Monday, May 28, 2018

"It is time for"

Back in '08 I heard it claimed that we should all vote for Obama because "it is time for a black man to be president." To be as kind as possible, this is not rigorously persuasive. Similar claims abounded in '16--though I suspect these were only persuasive to the already-decided.

But under what conditions does "it is time for group X to have a representative as leader" become a persuasive argument?

The most obvious case is when the office is purely honorary, and we assign it to this or that person in turn, in recognition of their accomplishments or those of the group we call on them to represent. Legislators spend a little time on school children's proposals to designate state birds, state landforms, and so on. It's part of teaching kids how government works. The outcome doesn't matter--if every state has vanilla as its state ice cream flavor, maybe it's the turn of butter pecan.

I'm not sure this is the case with the US President. Plenty of power still inheres in the office, despite the vast unaccountable bureaucracy that never stops growing. Discard this case.

With that option out of the way we come to grimmer prospect. If we rule out "it doesn't make a difference" we're left with "it makes a difference." That difference can be symbolic or substantive.

If it is symbolic, and is only done for encouragement, this implies three presuppositions--actually four.

  1. Said group regards itself as distinct from the rest.
  2. It needs encouragement.
  3. The symbol will effectively encourage.
  4. And that there is no plausible way for any of the selected group to achive that position on their own.

That sounds a bit patronizing. And notice that all four requirements are necessary but not sufficient--there can be any number of reasons why is is useful but not time right now.

On the other hand, if simple use of a symbol is going to be effective, whatever it may be that seems to separate the group must not be very dire. That can argue for or against using the symbol: "it isn't badly needed" vs "easy to fix."

The other option--that the difference is substantive--represents a very bad situation.

It means that the interests of the different groups are substantively different, and that members of one group cannot be trusted to respect the interests of any other. The reason it is the "turn" of group X is that without their turn in power they will be oppressed, and may turn violent. You can easily find examples of this sort of thing in multi-ethnic governments. Lebanon worried along with a system in which different ethnicities were assigned different positions in government--because without such a balance of power they tried to kill each other. BTW, the system broke down.

Is that what you want to say we have? Not e pluribus unum, but warring tribes? If warring tribes is what we have, that's what we have, and we must deal with it. Ugly compromises will have to be made--the US Constitution includes a few (and a clever one--the Electoral College).

I want "e pluribus unum." I want "neither Jew nor Greek." I want us "all in this together." But if we've gotten too big to hold together, I want some clarity in the discussion.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Entertainments and pleasures

From Utopia of Usurers
Every religion, apart from open devil worship, must appeal to a virtue or the pretence of a virtue. But a virtue, generally speaking, does some good to everybody. It is therefore necessary to distinguish among the people it was meant to benefit those whom it does benefit. Modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich; and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich; and meant to benefit nobody else. And if you think this unwarranted, I will put before you one plain question. There are some pleasures of the poor that may also mean profits for the rich: there are other pleasures of the poor which cannot mean profits for the rich? Watch this one contrast, and you will watch the whole creation of a careful slavery.


A house with a decent fire and a full pantry would be a better house to make a chair or mend a clock in, even from the customer’s point of view, than a hovel with a leaky roof and a cold hearth. But a house with a decent fire and a full pantry would also be a better house in which to refuse to make a chair or mend a clock—a much better house to do nothing in—and doing nothing is sometimes one of the highest of the duties of man.

Even the "free" pleasure of surfing the net demands some money for a machine and a network connection. The free pleasure of singing or whistling to yourself seems to be little-exercised.

Of course "doing nothing," while it may be a high duty, is also a chore magnet.

I have never understood why Satanism gets to be classified as a religion, when it is by construction an anti-religion.

Teenage money

During a conversation with my Better Half, she suggested that the 50's and 60's had a sea change in entertainment, teenagers had money and entertainers were eager to flatter them.

Which led me to wonder: where did they get their money? From the number of economic illiterates who litter this county I incline to a sneaking suspicion many just got it from their parents' miraculous money well, but apparently the same sort of confusion was popular back in the 20's and 30's.

Some teenage money was earned, but at least since the 70's that's been dropping assuming the years selected are representative: from 1974 to 2014 the proportion of teenagers with a summer job dropped from about 57% to about 33%--a bit over 40% decline. I'd like to know what it looked like from the postwar era on--I'd be interested in seeing if it rose. Since a lot of students didn't finish high school, I'd think it started pretty high--the graph at the link mixes students and the self-supporting.

It may be hard to tease out the information--maybe the details exists for married vs unmarried teenage employment. Before I go diving, does anybody know an easy place to find out?

(I think the decline in summer jobs is terrible. Education isn't just sitting through classes and taking tests.)

Hindu musing

In irrelevant reading I found that a woman interested in becoming a Hindu was told that her best chance was to be reincarnated as a Dalit.

Yes, I thought that rather odd. This popped up as the first reference. Executive summary: some experts say you can convert, but probably you can't, and you are going to have the caste you inherited. Details of belief may vary, but caste is cast in stone.

We know the obvious conflicts between Christian and Hindu doctrine--their claims cannot both be true. Jesus said that the one who would be greatest must be the servant of all. That would be the Dalits. Christianity stands their caste system on its head. I'm imagining a Brahmin hoping to be reincarnated as an Untouchable...

Brat Fest

I've worked in the Madison area (with a year and a half stationed in Illinois) for 33 years and never been to the world's largest brat fest.. I'm not a huge fan of crowds and over-amped bands. Or 92 degree heat.

But someone locked keys inside the van, so as long as I was there already...

The battling bands had their speakers oriented to not interfere with each other much: somebody has been planning well. The centerpiece is the brat tent (well, for a lot of people the centerpieces were the beer tents), which was wide and 2-sided and quite fast: 30 seconds of being in line and 10 seconds to buy and I was headed to the condiment tent. I had my choice of celebrity cashiers: a local NPR radio personality, Miss Wisconsin, or a middle school teacher. (I went with the teacher.)

Just like any fair, there was a midway, and there were booths for this and that, and kid crafts and a petting zoo, and a pond to watch birds by, and a horse show (aren't fairs like that where you live?). And, in honor of Memorial Day, they had a subset of the Vietnam memorial with pictures of Wisconsin soldiers who had died in the war.

At 92 degrees it wasn't crowded at all.

Maybe in another 33 years I'll go to State Street Halloween.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Splashing is complicated

But it looks like some MIT engineers may have found one of the keys to understanding droplet formation. Jerk matters.

For some reason this reminds me a bit of the oddity with bubbles: with a bubble on each end of a straw, the pressure is lower inside the bigger bubble, so it grows and the smaller shrinks.


I wondered who would be the best patron saint of computers or of computer managers. For the latter, I figured St. Barbara(*), although St. Dymphna was plausible too.

It turns out that somebody already worked it out: A scholar named St. Isidore is supposed to be the patron of computers and maybe the internet too.

(*) Patron of artillery men and mathematicians (?). If you wonder how this applies to computers, think of this: I often do.


On the topic of simple things: Read about the history of the "Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type I".

"In a pinch it might be used as a screwdriver to help field strip a weapon, cut seams on a uniform, or scrape mess kits clean. To accomplish a mission it could strike flint, measure inches, strip wire, deflate tires, adjust a carburetor, or pick inside a wound. Need a box cutter, marking tool, or decorations on a makeshift Christmas tree?"

The article claims that it was not named after the airplane, and that some suspect that it and its bigger "also-not-named-after-an-airplane" brother the P-51 were named after the number of squeezes needed to open a can. I humbly submit that it probably was named in honor of the plane, especially given the second name. Looked at from the side by a child or a tipsy adult, the tool has an airplane look to it. I have a mental picture of a couple of little boys playing zoom zoom airplane with prototypes that daddy brought home from work.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Until you see the whites of their eyes

The group photo had us standing on the hill and looking down at the cameraman. He had a clever idea: "Close your eyes and open them when my countdown reaches 1". He wanted to cut down on blinking. It was not 100% successful.

Dark eyes everywhere.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


On the way back from Louisville we detoured and spent about an hour and a half fossil-hunting in the Mazon Creek park. There were once coal strip mines, and the tailings include some very well-preserved soft-bodied fossils. The loop we walked was very much overgrown and covered with long dry grass and medium height green grass, alive with ticks. (We disposed of at least 60 on the first leg of the trip--very few on the rest.) Here and there one could find a few promising rocks, but the bulk of those I picked up were by the road.

You can sometimes crack a rock open with a hammer, but that's not reliable and can crack it in the wrong plane to view anything. The approved approach is to soak them in water and then freeze them--perhaps repeatedly. We'll see. I picked up quite a few opened and discarded rocks by the roadside--some of which look rather jelly-fishy. Somebody was impatient.

The strip mines are now oddly shaped lakes, with hills in between.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Two extremely different bloggers, Joseph Moore and Lubos Motl, recently wrote about the role of engineering in the world, coming to the same conclusion--without a lot of dedication to making things work, and work better, all the knowledge in the world comes to nothing.

And as Lubos points out even the knowledge of how-to (e.g. The Manual for Civilization) requires enough people actually doing it in order to have the resources to build more.

(How do you make a screw by yourself? You use a lathe? Who makes the parts to fix your lathe?) You need a critical mass of people who not only know how, but are actually doing stuff, in order to make better stuff.

I remember a sci-fi story from a collection ages ago in which an exec sold his soul to the devil for youth, time travel to before Henry Ford, complete specs for building a car, and enough $$ of the correct vintage to start building his factory. In the town he arrived in, the local metallurgist was a blacksmith. They knew more at a university, of course, but getting the new-fangled kinds of steel was going to be hard even in small batches. (Spoiler--he forgot to check the fine print and didn't wind up with the youth he needed either.). Even with prior knowledge, it was going to take about as long for him to build his car as it did in the real world.

Even the little pencil I linked to in an earlier post--you can construct something crude that mostly works, but the modern version has so many refinements that nobody could make one by himself. Build your own toaster?

Yes, I run into people who think they're incredibly smart because they can use the technology that a team of other people designed, and many teams of other people made, and an invisible army provides the infrastructure for.


I'd had the impression, maybe driven mostly by the book of Job, that when people asked God "Why?" they didn't generally get an explanation, but something else instead.

Time to go find out. I got the KJV from Project Gutenberg and looked up all the why's and wherefore's.

First off, sometimes the question "Why?" is purely rhetorical (e.g. Judges 21:3, where they know perfectly well why a tribe is now going to be missing, or Exodus 32:11 where Moses is arguing with God).

Second, lots of times the question is a plea for help rather than for an explanation (Psalm 10:1, 22:1, 42:9, 44:23, 74:1,11, 80:12, 88:14, 89:47; Why have you forsaken/forgotten/hidden from us?, or Isaiah 63:17 Why did you make us err from your ways?, Jeremiah 14:8,19, Lam 5:20)

Third, sometimes He does answer and it turns out to be "because of your sins" (Joshua 7:7, Isaiah 58:3, Jer 5:19, Jer 13:20, 16:10, 22:8, 22:28, Malachi 2:14). When there is an explanation given, this is it--but sometimes this is explicitly not the explanation (see the rebuke to Job's friends, or John 9:3.

Jesus' disciples often ask "Why?", but they don't really know who they are talking to yet, so I don't think I'll count those.

I found just a handful of other cases:

    Numbers 11:11 Moses asks God why he is afflicting Moses with all this responsibility. God says to appoint elders to help him. I take it Moses was asking for help, and got it, so this is like the second case above, but with an answer.

    Judges 6:13 Gideon asks God why is all this befallen us if God is with us? God says go, I'm sending you.

    Jeremiah 15:18 Why is my pain perpetual? God answers: I will make you strong

    Jeremiah 12:1 Why does the way of the wicked prosper? God answers--are you giving up so soon?

    Exodus 5:22 Moses asks God why he was sent, because things look worse than before. God answers "Now you will see"

    Habakkuk 1:3,13 Why do you show me evil? Why do you allow evil? God answers: wait for the judgment, it will come

    Job: Job asks lots of why's: God does not address any of them but shows what he is like and asks if Job can deal with even that

    Ezekiel 18:19 Rhetorical Why? Doesn't the son bear the iniquity of the father? God answers "No, he doesn't."

    Matthew 27:46,Mark 15:34 Jesus asks "Why have you forsaken me?" He gets no immediate answer

So sometimes the answer is "Wait and see" and sometimes "Be strong." And sometimes it is "Repent." And there's God's answer to Job "Can you do what I do?" with the implicit "If not, how can you understand the why?"

I skipped the Apocrypha. Sorry about that. If my memory doesn't deceive me, they wouldn't change the results much.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Wealth and choice

More money usually brings more opportunities, which is always good until it isn't. Too many choices and you wind up wasting time context switching, not to mention the bright ideas that never go anywhere. Remember Toad of Toad Hall? If you haven't read The Wind in the Willows, do.

I have 4 major projects I'm working on. That is probably 3 too many. I can flip a coin, or ask which is more likely to be finish-able, or rotate a week between each--but it needs a choice.

Sometimes being "spoiled for choice" becomes "failing to choose." I look at some of what our forebearers did, and sometimes they seem amazingly productive, especially given the relative size of the population and the fewer opportunities available then.

Maybe the impression is wrong--perhaps we have the same proportion of Jefferson's now as then, but the centralized nature of our society means we only see the best and luckiest of them, with the rest lost to view.

Or maybe we're swamped with a-muse-ments in the full sense of that term, and lose much of our creative time to passive entertainment.

Or perhaps we find it hard to choose, and do too many trials and too few commitments. Clint Smith said "Beware the man who only has one gun. He probably knows how to use it!"

I have known very few rich people (and them not very well), and no very rich people at all. I discount stories about them, but one thing crops up over and over--the heirs generally lack the concentration of the ones who formed the fortune. Is that a natural side effect of the increase in opportunities, as well as the result of a comfortable existence with nothing to goad them? (I know about regression to the mean, but if that plays a role you also expect to still see greater ability than average.)

Friday, May 04, 2018

"Tomorrow will be like today, only more so"

Maybe. Or maybe there'll be a volcanic irruption in the street, or a sinkhole in your field. Or a mouse will chew off the insulation on some wires and start a fire, or the sewer back up and your sump pump fail.

We're good at taking things for granted. Especially nice things, like comfortable houses. And being able to trust the electricity, or that the bus will stop for you, or that laws and regulations won't be capricious.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Get Out of Jail Free

"Dr. Malachi Z. York, naturalized Liberian citizen from the United States, who was granted Liberian diplomatic status by ex-President Charles G. Taylor, is said to be languishing in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison without any medical care accorded him, even though diagnoses show that he is suffering from complicated diseases, "

The article is pretty one-sided, relying heavily on what his lawyer says--and she magnifies every ailment into the worst case, of course. Even though it is his lawyer who says so, I'll accept that he is in solitary. Solitary, by the estimates I've seen, is 3x more expensive than keeping someone in the general prison population. Since York was nailed for "transporting minors across States for the purpose of sexual molestation," I wonder if he's in solitary for his own safety.

Anyhow, the interesting bit is a letter from Charles Taylor dated 1999 appointing York as Consul General of Liberia to Atlanta, and which York was relying on for diplomatic immunity.

There's no evidence of a quid pro quo, but given that this was Liberia under Taylor, I assume York paid for the privilege.

I thought Get Out of Jail Free cards were just a Monopoly invention. I hadn't thought of this angle. Apparently the State Dept. has seen that scam before.