judaism and Christianity, but say they should "not be seen as marks of deviation from Islam but as elements that bear witness to our riches and universality".

That doesn't sound like a group confident of their tribe's leader.

But maybe I'm wrong, and this is really a peace gesture from Assad. I don't see how it would work, but there are plenty of subgroups I don't see. (Our government seems just as blind: we trained "moderates" who promptly joined the "radicals." Maybe Assad knows some radicals he could cleave off.)

(*)But not ISIS. It should be interesting to see if the Russians covertly support the Kurds, to attack the Turks, who have apparently been supporting ISIS under the table. The Great Game is complicated.

Privatizing education in Liberia?

The date seems wrong; I expected to see 1-April.

But it seems to be real: Bridge International Academy may be taking over elementary education in Liberia.

The approach seems to be: large classrooms, teachers reading from scripts prepared for the group. I gather they incorporate testing and "teacher" (5 week training) evaluation as well. Cost/pupil $6/term.

Bridge’s model is “school in a box” – a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardised lessons from hand-held tablet computers. Bridge hires education experts to script the lessons, but the teacher’s role is to deliver that content to the class. This allows Bridge to hold down costs because it can hire teachers who don’t have college degrees – a teacher is only required to go through a five-week training programme on how to read and deliver the script.

They seem to be doing this already in Kenya and Uganda.

This sort of thing makes me itchy: one size fits all, centralized, not sure about transparency.

In addition, the programs have to be assembled for pupils speaking a dozen languages. I'd also wonder about how the company plans to enforce its rules: if (e.g.) a teacher takes a couple of months off, how do they find out dash the supervisor small and what can the company do about it if they find do find out?

Two things suggest that this might be a good idea anyway.

  1. The Ebola outbreak was the last straw for Liberia's never great primary education system (they had a civil war, too).(*) This program can't be very good, but it could easily be an improvement, helping a larger fraction of the youngsters get an education than otherwise.
  2. The government is handling the school fees, which are a big issue for poor families. Of course there may be incidental expenses that are still burdensome, and the money the government is spending has to come from somewhere. Roads, electricity, and clean water are also kind of important too.

I hope this works.

(*) A few schools were OK, but most kids didn't get much of an education, and the teachers often didn't have much education themselves.