Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year

In honor of the day and the celebrations of the evening, a little Peter Sinclair (who should please publish a new collection one of these days):

Yes, we're planning a low key evening. How did you guess?

But I can't resist one last dig at 2016:

Year in Review

I generally enjoy Dave Barry's Year in Review columns. This year,

… the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. Finally! Yay! What a fun month! OK, that’s our summary of November. Now it’s time to move along to the events of …


Sometimes it pays to wait

Remember that story about the bags of plastic rice in Nigeria? It sounded pretty wild, just the sort of story you'd like to comment on, and maybe speculate about. Except--how did they know? The original story said it smelled chemical-ly, and when cooked was extremely sticky. That's not very solid evidence.

Nigeria rice 'contaminated, not plastic' - NAFDAC

Customs officials' claims that the rice seized in Lagos last week was "plastic" sparked confusion and official denials. ...

Tests on samples of the rice showed that it was "unwholesome for human consumption", exceeding the maximum limit for bacteria including "Coli form", Nafdac said in a statement.

The Nigerian customs service, speaking at the same press conference, said that it had acted on "credible intelligence" that "large consignments of plasticized rice were.... to be shipped from the Far East to Africa".

Probably somebody washed the rice in waste water. That would account for the smell and the bacteria.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Nativity set

I remember looking at a ceramic nativity set when I was quite small. I didn’t think I’d seen anything prettier than those smooth white clean figures. I got to touch one, and it was as lovely to touch as to look at. I wanted them, of course—and our little plaster figures didn’t seem to quite measure up. I didn't have the words to say so then, but could painted plaster possibly represent purity as well as unstained ceramic? I don’t know if we had the plaster set at the time, or got it later—it doesn’t matter, I’d seen them at church already.

My Youngest Daughter has such a set now, handed down to her by her sister from her grandfather, who had a ceramics business for a while. They are set up around the Advent wreath and candles. I can still see what I admired in them. True, the features are not crisp, and the postures represent a fleeting moment of greeting, and I’ve an adult’s painful awareness of how fragile they are. But I appreciate others now, and don’t covet ceramic anymore.

A large wooden set from Liberia, standing wobbly(*) under the tree, is the family traditional set. I remember each of the children doing their part with them. That matters a lot more than silky feel.

Nativity still life scenes aren’t meant to be realistic. Mary wouldn’t be kneeling, she’d be sitting to rest, or lying down. The animals would be outside, and of course the magi didn’t show up for a while—and they didn’t stick around long enough to give Mary an undergraduate course in astronomy. It doesn’t matter. Do I take a moment and remember? That matters. When Youngest Daughter sets up hers again next year, she'll remember her grandfather and her sister, and baby Jesus--and that matters.

And I remember what babies are like. The smooth ceramic is like a baby’s smooth skin—but cold.

(*) Every year I promise myself I'll flatten out the bases to stop the wobble, but it is cold in the winter, and the set is packed away by spring.

Extreme nutcracker

Crack walnuts with a grenade. Yes, I agree, it was probably a practice grenade. Still, it will be a good story to tell his grandkid. I like the comment: "It's more stable than a Samsung phone."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jets of iron

Did you ever, when washing dishes, shove a funnel wide-side-down into the water to see how high the water would jet up from the narrow end? Or, in the tub, put your palms together underwater and quickly squeeze them tightly together, to see how far the water would shoot? When you're dealing the continent-sized chunks of molten and solid iron moving around, it seems you can get fast-moving jets of iron under the mantle. Of course "fast" is a relative term: O(40)km/year isn't going to rival the jet stream, but it represents quite rapid progress through rock.

The image at the site is a little misleading--it's just a toy model of what things might be like. Nobody really thinks there are cylinders like that in the core.

The discovery of the jet involved tracking two massive but unusually strong lobes of magnetic flux originating from the core-mantle boundary, situated beneath Canada and Siberia respectively, but moving with the flow of the molten iron. Because their motion could originate only from the physical movement of molten iron, the lobes served as markers, allowing the researchers to track the flow of iron.

Livermore likens it to being able to track the course of a river at night by watching candles floating on the surface. “As the iron moves, it drags the magnetic field with it,” he says. “We can’t see the flow of iron itself, only the motion of the flux lobes.”

Three satellites sensing the magnetic fields as they orbit the Earth found some variations with time, and it looks like these variations come from the mantle-core boundary.

I don't know if seismography would have the resolution to confirm this.

Wild notions department

The woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus' clothes was unclean. So was the coffin of the dead boy which Jesus touched. She became clean. The dead boy, restored to life, was now clean. When John baptized Jesus, did Jesus' touch make the waters clean--baptize the waters?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Word of the day

"The kind of religion that God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless "wouldlings"--those weak inclinations that lack convictions--that raise us but a little above indifference." Jonathon Edwards

Obviously useful in many contexts...

Instrument question

The rising of the sun

And the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir.

"Merry" is not usually the word I'd associate with a pipe organ. One site claimed that the word meant "great," which would certainly fit, but volume 1 of the OED and a jeweler's loupe found nothing resembling that, so the usual "happy" meanings apply. ("Merry-bout" meant what you probably think it did.)

So was the organ a merry accordion, perhaps? Or a jazz organist on the church organ? The song is older than 1700, but there were plenty of church organs then. Were church songs upbeat, as a rule?

Along the way, I stumbled on this from Wikipedia: "Henry VIII wrote a love song Green groweth the holly which alludes to holly and ivy resisting winter blasts and not changing their green hue So I am and ever hath been Unto my lady true."

Friday, December 16, 2016

Good manners

From Galateo: or, A treatise on politeness and delicacy of manners: some unexpected advice.
For the same reason, it is by no means a decent custom for any one, upon meeting with any thing offensive in the way, (as it often happens) to turn immediately to his companion, and point it out to his notice: much less ought he to hold up any thing foetid to another, that he may smell to it; which some people are apt to do; and are even so impertinent as to thrust what is nasty up to their very noses, and smear them with it: "Pray smell it, I beseech you, how it stinks."

On the other hand, some things don't change much:

It is also very impolite to appear melancholy and thoughtful; and, as it were, absent from the company where you are, and wrapt up in your own reflections. And, though this perhaps this may be allowable in those, who, for many years, have been entirely immersed in the study and contemplation of the liberal arts and sciences(*): yet in other people, this is by no means to be tolerated. Nay, such persons would act but prudently, if, at those seasons when they are disposed to indulge their own private meditations, they would sequester themselves entirely from the company of other people.

(*) Thomas Aquinas, dining with the king of France, after a short pause, with his eyes fixed, struck his hand upon the table, crying out; "I have confuted the Manichaeans."


But, however this may be, we ought not to bring a gloom over the minds of those with whom we converse, especially in places where people meet together to enjoy themselves, and not to lament the miseries of human life: although, perhaps, we may sometimes meet with a gloomy mortal of weak nerves, who is fond of squeezing out a tear upon all occasions; whose longing one might easily satisfy by the acrimony of a little mustard, or by entertaining him in a smoaky room. ... To introduce a narration, therefore, of such dismal and melancholy events, on such an occasion, is so very absurd that it were much better entirely to hold one's tongue.

This one struck a little chord:

When, therefore, you address a single person of any rank, who represents a number of people as a society, you do not pay him that civility on his own account: and, if you should speak to him in the singular number, (and call him thou instead of you) you would deprive him of what was really his due, and certainly affront him, by giving him an appellation which belongs only to mere rustics, and men of no importance.

In A Secular Age Taylor notes that there was a change in the meaning of etiquette and good manners some centuries past, in which one was to treat peers, and even inferiors, with courtesies due superiors. I suppose that's the reason we use you universally, with family and rulers alike. (And y'all if we need a plural.) I often run into people who think Thou is a sacred word used only for God. The font of knowledge cites Webster saying that thou had vanished in southern England by about 1650. (Similarly in Dutch?)

I was told to be quite careful about vous and tu usage, but I'm told that tu/toi is getting to be fairly universal. I wonder if there is, or once was before the meaning was forgotten, a difference in attitude between addressing men equally ("When Adam delved") by being formal/respectful, or by being familiar.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Spur one another on

AVI expressed some worry about the popularity of mystical Christianity-Lite. As he says, if book X were so transformative, teachers and students should stand out as models of sanctity.

OK, that's hard to quantify, since the greatest is the servant of all, and therefore maybe not terribly visible. Unless, as he said, you have eyes to see.

Still, the winds of fashion blow through Christian literature just as strongly as they do elsewhere, and mostly blow tumbleweeds. I remember when the Prayer of Jabez was all the rage--in fact I was asked to lead a study on it. I declined and strongly suggested alternatives.

What should we study? Or more broadly, how should we be training each other? It is risky to ask me for an answer--recall that in the contest to be King of Beasts the lion said judge by the roar, the eagle said by how high they could fly, and so on.

Luke commended the Bereans for their careful study of Scriptures. I think we have lots of good opportunities for that, for people with a studious bent and some even for people without one. Paul commends the Macedonians for their generosity. We get lots of appeals for generosity--I'm not sure how well we respond overall.

But the bottom line is "What does God expect of us?" Faith, hope, love. Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Efforts to cultivate faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love. Or the three T's: charity, clarity, purity.

The knowledge, or "clarity" we have sermons and Bible studies for. And thematic studies, and life situation studies, and study studies for all I know. The other two T's demand practice. You don't become kind or patient from a worksheet or a sermon. Generosity, humility, self-control--you have to exercise these.

We don't need groups of the elect telling the rest of us what to do, of course. I, gifted with reasonably good health and pleasant circumstances may superficially seem like just as nice a person as you, who have achieved this through heroic virtue. I don't think the "elect" will be able to tell the difference.

"Spur one another on to love and good works." How?

"Hey, Bill, I like how you've been so humble lately!" Umm. Maybe not quite what the doctor ordered. Good try.

Still, encouraging encouragers seems like a good pastoral focus.

What else?

Maybe if groups focus on some aspect of Christian life or experience, read stories of great examples, practice together, each find a confidante or spiritual director for whichever practice each is trying to build up ("General purpose" spiritual directors are probably overbooked.) For example, for developing regular prayer, simple plans are probably good. Plan it and work the plan and get a little accountability. For pruning away fruitless parts of our lives--that can be a lot more intimate and not so easy to plan. Although things like "Quit watching Netflix for Advent" test runs are probably easy to arrange. "See what your life is like when you get up from the computer earlier."

I wonder how many churches use the equivalent of general officer to manage the logistics involved in putting together service teams. We live so far apart and our schedules are so booked that getting a group to help fell a tree for a widow can get complicated. At one church there was a somewhat mentally handicapped man who made it his service to the church to organize teams to help people move. He had his list of contacts, and he'd call up one after another until he had a team and vehicles. Some projects are a lot more complicated. Our church has pastors in charge of different functions of ministry, but we're not a small church.

Patience and joy are tough virtues to encourage in somebody else. I haven't met anybody yet who appreciated a call to "be patient" or "be happy (so I can think you're joyful)." Any ideas?

And how can we encourage the cultivation of love?

UPDATE: To clarify what I mean by "special purpose spiritual director" think of Titus 2:4; the older women teaching the younger.

Christmas history

From a review of a book:
By 1800, Christmas was in bad shape, associated largely with working-class drunkenness and violence. But in the early 19th century, Christmas "revivalists" like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens began recasting it as a generically religious, culturally wholesome, and family-centered holiday.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christmas Music 24x7

A local station goes to 24x7 Christmas music after Thanksgiving. I generally don't listen to it in December, unless I need traffic reports or something like that. I snaffled this afternoon's playlist, representing from 11:30 to 6, and counted up the contents. Some songs had different singers, or even instrumental versions--I counted them all the same. (The same singer/song combo appeared several times, e.g. "Holly Jolly Christmas" with Ives.)

Since this is an ancient Christian celebration, I thought I'd see if the songs were explicitly Christian, as opposed to referencing the trappings (bells, etc), but I refrain from further comment. Except: "Do They Know It's Christmas" isn't explicitly Christian but it seems to fit the season. I've never heard it.

4A Holly Jolly Christmas
4All I Want For Christmas Is You
1Ave Mariareligious
1Baby It's Cold Outside
2Blue Christmas
2Carol of the Bells
1Caroling, Caroling
2Celebrate Me Home
1Chipmunk Christmas
2Christmas Canon (instrumental)
2Christmas Eve in Sarajevo
2Christmas Time Is Here
2Do They Know it's Christmas*
2Do You Hear What I Hear?religious
1Dominick the Donkey
2Feliz Navidad
4Frosty the Snowman
2Happy Christmas
1Happy Holidays
1Hard Candy Christmas
4Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
3Here Comes Santa Claus
1Hey Santa!
1I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
1I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
1I'll Be Home for Christmas
3It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
2It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
2Jingle Bell Rock
1Jingle Bells
2Let It Snow
1Linus and Lucy
2Mele Kalikima
1O' Holy Nightreligious
1O' Tannenbaum- O' Christmas Treereligious
5Please Come Home for Christmas
1Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
2Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
1Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
1Silent Nightreligious
4Sleigh Ride
1The Christmas Shoes
1The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)
1The First Noelreligious
3The Little Drummer Boyreligious
1There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays
1Underneath the Tree
1Up On the Housetop
1Where Are You Christmas
4White Christmas
2Winter Wonderland
2Wonderful Christmastime

Thursday, December 08, 2016


I suppose it wasn't quite fair that John Glenn should have gotten so much of the fame, but I wasn't of an age to question it much, and I was thrilled with all the flights. We chanted countdowns at any opportunity. He was our hero.

It was a let-down when he went into politics, and at least one of his firm stances was not worthy of the man. But he tried and achieved more than all but a very few of us, and he represented us in our adventure, just as his fellow-Ohioan Armstrong did. Fare well, and may God receive you.

I wonder who we have today like him? Would we hear about them?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Testing and reality

The sermon today was on God testing Abraham. (Abraham hadn't always done very well under stress before.) We all know the story and the complications.

Why would God need to test Abraham, though? Doesn't He already know everything? One answer I heard to that was "Well, yes He does, but now Abraham knows too." True, but not entirely satisfying.

Let me chase a rabbit a bit.

One of the principles of quantum mechanics is that an object can be in a set of a number of different states simultaneously. An anonymous electron is flying through space. Which direction is it's spin pointing?

Unless you measure it, you don't know. If you haven't measured it, the correct and accurate way to treat it is as though it was a bit of both at the same time. If you don't calculate as though that were the case, the results don't work. When you do the results look great.

The spin isn't pointing forward, or backward, until you measure it. Then you can say "The spin points forward for this electron." It doesn't really do that until you measure it. Before a test, before a measurement, you can say "This is a mix of states X, Y, and Z" After the test you can say "This is state Y." It was a mix of states (potentially only one), now it is only one.

Maybe a test is a way of making something real, and not just potential, in our lives. Potentially, I'd be a steadfast martyr. Potentially, I'd burn a pinch of incense after a few lashes or perhaps merely after being ostracized. A test would make me one or the other. In the meantime, neither is really real.

Please do not construe this as a request for hard testing. I regularly pray to not be lead into that.