Sunday, December 31, 2017

Chronicles of Matthew Paris

The edition I have only goes up through 1250, where he lays down his pen. And later picks it up for another 9 years.

Early on he describes a painting of Christ in Majesty with the Church and Synagogue. Near the end he describes Henry III's extortion of money from the Jews, whom he accused of fraud--to Matthew's satisfaction but modern suspicion.

In the last year or two he describes wild weather, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and he describes the destruction of the 7'th Crusade. (St. Louis was unable to keep the competing egos in check, didn't have good planning or support, and seriously overreached.) Some people "took the cross" in order to collect donations, but without any serious intention of going to fight.

This bit of description has an interesting assumption built into it... Matthew is being a bit snarky.

The above-mentioned special clerk of the lord king, whose wealth attained to episcopal heights ...

An empty church is one without a priest or bishop to receive the income from it, and the king, except when there was a special exemption, had veto power over who got appointed. Unless he decided to ignore the exemption. And Innocent IV never had enough money either, and any appointments or other requests had to be well-lubricated. Quite a bit of the chronicles describe one or the other kind of novel extortion and waste. Innocent and Frederick were at war, and fortunes of war meant that large amounts of extorted money wound up lost.

He doesn't describe traditional exactions, unfortunately.

This was an era in which the barons fought the crown from time to time, and we, from the perspective of the heirs of the winners, think the dominance of the crown was the right goal--centralize the rule of law. But at the time, it wasn't quite so obvious, and the crown was exceedingly arbitrary--and stupid. Some themes seem quite familiar: in order to maintain a reputation for generosity to the poor, despite his lack of liquidity, Henry III visited London and told Londoners that their traditional New Years' presents would be given to him this year.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Random notes

Walgreens has Marvel Fantastic Four Body Wash for sale. I suppose the target group is young kids, though I wasn't aware that young comic fans went in for body wash in a big way. What does this team's endorsement convey to an adult? Will you have skin that looks like Thing or that feels like Human Torch?

Eldest Son told me that one of the fragmentary plays from ancient Greece had been "completed" by a modern writer. I asked him if this qualified as "fan fiction." He said he'd already thought of that, and asked for a verdict on the matter from the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. (They said it was a middle ground; probably have to look at it.) I gather from him that reworkings of old plays are often seriously anachronistic.

The Milwaukee Public Museum had an exhibit on weapons, and one of the last displays held a wheel-lock pistol with 2 wheels on one barrel. I didn't remember hearing of such a Roman-candle-esque device, but there it was, and it shows up in the history of firearms. I wonder how often the first charge over-compressed and went off spontaneously after the outer charge was fired.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


It looks like George Weah will be the next Liberian president. He'll be called a footballer (or soccer player), and there'll probably be some obsolete mention of his lack of formal education (he got a business degree from DeVry U in Florida(*) in 2011). But if I read the numbers right, he's been in politics for a dozen years now--not quite as long as his football career, but comparable.

It looks as though 60% wanted Weah rather than the existing Vice President Boakai. There have been charges of nepotism and corruption for several years aimed at Ellen and Boakai--possibly they stuck and people wanted a clean house. Maybe 12 years in politics honed Weah's skills a bit. Maybe there aren't enough Kissi and related tribes for Boakai to match the Kru and supporting tribes for Weah.

Or all of the above to some degree. Pretty much all the information I get is filtered by the Liberian media or through fairly well-off Liberians in the US.

Both men had joined the Poro : Weah in 2005 and Boakai in 2017 (or very early in life if a spokesman told the truth). That's an aspect of the Liberian political scene that I have no way of analyzing. Even if I were on the scene in Liberia, the Poro is a secret society. How do the leaders of the Poro exert influence and for what purposes? No clue.

Weah converted from Christianity to Islam, and then back again, if Wikipedia may be believed. I'm not sure what to make of that, either.

It looks like a simple headline--Former footballer elected President--but things are much more curious when you look closer.

At any rate, I wish him and Liberia the best. He'll have an interesting term--the UN will probably withdraw its peacekeeping troops during his tenure, and that will have an unhappy effect on the economy. For which he'll probably be blamed. It's traditional.

(*) It is in the top 35% of business programs in the US.

The photo of him in the first link shows microphones labled "UNMIL Radio." I didn't realize that the UN military ran a radio station. I'm really out of the loop...

Monday, December 25, 2017

Love of things

Faithful stuffed rabbit
No longer shares his dreaming
His baby love grew

But it was real love. Though the rabbit could not love him back, it had been a token of love for him, and so in a way it did, and it was fitting that he find it lovable too. And not just of our love, but of the love of the One who planned that the things of the world serve as instruments of love.

A blanket, meant to comfort, stands in for deeper comfort in a new role as companion. I smiled, and tried to remember--there are pictures, after all...

Bunny is worn. He was set aside, and inherited for a while by his sister in the same role, and set aside again. But love is never lost to God.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Why Bethlehem

The prim live in a world of illusion. Not just the prim; many of the comfortable and the confident too.

Farrar said

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

O Holy Night

I wrote before that you could usually tell which version of a song was the original language, although sometimes the results were equally good.

I heard a little history of O Holy Night the other day, and decided to look up the French Minuit, chrétiens. "Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight" did a superlative translation: it is almost seamless, and "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices" is a marvelously evocative line. And Cappeau did wonders in the original.

The US wiki says "the parish priest asked Cappeau, a native of the town, to write a Christmas poem, even though the latter never showed any interest in religion, and Cappeau obliged." The French wiki says "Placide Cappeau, un négociant en vin qui était républicain, socialiste et anticlérical, prétendit lui-même l'avoir écrit ... dans la diligence qui le conduisait à Paris ..." (Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant who was republican, socialist, and anti-clerical, claimed to have written it on a trip to Paris) and goes on to explain the actual shared credit and where it was written. Interesting choice of writer, but clearly Maurice Gilles knew his man.

The guest on the program said abolitionists made the song popular in the US.

UPDATE: Fixed the "translation."

Boredom again

Always check to see if someone said it better, before clicking "Publish" ...
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tolerance for Boredom

We took some Chinese students to the "traveler's Christmas Eve service" tonight. The music was the old carols put to a slightly different tempo. Everybody caught on pretty quickly.

At the end of one song the lead singer took the last two words very slowly. Everybody else sang at the expected speed. Mismatch, and not in a good way...

I propose that one of the characteristics churches should look for in music leaders is a vast tolerance for boredom.

You, and all the popular singers of the past decades who cut Christmas albums, are able to jazz up the old familiar tune with some new musical twists. That's nice. If you plan to involve the congregation in singing, you have to let them know what to sing and when. You've heard that version of that song hundreds of times; you probably feel like WalMart employees hearing the music loop for the 325'th time today. I'll bet you're bored.

I know what boredom can do. I remember planning a Bible study by collecting all the obscure details around a passage. That was cute, but what I thought was illustration was just clutter unless the point of the passage came first. We'd all read it before, but it doesn't hurt to cover the basics again.

"But what's the point of all my training if all I do is the same old stuff?" It's not about you; not about me.

If we're going to serve at all, we have to be willing to be bored.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Same coin

I'm not up to speed on Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and when I saw Althouse's post I figured I should get some notion of what those ideologues were up to these days. One of the comments led me to a NYT article explaining how Coates and Richard Spencer both believe in the primal importance of race and the overwhelming power of whiteness, and where Williams quotes Spencer as saying "This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist. This is why I'm actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip." I suspect that his confidence is not altogether unjustified, btw--fashions can turn on a dime and the people noisiest about being allies typically don't seem to be investing any of their effort or money in helping individuals. Maybe they hide it very well, not letting the left hand know what the right is doing?(*)

I wrote about the same sort of thing years ago: both right and left in Madison shared a belief in the omnipotence of the USA. If you point out that problem X is beyond our capacity to solve, you get called defeatist or a tool of the oppressors.

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth." (On Reading Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

(*)"Christ did not love humanity, He never said He loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it is like loving a gigantic centipede." Chesterton

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Defined by relationships?

I noticed that behind the scenes most math is defined in terms of relationships, operations, mapping, and interaction. Even things like the ordinary counting numbers—you can find a definition of a non-negative integer in terms of the characteristic unique to all sets that have that many elements. (That sounds a bit circular, doesn't it?) One hot topic tries to treat vast swaths of math in terms of objects and morphisms.

This has been extremely fruitful.

The same sort of approach of defining things in terms of their operations seems to be able to produce quite complex machines, whether physical or organizational. It is very convenient to define people-roles in terms of their interactions and operations: "We need N of type AAZ and M of type CBZ." The more interchangeable the components are, the more efficiently you can feed and run the system—at least in theory. If everyone is identical except for minor education and training differences, you can feed as many of each people-role as you need into the hopper, and shift them around like checkers. (It helps if they have no personal attachments, so you can ship the components around the world at will.)

But this kind of abstraction is well known to induce some push-back from the unique individuals who find themselves thus categorized. And, funny thing, there turn out to be irreducible differences that make people non-interchangeable for some of those people-roles.

And the apparent circularity of some definitions strongly suggests to me that there needs to be some room for some fundamental objects in mathematics. I haven't run across a good definition of a "geometric point" that isn't circular in some way.

And if you only think of defining things by their transformations and mappings, you don't have much mental space for thinking about things like Forms or aseity. (Does that mindset account for the rise of process theology?) People and things are contingent and largely defined by relationships (just don’t try to abstract too much away!), but that doesn't prove everything is.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Shortcuts to forgetfulness

'All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.' Blaise Pascal If you've electronic media, you're not quite alone--imagine sitting quietly in a room without them, and without books or anything to write on or play with. Just being alone--can you do it?

This morning in Bible study one man cited the received wisdom that "You have to love yourself before you can love others." I wondered at the group if that was 100% true. It seemed sometimes as though what was really needed was self-forgetfulness in admiration of the beloved. We didn't come to a conclusion on my counter proposal.

I'm convinced that a certain kind of self-forgetfulness can be a good thing. If your life and loves are not ordered properly and you don't do a little self-reflection/self-examination, you won't get out of your trouble; you'll just dig yourself in deeper. I don't mean we should be feckless.

"Drunken monkeys" or an incessant judgmental narrative isn't the way our lives are supposed to work. Our motors are misfiring badly, and it is painful to listen to ourselves sometimes. Or perhaps the observing swamps the doing or the being, and we get into trouble. Ask a player to explain how he is catching the ball, and watch his performance crumble. When you're in the groove, you don't think about how you feel.

Achieving "the groove" is hard, and so is quieting drunken monkeys. There has to be an easier way.

Amusements: a-"muse"-ments--things to keep us from thinking (e.g. about ourselves) for a while. "Drown his sorrows in a bottle" is a cliche--and therefore likely true of a lot of people, who I guess are looking for self-forgetfulness. Or something magnificently exciting--sex, or (for some of us) sports.

We can't sit still. So--Netflix. Or chemicals to force us to be mellow about ourselves.

Friday, December 15, 2017


The National Interest story on the Kugelpanzer assumes that this one-man "tank" was supposed to be--well--a tank. (The picture for the story is completely irrelevant.)

"Thus, the Kugelpanzer was likely designed with some other purpose in mind." I can take a guess.

They didn't have the technology to build exoskeletons, so they made up a kind of personal armor instead. I think that instead of Iron Man flying through the air, they wanted supermen rolling around the battlefield. 5mm of armor isn't a lot, but I'm imagining a whole bunch of these coming over the hill at once...

Yes, you're right--a maintenance nightmare and expensive as all get-out.

Monday, December 11, 2017


Over a dozen years ago I wrote about diversity in a university setting. If I were writing it today I might revisit some of the things I wrote about learning styles.

My bottom line was that "diversity" is not a goal but a means to an end.

Note carefully: I am not saying that invidious discrimination is justifiable. That is a different issue. I am saying that "diversity" as such ought not be made into a goal.

Can you think of a single case in which diversity is not merely a means?

  • A diversity of ethnic restaurants : stimulate a jaded palate.
  • A diversity of research groups in a university department : sometimes you get cross-fertilization. Such groups have finite lifetimes, and if there’s only one group incoming students have no research to join when it dies.
  • A diversity of viewpoints on the jury : look at the question from as many sides as possible to arrive at the truth
  • A diversity of ethnicities in kindergarten : if that's what the neighborhood is—you want everyone to have a basic education
  • A diversity of ethnicities in a church : the church is catholic—everyone God made is called
  • A diversity of peoples on Earth : OK, this one is above my pay grade, but I suspect the reason was to have as many ways to display and share facets of God’s goodness as possible. We've messed the goodness part up.
  • Mandated diversity : full employment for the diversity professionals

Because it is a means and not an end, diversity can fail to accomplish the end, or even prevent it. For example, a completely diverse jury would include Mafiosi, and if you have too many research groups in a department they are too small to do any work.

When you confuse means and ends, you distort the ends and don't do a good job with the means. If "Diversity is one of our goals" in a research group, that tells me that they no longer care wholeheartedly about truth, but want to employ people on the basis of something other than understanding they bring to the table. They try to become a "full employment agency."

Sunday, December 10, 2017


I need to keep an eye out for Pie: A History. From BBC:
The cases, which could be several inches thick, according to Janet Clarkson, author of Pie: A History, were perhaps not even intended to be edible. Even once fat had begun to be added to the dough, bringing us into the realm of modern pastry, a pie crust was still sometimes considered more as a kind of primitive Tupperware.

A well-baked meat pie, with liquid fat poured into any steam holes left open and left to solidify, might even be kept for up to a year, with the crust apparently keeping out air and spoilage. It seems difficult to fathom today, but as Clarkson reflects, "it was such a common practice that we have to assume that most of the time consumers survived the experience".

Saturday, December 09, 2017

I Sleep in Hitler's Room, by Tuvia Tenenbom

I’m glad I read The Lies They Tell first.

I wish Tenenbom had tried to use different fonts to distinguish observations, fantasies, and questions. Other people's responses are in quotations, but he mixes then and later musings together freely.

Early on in I Sleep in Hitler's Room he meets a friendly hardline Nazi in Club 88, who thinks he’s a fellow-traveler. He is appalling. So are the friendly Turks and other Muslims who also hate Jews. So is the willful blindness of the other Germans and the media to the Muslim hatred of Jews. Thus far there's nothing terribly controversial in the book—if you look hard enough you can find Nazis, Muslim attitudes towards Jews are well known, and so is the make-believe about those attitudes.

He "discovers" the equally-well-known connection between leftist politics and detestation of Israel. Since German politics tends left—surprise! Disproportionate condemnation of Israel. (When challenged about Chechnya or other problems, most of those he talks to seem to have no notion of what he's talking about.)

Having read The Lies first, I’m a bit suspicious of his sampling for this book. He claims in the preface that it is representative, and tells the story of how his publisher screamed at him and refused to publish the book without multiple changes and deletions. (The publisher tells a different story.)

This is important, because one claim that crops up over and over is that the Jews run finance and governments. Is the attitude really that widespread?

Tenenbom makes numerous wry references to how he ought to spend his share of this vast wealth Jews allegedly control. It is humorous at first, but after a while I noticed how much he was spending. No, he doesn’t run Goldman Sachs, but a New York theater director doesn't seem to have to make the same hard financial choices as most of the rest of us.

That Jews are disproportionately represented in such positions is well known. It is perhaps less well remembered that they are also disproportionately represented among Nobel Prize winners and other measures of accomplishment (as opposed to control). So perhaps the attitude is widespread. It doesn't appear in the circles I frequent. It does show up in online comment sections--but I've no way to estimate how common it is in the general public.

One scene, in which a family invites him to dinner, ends with him leaving the man crying. Tuvia doesn't come across as the most pleasant of guests.

He finds a staggering number of Germans who allege a Jewish grandparent, and pretty much everybody asserts that either their parents 1) had no idea what was going on or 2) never talked about it. He also finds references to Israel or the Holocaust everywhere, and professes to be annoyed with it.

Two of his favorite opening questions are "Are you proud to be a German?" and "What does it mean to be German?" The latter is probably not answerable, and the former isn't much better.

IIRC, after WWII, the Allied powers had a problem: they could assert (with some accuracy) that the bulk of the Germans were complicit in crimes, and try to punish accordingly. Or they could distinguish Nazis from normal Germans, and blame the Nazis—who were plainly more guilty. What eventually resulted seems to have been a hybrid: officially the Nazis are blamed and ordinary Germans absolved, but unofficially everybody equates WWII Germans and Nazis, and blames Germans in general. The former seems like a recipe for encouraging people to try to hide everything, pretend it didn't happen, and try not to draw attention to themselves—and maybe the poison would decay away with the next generation. In practice it seems to me as though people were asked to take a kind of attenuated blame for something they felt officially absolved for. I wonder if that would encourage ways of "baming the victim." Mix that (especially among the guiltless second and third generations!) with the popular leftist rule of "blame the powerful," and concentrating on Israeli villainy seems to follow naturally.

Back to Tuvia: He concludes that German anti-Semitism has "to do more with the psychological history of the German than with thought-out anti-Semitism." "Polish anti-Semitism, as far as I can tell, is grounded in religion. Germany’s is grounded in psychology and narcissism." (ditto for Islamic anti-Semitism) "It will be much easier to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Arabs and Jews in general, than to uproot the Jew hate of the German. The first two are on the table, no surprises; the third is wrapped in heavy brainy arguments and eye-blinding magical color shows in addition to being hidden behind the many masks so common to our present-day Western culture."

Hold the phone. Jew-hatred grounded in religion is "on the table?" Tuvia was raised Orthodox, but is no longer religious, and it shows.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Tuvia Tenenbom

AVI pointed out a link about antisemitism in Germany. The source for the article is a book by Tuvia Tenenbom, a journalist writing about people he talked to in Germany. I Sleep in Hitler's Room hasn't arrived at the local library yet, but The Lies They Tell was handy.

Tuvia is Jewish, but usually pretends to be German in this picaresque tale of his experiences during a 6-month tour of the US. He likes to go to the strange or dangerous places. And he wants, in particular, to find out how/why people like or dislike Jews. (And why Jews seem to detest Jews.) And whether belief in climate change correlates with dislike for Israel.

He tells the stories well, and professes to have discovered unexpected delight in the American landscape, in driving, and even in shooting. In the end, he determines that Americans are afraid to speak, racist, and rather hypocritical--and, as one rarely finds in the world, ashamed of being tribal.

The problem with his conclusions is that he picked and chose the people he wrote about in depth. I don't believe he met that few people on his trip. Drama and contrast he wanted--that's what he put in.

He might object that the majority of the people along the way were busy with their phones or their netflix and weren't available to interact with him. But seriously--what fraction of the people in the USA own 100 guns? And I generally don't have any difficulty in learning who people voted for--they often volunteer that. (Whatever became of secret ballots?)

In one chapter he interviews Untermeyer, who was unaware of the depth of Jew-hatred in officialdom of Qatar and Saudi Arabia--ambassadors get escorted in, and don't see their documents rewritten to have a birthplace of New York rather than Tel Aviv.

What seems to leave him most aghast is the way people fret over Palestinians without a care for the homeless a few blocks away. That seems a bit overdrawn to me--I know people who are somewhat like that, but there's a little nuance in their attitudes that Tuvia didn't see, or didn't report.

He understands enough to know that you have to visit churches if you want to know the people here, but he's pretty tone-deaf. His "superiority" grates after a while.

Yes, read it--people like them are out there--but don't trust his conclusions.

And when the book on Germany arrives, I'll try to calibrate his reporting on Germany accordingly.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Showing love

Love came to Earth as someone who needed to be loved. His first gift was an opportunity for us (in the persons of Mary and Joseph) to love.

Citizen science

A writer for Aeon is deeply suspicious of "citizen science", judging it to be a scam to get free labor for big businesses.
The very label ‘citizen science’ (as opposed to, say, ‘amateur’ or ‘extramural’) carries the unsubtle suggestion that science should be a participatory democracy, not an unpalatable, autocratic regime. Proponents claim that it has all manner of salutary side-effects. People will get the knowledge they want through direct action, it’s argued, instead of having it shoved down their throats by some Ivy-league elitist. Getting a hands-on appreciation for research will help to dispel the worrisome doubts that certain citizens now possess about the legitimacy of scientific authority. And when it comes to medicine, discoveries of novel therapies are increasingly rare, despite the desperate manoeuvres of the pharmaceuticals industry; citizen participation should speed up research and make it much easier to replicate results. Finally, the retraction and replication crises that have besieged academic journals suggest that ‘proper’ science might not be so proper, anyway. Perhaps it’s time to consider alternatives.

(There are several straw men in that passage. Can you count them?)


But things lose their lustre when you look a little closer. It’s not a coincidence that citizen science lowers the cost of research that requires lots of routinised labour. Thankfully, we’re flush with design tools that manage to transform repetitive, mindless behaviour into something strangely fun and addictive: games. Galaxy Zoo, a non-profit, amateur astronomy project initially set up with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, asks participants to scan millions of celestial images for common galactic morphologies; to keep their attention, players can spell out words with constellations, or win points for certain cute galactic structures. Smartfin, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, gets surfers to attach a sensor to their boards and collect data on salinity, temperature and the like, all of which is pinged back to Scripps once the surfer makes it back to the beach and hooks up the fin to a smartphone. Hundreds of ‘camera traps’, scattered around the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, capture images of creatures that can then be identified by users at Snapshot Serengeti, thus keeping track of animal populations; to amuse themselves, people can attach comments to their favourite photographs (lolgoats, perhaps, rather than lolcats).

And he goes on from there to find what he considers dubious funding sources and worry at length about who benefits from all this.

Do people who participate in these things consider themselves scientists? Or do they think of themselves as assistants? Collecting data is one thing, figuring out how to use it is another.

NSF-funded experiments such as IceCube are required to make their data public, but to get something meaningful out of it requires some disciplines that most people don't pick up on automatically. We're very good at pattern recognition, but sometimes the first pattern you see doesn't actually tell you what you want to know.

A for-instance: you can use the IceCube data to discover that there are seasonal changes in the number of cosmic rays you see. The effect is easy to spot, and someone naively looking at plots might think they'd discovered something new and mysterious. What happens is that at ground level you see the remnants of cosmic ray showers that begin in the upper atmosphere. When the air is warmer (summer), it expands higher, and the cosmic ray showers start higher up. (We keep track of best estimates of upper atmosphere air temperature to go along with our data.)

Or you could use something like those population density maps in the cartoon above to discover that there are more crimes where there are more people. Not a surprise: if you look instead at the number of crimes divided by the number of people (the rate), you'd find that the distribution doesn't look the same--some places with more people have higher crime rates, others not so much. You could see how the violent crime rate varies with the rate of car ownership, or density of bars, or rate of single parent households. It isn't hard to think of things to compare it with, and with a little training you can figure out how to study the problem in one variable. I was going to say "It isn't rocket science," but maybe that's misleading. Keeping track of multiple variable is harder, and figuring out which are correlated with which takes quite a bit of care. (Quiz--if you use the number of schools in an area as one variable, should you also use the number of children as a variable at the same time?)

The basic disciplines that science requires are things I think most people can acquire at some level: how to think about analyzing a problem into its "moving parts," to be strictly honest and willing to challenge your own hypotheses, and so on. Those are good disciplines to have. But studying complex problems is hard enough that most people don't care to invest the time--and some can't manage the math that usually turns up. But so long as I don't delude myself into thinking I'm Rembrandt, I think doing a little drawing myself is good. It can help you see. Likewise, learning to do a little scientific analysis can help you see.

Justin Vandenbroucke developed a cool cosmic ray detector that anyone can carry with them. If enough people use it, the distributed data collected might be useful in discovering patterns in cosmic ray fluxes in the Earth's magnetic field (for example). Right now it is mostly just educational. And most of the people running the app are concentrated in a few places in the US and Europe, so the detectors don't have a lot of planetary coverage.

Spencer Axani designed a little box muon detector that lights up when a charged particle goes through. He had a stack of these in the lab across from my office, and you could sometimes see where several lit up in a line. One of these boxes is a toy. A stack of them is a demonstration system. If there were a way to collect data from them remotely, a hundred thousand spread around would be a cosmic shower detector.

Having a cosmic ray detection app, or a box, doesn't teach me much about science, or how it works. That's a shame. But it helps teach about what's around us that we don't notice--just like the people counting moth populations.